When it comes to cities, adding water can be a good thing—a visual break from the urban glass, steel, and stone. So it goes with this sparkling jewel. Fed by the adjacent Oakland Estuary, saltwater Lake Merritt is a popular spot, and the 3.5-mile/5.6-km path that circles the lake is always filled with locals jogging before work, stretching their legs at lunchtime, or watching the lakes “necklace of lights”—more than 4,000 lightbulbs on 126 lampposts—blink on at the end of the day.
Lake Merritt also holds the distinction of being designated, in 1870, as America’s very first National Wildlife Refuge, and it still provides important habitat, particularly for migratory birds in fall. Rent a canoe, kayak, or pedal boat at the Lake Merritt Boating Center, in the historic Lake Merritt Sail Boat House, and keep your own bird count—or check out what you think you saw at the lake’s Rotary Nature Center. Other diversions include the 1876 Camron-Stanford House, a stunning example of the regal Victorian homes that once lined the lake, and the bonsai collection at Lakeside Park Garden Center. After all that fresh air, head indoors for a first-run movie at the lavish 1926 Grand Lake Theater (Friday and Saturday shows in the main auditorium include a concert on the theater’s Wurlitzer organ).