Moms need not be convinced of the charms of Lake Merritt – just say the word “Fairyland” and we’re off and running! But there’s much more to this local gem than a storybook park nestled within the grounds. Did you know that the country’s oldest wildlife refuge is in Lake Merritt? (Really, you ask – is there even wildlife there?). Others would be surprised to know that the Gardens at Lake Merritt were recently voted as one of the most romantic places to visit in the East Bay by CBS San Francisco and Diablo Magazine (File that away for your next date night!). Read on for more on the secret wonders of this urban, East Bay landmark.

Go: Any time of year. The perimeter of the lake is just over 3 miles and the paved path is shared by joggers, walkers, and strollers alike. It’s great for families with little ones who like to stop every few minutes. The lake is constantly offering something new to explore along its banks – a playground, bird sanctuary, a beach with climbing structure, fields of grass, lots of interesting trees, and at night, a necklace of lights featuring 126 lamposts and 3,400 lightbulbs.

Get there: The lake is situated between downtown Oakland and the Grand Lake District. Arrive by BART by exiting the 12th Street or Lake Merritt Station, then footing it the rest of the way or catching the Broadway Shuttle for a free ride. If you’re driving in, take the Grand Lake exit off of 580. Parking meters are abundant around the lake’s perimeter. There’s also low-cost ($2 for two hours on weekdays, $5 all day on weekends) parking within Lakeside Park, accessible from Bellevue Avenue.

What to wear: Comfy walking shoes and light layers.

Where to eat: On the shores of Lake Merritt, there’s Lake Chalet, which offers a kids’ menu and $2.50 tacos on Tuesdays. But more restaurants with good eats abound in the vicinity, from pizza at Spettro on Lakeshore to Thai noodles at Bangkok Palace on Grand Avenue to quesadillas at Los Cantaros on Grand, right across the street from the lake.

Things to do: On Saturdays, the Grand Lake Farmers Market is one of the most popular in the East Bay, with live music, kettle corn, and inflatables for the kids. Find it on Splash Pad Park. If you’re looking for the lake’s famous wildlife, you will certainly find it in the way of birds, with pelicans, herons, egrets, and ducks congregating in large number at the bird sanctuary every day of the week. The sanctuary is right beside the Junior Center of Art and Science, where you may schedule a docent-led exhibit tour or enjoy a variety of drop-in events on the weekends. Tell the kids about the 150 bonsai trees or the 400-year-old potted pine at the Gardens at Lake Merritt, or better yet, volunteer with them to help the garden grow. If you want to get out on the water, rent a pedal or rowboat from the Lake Merritt Boating Center, or if you’re opting for that date night, go for the gondola tour instead. Of course, you can always spend a day getting lost in the Alice’s maze and watching puppet shows in Fairyland.

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Cost of trip: Free to low.

Online: oaklandnet.com

Any tips or tricks on making a day at Lake Merritt with your family a super memorable one? Let us know in the comment section below. 

— Renee Macalino Rutledge

photos courtesy of Ingrid Taylar and Henry Zbyszynski on Flickr