Oakland’s Lake Merritt: 5 Things We Love

A haven for migratory birds and city dwellers.

pergola at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., picture
Lake Merritt's pergola dates to 1913.
Cheryl Rinzler / Alamy

A few blocks from the skyscrapers of downtown Oakland, California, sits a groundbreaking wildlife refuge: Lake Merritt. Since being set aside as a sanctuary for migratory birds in 1870, the lake has become a haven for city dwellers, too—a place to connect with nature without leaving urban comforts far behind.

Walk into the intimate Bonsai Garden, near the back of Lake Merritt's gardens, and you will feel like you’ve stumbled on to a secret world. Some of the intricately sculpted trees look like miniature versions of California redwoods, while others resemble tiny Japanese maples. Many have lived for centuries; the granddaddy of them all, a juniper from the Mojave Desert, is estimated to be about 1,600 years old.

Those who choose to see the lake on foot, using the 3.1-mile shoreline path, could plan to end up at the northeastern bend, where Grand Lake Kitchen provides a delicious reward: brunch. Locals queue up early to dig into such dishes as savory French toast made with rye bread dipped in porcini batter, or braised pork belly with polenta and a poached egg.

In the late 19th century, Lake Merritt became a magnet for Oakland’s elite; some 200 mansions once ringed the lake. Today, only one remains: the Camron-Stanford House on the west shore. Take a Sunday afternoon tour to gape at the marble statues and gilt chandeliers in the meticulously re-created rooms.

Aside from showing first-run films on four screens, the Grand Lake Theater hasn’t changed a wink since 1926. Its owners are devoted to retaining the movie palace’s golden age aura, from the opulent carpet and gilded ceiling to the 2,800 incandescent lightbulbs in the massive rooftop sign. Every Friday and Saturday night, an organist plays the original Wurlitzer before shows.

The Lake Merritt Boating Center rents pedal boats, rowboats, kayaks, and canoes to anyone willing to work for a panoramic view of the lake. Want to see some wildlife? Veer toward one of the lake's three bird islands, and you might spot visiting snowy egrets or black-crowned night herons. For a visual feast, pick up the last rental of the day (4 p.m. in the spring), head out on the water, and watch the thousands of fairy lights strung around the lake twinkle as the sun sets.