20 Things You Didn’t Know About Oakland
1. The cemetery is a perfectly respectful place for a picnic.
Mountain View Cemetery stretches for 226 acres in the hills above Oakland and has one of the best views of the San Francisco Bay in town. Other than the hundreds of historical graves and spooky mausoleums, it’s not that different from your local neighborhood park. On any given day, you’ll find Oakland residents jogging, walking their dogs, and just hanging out.
Note: Do ensure you make your way out by dusk. The last thing you want to do is get locked behind the gates of a 150-year-old graveyard overnight.
2. Bruce Lee, Tom Hanks, and Clint Eastwood all have Oakland in common.
The martial arts expert got his start fighting and teaching in Oakland. Tom Hanks attended high school in Oakland and once sold concessions at the Oakland Coliseum. Clint Eastwood lived in Oakland, where he graduated high school in 1949 before relocating with his family. Other notable historical Oakland residents include writers Jack London and Gertrude Stein, NBA point guard and coach Jason Kidd, musician John Lee Hooker, and of course, Too $hort.
3. MC Hammer is an official Oakland spokesperson.
Oakland native MC Hammer partnered with Visit Oakland to create a series of videos about the city, including highlights of important landmarks and an anthem for the Oakland Raiders. How can you NOT want to visit a city that’s been endorsed by the man who brought hammer pants into the world?
4. Lake Merritt has a sea monster living in it.
The “Oak-ness Monster” has been spotted in Lake Merritt since the 1940s. It’s described as your standard Loch Ness-style creature with humps, spikes, and a long tongue. The best spot to catch a peek of the mega-beast is from docks at the Lake Chalet restaurant.
5. Oakland’s Fentons Creamery had a cameo in Pixar’s Up.
Director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera both are Oakland residents and Fentons frequenters. The business was written into the plot of the film as a love letter to the historic ice cream parlor.
6. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the USA.
Nearly every ethnic group is represented in Oakland, and over 125 languages and dialects are spoken within city boundaries, making it one of the top 5 diverse major cities in the country. It’s also home to the third-highest concentration of lesbian residents in the US — a melting pot within a melting pot.
7. It inspired Disneyland.
Children’s Fairyland has been on the shores of Lake Merritt since 1950. During an age when the few “kiddie parks” in the country consisted of pony rides and snack stands, the park’s creator went BIG with elaborate fairytale sets, farm animals, and live entertainment. Walt Disney visited on its opening and incorporated some ideas for Disneyland, which opened five years later.
8. There are more artists per capita here than in any other city in the country.
According to local lore, Oakland’s got more artists per capita than any other US city. While that’s probably a tough claim to prove (what defines an “artist,” anyway?), it’s true that the art scene in Oakland is legit. Experience it for yourself at the monthly Oakland Art Murmur — every first Friday and Saturday of the month.
9. The Wave was invented at Oakland Coliseum.
Bay Area fixture and self-proclaimed “World’s Sexiest Cheerleader” Krazy George Henderson spawned the very first full-stadium Wave in 1981 while leading the sold-out crowd at an Oakland A’s home game against the New York Yankees. After that night’s televised debut, the Wave spread like, well, a wave across the country, even traveling internationally to Mexican soccer games and the London Olympics, where the royal family was seen shamelessly Waving in the stands at a men’s tennis tournament.
10. There’s a sizable gnome population.
An unidentified Oakland man who wanted to brighten up his neighborhood painted thousands of gnomes, mushrooms, other fanciful creatures, and teensy gnome-sized doors on small wooden blocks, which he then posted at sidewalk-level (gnome-height) around the city. After a brief battle with Pacific Gas & Electric, who wanted them evicted from utility poles, the gnomes were allowed to stay.
11. It’s the home of the very first Mai Tai.
Yup, Oakland invented that monstrous thing you’re drinking out of a tiki head in some garishly decorated bar. In 1944, though, it was designed as a simple drink: just rum, lime juice, orgeat syrup, Cointreau, and a fragrant sprig of mint. Blame the rest of the world for corrupting it.
12. The religious architecture is awesome.
There are hundreds of religious buildings from many different denominations, and of various architectural styles, within Oakland. The Gothic-inspired Chapel of the Chimes is full of stonework and ornate fountains and mosaics, while the modern Cathedral of Christ the Light is a work of glass that fills the interior of the entire building with sunlight. Also hard to miss is the big Mormon temple on top of the Oakland Hills. While you can’t set foot inside unless you’re a part of the church, you can still explore the grounds and the terrace — one of the best views of the bay anywhere.
13. You can stumble onto historic landmarks and hidden urban areas.
The Art Deco buildings scattered around Uptown aren’t so hidden — it’s hard to miss the giant facades of the Paramount Theatre (built in 1931 and now a National Historic Landmark) and the Fox Theater (1928). But there are less celebrated, more understated examples of the architectural trend spread throughout Oakland. Look for the seafoam green storefronts on 14th, or the zigzaggy brick details on the former F.W. Woolworth store on Broadway and Telegraph.
It’s not just architecture that’s stashed away within Oakland city limits. There are 3.5 acres of gardens and reflecting ponds hidden on top of the Kaiser Center parking garage on Lakeside Drive, a huge secret rose garden tucked in a Piedmont residential neighborhood, and the Cleveland Cascade, a giant set of stairs (135, to be precise) that stretch from Lake Merritt into Cleveland Heights, just sort of squished between some apartment buildings on Lakeshore Avenue. All of which makes Oakland a pretty awesome place for some serendipitous urban exploration.
14. The weather’s better here.
It’s not all gloom and fog in the Bay Area. Oakland’s generally about 10 degrees warmer than nearby San Francisco, meaning you don’t need to think about bringing a scarf everywhere and the chances of your picnic being ruined by fog are slim. A quick jump across the bay and you’re good to go.
15. You can practice fly fishing in world-class casting pools.
Oakland’s Leona Casting Pools were built in 1958. Since then, fly casters (some of them internationally recognized anglers) have been coming here for practice, equipment testing, and straight up zen-like relaxation. During the summer months, come out for a free lesson from the Oakland Casting Club. They’ll even let you borrow some equipment to start.
16. There’s a lot of nature in this city.
There are over 80 parks in Oakland where you can reconvene with your inner wilderness explorer. Local favorites include the Sausal Creek trail in the Dimond District, which runs along a creek where you can hear real wilderness sounds like birds and buzzing insects, and the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, which was created by lava over 10 million years ago. Today, you’ll find rock labyrinths, wooded areas, and rolling fields full of mooing cows. All in Oakland.
17. You don’t need to leave the city to see redwoods.
Similarly, Redwood Regional Park, just a few miles over the ridge from downtown Oakland, contains a huge forest of coast redwoods within 1,830 acres of wilderness area. There are almost 40 miles of trails for hikers, joggers, bikers, and llama walkers — some are paved, flat, and kid-friendly, while many others head straight uphill between trees so tall they block out the sun and seem like they’re swallowing you whole. Step lightly if you notice any writhing red surfaces — each year, millions of ladybugs migrate to the park, group together in huge carpety clusters, have the most adorable orgies ever, then fly back to wherever they came from.
18. You can sit in the famous Huey Newton wicker chair.
At the Oakland Museum of California, you can recreate the iconic photograph of Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, sitting in a peacock chair with a spear in one hand, a gun in the other, and a zebra rug under his feet. The chair on display (actually a bronze replica of the real deal) commemorates the contributions made to the city of Oakland by the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and 1970s. Visitors to the exhibit are encouraged to sit down and reflect on Newton’s legacy.
19. There are hundreds of secret staircases.
An artifact of the Key Route streetcar lines in Oakland, staircases were built all over the East Bay to transport pedestrians quickly up the city’s hillier areas, connecting different neighborhoods and streets. Urban hikers have documented and explored many of the remaining “secret staircases,” where you can now catch views of the city and the bay or climb past famous local landmarks, the beautiful backyards of people whose homes you can’t afford, and wooded areas of Oakland neighborhoods you didn’t even know existed.
20. You can visit the oldest bonsai tree in the United States.
The Golden State Bonsai Federation maintains a bonsai garden at Lake Merritt — the largest collection in California. Included is one tree, a daimyo oak, that was cultivated in 1863, making it the longest-in-cultivation bonsai tree in the country. It was donated by its owner — Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to China.