Anchored by Lake Merritt, the bustling Grand Lake district has a truly Oakland feel. You'll see folks of all persuasions shopping and mingling here on the weekends, sipping double lattes outside of Peet's, noshing on pizza from Arizmendi Bakery, getting sweaty at Monkey Yoga Shala, downing minty mojitos at Easy Lounge, or picking up some organic produce at the popular weekly farmers' market. Its charm lies in its neighborhood vibe and independent spirit.
Most cinemas lack imagination. Offering relief is the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-452-3556, Renaissancerialto.com), which opened in 1926 as a vaudeville and silent-movie palace and was purchased and restored in the 1980s by Allen Michaan. Its neon sign is an Oakland landmark, and the theater's dazzling marquee features Michaan's political commentary. Inside, it's all retro elegance — chandeliers, wood, and velvet — with a 900-seat main auditorium and art deco murals. As a special treat on Friday and Saturday nights, the Wurlitzer organ serenades moviegoers prior to the feature.
Known as the "jewel of Oakland," Lake Merritt (OaklandNet.com/parks/parks/lakemerritt.asp) is a large saltwater lagoon located just east of the high-rises of downtown. Its 3.4-mile circumference, currently undergoing a major renovation, is a haven for bikers, joggers, and walkers at all hours of the day. Those who feel tempted to actually get in the water can take a gondola ride or rent a kayak at the Lake Merritt Boating Center, but the shore isn't quite conducive to picnicking. Kids will love the nearby Children's Fairyland, a whimsical ten-acre park that brings their favorite fairytales to life.
For a true piano bar experience, the classic spot is the Alley (3325 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-444-8505). A battered place decorated with hanging laundry and a grimy fake pawnshop window, the Alley doesn't appear to have changed since the 1930s, when its first customers started attaching their business cards to the walls. Rod Dibble's been behind the Alley's piano for nearly fifty years. The three-ring binders list about four hundred songs, but rumor is that Dibble knows at least 5,000, with emphasis on the Great American Songbook. If you've got the jitters, just order one of the bartender's triple-strength Manhattans.
For a mix of modern and vintage-inspired wares guaranteed to make your grandma, boyfriend, or niece grin, head to Urban Indigo (3339 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, 510-419-0451, UrbanIndigo.com). This kitschy-cool shop is crammed full of jewelry, toys, stationery, candles, wallets, bags, hand towels, cards, candles at surprisingly reasonable prices.
For delicious, American-style breakfasts easy on the wallet, duck into Lynn & Lu's Escapade Cafe (3353 Grand Ave. Oakland, 510-835-5705). Its down-to-earth atmosphere and sunny back patio makes this cafe a popular spot for a lazy weekend brunch, and their tasty oatmeal pancakes and other comforting breakfast basics will keep you coming back for more.
When you're feeling Sex and the City-ish, visit Maribel (3251 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, 510-419-0677) for high-ticket designer items in a true consignment boutique setting. The buyers here have a keen eye for style, so you won't have to wade through racks of crap. Their jewelry case showcases new and unique designs by local artists.