Don’t get it twisted – Mountain View Cemetery is NOT just another cemetery. To make an assumption like that would be a tragic mistake.
I have a sneaking suspicion that you love to travel. And you LOVE to read about hidden gems to visit in each of your travel destinations.
You want to make sure you see the cornerstone tourist sites, sure, but you’re WAY more excited to sniff out the less well-documented places. The local intel.
The places where locals go that won’t be stuffed full of awkward, oblivious tourists, but are just as much “can’t miss” places as the ones in Lonely Planet books.
The places you wouldn’t know about unless you asked someone local. The ones that, once visited, make you simultaneously want to tell everyone you know about because they’re amazing and tell NO ONE EVER so the place doesn’t get discovered and ruined.
These are the places you covet.
And if you’re looking for one such place in Oakland, I’m here to tell you that the #1 place to go that fits this description is Mountain View Cemetery.
Now, I know for some people, that’s gonna seem weird.
If you’re the type of person who doesn’t typically think of a picnic in a cemetery as a lovely way to spend your Saturday, Mountain View Cemetery is just the place to change your mind.
Why You Should Visit Mountain View Cemetery
You may already be excited about visiting the cemetery because you’re the sort of person who’s into that kind of thing (like me). But if you need a little more convincing, I’m prepared to make a case.
1. It’s beautiful and it was designed to be a place to chillax.
Located in the heart of sunny Oakland, California, Mountain View is a gorgeous, 223-acre, labyrinthine cemetery that feels a lot like a park. Mountain View was designed in 1863 by Frederick Law Olmstead, and he intended for the cemetery to be used that way, to be lived in and enjoyed.
And so many decades later, a hearty handful of Oakland residents are fulfilling that wish.
On any given day, people can be seen on picnic blankets devouring bread or books, jogging up and down the hilly terrain, or going for evening walks with their dogs and babies
It’s perfect for so many leisure activities, from just taking a walk, having a picnic, laying in the grass and reading a book or doing some writing, playing your guitar (or instrument of choice – maybe the accordion is your thing), or even watching a movie.
When I got my wisdom teeth removed last year, my sweet boyfriend carted my drugged-up ass around. He picked up my pain medication. He took me to get a smoothie because I wasn’t able to eat. And then we went to Mountain View Cemetery, where we got some fresh air and sunshine and watched the classic horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I know, it’s such an appropriate movie for the setting. And it was LOVELY.
It’s also (obviously) full of tombs and mausoleums, some of which are incredibly beautiful. Chapel of the Chimes is right next door, which touts stunning architecture and houses many cremated remains.
2. You can get a good workout in (if you WANT to).
If you’re in the mood to relax and laze about in the sun (me most of the time), there’s hardly a better place to do it.
However, if you’ve got more energy than that and want to get some exercise, Mountain view is PERFECT for that too. You may have seen it featured recently in the film Blindspotting.
It’s incredibly hilly, with winding pathways every direction you look. It’s great for a run or a jog. The inclines will definitely boost your heart rate and supercharge your cardio workout.
3. It’s got a great view of the bay and San Francisco.
There are plenty of places in the East Bay where you can get a glimpse of the city, but often it’s hard to find a really GREAT view.
And sometimes when you do find one, it’s from a vantage point that isn’t the best to hang out in. You know, like on a random street in front of someone’s house where you feel like they might come out and spray you with the hose if you loaf around in front of their house for too long.
This cemetery affords, in my opinion, one of the best, most accessible views available of the San Francisco Bay.
If you go all the way to the top of the highest hill in the cemetery, you’ll be rewarded with a killer view that you can sit and enjoy for as long as you want.
And it won’t be full of tourists, and you won’t be bothering or being bothered by anyone. Just keep going UP along any of the roads and you’ll find it. There’s a flagpole at the top.
4. It’s got history.
It doesn’t matter if you call Oakland home or not. Mountain View Cemetery is connected to history that is relevant to our country.
As I mentioned above, the cemetery was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.
He was a well-renowned landscape architect who also lent his expertise to the planning of Central Park in New York City, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the campuses of Stanford and UC Berkeley, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition (AKA the World’s Fair) in Chicago in 1893.
Erik Larson has written an excellent book about Olmstead’s involvement in the World’s Fair and the activities of a 19th-century serial killer, H. H. Holmes, entitled The Devil in the White City.
It has been rumored that the book will soon be adapted into a TV series directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Release date TBD.
Aside from that, it’s home to many famous (and ordinary) Oakland residents. Being in the cemetery imparts a feeling of Old California, connecting you to the people who came here when California’s cities were just being established.
Famous People Buried at Mountain View
A few local celebrities of note who have taken up permanent residence in Mountain View include:
- Elizabeth Short, the victim of the unsolved 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder
- Frank Norris, journalist and novelist
- Julia Morgan, one of the first famous American female architects who designed the Chapel of the Chimes Columbarium (adjacent to Mountain View), the historic Campanil clock tower on nearby Mills College campus, and Hearst Castle, a few hours down the coast
- Joseph R. Knowland, owner of the Oakland Tribune from 1915 to 1966; Domingo Ghirardelli, the world famous chocolatier
- Ina Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate, the first librarian of the Oakland Public Library, and mentor to local author Jack London
- Victor Bergeron, AKA “Trader Vic”, inventor of the Mai Tai and proprietor of Trader Vic’s Tiki Bar (the first in Oakland), subsequent chain establishments, and the Trader Vic’s brand of spirits
- Jack McQuesten, AKA “Yukon Jack”, the basis for a short story by Jack London as well as the namesake of Yukon Jack rum
- Samuel Merritt, a well-respected physician, Mayor of Oakland in 1868, and the namesake of Lake Merritt, Oakland’s well-loved tidal lagoon.
- Mac Dre, rapper and record label owner
- Charles Crocker, a prominent railroad tycoon and banker
- John Swett, founder of the California Public School system
This list is far from complete.
5. It’s got wildlife.
If you think Oakland is devoid of wildlife because you imagine it as a totally urban, industrial place that has had all of the natural world cemented over, boy, are you wrong.
One of my favorite things about Oakland is that it IS urban, but there’s a wealth of natural land just minutes away in all of the regional parks that make up the hills Oakland is nestled against.
Consequently, there are animals afoot. And they like the cemetery because there aren’t too many people around. I have seen squirrels, skunks, wild turkeys, deer, rabbits, red foxes, and birds big and small.
And if you happen to get mauled by one of these wild beasts, you can rest assured in the knowledge that the cleanup will be easy. The cemetery staff can just dig a hole next to you and roll you right in.
6. It’s an outdoor space in the city where people will leave you the fuck alone.
If you live in or are visiting a city, it can be hard to find an outdoor space that doesn’t feel hectic.
Everywhere you go there’s noise, traffic, and people doing all kinds of crazy shit. Sometimes I feel like there’s too much going on out in the world and I just want some space from it all.
But the problem is that sometimes it feels like the only way to get that is to stay inside. It can be pretty rare to find so much outdoor space in an urban area where you can truly have some solitude.
And the great thing about a cemetery is that people will likely assume you are there to visit a gravesite.
There’s an etiquette in cemeteries that will cause people to be quiet and respectful, similar to the way people behave in libraries. They will leave you be in case you are there to grieve.
7. They give free tours (that sometimes include snacks).
The cemetery offers docent-led tours every second and fourth Saturday of the month. The second Saturday focuses on general information and the fourth Saturday on a theme chosen by the docent.
A while ago, I took a Food and Literature tour in the cemetery. We visited Trader Vic (with a Mai Tai sample), Domingo Ghirardelli (with a sample of chocolate), the Folger family plot (with a sample of chocolate covered coffee beans), etc. It was very fun, interesting, and tasty!
The docent informed me that of the thousands of people buried or cremated at Mountain View, the docents collectively cover a small fraction (about 1,000).
She directed anyone interested in finding out more about the people who don’t usually get mentioned in tours to Mountain View People, a site which I’ve found to be quite interesting and thorough.
8. They have free seasonal events.
If you’re looking for a nice spring activity as the weather warms up, the cemetery is hosting its 14th annual Tulip Exhibition on March 22nd to March 24th from 10 AM – 4 PM.
If you’re reading this post and that event has already passed, you can see what they have coming up on their events page.
The cemetery very often has amazing floral displays that change often. They also usually have Halloween-themed events that are family friendly. I personally love to go to the cemetery in October to read scary stories with some friends before sunset.
9. It’s a block away from a great Tiki Bar.
One of my favorite times to visit the cemetery is just before sunset. And just after sunset is about the time I’m ready for a drink to unwind in the evening.
Mountain View Cemetery is only a block down the street from the Kona Club, one of my favorite tiki bars in the Bay Area.
For a classic tiki drink, I would recommend the Macadamia Nut Chi Chi. It’s their signature drink, which tastes very similar to a piña colada but is made with macadamia nut liqueur and is even creamier. If you like a spicier drink, try the Navy Grog.
There’s also a ton of restaurants and shops along the same street, Piedmont Ave.
10. It will make you want to ENJOY your LIFE.
Visiting a cemetery often will remind you not to take your life for granted.
We’re not here for very long, folks! For reals.
Next time you want to procrastinate, think of all the dead people in the ground. Some of them lived tragically short lives, and we have the gift of being here today. Of still having the opportunity to DO and BE and THINK and LOVE and ENJOY. So let’s not waste it.
Oakland’s Finest Gem
I can’t believe that it took me as long as it did to discover Mountain View. As soon as I did, I became a regular. If you live here, you’ll become a regular too. And if you’re just here for a visit, I promise you’ll be glad you went.
I have been living in Oakland for eight years now. When anyone from out of town asks me what places or activities I would recommend for a visit, Mountain View Cemetery is my go-to answer.
This despite the usual response it gets, in which inquirers say “Oh…”. They pause to gauge me and see if I’ve made a joke that is falling flat. And then they ask, “Really?”.
It is without a doubt my favorite place in this gorgeous city and it should not be missed.
Don’t miss this special gem.
It was made to be enjoyed by the living. It’s gorgeous and peaceful. It has a great view. There are so many opportunities to learn about people and local history. It is truly unique and worthwhile.
Each time I visit Mountain View Cemetery, I come away from it feeling at peace.
I feel connected to Oakland in a deeper way than I can access in my daily life here because I feel inspired by and connected to the people who came to Oakland from other places.
The Oakland of the past and present are full of transplants. Many grave markers read “Native of (insert town/country here)”, but people chose to live their lives here. They recognized the city as something remarkable, just as I have.
I come away feeling like I belong — to a special, secret pocket of the world, a fascinating history, and a unique community. And I come away feeling like I can’t wait to come back.
If you’re wanting to spend your Sunday out of town, check out my post about everything you need for camping, and get a free printable packing list.
Until next time.