Suki Gear is a freelance editor and writer, formerly the commissioning editor for Lonely Planet’s western USA titles. She lives in Alameda, an under-the-radar kid paradise on the bay just southwest of Oakland. Until recently, she lived in the sunny port city of Oakland – a quick 12 mile (18km) drive from San Francisco – and sniffed out all the best spots with her eight-year-old son, Coleman, and four-year-old daughter, Tessa.
What do you love most about Oakland as a place to spend time with your children?
People don’t generally associate Oakland with nature, but a large part of Oakland is in the hills and green. When I lived in San Francisco, I would come to the East Bay on weekends frequently to escape the fog and frenetic city life. Some neighborhoods like Rockridge and Montclair have walkable commercial strips with loads of eating options, shops, and playgrounds. Another thing I love about Oakland is its diversity. Like any city, it has its problems, but by and large the residents get along swimmingly and are exceptionally open-minded.
What are your top picks for things to do in Oakland with little ones?
- Children’s Fairyland is an old-school nonprofit theme park right next to Lake Merritt near downtown. Open since 1950, it apparently helped inspire Walt Disney’s larger endeavor. Storybook sets, a small train, a few rides, and farm animals are scattered across 10 acres. Puppet shows take place three times a day, and there’s a children’s theater in summer. Best for kids under seven; eat before you come (there are some restaurants across the street on Grand Ave.).
- The Oakland Zoo is a bit out of the way (about a 15-minute drive from downtown Oakland) but worth it. The location has amazing views – check out the fog hanging over San Francisco on a train ride through “the Outback” or on the gondola. Zoos can be depressing, but this one isn’t. Next to the entrance is a separate ride area for small kids.
- Montclair is family-friendly ‘hood – more like a village – up in the hills, with a pretty wooded playground and a pond full of ducks and turtles. Nearby are multiple kiddie restaurants and shops.
- Roberts Regional Recreation Area is up in the redwoods and has a heated swimming pool in season, plus a play structure and big field. A very pretty location.
- Chabot Space and Science Center has hands-on exhibits, gigantic telescopes, and the Planetarium (a full-dome theater). Probably not toddler material.
- Lake Temescal feels like a little oasis on hot days. Kids can swim (check to make sure the water quality is okay that day) and romp around on the beach. A play structure entertains the tiny ones.
- Jack London Square is the best place to appreciate the city’s bayfront location. A smattering of shops and restaurants are worth checking out – including the heavenly sweet shop, Miette, and Ben & Jerry’s, and kids especially love Jack London’s little cabin (reconstructed from Alaska). Parents can grab a drink at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon and sit outside on the patio while the kids tear around. Also check out the 1880 “slanty bar” inside, frequented by Jack London way back when.
- Lake Merritt is the crown jewel of Oakland. There are a few playgrounds and lots of grassy areas where kids can burn off energy or kick a ball around. The lake itself isn’t fit for swimming, but you can go out on a gondola from the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill – also recommended for lunch on the outside patio.
- The Oakland Aviation Museum is out by the airport. On Open Cockpit days, kids can climb on and in airplanes.
- The Oakland Athletics (A’s) is our major league baseball team, with a revolving door of scrappy players who are always fun to root for. Kids love going to the old-school Oakland Coliseum and getting popcorn and cotton candy from the roaming vendors.
Do you have any hidden gems that visitors to Oakland would usually miss?
- Video-game fanatics should head to the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, in a temporary location downtown. All sorts of games are available for playing, from vintage Atari to Xbox.
- Nearby, MOCHA (the Museum of Children’s Arts) is a small but sweet space for little artists. During open studio hours you can create art with your child, led by a staff artist.
- Also downtown is the Oakland Ice Center, which is great fun and open year round for ice skating.
- Bites off Broadway is a gathering of food trucks on summer Friday nights in the Temescal neighborhood, often accompanied by outdoor kids’ movies at Studio One Arts Center. Other similar movie nights take place in Montclair (on the wall of the Red Oak Realty) and Redwood Heights (in the park by the recreation center).
- Further afield, through the Webster St. Tube underwater tunnel, in neighboring Alameda, are two great spots for older kids: The Pacific Pinball Museum has 90 pinball machines, vintage and new, while the USS Hornet is an enormous 1939 aircraft carrier on the former Naval Air Station. Tours bring you through all the nooks and crannies, or you can shoot photos of San Francisco from the deck.
What are your top spots to eat with kids in Oakland?
San Francisco is known for its outstanding restaurants and innovative cuisine. Lucky for us, many chefs have moved over to Oakland in recent years: here are some family-friendly ideas.
- College Avenue in Rockridge has a few places I like, including Cactus Taqueria and Pasta Pomodoro (where kids eat free on Tuesday). If you have a picky eater, you’re bound to find something in Rockridge Market Hall, with its wide variety of food vendors.
- Piedmont Ave is another commercial strip always full of strollers. You’ll find plenty of kid-friendly eateries, but Fentons Creamery is a local institution – a diner and 119-year-old ice cream parlor that’s always buzzing.
- For mac and cheese, you can’t beat Homeroom, a restaurant dedicated to comfort food. Choose from 12 different flavors of mac; the only problem is you might have to wait a while for a table.
- Lakeshore Blvd and Grand Ave (a block over) both have a slew of restaurants. Spettro is the most kid-friendly, always boisterous and with a fun décor. Although there are a few good pizza places, my favorite is Boot and Shoe Service. Picky kids are limited to cheese pizza, but parents are well taken care of. Next door is a bookstore with a great little playroom.
- At the Play Café, parents of babies and toddlers can drink coffee or eat lunch while their kids are occupied in the imaginative play area (trains, a kitchen, etc).
If you have family or friends visiting, where would you suggest they stay?
If it’s someone who’s specifically visiting Oakland, I’d have them stay at the Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square – it’s a beautiful, central location – or at the Downtown Marriott if they don’t have a car. You can also find some good hotel alternatives on Airbnb. Otherwise, I recommend staying in San Francisco.
‘It’s such a perfect day’: What would your perfect weekend day with your little ones consist of in Oakland?
On a Saturday during Indian Summer (September or October), we’d load up on vanilla-orange French toast and potato pancakes at the Blackberry Bistro, before heading down to the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market for the ‘jumpy house’ and people-watching. There would be no fog or wind blowing from the bay that day, so we’d grab picnic supplies at Market Hall in Rockridge and head up to Lake Temescal to swim and play in the sand. If we’re not too burned out, we’d finish the evening eating pizza and watching the sunset on the outside patio at Forge in Jack London Square.
What would you recommend families not do when they visit Oakland?
- The weather is pretty darned pleasant year round, but as the city’s best activities are outside, it’s probably not wise to come in January and February (the rainiest months).
- I wouldn’t recommend the Oakland Museum of California for kids unless there’s a temporary show like the Pixar exhibit.
- Most summer street festivals like Lakefest are teeming with kids, but the Eat Real Festival gets really packed and unless your kid really likes kimchi hot dogs or Roquefort grilled cheese, skip it.
- First Fridays Art Walk is too loud and crowded for kids. The Jack London Friday Night Market is a better alternative.
- Oakland gets a bad rap in the media. Sure, there’s crime, especially in East Oakland (east of the airport) and West Oakland (roughly northwest of Jack London Square), but visitors are not likely to be targeted. Do be cautious using your cell phone, however, as there have been quite a few phone-snatching incidents lately.
What’s the best way to get around town?
A car is necessary to really explore Oakland, but there’s quite a bit you can get to by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) or just a short walk from BART: Jack London Square, Lake Merritt, and the College Ave commercial strip are all accessible, not to mention San Francisco and Berkeley.
If you were to ask your kids what their favourite things are about Oakland, what would they say?
You need a quick and easy escape from the city. Where do you love to go?
Here’s where I get to sing the praises of Alameda, an island just southwest of Oakland. That’s where we’d often go on weekends (and where I live now). There’s a beach and a trail that goes for miles along the bay – perfect for bikes. Park Street is the main commercial strip, with scores of kid-friendly restaurants, shops, and a historic theater always running the latest Pixar/Disney flick. And you can take a ferry from here to San Francisco (there’s a bar on board; just saying…). We also drive about an hour south to Santa Cruz for the beach in summer.
And finally, you have a lovely babysitter for the evening. What does your perfect date-night consist of in Oakland?