Surrounded by parkland and bordering diverse urban neighborhoods, Lake Merritt is more than a natural wonder; it’s an opportunity to experience the city’s extraordinary diversity. On any given day you will find hundreds of people of differing ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds enjoying the many options offered by this magical place – the country’s largest saltwater lake within city boundaries.
Technically a tidal lagoon, Oakland’s stunning Lake Merritt comprises 140 acres with 3.4 miles of shoreline. It is also the location of the oldest designated wildlife sanctuary in the United States, with 70 species of birds calling the heart-shaped lake home.
Walkers, runners and workers taking a lunch break can traverse the paved path encircling the Lake. When they do, they will be able to observe wildlife as well as kayakers, sailors, and rowers skimming across the water. They’ll pass by the Rotary Nature Center, a museum and interpretive center with exhibits, science classrooms, freshwater viewing ponds, five habitat islands, a geodesic dome for injured birds and the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.
Within view of grand old apartment buildings, neighborhood outdoor cafes and small businesses along Grand Avenue is Children’s Fairyland, the oldest themed amusement park in the United States and an early inspiration for Walt Disney. Fairyland includes 10 acres of play sets, small rides, and animals. The park is also home to the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States.
Not far from the Lake Merritt Botanical Gardens and lawn bowling green is the Lake Chalet Restaurant, housed in the former municipal boathouse, where dockside diners can enjoy watching a sunset and hearing the songs of gondoliers taking their fares for a romantic rides in Venetian gondolas. Curving past recently opened architectural marvel: the Cathedral of Christ the Light you find other modern buildings that grace the urban skyline including the curved Kaiser Center a mid-century office complex and that houses one of the Uptown neighborhoods best-kept secrets, a 3-acre roof garden. The historic Camron-Stanford House can be found at the South side of the Lake and is the last of the 19th century mansions that once surrounded the Lake. It is now fully restored and opened as a museum and event venue.
On a sunny weekend afternoon, Lake Merritt becomes the city’s favorite picnic ground, where families, old and young residents, salsa dancers, jugglers and acrobats and musicians spontaneously gather on her grassy banks. The newly constructed amphitheater at the Lake’s West end is not only a venue for concerts, but a home for neighboring Chinatown’s graceful older residents and others to practice morning Tai Chi. On Saturdays you will also find young families enjoying the playground adjacent to the Lake Merritt branch of the Oakland Public Library and buff athletes working the pull-up bars at the Lake’s Eastern end, adjacent to the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market an East Bay institution that’s considered one or the region’s best.
For residents and visitors alike, the Lake is perhaps most breathtaking at night, when the historic neon sign at the glorious old Grand Lake Theater is in view and the famed necklace of lights that encircle the Lake’s perimeter are glowing. Featuring pearly bulbs suspended between 126 lampposts built in 1924, the lights of Lake Merritt are symbolic of the glow of pride that Oakland exudes from residents who get to call this city and its many treasures home.