Oakland has a ton of great free and cheap things to do. It is the Bay Area’s hidden gem. If you’re looking to beat the high cost of living, or just find some great ways to have fun on the east side of the bay, check out these ideas.
Children’s Fairyland: I never understand why people take preschoolers to Disneyland. It’s so expensive, and they are just as happy at Fairyland. Seriously. For $8.00 per person (free for babies under one), you can explore real-life fairy tale scenes, see a puppet show, and pet animals at Noah’s Ark. Kids can ride the resolutely non-scary rides, like the Jolly Trolly and the Carousel. It’s delightful. (When the kids outgrow Fairyland, drive up to Berkeley to visit the incredible and free Adventure Playground.)
Lake Merritt: Lake Merritt is a tidal lake more or less in the center of Oakland. You can walk around it on the trails, visit the free Rotary Nature Center, or rent a boat at the Lake Merritt Boating Center. It’s a beautiful place to spend an afternoon.
Oakland’s Chinatown: Although not as famous as the Chinatown across the bay in San Francisco, Oakland’s Chinatown is less touristy and just as charming. There are restaurants, groceries, and gift shops to explore, along with a fortune cookie factory (admission $1.00, but there’s not THAT much to see) and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, with many free exhibits and events.
Jack London Square: Jack London Square is home to many shops and restaurants, so it isn’t necessarily a bargain spot. But it is also the site of many free concerts and events, a year-round farmers market, and a walking path describing the history of Jack London’s life in Oakland and beyond. It’s right on the waterfront, too, so it’s a gorgeous spot for a walk or for taking a boat ride. The ferry to San Francisco gives you a nice, low-cost view of the bay and the new Bay Bridge.
Lake Temescal: Officially known as the Temescal Regional Recreation Area, Lake Temescal is a lovely park surrounding a man-made lake. It’s a popular spot for picnics, including family reunions and company picnics. It’s also open for swimming in the warm months, stocked for fishing in season, and available for biking and hiking any time.
Redwood Regional Park: Everyone knows that Marin’s Muir Woods has gorgeous redwoods. And so, everyone goes to Muir Woods, making it crowded and, at times, impossible to park. Here’s the thing: Marin does not have a monopoly on redwoods! These amazing trees grow all over Northern California. In Oakland, Redwood Regional Park has a forest of coast redwoods and other native flora and fauna. You can hike in the quiet, and you won’t have to compete with tour busses for parking.
Art Murmur: On the first Friday and Saturday of every month, Oakland’s art galleries hold open studios at an event called Art Murmur. Often, there are musical performances, special events, and food trucks to make the outing even more festive. The Art Murmur website has each month’s schedule, as well as information about other free art open houses and events.
Paramount Theatre: The Paramount Theatre is one of those grand old cinemas that makes you really appreciate the movies. In addition to concerts and special events, the Paramount puts on a series of classic movies — on the big screen — with $5.00 admission.
Free walking tours: To show off the city, Oakland offers free walking tours of the downtown neighborhoods. From May through October, at 10:00 am on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can sign up to see the sites. The complete list of itineraries and reservation information is available online.
Oakland Museum of California: This museum tells the story of the city of Oakland and the state of California through its art, natural history, buildings, and people. Cheapskates need to know about it for three reasons. First, every Sunday, the Oakland Museum of California has free admission. Every Friday night from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm, it has half-price admission to go inside; stay outside, and enjoy free concerts and performances. Different local food trucks will be on hand to sell dinner. Finally, every winter, the Oakland Museum holds a huge White Elephant sale to raise money. You can find great used clothing, books, household goods, and other fun stuff.