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Lake Merritt, the Jewel of Oakland

Updated on May 28, 2024
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Robert Nicholson is a frequent traveller whose interests focus on history, outdoor activities, and food.

Lake Merritt, Oakland, California.
Lake Merritt, Oakland, California.

Lake Merritt, a large 155 acre lake surrounded by the bustling city of Oakland California, is an oasis of entertainment, outdoor recreation, and historic attractions. The lake itself is a tidal estuary, connected to the San Francisco Bay by a channel and an estuary. It’s the nation’s largest salt-water lake within city limits. It features grassy shores and several small man-made islands intended as bird refuges. It’s been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1963, and on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966. There is a 3.4 mile multi-use path surrounding the lake.

A “necklace of lights” around the lake, consisting of 126 lampposts and 3,400 lights, was constructed in 1925. It was darkened in 1941 to comply with World War II regulations, and was re-illuminated in 1987.

Lake Merritt Attractions

Lake Merritt Boating Center offers canoe, kayak, pedal boat and sailboat rentals, as well as private and group sailing lessons.

Gondola Servizio offers cruises on the lake in authentic Venetian gondolas.

Children's Fairyland is an theme park featuring storybook sets, gentle rides, friendly animals, and live entertainment. The park was opened in 1950. The fanciful storybook sets were created by local Oakland architect William Russell Everitt.

The park also offers a summer day camp, regular Toddler Storytime every Friday.

Children's Fairyland.  Photo credit:   Wordworking [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
Children's Fairyland. Photo credit: Wordworking [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

The Pergola and Colonnade was designed by architect Walter Reed in 1913. Its location, at the Eastern end of the lake, was once used as a landing site by Spanish freighters, and as a result the colonnade was sometimes referred to as El Embarcadero.

Camron-Stanford House, built in 1876, is a Victorian mansion on the shores of Lake Merritt. It is open for tours on Sunday afternoons, and hosts frequent events.

The Cameron-Stanford House.  Photo credit: Sanfranman59 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
The Cameron-Stanford House. Photo credit: Sanfranman59 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Cleveland Cascade was an Italian-inspired stairway and cascading water feature built in 1923. The water feature is no longer operational, although a local group is attempting to raise funds for its restoration. The top of the stairway offers a dramatic view of the lake.

Lake Chalet is an upscale seafood restaurant and bar located in the renovated Lake Merritt Boathouse. The structure was originally built in 1909 as a salt water pumping station for the Oakland Fire Department. Two wings were added in 1913 to provide a municipal boathouse. The structure was restored in 2009.

1200 Lakeshore is an apartment building on the South shore of Lake Merritt. It is notable for its many famous residents, including actress Candice Bergen, NBA All-Star Stephen "Steph" Curry, NBA champion and coach Stephen Kerr, and political activist Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panther party.

The Gardens at Lake Merritt contain eleven “themed” gardens on 7 acres. One of the chief attractions is the Bonsai garden, one of the best known in the United States.

Oakland Chinatown, located just West of the lake, was built by Chinese immigrants in the 1850s. The enclave grew significantly after the San Francisco earthquake, when many Chinese people fled the earthquake-damaged city.

Oakland Chinatown. Photo credit: Daniel Olsen. [CC BY 2.5 (]
Oakland Chinatown. Photo credit: Daniel Olsen. [CC BY 2.5 (]

Lake Merritt Bandstand, built in 1918, was designed by local architects Walter Reed and William Corbett, based on the design of a bandstand in Milan, Italy.

The Oakland Museum of California opened in 1969. It brings together three historically independent disciplines—art, history, and natural sciences—under one roof.

The Oakland Museum of California.  Photo credit:  Daderot [CC0]
The Oakland Museum of California. Photo credit: Daderot [CC0]

Visiting Lake Merritt

Although Lake Merritt is not well-known outside of the area, its many attractions - plus great restaurants and funky local shops - provide plenty of reasons for visitors to the Bay Area to add it to their itinerary.

When visiting, plan on doing lots of walking! The nearby city streets are often congested, and the best way to see the area's many attractions, and absorb the local flavor, is on foot


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