A lot has changed in Oakland in the last decade, except maybe the city’s reputation. Recent headlines have emphasized high crime rates — including the March shootings of four police officers in East Oakland — but for visitors willing to give the city a chance, the rewards are plenty. With an influx of residents that began during the height of the ’90s dot-com boom came restaurants, shops and galleries to complement what was already there: Art Deco architecture, stunning views and a beautiful mix of cultures. There’s a lot going on in Oakland; the only reason you may not be hearing about it is that Oaklanders tend to keep a low profile. There’s a reason, after all, that a popular monthly open studio event is called Art Murmur.
1) ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY
Oakland, of course, is a port city, and there’s no better way to soak up some of its maritime history than with a drink at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon (48 Webster Street; 510-839-6761; http://www.heinoldsfirstandlastchance.com), a waterfront shack built from the wood from an old whaling ship. The place prides itself on looking much as it did when it first opened in 1883. Soon, it was a watering hole popular with seafarers, dockworkers and a budding young writer named Jack London, who the proprietors say wrote notes for “Call of the Wild” there (the square outside is named for him). It’s also a monument to the power of the San Andreas Fault: the Great Quake of 1906 settled the pylons underneath, which is why the floor slants and keeping your drink from sliding down the bar can be a challenge.
2) ’CUE UP
Even tofu would taste incredible smothered in the signature peppery-sweet barbecue sauce at Everett & Jones (126 Broadway; 510-663-2350; http://www.eandjbbq.com), across Jack London Square — but don’t expect to find any soy-based products on the menu. Meat-heavy entree options include beef brisket, slow-cooked over an oak fire, with corn bread and two sides like warm greens and a briny potato salad ($14.50). The kitschy décor features plastic tablecloths and enough black-and-silver pennants to remind you that this is Raiders country. There’s also a back room with live music that ranges from R&B to a regular harmonica player who goes by the moniker Bird Leg.
3) MOVIES AND MUSIC
Join East Bay cinephiles at one of Oakland’s independent movie houses like the Grand Lake (3200 Grand Avenue; 510-452-3556; http://www.renaissancerialto.com), a 1920s movie palace that features short Wurlitzer organ concerts before the last two shows on weekend nights (general admission, $9.50). Don’t be surprised if you find left-leaning political views displayed up on the theater’s marquee, courtesy of the owner. Or you could catch a show at the newly restored Fox Theater (1807 Telegraph Avenue; http://www.thefoxoakland.com). After more than 40 years of disrepair and neglect, the Fox reopened in February as a concert venue where you can catch acts like the Decemberists (on May 20, tickets $35, from Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000) or the band Of Montreal (on July 24, $27.50) surrounded by the ornate extravagance of days past.
4) MAMA’S BEST
Don’t let its location on a stretch of road populated mostly by car dealerships fool you: Mama’s Royal Cafe (4012 Broadway; 510-547-7600; http://www.mamasroyalcafeoakland.com) is a great breakfast spot, and there’s usually a crowd waiting outside to prove it. At Mama’s, an oft-tattooed wait staff serves up hearty dishes like breakfast burritos ($8.50) and avocado, mushroom and cheese omelets ($12). If you’re feeling creative, enter a doodle into the cafe’s annual napkin art contest; examples from contests past adorn one of the walls.
5) PANTHER TRACKS
The Black Panther Legacy Tours (707-644-2730; http://www.blackpanthertours.com) aren’t for your typical tour group types. Led by David Hilliard, a former Panthers chief of staff and childhood friend of Huey P. Newton, the three-hour tours ($25 a person, reservations only) start at the West Oakland Library, 18th and Adeline Streets. They trace the history of the Oakland-born movement at 18 sites, from the boxy building where Newton and Bobby Seale drew up the party’s Ten Point Program in 1966 to the sidewalk where Newton was killed by a drug dealer in 1989.
6) SMELL THE ROSES
Neighboring Berkeley’s rose garden is better known, but maybe that’s because lovers of Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden (700 Jean Street) want to keep it their little secret. The roses — an elaborate mix that includes a dark-red Taboo variety and the flamboyantly orange Las Vegas — reach their fragrant and colorful peak around the middle of May, but Morcom is a quiet urban oasis all year long. Find a spot on one of the garden’s benches or a patch of grass next to the reflecting pool and enjoy the tranquillity.
7) MORE FLORA
Extend the botanic theme with dinner at Flora (1900 Telegraph Avenue; 510-286-0100; http://www.floraoakland.com). Named for the flower depot that once occupied its blue-and-silver Art Deco home, Flora has another horticultural connection: the building was also the site of a cannabis club before the restaurant opened in late 2007. Start with a drink from the old-fashioned cocktail list that includes offerings like Carter Beats the Devil (named after a novel about a local stage magician who died in 1936) — tequila, lime juice, agave syrup, mescal and a bird’s-eye chili tincture. Then choose from a changing menu of California cuisine with dishes like grilled Monterey Bay sardines with baby artichokes and lemon aioli ($11), or seared local albacore tuna with a corn-and-risotto cake and green gazpacho ($24).
8) STARRY NIGHT
When San Francisco’s famed fog rolls in, the weather is often a whole lot better in the East Bay. Take advantage of the clearer views by checking out the night sky at the Chabot Space and Science Center (10000 Skyline Boulevard; 510-336-7300; http://www.chabotspace.org). It’s about a 15-minute drive up a long, windy road to reach Chabot, but the reward is worth it: three observatories where you can gaze at star clusters and planets though different-size telescopes. The newest, a 36-inch reflector named Nellie, gathers enough light to look beyond the solar system to other galaxies. Telescope viewing is free to the public on clear Friday and Saturday nights from 7:30 to 10:30; a Passport to the Universe ticket, which provides access to a handful of interactive exhibitions and Chabot’s full-dome digital planetarium and the Megadome film theater, is $14.95 and $10.95 for children 3 to 12.
9) GET YOUR GROOVE ON
Celebrate Oakland’s cultural diversity on the dance floor at Luka’s Taproom and Lounge (2221 Broadway; 510-451-4677; http://www.lukasoakland.com), where the D.J.’s spin everything from funk and neo-soul to reggaeton (expect a $10 cover). There’s a large selection of Belgian beers on tap and a sophisticated bar menu that is served until midnight should you need to refuel.
10) PICNIC BY THE LAKE
The sandwiches from the Genova Delicatessen (5095 Telegraph Avenue; 510-652-7401; http://www.genovadeli.net) make for a perfect portable lunch. Though it’s now located in a bland strip mall (having moved from its former location a block away), this Italian deli has been an Oakland institution since the 1920s. Take a number and join the throngs waiting for fresh-baked sourdough rolls piled high with Italian deli meats, cheese and a generous splash of balsamic and olive oil dressing ($7.05). With lunch in tow, head to the Lake Merritt Boating Center in Lakeside Park (568 Bellevue Avenue; 510-238-2196), where there are picnic tables under the oak trees out back, and the occasional Canada goose milling about. After lunch, you can rent a pedal boat, row boat, canoe, kayak or various sailboats ($8 to $15 an hour, plus a deposit) and float out onto the lake’s serene waters.
JetBlue flies nonstop between Kennedy in New York and Oakland International Airport, which is about 10 miles south of downtown. A recent online search found fares for mid-May starting at $289. There are even cheaper, and more, nonstops into San Francisco International, across the bay.
From either airport, you can take a BART (www.bart.gov) train into town, though a rental car is recommended.
The 145-room Waterfront Hotel (10 Washington Street; 510-836-3800; http://www.waterfronthoteloakland.com), near the water’s edge and Jack London Square, recently underwent a nautical-themed renovation. Rooms with king-size beds and a view of the bay start at $160.
For something a bit more historic, try the Washington Inn (495 10th Street; 510-452-1776; http://www.thewashingtoninn.com), downtown across from the convention center. Over the years, this 1913 Victorian-style building has been a bar, a bank and now a 47-room boutique hotel. Standard rooms with queen-size beds start at $109.
From its perch on the hill, the Claremont Resort and Spa (41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley; 510-843-3000; http://www.claremontresort.com) has been a mainstay of the East Bay luxury-lodging scene since 1915. It’s home to a full-service spa, sweeping views and 279 rooms, which start at $189.