Why Berkeley should be your Bay Area base camp
If you think of Berkeley, California as San Francisco’s unconventional East Bay cousin, you’re not entirely wrong — but you are oversimplifying. The Bay Area city that rose to fame as a hub for free speech and flower power in the 1960s still harbors its counterculture roots and free-thinking spirit, but has grown up over the last six decades into a hub of intellectual and cultural diversity. It’s full of exciting artistic outposts, celebrated restaurants and intriguing neighborhoods — and that’s just the beginning.
Between its homegrown attractions and its proximity to San Francisco, wine country and beyond, Berkeley is an ideal base for a Bay Area getaway. Here, seven ideas for making the most of your Berkeley stay.
Soak in the Cultural Milieu
If you're craving enriching, engaging and thought-provoking attractions, good news: Berkeley provides a veritable feast for culture seekers of all kinds. In fact, the city has more museums, cinemas, theaters, libraries, live music venues and street markets per capita than any other university town in the US.
Among the myriad, eclectic museums you'll want to visit is the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Here, visitors can enjoy everything from free outdoor film screenings, to thought-provoking photography exhibits, to art workshops and beyond. Curious types of all ages will be thrilled to discover the exploratory exhibits (which currently include aerodynamic paper airplane making, a full-scale model of a teenage fin whale and a 3-D theater) at Lawrence Hall of Science. And anyone with an affinity for olfactory stimulation will want to make time for Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, an intimate museum where visitors can sniff their way through hundreds of essences and raw ingredients.
Of course, Berkeley wouldn't be Berkeley without its University of California (UC) branch. Not surprisingly, the esteemed institution contributes much to the mix of cultural diversions in town, not least with Cal Performances. This arts organization showcases world-class ballets, vocalists, choirs and orchestras. (See the upcoming events lineup here.)
There's also a considerable art scene to explore in Berkeley, with numerous galleries and studios bringing local and international artists' striking and unique creations into the public eye. The exceptional ACCI Gallery in North Shattuck, a cooperative which focuses primarily on Bay Area creators, is a good place to start.
Ceramics fans will appreciate the wares at the 40-year-old Berkeley Potters Guild on the west side of town, where the hand-shaped clay works run the gamut from abstract to functional and everything in between. The Guild opens its doors Saturdays from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. so the public can peruse and purchase these handcrafted pieces.
And for a truly singular art experience, check out the Sawtooth Building, a string of interconnected structures (whose rising and falling angular roofs are reminiscent of a sawblade) in which a host of artisans, craftspeople, designers and performance groups ply their trades. Here, the public can tour open studios, take in a performance or purchase one-of-a-kind works of art.
Explore Diverse Districts
There are myriad neighborhoods and enclaves to explore amid Berkeley's 10.5 square miles — so there's quite literally something new to see around every corner. The Gilman District on the northwest side is a good place to dive in, offering a cross section of Berkeley's creativity-, culinary- and commerce-centered experiences.
The historically industrial and residential neighborhood has undergone a major revitalization, with brand-new restaurants, wine bars and artistic outlets popping up in spades. Try the innovative, modern Thai menu at Funky Elephant; or sample delectable vintages at natural urban wineries like Hammerling Wines and Donkey & Goat. There are a number of galleries here, and Gilman District shopping is also akin to an art experience, with a quilting center, artisan furniture store and a homespun gardening shop counting among the infinitely browsable options.
The Berkeley Marina on the west edge of the city is another must-see spot. This is not your typical urban bayfront, but rather a largely wild and open space offering beautiful views of the San Francisco skyline and bridges, Alcatraz and Angel islands. You'll also find ample opportunities for strolling and hiking along the shoreline, bird watching, picnicking, kayaking and even open water swimming at Cesar Chavez Park. Time your visit right and you can also partake in lively festivals and events that light up the marina throughout the year.
Whether you're due for some retail therapy or you're more the window shopping type, Berkeley's Fourth Street district has a dazzling array of shops to explore, all set upon a tree-lined street with wide, inviting sidewalks. Here you'll find everything from household name brands (Lululemon, Vans and Warby Parker, for example) to a host of independent local pop-up shops in the open-air Maker's Row area (open spring through fall), along with great restaurants. If you're in town during the holiday season, expect sparkling decorations, extended shopping hours and lively street festivals to make your spree all the more fun.
Recharge Your Flower Power
The free speech protests launched at UC Berkeley in the 1960s are widely considered pivotal events in the national Free Speech Movement. Counterculture sentiments and ideas reverberated from shore to shore, changing the country forever. In other words, we're all a little Berkeley, whether we know it or not.
These days, Berkeley has shed the tumult but retained its hippie vibe, and Telegraph Avenue is a great place to soak that in. Full of book and record shops (Moe's Books and Rasputin Records are must-sees), diverse and flavorful restaurants and independent stores, there's something intriguing to see, do or eat around every turn.
Julia's Restaurant — a sophisticated French farm-to-table establishment named for Julia Morgan, the architect who designed the historic Berkeley City Club Hotel that houses the eatery — serves as evidence that the area has taken on a polish over the decades. (Fun fact: Morgan also designed famous Hearst Castle on California's Central Coast.) Julia's seasonal menu might include dishes like country-style pork cognac pâté with fig marmalade; or vegan-friendly provençale-stuffed delicata squash.
Be Very Entertained
Thespians and theater enthusiasts will revel in the incredible array of theater companies, stages and shows on offer year-round in Berkeley. Standouts include the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a longstanding institution known for its experimental work and as an incubator for emerging artists; and the intimate Aurora Theatre Company, whose 160- or 50-seat venues bring guests exceptionally close to the drama.
Music lovers can see acts from Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame) to French pop-rock band Phoenix this fall at the 8,500-seat Hearst Greek Theater, or check out cozier venues like Freight & Salvage. The latter was once famed as a folk music venue, but now showcases a variety of musical styles, from flamenco to Korean pop. NPR fans will appreciate that the Moth StorySLAM is also a regular fixture at the venue.
There's a smorgasbord of jazz to enjoy at the California Jazz Conservatory, and city-wide events like the Solano Avenue Stroll on the second Sunday in September bring live music to the streets of Berkeley and neighboring towns.
Eat Your Heart Out
Culinary experiences in Berkeley offer another way to dive into the diverse cultures that shape this dynamic city. Gourmands, comfort food fans, spice chasers and pub grub types will all be spoiled for choice — and many restaurants prioritize sustainable and locally sourced ingredients alongside deliciousness.
Foodies will want to spend ample time touring the North Shattuck District, which is considered Berkeley's ultimate dining hub. Chez Panisse Restaurant and Cafe, founded by famed chef Alice Waters in 1971 and credited as the launch point of the farm-to-table movement, should be required eating for any serious culinary traveler.
It's worthwhile to dedicate a Thursday afternoon to exploring the district's all-organic farmer’s market, one of three farmers’ markets happening each week citywide, and signing on for a twice-weekly culinary walking tour through some of the neighborhood's best eateries is also highly advisable.
Modern Japanese restaurant Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya in Downtown, La Marcha Tapas Bar and organic German slow food spot Gaumenkitzel in West Berkeley are just a few of the incredible international restaurants to try.
Oh, and if you're looking for the best pizzeria in the US (per Yelp), look no further than Cheese Board Pizza in the North Shattuck district. They offer just one delectable, sourdough-crusted, always vegetarian pizza variety per day, and it's so enticing that the line to experience it is often out the door. Check opening hours as they are limited, and arrive early to secure your pie.
Berkeley manages to balance its cosmopolitan appeal with plenty of opportunities to commune with nature.
The University of California Botanical Garden is one prime example. Over its 34 acres, you'll find areas dense with desert cacti and shrubs, spilling over with roses and other romantic blooms, lit up with the vibrant hues of South American plant life; plus two herb gardens and plant houses filled with carnivorous species and ferns, among many other living exhibits. You'll want to give yourself plenty of time to absorb it all, including the San Francisco Bay vistas from the top of the hillside garden.
Those traveling with young ones will want to make a stop at the Adventure Playground at the Marina. In true Berkeley fashion, this kiddie haven is far from typical, employing real retired objects like old pianos, speed boats and tires as playthings for curious visitors — because all parents know kids would rather play with "big people stuff" anyway. Massive nets, large metal pipes and asymmetrical, kid-built wooden structures offer intriguing climbing opportunities — and everything is splattered with delightfully messy paint.
Just east of downtown is yet another playground, this one built by nature. Tilden Park's 2,079 acres of forests, hills, trails and lake are a sight to behold, particularly in the early morning hours as the summer fog slowly dissipates to reveal a sylvan wonderland. The park is also a huge hit with little ones for its fun and affordable steam train — a scaled-down old-timey engine that takes riders along a scenic ridge — and its enchanting vintage merry-go-round.
Take Your Pick of Day Trips
Clearly, there's no shortage of diversions at your door in Berkeley, and there's even more to see just a short drive from your Bay Area base camp. The distinct neighborhoods, landmarks, cable cars and attractions of San Francisco are a short BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), ferry or car ride away, while the vineyards and vintages of Napa Valley and Sonoma County are both less than 45 miles north. The majesty of Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park are within reasonable driving distance, too, if you'd rather keep your California adventure going.
Speaking of "base camps," Berkeley has a wide range of hotels to choose from, including boutique, historic and all-suite options, as well as waterfront resorts, independent and well-known brands. Whichever you choose, you're not likely to forget your unique Berkeley exploration anytime soon — and you'll probably crave another dose of the town's singular appeal before too long.