A haven for backyard artists and coffee-shop philosophers, Berkeley has deep roots in the Flower Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But while California’s spirited city of free speech still stands strong, Berkeley can also boast of a booming food, wine, and craft-brew scene, sprinkled throughout with arts and culture. Add an easy-to-use public transit that makes San Francisco a quick light-rail ride away, and Berkeley rates high on any Bay Area must-see list.
“You will be hard pressed to ever say, ‘OK, I did Berkeley,’” says Dan Marengo of Visit Berkeley, the city’s local tourism group. “There's too much to cover, which is a little amazing considering it’s roughly a quarter the size of Oakland.” The town, originally named in 1866 after Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, is great for exploring, with welcoming neighborhoods that bustle with shoppers, parents walking dogs and pushing strollers, and joggers and skateboarders gliding by. Top-notch University of California, Berkeley gives the city an energetic jolt, and students from around the world add an international and intellectual flair. How diverse is Berkeley? Along the main drag of University Avenue, you can buy an exotic outfit at Sari Palace, sample Indonesian food at Jayakarta, and enjoy house-roasted beans at Algorithm Coffee Co.
Stop by the visitor information center a block north of the downtown Berkeley BART station (the hub for the local light-rail system that accesses San Francisco and other Bay Area towns). There you can chat with helpful staff, pick up brochures and maps, and find out what to see and do along dozens of do-it-yourself walking tours.
—Harriot Manley & Lisa Trottier
Reopened in 2016 in a splashy Diller Scofidio + Renfro building smack-dab downtown, BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive) has quickly become the city’s vibrant showpiece. It’s hard to believe that some of the museum’s 83,000-square-foot space once housed a printing press. Now, it’s a soaring modern facility with ramps connecting minimalist art galleries and reading rooms. BAMPFA also doubles as a serious film destination, and art-house fans file into a 232-seat, state-of-the-art theater (the sound system was designed by the same company that recently overhauled Carnegie Hall) for screenings of everything from Golden Age of Hollywood classics to edgy new releases. Talks with actors and filmmakers often accompany showings.
Up in the building’s cherry-red eaves, Babette serves coffee, pastries, and full-on meals in a swoop of a space with peek-a-boo views over downtown and the Cal Campus. It’s a wonderful place to retreat after a movie, or share ideas on one of the museum’s intriguing exhibits.
In the independent-minded city of Berkeley, it’s no surprise that a new way of thinking about dining was born. In 1971, chef Alice Waters opened the doors of now-legendary Chez Panisse, a restaurant that sparked the focus on local and seasonal products. Chez Panisse is still going strong—rebuilt following a disastrous fire, and now topped by a more relaxed café upstairs—and has given rise to new companies started by former employees with like-minded philosophies about food. These include baker Steven Sullivan, who founded Acme Bread with his wife, Susan. The bakery offers its crusty and delicious loaves for sale at grocery stores and farmers’ markets all around the Bay Area.
Another Berkeleyite who started a culinary revolution is coffee maestro Alfred Peet. In 1966, he introduced the world to his rich and complex java, serving and selling his small-batch roasts from the nondescript Peet’s coffee shop on the corner of Walnut and Vine Streets. (It’s still open.) A cult following ensued, and the rest is caffeine history.
Berkeley also serves up an international mix of restaurants. Locals choose from over 100 eateries, with a huge concentration of fit-for-student-income offerings in North Berkeley along Shattuck Avenue. The area, nicknamed the Gourmet Ghetto, is filled with eateries and artisan food purveyors. Don’t miss Cheese Board Collective, a combo bakery, cheese shop, and pizzeria serving just one kind of pie each day. A line of die-hards almost always snakes out the door, waiting to order crazily creative pizzas—think roasted potatoes, pasilla chile peppers, onions, mozzarella, Bulgarian feta, cilantro, Mexican key limes, garlic, and olive oil. Hungry yet?
Dining pairs with drinking—and Berkeley delivers on this front as well. Craft breweries have long been popular here, with Triple Rock Brewery a well-known gathering place that offers a relaxed atmosphere complemented by a huge pub menu. If you’re into sake, or if you just want to get a look at some astounding Japanese architecture, stop by the Takara Sake tasting room for a flight of Sho Chiku Bai sakes.
Berkeley’s Fourth Street neighborhood also has appealing offerings. Many locals make a regular pilgrimage to Vik’s Chaat for addictive Indian street food, including sizzling hot spheres of fried bread called cholle bhature. To get a comprehensive taste of these and other Berkeley food-centric neighborhoods and farmers’ markets, sign up for a guided walking tour with Edible Excursions.
It wouldn’t be Berkeley without the U.C. Berkeley campus (just call it “Cal” if you want to sound like a local). This home to more than 37,000 students is also the unofficial central park for the city. No matter where you wander, you’ll run across dance groups practicing a routine, musicians running through a tricky section of music, or maybe the do-it-yourself student parkour club launching over bannisters and benches. That’s not to mention the occasional free-speech moment or rally with megaphones and placards—part of the Berkeley scene since the ’60s.
To get yourself oriented, buy a ticket to ride the elevator up to the 200-foot observation platform of the century-old, 307-foot-tall Campanile (aka Sather Tower), a handsome landmark that can be spotted from all the way across the bay in San Francisco. From the top, take in the ridiculously good views of Oakland, the City by the Bay, and Golden Gate Bridge. Back on earth, stroll through groves of mature coast redwood, eucalyptus, and oak along Strawberry Creek.
During college football season, Cal football games are a hot ticket, with students, alumni, and anyone else lucky enough to nab a seat packing the university’s stadium when the Golden Bears take to the field. But other star athletes from this Division 1 university can be seen competing without the crush. Check the university website for swim meets, soccer matches, as well as baseball games in the famously snug Evans Diamond, where fly balls ricochet off adjoining buildings, keeping fans on their toes.
In the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area, it sounds implausible: a wilderness sanctuary spanning more than 2,000 acres, rife with wildlife, offering panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay. But that’s what makes Tilden Park, nestled between the Berkeley Hills and San Pablo Ridge, so special. It takes its name from Charles Lee Tilden, a Bay Area attorney and businessman who purchased much of the land in the 1930s to preserve it for the public. He went on to become the first president of the Park District Board of Directors.
Today, activities at Tilden Park abound for all ages: Visitors can take to its network of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding or stroll through the botanical garden. Small children will gravitate toward the Redwood Valley Railway’s miniature steam train, old-time carousel, and the goats, pigs, and cows that they can feed at Little Farm. (Hint: bring your own lettuce and celery.)
There’s also an 18-hole golf course, a steam train that chugs along a scenic ridge, and a lake nearly 1,000 feet long, perfect for an afternoon dip and picnic. On a clear day, set off on the East Bay Skyline National Recreation Trail, which offers views of the San Francisco Bay to the west and Mt. Diablo to the east. Though it’s only a few miles from the city, it feels half a world away.
U.C. Berkeley’s Cal Performances program stages a huge number of concerts, recitals, plays, and almost everything in between at seven venues on campus and in the area, as well as other site-specific performances. It all began back in 1906, when legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt aimed to boost the mood of locals reeling after a devastating earthquake by appearing at the open-air William Randolph Hearst Greek Theater.
Now known simply as “the Greek,” the 8,500-seat amphitheater, which is patterned after the ancient theater in Epidaurus, Greece, presents a full slate of pop, rock, and world music. On warm evenings, it doesn’t get any more Berkeley than this. Kick back and enjoy the likes of James Taylor or Alabama Shakes, surrounded by people of every age and ethnicity singing and clapping along. If you’re brave enough to take on the mosh pit up front, know that it fills early. Opt for clear views (and calmer surroundings) from seats at the top of the steeply raked amphitheater, or head even higher to spread out blankets on a grassy slope. With its open sky, sunset views, and relatively intimate scale, you can actually believe it when bands proclaim that the Greek is one of their favorite places to play.
Shows also light up the night at Zellerbach Hall, when patrons dress up to enjoy top-name performances by the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Philip Glass, and Yo-Yo Ma. Fans of visual arts can head to Ryder Gallery, which exhibits challenging and thought-provoking works by undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and local artists.
If you’re looking to hit the mall, you’re in the wrong place. Berkeley doesn’t do cookie-cutter anything, including shopping. Instead, seek out ethnic items, one-of-a-kind crafts, and just plain cool stuff.
One of Berkeley’s most appealing shopping districts centers around Fourth Street, best known for its quality housewares and furnishings. Even if you’re not in need of a designer couch, it’s fun to check out the latest styles and get ideas in décor shops. There are also plenty of places to have a nice lunch, and a plaza that often hosts performing musicians. If you have kids who love all things creepy and crawly, head over to Fifth Street to pop into Vivarium, an exotic pet store with an astounding array of snakes, lizards, frogs, and tarantulas—fascinating even if you’re not considering a new pet.
Another worthy destination is the Addison Street Arts District, which is anchored around Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, a nonprofit community performance space long known as an outstanding spot for folk and world music. Stroll the Poetry Walk, a stretch of Addison Street sidewalk embellished with snippets poetry—the only place of its kind in the U.S.
Walking is part of Berkeley’s eco-friendly DNA. Since the beginning, the city has been threaded through with staircases and paths. They were originally for commuting—early residents walked along them to catch trolleys to Oakland. Now, they offer a quiet portal into Berkeley’s neighborhoods, providing glimpses into idyllic gardens. Constructed out of an assortment of brick, boulder, and concrete, and with bits of moss and wildflowers springing from every crack, the paths don’t lack for personality.
The popular and easy-to-find Indian Rock Path starts at the corner of Solano Avenue and the Alameda, and climbs before running smack into its namesake. Climbers can hone their skills at Indian Rock, but almost anyone can ascend the footholds in the massive stone to find a wide-open view of the bay that makes you want to stay forever. Like what you see? Consider learning the basics at Berkeley Ironworks, a local climbing gym and school.
You’ll find another pretty escape while following the paths at the U.C. Botanical Garden. The 34-acre facility features more than 13,000 plant varieties—especially California natives—all thriving in naturalistic plantings in the Berkeley Hills above town. Be sure to stop by the Julia Morgan Hall, a charmingly rustic structure designed by the renowned architect as a home for the school’s women students back in 1910.
Yes, the Berkeley Marina has the bay views and all of the lovely white sailboats you’d expect. But it also holds enough adventures to keep you busy for an entire day, and with a distinctly Berkeley twist. Jutting out into the bay from Eastshore State Park, the grassy hump of César Chávez Park features views of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge, and nearly always a sky full of colorful kites. Locals love to come here to toss Frisbees, play catch, go for a jog, and have great big family picnics. It can get blustery, especially when the fog rolls in during summer, so be sure to pack a light jacket or windbreaker.
If you’ve got kids, be sure to head for a walk around the harbor filled with boat berths. There you’ll discover Adventure Playground, where, since the 1970s, staff has handed out hammers, saws, and buckets of paint to children and encouraged them to build their own forts and hideouts out of scrap wood and other bits of leftover materials. It may sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but in fact it’s magical. Kids can let their imaginations and creative streaks run wild, while you get to enjoy an epic view of San Francisco Bay.
Climb into the Berkeley Hills to visit this dramatic 34-acre site. Shaded by soaring (and native) coast redwoods, this research garden and museum belonging to the University of California at Berkeley lets you follow winding paths to see naturalistic landscapes that feature more than 13,000 plant species, including rare and endangered plants.
Make sure to swing by Julia Morgan Hall, a rustic, wood-sided structure laboriously moved to the site from its original location on campus, and named in honor of its architect. Now overlooking the garden’s California native plant collection, the simple cottage-like building is polar opposite to Morgan’s best-known and arguably most lavish project: Hearst Castle along the Central Coast.