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Oakland and Around

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Oakland and Around Itineraries

Oakland and Around for Families

Perfect Day in Oakland

Trendy Oakland

Walking Tour of Oakland’s Lake Merritt

Unlock all of the colorful hangouts in the East Bay's vibrant urban playground

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So many people have tried to explain Oakland by comparing it with somewhere else. It’s smilingly referred to as “the sunny side of the Bay” – which is often true, since the fog lingers less long here and more sunshine kisses the streets of Oakland than in say, San Francisco. Others have nicknamed it “Brooklyn by the Bay,” reflecting a recent wave of gentrification that has brought an influx of artists, hipsters, and entrepreneurs all fleeing the skyrocketing rents in booming San Francisco. Yet none of these catchphrases get to the heart of what makes Oakland different.

Without a doubt, the best reason to visit “Oaktown” is to sample its real-deal multicultural flavor. In 2014, Oakland was declared the most racially diverse city of its size in the entire U.S. (hey, statistics proved it!). This incredible diversity infuses everything about life in this traditionallly underdog city, from storefront restaurants and boutiques to street festivals and the indie arts scene. Best of all, you won’t be jostling against crowds of other tourists, unlike at many other places around the Bay Area.

Come to eat soul food in West Oakland, dim sum and Cambodian curry in Chinatown, Mexican tacos in Fruitvale, creative New American cuisine in Rockridge and along Piedmont Avenue, or farmers market and food truck fare by Lake Merritt. After dark, knock back craft beer or inventive cocktails with friends in Uptown before catching a show or a concert at a gorgeously restored art-deco theater, whose neon lights glow even on rainy nights. Shopping is another big reason to visit, whether you’re seeking vintage clothing, new urban fashion designers, or artisan food and crafts, all of which you can find in just one neighborhood, like Temescal.

By day, Oakland abounds with diversions for all ages. Wander around Downtown and Old Oakland and marvel at 20th-century architectural gems. Spend a few hours inside the excellent, off-the-beaten-path Oakland Museum of California, next door to Chinatown. Down by the waterfront, Jack London Square comes alive with weekend markets; it’s also where you can peek inside a replica of the namesake writer’s cabin, tour FDR’s private yacht, or paddle a kayak out into the bay.

Inland, Lake Merritt is another popular spot for fresh air. You could spend hours walking through the neighborhoods and by the landmarks around its shoreline. Afterward drive up into the Oakland Hills, where a network of cool regional parks protect stands of redwood trees and the remnants of ancient volcanoes, along with scores of hiking trails, some with awesome bay views. Or take an underwater tunnel over to the time-warped island of Alameda, which exudes small-town charm.


Explore These Oakland and Around Itineraries

So, where do you start? If your time is limited, check out our suggested itinerary for a Perfect Day in Oakland.

Want to discover the hippest hangouts around the city? Get an insiders’ look with our Trendy Oakland itinerary.

If you’re not in a rush and like exploring on foot, follow our itinerary for a Walking Tour of Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

Got kids tagging along with you? Our itinerary Oakland and Around for Families is made just for you.


When To Go

Like most of California’s coastal destinations, you can visit Oakland any time you feel like it, year-round. August and September are usually the best time (or the worst, depending on how you feel about heat) for blazing sunshine and no rain in sight. Winters are colder and can be rainy between November and March, but you don’t have to worry about snow ever falling. For balmy warm days and cool evenings that aren’t yet cold, October in fall is your best bet, followed by April in spring. May, June and July are typically sunny and dry, but not unbearably hot.

How much time you spend in Oakland is up to you, but a day or two is enough to give you a taste of what the city has to offer. Take a whole weekend if you really want to explore. Time your trip for the first weekend of the month to join the fun at the Oakland First Fridays and Art Murmur events. You even might want to consider making Oakland your base camp for exploring the entire Bay Area, since it’s just a quick BART or bus ride from San Francisco. It’s also an easy enough to drive from here to anywhere else you might feel like going around the rest of the East Bay, down to Silicon Valley, over to Marin County, or up to the wine country around Napa and Sonoma.

How Much Time To Spend

You can see a lot of Oakland on just a day trip across the Bay from San Francisco. The city is also a short BART or bus ride from the city of Berkeley, if you want to combine East Bay excursions or if you’re already planning to visit the UC Berkeley (“Cal”) campus.

With another day to spend, you’ll be able to see a whole lot more. Ideally, plan a weekend trip and arrive during an Oakland First Fridays event, then stay for one or two more nights to really explore the city’s neighborhoods and burgeoning art, nightlife, food, and shopping scenes.

You might want to stay even longer once you realize that Oakland can be an affordable base camp for visiting San Francisco, just a quick BART, bus, or car ride across the Bay. From BART’s 12th Street Oakland City Center station, it takes only 10 minutes to get to downtown San Francisco’s Embarcadero station, or less than 20 minutes to SF’s 16th St. Mission station.

Weather and Climate

You’ll often hear that California has a Mediterranean climate, meaning that it experiences hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Along the coast, summer temperatures rarely break 90ºF (32ºC) and winter overnight lows hover just above freezing (32ºF, or 0ºC).

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland is known for being “the sunny side of the Bay,” so when it’s foggy in San Francisco, chances are Oakland is having a pleasant day of sunshine and cool breezes. The hottest time of year in Oakland is from late August until early October, when you may want to book accommodations with air-con or else be prepared to sweat while you sleep.

Typically California gets most of its precipitation during the winter months between November and March. But the entire state is in the midst of a severe multi-year drought, which has drained reservoirs and led the government to enforce new water-saving policies on residents. Weather forecasters have predicted that the winter of 2015/16 will see higher than average precipitation, due to the El Niño effect of warmer ocean currents.

For current weather conditions and detailed area forecasts, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration online.

Events and Holidays

Events

Two regular events worth making a special trip across the Bay for are Oakland First Fridays, a street carnival of art, music, and food that happens on the first Friday night of every month, and Oakland Art Murmur. The latter takes place in conjunction with First Fridays, as well as every weekend on Saturday afternoons, when art galleries hold open houses and special cultural programs including artist talks, musical performances, and readings by local authors.

Annual events in Oakland that draw big crowds mostly happen in late summer or early fall, including Oakland Pride, the Oakland Chinatown StreetFest, the Oakland Art Soul festival, and costumed “Fairyland for Grownups” day at Children’s Fairyland.

For what’s going on this week around town, check the Visit Oakland events calendar online.

National & State Holidays

January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March 31: César Chávez Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July 4: Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
September 9: California Admission Day
September (fourth Friday): Native American Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas

Time Zone

California is located in the Pacific time zone (GMT-7).

To check the local time in California now, click here.

Daylight Savings Time (DST) begins in spring on the second Sunday in March, when clocks are advanced one hour. In the fall on the first Sunday of November, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. With few exceptions, the entire country (including California) participates in this ritual of ‘€œspringing forward’€ and ‘€œfalling back.’€

What To Pack and Wear

Practically anything that you forget to pack, you can buy in the Bay Area. In fact, you may want to intentionally forget to pack a few items, just so you can buy them new in Oakland. For example, a T-shirt and a soft, warm hoodie sweatshirt from Oaklandish make perfect souvenirs.

The most important thing to pack for the Bay Area is layers. Lots of layers. Chances are you’re going to experience a few different weather patterns while you’re here, sometimes all in the same city (San Francisco alone has dozens of micro climates). Be prepared for sunshine and rain, as well as unexpectedly cool evenings and mornings until the fog burns off for the day.

Californians prefer to keep it casual as much of the time as possible. You will only need to dress up for dinner at the most haute restaurants and maybe an evening show. One thing that you won’t see many Californians go without is a fleece jacket. If you didn’t pack any fleece, you can pick some up at the REI or North Face outlet stores in the neighboring East Bay city of Berkeley.

What it Costs

Oakland can be a more affordable base camp for visiting the Bay Area. San Francisco is just a quick BART, bus, or car ride across the Bay. From BART’s 12th Street Oakland City Center station, it takes only 10 minutes to get to downtown San Francisco’s Embarcadero station, and less than 20 minutes to SF’s 16th St. Mission station.

Compared with San Francisco, the Peninsula, and San Jose, Oakland’s hotel rates often look like a bargain. So does its eclectic mix of restaurants, most of which don’t require making reservations weeks in advance (hallelujah!). After paying for accommodations, food, and drink, your next biggest expense might be shopping, since Oakland’s growing collection of boutiques, vintage stores, and handmade goods shops will tempt you to keep pulling out your wallet.

If you’re on a tight budget By staying at cheap motels, eating take-out meals, getting around on public transportation, and limiting how many attractions you visit and how much nightlife you enjoy, you can get by on about $100 a day.

If you don’t mind spending more If you rent a car to get around, visit a few bigger sights, and go out for drinks and sit-down meals, plan on around $150 a day ($200 or more if you want to shop or see a show at one of Uptown’s historic theaters).

When you travel won’t make too much of a difference, budget-wise. Winter off-season prices for lodgings may be a tad less than peak summer season rates, and weekdays may be cheaper than weekends (except at hotels in downtown Oakland that cater to business travelers, which often raise their rates on weekdays and offer discounts on weekends).

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in U.S. dollars ($).

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $100-300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double room

Eat
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16-22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

Shop

N/A => Not applicable

Tours

$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Airfares

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need them to be low, they’re high. And when prices dip, what happens? You have no free time to travel. Sigh.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline websites. That said, it’s advantageous to also visit an airline’s own website before booking. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator sites. Most airlines share time-limited, super-discounted specials via their social media pages or in email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mail lists.

When flying into the Bay Area, you have three airports to choose from. The most expensive flights usually land at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is connected to Oakland by BART (45 minutes, $8.95). Often you’ll find cheaper fares by flying directly into Oakland International Airport (OAK), which is served by smaller airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, Allegiant, and Spirit, in addition to American and Delta. Oakland’s airport is a 25-minute BART ride ($7.85) from downtown Oakland; change trains at Coliseum station.

In San Jose near Silicon Valley, Mineta San José International Airport (SJC) may also have cheaper flights, but getting to Oakland from San Jose is not feasible on public transportation. If you rent a car, it’s about an hour’s drive from San Jose’s airport to downtown Oakland, but that can easily double during weekday morning and evening commuter rush hours or when sports events are scheduled at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara or Oakland’s O.co Coliseum and Oracle Arena, all located off the I-800 Freeway.

Car Rentals & Ride Sharing

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Online booking websites like Hotwire and Kayak offer comparison price shopping. So does the Costco Travel website (for members only). There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell them what you want to pay and maybe they can hook you up with a car rental company who fits the bill. They have some great deals, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental or which company you rent from.

Car rental rates near Oakland International Airport (OAK) may be cheaper than at car-rental agency branches near downtown Oakland, but you should comparison shop before booking. Located in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, Enterprise Rent-a-Car offers free pick-ups within a certain radius around town if you reserve one of their rental cars.

Tip: Some Bay Area car rental agencies offer automatic tolling programs. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge or highway tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, online.

Available all over the San Francisco Bay Area, Zipcar is an option for short-term rentals of just a couple of hours (daily rates tend to be very expensive, however). If you’ve joined Zipcar in advance of your trip, you can open the mobile app on your smartphone and search for a nearby Zipcar location, then pick up your car and go. Membership starts around $25, while rentals begin at $7 per hour (including gas, insurance, and 180 free miles). Foreign drivers can join Zipcar, too.

Ride-sharing services such as Lyft are ubiquitous in the Bay Area. Through a smartphone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s often cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know they are on their way and how long it will be.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to California goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler. Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation
About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical
Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other countries. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000. U.S. travelers should check if their medical insurance at home will cover them while in Las Vegas.

Trip Interruption
For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to cut your trip short, the insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay
Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home

Baggage Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage (up to a certain amount only).

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a storm-prone area during winter, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include free concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz, and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkely, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International, and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight; it’s often contracted with the above major players.

If you have pre-existing health conditions Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But they also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain timeframe after paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance If you buy your airfare or make other travel bookings with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

For more information, contact the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Exchange Rates

The U.S. dollar fluctuates against other world currencies, but its value has steadily risen since early 2015. For current exchange rates, click here.

Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans may have a tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents), and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

Most Californians do not carry a large amount of cash with them on an everyday basis, and neither should you.

ATMs

If you withdraw cash from an ATM machine, most banks apply a surcharge of around $3 per transaction. Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, banks in California will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets such as pharmacies will allow you to get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods with your debit card – this is an easy way to get some cash while on the go without paying a surcharge.

Credit & Debit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.

Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card issuer before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state, and even Californians traveling far from home. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card declined when you try to use it at your destination in California. You should also call your bank or credit card issuer immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card – which doesn’t help if it is lost or stolen. Make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access, for example, by taking a photo of the back of the card with your smartphone.

Recently cards with embedded chips to deter counterfeit fraud have been issued. Banks and merchants that don’t offer chip readers may be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details about your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any California trip. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but a few other special situations also apply.

Restaurants

For excellent service, plan to tip 20% of the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10% to 15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In most places, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.

To complicate matters, restaurants in major metropolitan areas are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.

Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized on the bill – if you look closely for it, that is.

Hotels

Bellhops normally receive $1 to $2 per bag that they assist with, but if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, tip them $5 to $10.

Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day, left under the card on in the envelope provided. Tip $5 per day at higher-end properties.

At hotels with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff (around $10 to $20 per day) who help you plan activities, make restaurant reservations, or acquire tickets. Concierges do not expect tips for giving out simple information, such as directions.

Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) deserve a 20% tip for their services when performed well, whether at the spa or in your hotel room.

Other Services

At bars, tip bartenders and cocktail servers at least $1 or $2 per drink, up to 15% to 20% per round.

Airport porters are normally tipped $2 or $3 per bag.

Taxi drivers are tipped 15% to 20% of the total fare, rounded up to the next whole dollar amount. Limo drivers expect a minimum $20 tip.

Tip parking valet staff a minimum of $2 when they hand back the keys to your car.

Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes and Resort Fees

In Oakland, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services is 9.5%. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.

Lodging tax in Oakland is a whopping 14%. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by some hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.

Parking Fees and Bridge Tolls

If you’re driving around the Bay Area, don’t count on finding free parking, especially not in crowded urban neighborhoods. In Oakland, municipal street parking costs $2 per hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. Many parking zones are time-limited (for example, a two-hour maximum). Pay the parking fee directly at meters or at centralized parking pay stations, which usually accept both credit cards and coins. When parking in residential neighborhoods, carefully check all posted time limits, restrictions, prohibited days and hours (usually for street cleaning), and residential parking permit requirements (if any).

Compared with metered street parking, parking garages around Oakland may charge higher or lower hourly rates, usually with a daily maximum of around $20. Shopping malls usually offer free parking, sometimes for a limited time only. ?Very occasionally, local businesses will validate parking at a reduced rate in an adjacent or a nearby garage, but only if you make a purchase and bring your parking ticket with you to get it stamped by the cashier.

All of the freeways around the Bay Area are exactly that – free. However, crossing any of the bridges in the Bay Area requires paying a toll in one direction (the other direction is free). This applies even to visitors driving rental cars, as otherwise the car rental agency will bill you later not only for the toll and associated fines, but also a hefty administrative surcharge.

If you are driving over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, there are no toll booths at which to stop and pay. If you don’t have a FasTrak electronic toll device installed in your vehicle, you will need to go online within 48 hours to pay the toll. The one-way car or motorcycle toll ($7.25) is only charged in the southbound direction when crossing from Marin County into San Francisco. For more information about Golden Gate Bridge tolls, click here.

Other Bay Area bridges, including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, still have cash payment lanes that you should use if you don’t have a FasTrak device installed in your car. These one-way bridge tolls (from $4 to $6 per car or motorcycle) can add up quickly as you drive around, but keep in mind that tolls are only charged in one direction. For more information about Bay Area bridge tolls, click here.

Tip: Some car rental agencies offer tolling programs, which you can usually opt into or out of. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, online.

Transportation

The most popular way to get to the Bay Area is to fly, though many people do drive here from elsewhere in California and the rest of the country. Long-distance Amtrak trains are a scenic option for arriving in retro style. Long-distance Greyhound buses are a reliable, though less comfortable option that may save you some money. Even so, airfares to Oakland are often cheap enough that it only makes sense to fly, given how much time you’ll save by doing so.

Getting around Oakland and the East Bay is easy, though not always fast. If you rent a car, keep in mind not only the costs of parking and bridge tolls, but also traffic jams on Bay Area freeways and bridges. Unless you’re going to be taking day trips out of town, a car isn’t necessary just for exploring Oakland, which is well served by BART trains, AC Transit buses, taxis, and on-demand ride-sharing services like Lyft. Many neighborhoods are pleasantly walkable, too. Renting a bicycle and cycling around town is another fun way to experience the city.

Getting There

By Air

When flying into the Bay Area, you have three airports to choose from. The most expensive flights usually land at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is connected to Oakland by BART (45 minutes, $8.95). Door-to-door shuttles, taxis, and ride-sharing services like Lyft will also transport you to and from the airport.

Often you’ll find cheaper fares by flying directly into Oakland International Airport (OAK), which is served by smaller airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, Allegiant, and Spirit, in addition to American and Delta. Oakland’s airport is a 25-minute BART ride ($7.85) from downtown Oakland; change trains at Coliseum station. AC Transit provides late-night bus service every hour between the airport and downtown Oakland.

In San Jose near Silicon Valley, Mineta San José International Airport (SJC) may also have cheaper flights, but getting to Oakland from San Jose is not feasible on public transportation. If you rent a car, it’s about an hour’s drive from San Jose’s airport to downtown Oakland. Allow much more time during weekday morning and evening rush hours or when sports events are scheduled at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara or Oakland’s O.co Coliseum and Oracle Arena, all located off the I-800 Freeway.

By Car

By car, the only thing to know ahead of time about driving to California is that sometimes you’ll have to stop at an agricultural inspection station after entering from a neighboring state. To avoid spreading agricultural pests and blights, you may not bring any fresh fruit, vegetables, or plants into California. If you do have any of these items in the car, declare them to the inspection officer and you’ll be usually be allowed to surrender them with amnesty (that is, they’ll make you throw them away as long as they don’t suspect you of intentionally smuggling contraband).

All of the freeways around the Bay Area are exactly that – free. However, crossing any of the bridges in the Bay Area requires paying a toll in one direction (the other direction is free). This applies even to visitors driving rental cars, as otherwise the car rental agency will bill you later not only for the toll and associated fines, but also a hefty administrative surcharge.

If you are driving over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, there are no toll booths at which to stop and pay. If you don’t have a FasTrak electronic toll device installed in your vehicle, you will need to go online within 48 hours to pay the toll. The one-way car or motorcycle toll ($7.25) is only charged in the southbound direction when crossing from Marin County into San Francisco. For more information about Golden Gate Bridge tolls, click here.

Other Bay Area bridges, including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, still have cash payment lanes that you should use if you don’t have a FasTrak device installed in your car. These one-way bridge tolls (from $4 to $6 per car or motorcycle) can add up quickly as you drive around, but keep in mind that tolls are only charged in one direction. For more information about Bay Area bridge tolls, click here.

Tip: Some car rental agencies offer tolling programs, which you can usually opt into or out of. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, online.

By Train

A few scenic long-distance Amtrak train routes serve the Bay Area. The Coast Starlight makes daily runs between Los Angeles, CA and Seattle, WA via California’s beautifully scenic Central Coast and also stopping in Portland, OR. The California Zephyr arrives daily in the Bay Area from Chicago, IL via Denver, CO. Amtrak’s regional San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor trains are useful for getting to/from Sacramento. Buy tickets online in advance for the cheapest fares.

All Amtrak trains that serve the Bay Area stop in Oakland at Jack London Square and in Emeryville, a tiny municipality squeezed between Oakland to the south and Berkeley farther north. Passengers whose final destination is San Francisco must get off the train at Oakland or Emeryville, then transfer to an Amtrak Thruway bus across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.

Bay Area rail systems that mostly serve commuters include Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain. The former has an efficient, convenient network around the Bay Area with many stops in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, including the airports in San Francisco and Oakland. Caltrain connects San Francisco with San Jose via the Peninsula and Silicon Valley, but its services are slower, a bit more expensive, and much less frequent than BART trains.

By Bus

A Greyhound bus is probably the most exhausting, but sometimes the cheapest way to reach the Bay Are from elsewhere around California or across the USA. Greyhound buses no longer stop in many small towns; instead, they only connect major cities with larger regional centers. Book online in advance for the cheapest bus fares. In Oakland, Greyhound buses arrive a few blocks west of Uptown; at night, take a taxi or use Lyft.

Operate by AC Transit, transbay buses to San Francisco are also an alternative to driving across the Bay Bridge; they are slower than BART trains, but cheaper. When BART trains are non-operational (as occasionally happens when the system is shut down for maintenance, earthquakes, or due to police action on either side of the Bay), AC Transit buses may be your only public transportation option between the East Bay (including Oakland) and San Francisco.

By Ferry

Though it’s not the usual way that visitors get to Oakland, it’s possible to take a San Francisco Bay Ferry from San Francisco’s Ferry Building or Pier 41 to Oakland via Alameda. The trip takes between 25 minutes and one hour, depending on whether it’s a weekday or a weekend and how many scheduled stops the ferry makes en route. The ferry costs more than a BART train and runs much less often, but if you want to take the scenic route to or from SF, it’s a lot cheaper than a touristy bay cruise.

In Oakland, ferries dock just west of Jack London Square; in Alameda, ferries dock at a terminal next to 2990 Main St.

Getting Around

By Car

If you’re driving around Oakland and the East Bay, don’t count on finding free parking, especially not in crowded urban neighborhoods. In Oakland, municipal street parking costs $2 per hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. Many parking zones are time-limited (for example, a two-hour maximum). Pay the parking fee directly at meters or at centralized parking pay stations, which usually accept both credit cards and coins. When parking in residential neighborhoods, carefully check all posted time limits, restrictions, prohibited days and hours (usually for street cleaning), and residential parking permit requirements (if any).

Compared with metered street parking, parking garages around Oakland unpredictably charge higher or lower hourly rates, with a daily maximum of around $20. Shopping malls usually offer free parking, though sometimes for a limited time only. Rarely, local businesses will validate parking at a reduced rate in an adjacent or a nearby garage, but only if you make a purchase and bring your parking ticket with you to get it stamped by the cashier.

By Bus

When distances are too far to walk (say, between neighborhoods in Oakland) and you don’t want to drive, AC Transit buses are the way to go. Some locals love to hate on AC Transit buses for being unreliably late, not exactly clean, and full of oddball characters who are occasionally aggressive or threatening (but 95% of the time, they’re just overly friendly). Drawbacks aside, AC Transit runs an extensive network around the East Bay that comprehensively covers Oakland and Berkeley.

The city of Oakland’s free Broadway shuttle conveniently connects downtown’s BART stations (12th St./City Center and 19th St.) with Chinatown and Jack London Square, where Amtrak trains and San Francisco Bay ferries arrive. Currently the shuttle operates every 10 to 15 minutes from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. on Friday, and 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. on Saturday. The shuttle does not operate on Sundays or holidays.

By Train

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains are a fast way to get between Oakland and Berkeley or San Francisco. But you won’t use them much to get around the city of Oakland itself, unless you’re going to the airport or an event at the Oracle Arena or O.co Coliseum, you want to zip up to Rockridge instead of taking the bus, or maybe you just don’t feel like walking from Chinatown (Lake Merritt station) all the way back to Uptown (19th St. station).

By Taxi & Ride Sharing

Taxis are common around downtown Oakland and Uptown, but you’ll probably have to call for one as it’s not always easy to flag one down on the street. Otherwise, ride-sharing services like Lyft are your best bet for getting a quick ride around town, and they’re sometimes cheaper, too.

By Bicycle

Without a doubt, cycling is our favorite way to get around town. Bicycle lanes are commonplace in many neighborhoods, including around Lake Merritt, Uptown, the waterfront, and many more. Click here for online PDFs of Oakland bikeways maps, which are available in print versions from many local bike shops and also at Bay Area Bikes rental locations. Bicycles are allowed on board BART trains (except on crowded cars) and they can be loaded onto the exterior racks on the front of AC Transit buses, which makes things easy if and when you get tired of pedaling.

On Foot

Much of Oakland is pedestrian-friendly, especially the more residential neighborhoods like Piedmont and Rockridge, as well as everywhere around Lake Merritt and Uptown. Some of the streets downtown and around Chinatown get a bit dicey for pedestrians after dark. Exercise caution if you’ll be walking around higher crime areas like West Oakland and Fruitvale.

Background

You may think you already know Oakland by its reputation for crime and violence, but think again. Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in California, with deeply rooted African American, Asian American, and Latino communities. Even since the boom in high-tech industries around the Bay Area, the kind of rapid gentrification that has radically transformed San Francisco has also changed Oakland, but not quite as much or as quickly. Here you can still find working-class neighborhoods, local artists’ workshops and galleries, and home-grown community spirit.

Etiquette

California defines casual. The uptight rules of etiquette that you might find on the East Coast (or “back East,” as Californians says) rarely apply here. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, in California you can wear a Hawaiian shirt to dinner at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and have surprisingly frank and intimate conversations with people who were strangers until just 10 minutes ago. On the other hand, you might make plans to go out and have fun with someone here, only to have them cancel at the last minute by text or never show at all. (Californians are notoriously flaky.)

Still, elements of the social contract are essential to life in a state as diverse as California, where almost 40 million residents speak 140 different languages. Being laid-back is arguably the most important virtue among Californians, followed by tolerance for everyone else’s religious and political views, gender and sexuality, and choices of body piercings, tattoos, and hairstyle.

Smoking As in many areas of the U.S., smoking is banned inside all public buildings, which includes hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. Smoking may be permitted on outdoor patios at restaurants and bars, but not always. Ask before you light up and look around for ashtrays first.

Shoes When visiting someone’s home in California, or when staying in a bed-and-breakfast or private vacation rental, expect to take your shoes off at the door. Wearing shoes indoors isn’t commonplace, especially along the coast.

Tipping One unquestionable rule of etiquette that even Californians abide by: tipping is not optional.

Recommended Reading

California History & Culture
California: A History by Kevin Starr (2005)
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)
Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California by Gregory Orfalea (2014)
The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

Nature & Science
A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate by Marc Reisner (2000)
Assembling California by John McPhee (1994)
Califlora: A Literary Field Guide (2012)

Fiction & Poetry
Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
Tales of the City by Amisted Maupin (1978-2014)
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)

Essays & Memoirs
My California: Journeys by Great Writers (2004)
Black California: A Literary Anthology (2011)

Movies

There aren’t as many movies filmed in Oakland as there are in San Francisco, but here are a few faves to get you started.

Moneyball (2011)
Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in the story of how Oakland A’s baseball team manager Billy Beane turned an underdog team around using computers and statistics. It’s way more exciting than it sounds, trust us.

Fruitvale Station (2013)
A sobering drama about the tragic death of Oscar Grant III, who was shot by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009.

The Matrix: Reloaded (2003)
Look carefully and you’ll see Neo in the Webster Tube, an underwater tunnel connecting Oakland with Alameda, as well as on the I-880 Freeway and on Alameda’s decommissioned naval air station with the Bay Bridge in the background.

What Dreams May Come (1998)
After dying in a car crash, a man (played by long time Bay Area resident Robin Williams) searches for his wife. The ending is filmed at Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

The Waiting Room (2012)
Spend 24 hours with the staff of Oakland’s busiest emergency room, where people from all walks of life cross paths, sometimes in the most desperate circumstances.

Websites and Maps

California Earthquake Information
Click on the real-time earthquake map for the latest shakers, or follow the SF Quake Bot on Twitter.

Visit California
The state’s official tourism website by the California Travel & Tourism Commission.

Visit Oakland
The city’s official tourism website with more trip planning ideas and an online events calendar.

East Bay RegionalParks
Learn more about dozens of public parks, historical sites, nature reserves, and recreation areas.

Sunset
The definitive monthly magazine ?about life in the American West is headquartered in Oakland. Free, fun travel articles and recipes online.

East Bay Express
Free alternative tabloid weekly covers news and events, arts, entertainment, and the food scene.

Oakland Bikeways Maps
Links to cycling route maps around the East Bay, including Oakland and Berkeley.

BayArea Rapid Transit (BART) Map
The same system map you’ll see plastered on the walls of every BART train and station.

511 Transit: San Francisco Bay Area TripPlanner
Get real-time traffic reports and plan your trip on public transit (buses, trains, and ferries).

California Highway Information
Enter the highway number you’ll be traveling on to get up-to-date information about road closures and construction. The toll-free phone number is (800) 427-7623.

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