The Best Things to See and Do Around Lake Merritt, Oakland

Make a day of visiting Lake Merritt by checking out the best things to do nearby
Make a day of visiting Lake Merritt by checking out the best things to do nearby | © Roy Mathers / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Courtney Holcomb
18 August 2020

If you’ve ever explored the town of Oakland, California, chances are you’re familiar with Lake Merritt. One of the city’s most popular attractions, this landmark has much to entertain everyone. Take a stroll around the shore, or make a day of it by checking out some of these great things to do nearby.

Go boating

Lake Merritt Boating Center offers boat rentals for individuals or groups, including pedal boats, rowboats, kayaks and canoes. Come prepared – boat rentals are cash only. The company also offers a variety of youth and community programs, giving locals a chance to learn the skills behind sailing and muscle-powered boating. Another option is Gondola Servizio, a company that has been providing authentic Venetian gondola rides across the lake since 1999, complete with experienced gondoliers and Italian melodies.

Explore nature

Beyond the 3mi (5.5km) lake perimeter is a whole lot of nature that’s protected by several organizations. The Rotary Nature Center and Waterfowl Refuge is an organization providing maintenance and protection of the lake; it also offers natural science presentations, environmental education and summer camps for youth. Here, you can visit an interpretive museum featuring educational exhibits, a working observation beehive, freshwater viewing ponds, five habitat islands, a geodesic dome for injured birds and the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, which is home to a variety of animals. Next, check out the Lakeside Park and Garden Center, featuring grassy knolls, a small beach area and more. Don’t miss the Bonsai Garden, which houses some of the coolest (and cutest) tiny trees in country.

Play at Children’s Fairyland

Amusement Park
Map View
The entrance to Children's Fairyland, a fairy tale theme park near Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Fairyland inspired Walt Disney's theme parks.
© Scott Morris / Alamy Stock Photo
Children’s Fairyland is the perfect place to bring kids. It features magical storybook sets, rides, animals, live entertainment and 10 acres (4ha) of gardens. Check out the Jolly Trolly, a kid-sized train; the Wonder-Go-Round, a carousel featuring Alice in Wonderland characters; Anansi’s Magic Web, a mini ferris wheel designed to look like a spider’s web; and the Flecto carousel, upon which no adults are allowed. Let your children run free in this whimsical wonderland, where kids can create, imagine and play for hours.

Visit the Grand Lake Theatre

Movie Theater, Theater
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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA -- May 4, 2019: The Grand Lake Theatre is a historic movie palace located at 3200 Grand Avenue and Lake Park Avenue in the Grand L
© Eric Fehrenbacher / Alamy Stock Photo
The Grand Lake Theatre has been around since 1926 and opened originally as a vaudeville show and silent movie theater. Over time, it has maintained its historic charm while being named one of the top 10 vintage theaters in the country. It regularly wins the East Bay Express Reader’s annual Best Movie Theater poll and screens great movies at affordable prices. Visit the theater and enjoy its grand architecture and ambiance, and take advantage of one of its special programs, including 3D features, discount Tuesdays and free popcorn Wednesdays.

Explore the Oakland Museum of California

Museum, Art Gallery
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The Oakland Museum of California has been around for more than 40 years and celebrates the many facets of California by combining subjects like art, history and natural science under one roof. With a mission to “inspire all Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities,” the museum houses nearly two million pieces, including artworks, historic artefacts, ethnographic objects, natural specimens and photographs. The collections are filled with interpretive tools and interactive features, and the museum also offers a variety of educational and outreach programs and events for the community.

See the Camron-Stanford House

Building, Museum
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Camron-Stanford House, Museum, Oakland, CA, USA
© dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo
While Lake Merritt was once surrounded by gorgeous 19th-century mansions, today, only the Camron-Stanford House remains standing. The building once housed five families that played key roles in the development of Oakland and the entire state of California. It was saved from destruction in 1971 by what would soon become the Camron-Stanford House Preservation Association, which turned it into the first museum in Oakland and initiated a decades-long renovation. Today, you can walk through the house to see the recreated rooms and restored gardens, with tours offered every Sunday.

Visit the Cathedral of Christ the Light

Building, Cathedral, Shop
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Across the street from the lake, the Cathedral of Christ the Light stands tall and luminescent. The building has been dubbed “a cathedral for the centuries,” built to last. Aside from religious services, the cathedral has a lot to offer visitors. Explore the building’s public plaza and garden, admire the gorgeous architecture, browse through the cathedral shop, and walk through the cathedral mausoleum – you can even take an official tour. The building also hosts a variety of concerts and events that visitors can attend, so be sure to check out the cathedral calendar before planning your visit.
These recommendations were updated on August 18, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.