When it comes to Northern California's Bay Area, San Francisco understandably gets all the glory. While it's one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, it is notoriously expensive.
So for fans who will be following the Steelers there for next Sunday's matchup against the Oakland Raiders, we're offering an alternative: the city of Oakland itself. And no, we're not crazy.
We know this rough-and-tumble destination doesn't have the best reputation. (Crime remains a problem, so you definitely need to be aware of your surroundings.) Recent redevelopment efforts, however, are putting the Bay Area's third-largest city and busiest port on a serious upswing. Among the things you'll find here are reclaimed squares and parks, a thriving arts scene and dozens of great bars and restaurants.
Oakland ranked the fifth-most desirable destination to visit this year in The New York Times' story "The 45 Places to Go in 2012."
"There's a lot happening there these days," says Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle executive food and wine editor. "Kind of like Brooklyn."
Below, we offer suggestions for exploring the city, including a few of Mr. Bauer's top picks for Oakland's bustling food scene.
Oakland is located directly across the Bay from San Francisco, via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. For those using public transportation, it's a relatively painless commute from San Francisco International Airport through one of the longest underwater transit tunnels in the world. Bay Area Rapid Transport, or BART, costs $8.50 one way and takes about a half-hour. (Exit at the 12th Street station for downtown Oakland.) It's just as easy from Oakland International Airport, where the AirBART shuttle bus runs to the Coliseum/Oakland Airport station every 10 minutes ($3). For a schedule or info on stations, go to bart.gov.
Throughout the city, visitors will find references to American writer Jack London, whose novels such as "The Sea Wolf" likely were inspired by his time spent as a boy along Oakland's waterfront. You'll find a life-sized bronze statue of the author at the foot of Broadway at what is now Jack London Square (jacklondonsquare.com). The square is a mini Fisherman's Wharf, with picturesque piers, innovative dining, one-of-a-kind shops and a bustling farmers market on Sundays. The square's management also offers Jack London walking tours (1-510-645-9292).
Other neighborhoods worth a visit include Downtown Oakland's Uptown District, home to the magnificent Art Deco Paramount Theatre. (Tours are given on the first and third Saturday at 10 a.m. for $1.) The Piedmont Avenue business district runs between MacArthur Boulevard and Pleasant Valley Avenue, and boasts locally owned shops and eateries, including Fentons Creamery, founded in 1894 and featured in the 2009 movie "Up." For pricier shopping, head to Manila and College avenues in Rockridge. The world-famous Oakland Museum of California is just off Lake Merritt, a large tidal lagoon located east of Downtown. Now a place to rent boats, it was the first wildlife refuge in the United States.
Mid-priced hotels that won't disappoint include the recently renovated (rooms are allergy-friendly) and centrally located Oakland Marriott City Center, which offers views of San Francisco Bay ($149 and up; 1-510-451-4000 or marriott.com). The nautically themed Waterfront Hotel is directly on the water, just steps from Jack London Square ($139 and up, waterfronthoteloakland.com; 1-888-842-5333). More grand is the sprawling Mediterranean Claremont Hotel in nearby Berkeley Hills, a landmark that dates to 1915. Each of its 279 rooms is completely different, and its on-site spa is named among the 10 best in the country. Rates start at $245 for a non-Bay view (claremontresort.com; 1-800-551-7266).
The city also has more modest chain hotels/motels and several bed-and-breakfasts. Info: visitoakland.org.
Kickoff at O.co Coliseum and Oracle Arena isn't until 4:25 p.m. Sunday, and the time change from the East Coast gives you an additional three hours. So even if you sleep late, there's plenty of time to squeeze in a few nonfootball activities. Love the water? Take a cruise of San Francisco Bay while learning about its history on the Bay Voyager, a Navy Seals-type large passenger rigid inflatable boat. The boat leaves from Jack London Square; prices start at $75 per person (bayvoyager.com, 1-510-542-4200). More active types can rent a sailboat, pedal or rowboat or kayak ($10/hour and up; www2.oaklandnet.com) at the Lake Merritt Boating Center on Lake Merritt, inside Lakeside Park. (Sailboats rented to experienced sailors only). Better still is a Venetian gondola ride with Gondola Servizio, which cruises from its home at the historic boathouse at 1520 Lakeside Drive on Lake Merritt (gondolaservizio.com, 1-510-663-6603). Both day and evening tours are available; prices start at $40/couple for a private 30-minute tour or $100 for a 50-minute tour in a gondola with a felze, or cabin.
For strollers, the city offers free 90-minute walking tours through various Oakland neighborhoods, including old Oakland and Chinatown (oaklandnet.com/walkingtours); the Grand Lake Oakland Farmers Market is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday across from the Grand Lake Theater. Oakland also is home to the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., 1-510-318-8400) and its collection of 1.8 million items representing the state's history, natural resources and creative output. Admission: $12 or $9 for seniors; museumca.org. Among the city's many cutting-edge art galleries is Johansson Projects at 2300 Telegraph Ave., which has a moss-covered ceiling (johanssonprojects.com, 1-510-444-9140).
History buffs will enjoy a dockside tour of the USS Potomac, a 165-foot-long Coast Guard cutter moored at Jack London Square that served as FDR's "floating White House" from 1936 to 1945. Tours are Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and cost $10 or $9 for seniors (usspotomac.org, 1-510-627-1215). Pardee Home Museum at 672 11th St., a national historic landmark, is one of the loveliest intact Italianate villa estates remaining in Northern California. $5, or $15 with light tea (pardeehome.org or 1-510-444-2187).
No matter what your budget, you don't go hungry in this city. On the top of many critics' list is Commis, an upscale eatery serving high-concept, seasonal cuisine (3859 Piedmont Ave., 1-510-653-3902). Adesso (4395 Piedmont Ave.) serves 40 kinds of housemade salumi and "all of them are exceptional," according to food critic Mr. Bauer; its sister restaurant Dopo (4293 Piedmont Ave.) offers top-notch Italian. Oakland Magazine restaurant critic Derk Richardson calls dining at Camino, where diners sit at rustic communal tables and everything on the menu is cooked in the fireplace, "a religious experience" (3917 Grand Ave., 1-510-547-5035). For exquisite small plates, both French and Italian, try A Cote in the Rockridge district (acoterestaurant.com, 1-510-655-6469). Boot and Shoe Service (3308 Grand Ave., 1-510-763-2668) is known for its wood-fired pizzas.
Places to experience the craft beer scene include Linden Street Brewery (95 Linden St. in the Port of Oakland), Pacific Coast Brewing Co. (906 Washington St.) and The Trappist (460 Eighth St.), located in an 1870s building. The oldest bar in Oakland is Heinolds' First & Last Chance Saloon in Jack London Square (48 Webster St., firstandlastchance.com; 1-510-839-6761). Built in 1883 from the remains of an old whaling vessel, it still uses its original gaslights in the bar. London was said to have made notes for future books at Heinold's. For happy hour on the water, stop by Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill in Lake Merritt (1520 Lakeside Drive, 1-510-208-5253). It has a crawfish boil every Friday.
For a soul food brunch, consider Brown Sugar Cafe (2534 Mandela Parkway, 1-510-839-7685) -- chef Tanya Holland makes a mean fried chicken and cornmeal waffle. Speaking of fried chicken, the line stretches out the door for a sandwich version, served with jalapeno slaw on a torpedo roll, at Bakesale Betty (5098 Telegraph Ave.). Handy with chopsticks? Head to Oakland's Chinatown (11th and Broadway) for a Cantonese-style dim sum lunch at Restaurant Peony (388 Ninth St.). To sample the Bay Area's food truck scene (tacos, BBQ, noodles, small-batch brews and wines), check out this weekend's Eat Real Festival at Jack London Square (eatrealfest.com).
For late-night eats in San Francisco, you can't miss with the delicious Mexican fare at Taqueria Cancun at 2288 Mission St. -- SF Weekly says it has the city's best burritos. Open until 2 a.m. Saturday, closed Sunday, cash only. Fiveten Burger is an Oakland-based food truck selling artisan burgers and sandwiches (fivetenburger.com).
Love dessert? Feed your cravings at Scream Sorbet at 5030 Telegraph Ave. in the Temescal neighborhood. Or, grab a cone or sundae at Fentons Creamery, noted above, which is at 4226 Piedmont Ave.
Giordano Bros. at 303 Columbus Ave. in San Francisco's hip North Beach neighborhood is the West Coast headquarters for Black-and-Gold fans (giordanobros.com). Yinz will have to make do with local brews instead of Iron City, but there is kielbasa and "all-in-one" Primanti-style sandwiches on the menu. Owners Jeff and Allison Jordan are from Pittsburgh.
visitoakland.org or 1-510-839-9000.
Next up: Cincinnati on Oct. 14 (for Oct. 21 away game).
For a look at what to do in Nashville for the Oct. 11 (Thursday) Steelers game against the Tennessee Titans, see David Bear's Aug. 26 PG story "The Magic of Music in Nashville."
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.