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Peak Lake Life in the Heart of Oakland

Photos By : Natalya Suttmiller

Lake Merritt pumps energy, and vibrancy, into the Bay Area.
Cork trees and grassy parks are found all around Lake Merritt.

The Bay Area has a physical energy that hums below its foggy surface. It’s an area most recognized by San Francisco’s steep streets and iconic painted Victorian homes, yet right over the Bay Bridge sits the historic city of Oakland, very much a contributor to the city’s energy. Presumptuous opinions about it encourage guests to stay away, but with all of Oakland’s character, diverse foods and a time-is-lost kind of nightlife, the city beckons Bay Area locals to discover its vibrancy. So let’s all follow their lead.

Oakland is a city of power, soul and funk. To explore it means to really explore its heart — the intriguing urban landscape of Lake Merritt, a lake with a 3.4-mile radius conjoining the east and west ends of the city.


Lake Merritt is the gathering place for the people of Oakland. Carefree characters of all types hang on each grassy knoll. On any day of the week one can walk through picnics laden with charcuterie and wicker baskets, jerk chicken BBQs, groups of friends on a daily walk, farmers’ markets, African drum circles, dance parties, ’80s inspired raving roller skaters; it’s an eclectic group of gatherings that knows no barriers of age, gender or clothing attire preferences.

Besides the people watching, there are many hidden gems to check out: gardens, sculptures and markets, especially at the historic Pergola. On the north facing side of the Pergola is a stunning bonsai garden of ancient trees tucked into a larger Japanese garden.

The Pergola at Lake Merritt, a landmark where many markets and gatherings take place.

From there, continue to stroll around the lake — it can easily be walked around in an hour or two, leaving you with enough energy to saunter to nearby restaurants and bars. Right along Grand Avenue, at the northeast point of the lake, is the historic Grand Lake Theatre, a vintage cinema which opened in 1926 as a vaudeville show and silent movie house. The interior is still flashy and extravagant like it was in the roaring ’20s, and now a worthwhile venue for watching a movie in. It’s can’t-miss neon sign can be seen from streets away, always illuminating the nights.

Walking past the theater opens up a world of eclectic shops, bars and restaurants — and restaurants can’t be talked about without mentioning brunch: a mood, and a lifestyle and the weekend religion for clusters of friends and family who line up outside their favorite spot to pile around a table full of wake-me-up shared plates of breakfast decadence. Try Almond and Oak, just up the block from the lake in the Grand Lake region, with its Cal-American cuisine (I recommend the pozole) and refreshing cocktails.

For those who prefer to avoid crowds, Bake Sum offers grab-and-go Asian American-inspired pastries that are as equally gorgeous as they are delicious. The signature Strawberry Kinako Bun is a spiraled croissant filled with a nutty, roasted soybean pastry cream folded with homemade strawberry jam. There are also mochi muffin bites, variations on bao buns and other mouth-watering experimental fusions. Visiting this stop is a great opportunity to grab a pastry and take a brisk morning walk around the lake.

Yuzu meringue bun, Thai-tee mango croissant, and Matchahuhu cookie from Bake Sum.
Strolling through the Grand Lake Farmers Market on a Saturday morning.

For lunch, Enssaro Ethiopian is an unassuming Ethiopian restaurant that features colorfully spiced vegetarian and meat platters just waiting to be scooped with injera. Or, for evening plans, farther down Grand Avenue find Ordinaire, a bistro-style wine bar and shop serving natural wines produced with organic grapes. Owner Bradford Taylor was inspired to open the business by Parisian “caves à manger,” intimate combination natural wine shops and restaurants that serve small plates like cheese pairings, charcuterie and sardines. What I love about this cozy spot is its selection of wines without any pretension surrounding it. The staff is welcoming and kind.

Enssaro authentic Ethiopian cuisine.

One of the oldest bars in Oakland is here, too. The Alley Piano Bar officially opened in 1933, but secretly opened in 1926 as a Prohibition bootleg bar. The front entrance guides guests through an alleyway of janky booths made from Depression-era Ford Model T seats. As a historical building, any alterations to the inside are prohibited, so the walls are lined with business cards that have been there since the 1950s. In the back, a baby grand piano is surrounded by stools waiting for bargoers to gather ’round and sing along with a pianist playing old tunes from the Great American Song Book. This is a classic Oakland bar.


It’s this kind of energetic buzz that pulses through the Bay Area. And it all starts from the heart of Oakland’s Lake Merritt.  

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