By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Ever since its founding back in 1772, the northern California town of Oakland has been a commercial and cultural crossroads, first colonized by Spanish settlers who built a hacienda and trade post in the name of King Carlos III along the city’s east bay and developed a rapport with the indigenous Huchiun natives.
After the California territory was incorporated into the United States in the 1840s following the Mexican-American War, Oakland experienced a major growth boom, spurred on by the California gold rush in the 1850s and a wave of Chinese immigrants and railroad workers.
With the railroads came more growth, and by the late 1860s, Oakland had become a major rail terminal, and later an ocean port, the fifth-busiest in the United States by cargo volume today, handing 99 percent of all containerized goods moving through Northern California and representing $41 billion worth of international trade.
But for all its economic and cultural expansion, Oakland — the eighth-most-populated city in California — has never lost its down-home charm and unique cultural and ethnic heritage.
And it is precisely that rare distinction and charismatic history that the Visit Oakland travel office is banking on to bring in tourists from across the United States and around the world.
“Oakland is unlike anywhere else in the United States, even though it is a mini-cosmos of the entire country,” explained Visit Oakland CEO Peter Gamez at a media breakfast Monday, Jan. 23, during his first official visit to Mexico.
“It has all the activities and attractions of a major U.S. city, but is small enough (with a population of 425,000) that it is easy to maneuver and doesn’t have the traffic and chaos of a big metropolis.”
Gamez, who took the helm of Visit Oakland in August 2021 after several years in the San Francisco tourism industry, noted that Oakland’s attractions span a wide variety of options, from natural parks and world-class restaurants to gritty street-art murals (there are over 1,000 in the city) and a one-of-a-kind cannabis tour rooted in the city’s culturally significant history and fueled by decades of consistent activism.
“The cannabis scene in Oakland is alive and well.,” he said, “and Oakland is packed with unique retail experiences and is a destination that the cannasseur and the canna-curious alike will enjoy.”
Equally edgy is Oakland’s dynamic Black Panther exhibit inside the Oakland Museum, replete with a replica of the Black Panther founder Huey Newton´s infamous peacock chair. Gamez pointed out that Newton founded the now-much-more-sedate black power organization in Oakland back in 1966.
Those looking for something a little more serene than marijuana treks and revolutionary shrines can opt for the far-more-historically-legal brewery tour (Oakland boasts no fewer than 15 breweries and taprooms) or the ultra-zen vegan tour, which winds its way through more than 20 vegan eateries with homemade animal-free dishes such as vegetarian gumbo, matcha donuts and even plant-based tacos.
Oakland’s Chinatown is one of the oldest Asian-American communities in the United States and home to the original fortune cookie, while nature lovers will be drawn to its 80 public parks and 1,931 kilometers of hiking trails.
For kids, there is the Oakland Zoo — the only zoo in the United States with a PETA certification — and Children’s Fairyland, and aerospace aficionados will want to check out the Oakland Aviation Museum.
Each year, the city hosts a 10-day restaurant week in March, and the city has been rated as having the highest cultural diversity in the United States, with more than 125 different languages and dialects spoken.
With its own international airport, Oakland is easy to get to from Mexico, and Volaris — the largest economy carrier in Latin America — offers direct flights from Mexico City, Guadalajara, Morelia and Bajío.
Oakland is just a 20-minute hop, skip and jump from San Francisco, and 40 minutes from California’s famed Napa Valley.
And with 260 sunny days a year, Oakland is a year-wide destination, and offers guests a range of 40 hotels and 5,500 rooms, with a new Marriott residence set to open shortly.