When heading to the Bay Area for a memorable bite, a stay in a historic hotel and some boutique shopping, most travelers almost instinctively think of San Francisco first. But these days, those who like to be in on the next big thing are setting their compass East and heading over to Oakland. Yes, the city of about 400,000 has had its troubles, but these days it’s a town on the rise. Oakland offers internationally acclaimed restaurants, a grand hotel and lots of chic bars and charming shops. And with scenic Lake Merritt at its core, you could argue that it has a much more relaxed and friendly vibe than San Francisco.
The place to stay while you’re exploring Oakland is Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Claremont Hotel Club & Spa, a historic and sprawling resort nestled in the hills where Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood meets Berkeley. The property, which celebrates 100 years of hospitality in 2015, boasts three pools, 10 tennis courts, a spa and stunning views of the Bay and San Francisco’s skyline from Paragon Restaurant & Bar.
Rockridge is a tony residential area with historic homes and streets lined with flowering trees. You might feel like you’ve been transported to New York’s West Village after strolling along the College Avenue shopping district, with its too-cute coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores and eclectic boutiques. Pop into Maison d’Etre for unique home décor with European flair; Lost & Found for new items for the home mixed with vintage finds; and indie bookstore Diesel for hard-to-find titles and insightful discussions.
When it’s time for lunch, you won’t have very far to trek. Walk a few blocks from Diesel to Southie, a cozy sandwich and salad spot with an East Coast accent that serves a wonderful pork belly banh mi and a perfect Italian meatball sandwich. Quench your thirst at The Trappist Provisions, where you’ll find more than 160 choices of beer, like Barbapapa Imperial Russian stout from Massachusetts or the chocolaty Haandbakk sour from Norway.
After you’ve done a bit more browsing, head back to the Claremont for your late afternoon spa session. While classic treatments are a safe, comfortable play here, the sanctuary’s Spa Delights Around The World menu is what we’d suggest most. The Monte Carlo-inspired caviar and champagne facial for May should do just the trick in giving your skin a rejuvenated glow.
Speaking of international flavor, Italian is on the menu for dinner. Specifically, you’ll be choosing between A16 Rockridge, an eatery that celebrates the cuisine of Campania with wood-fired pizzas and handcrafted cocktails, or Oliveto, a restaurant founded by Chez Panisse alum Paul Bertolli (but spearheaded by chef Jonah Rhodehamel now), for sausage, exquisite pastas or maybe a whole hog dinner. It all just depends on how far back down College Avenue you’d like to venture.
The next day, explore the Grand Lake district that radiates from Lake Merritt. Start with breakfast at Boot and Shoe Service by ordering Italian zeppole doughnuts with huckleberry cream or a poached egg with pork confit. Once you’ve placed your fork down, do some window shopping at McMullen, an East Bay shop flaunting labels like Carven, Edun and Rag & Bone, or the artisanal spirits boutique Alchemy.
If neither of those options sounds appealing, work off the meal by walking a portion of the scenic 3.4-mile stretch around the lake. The oldest designated wildlife refuge in the United States, Lake Merritt serves as the ideal spot for strolling, jogging, people spotting and even better bird watching.
For dinner, try out Camino, where you’ll find an exquisite grilled duck breast and slow-cooked leg with lentils — and everything else — cooked over an open flame; Penrose, an eclectic spot that mixes distinctive modern design with a worldly menu (everything from New York strips to Manila clams); or Commis, where James Syhabout’s prix fixe tasting menus earned him international acclaim. With any of these final dining destinations, you and the new Oakland will have a proper introduction.