Oakland Chinatown: Culture, Food, and Fun

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A far different experience from the larger, San Francisco attraction, Oakland’s Chinatown has lots of surprises in store for everyone in the family. It’s one of the oldest Chinatowns in the country, with roots going as far back as the 1850’s Gold Rush. The neighborhood is a melting pot of Asian cultures and a destination for bite-sized eats for the little ones, shopping for knick-knacks, and other fun adventures.

Go: Any time of year. Annual events like the Oakland Chinatown Streetfest and the Lunar New Year Bazaar happen during the summer and winter seasons. Check the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce calendar for dates for these as well as other events and see our “Things to Do” section below for year-long possibilities in the neighborhood.

Get there: The neighborhood is minutes from downtown Oakland or Alameda’s West End. Find it off the 11th Street Exit from the 980 or 880 freeways. Or take BART in and exit the 12th Street or Lake Merritt Stations.

What to wear: The weather in these parts is typically fog-free and mild. Dress the kiddos in comfy walking shoes and layers for the unpredictable changes in temperature.

Where to eat: There are many choices for dim sum, Chinese pastries, sweet bubble teas, and international Asian fare. Try the New Gold Medal Restaurant, for starters, where the kids can sample Chinese doughnuts for breakfast or a bowl of jook, a Chinese rice porridge, for lunch. Little hands may also enjoy a traditional Dim Sum experience. Peony attracts long lines for goodies like spring rolls, pork buns, and miniature sweets like sugar egg puffs, fruit pudding, and baked egg custard buns. The Sweet Booth is a reliable boba shop for those who enjoy tapioca pearls in their smoothies. Otherwise, ice cream and frozen yogurt are always on hand, too.

Things to do: Get to know Oakland Chinatown’s cuisine and let the kids in on a fun, interactive history lesson with a City of Oakland-sponsored walking tour. These free, guided 90-minute walking tours are available Wednesdays and Saturdays through October and reservations are recommended. Those visiting on their own should seek out the Pacific Renaissance Plaza in the heart of the neighborhood, where Peony and Sweet Booth, as well as other restaurants and shops, are housed. It’s also the location of the Asian Branch of the Oakland Public Library, where there are story times on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center for cultural classes like Philippine Folk Dance or Chinese Drawing, annual festivals, and ongoing, free exhibitions that local schools often visit during field trips. For a glimpse at historic architecture, the Chinese Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest of its kind in the Bay Area. And to witness a neighborhood tradition firsthand, visit nearby Madison Square Park in the early hours, where Chinatown community members practice Tai Chi every morning, drawing large crowds on weekends. Don’t forget to save time to browse the sidewalk markets stocked with teas, retail goods, vegetables, and even live fish, as opposed to postcard shops.

Bonus: While you’re in the area, keep Oakland’s other gems in mind. Lake Merritt, Jack London Square, and Old Oakland are just a hop, skip, and jump away.

Cost of trip: Free to moderate.

Online: oaklandchinatownchamber.org

-Renee Macalino Rutledge

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