Town and "gown" grew up together in Berkeley, California, the famous university and town being founded in the same year. Today, Berkeley is home to an interesting mix of academia, '60s hippies and ethnic enclaves. In a single day, you can buy a lava lamp, a snake's skeleton or a live snake; attend award-winning theater and symphony performances or a tribal music concert, and dine on anything from authentic Indian curries to French haute cuisine.
Why Should You Go? Will You Like Berkeley?
Berkeley is popular with arts lovers, shoppers, and foodies.
Best Time to Go to Berkeley
Berkeley weather is about the same as in San Francisco, but it may be somewhat less foggy in summer. The area around the university is livelier during the school year, and Telegraph Avenue is best on weekends. The Berkeley area will be busy, and hotels full, during homecoming and graduation weekends. Parking places get quite scarce when the football or basketball teams are playing at home.
Another advantage to a summer visit is a chance to catch an outdoor concert at the intimate, lovely Greek Theatre.
5 Great Things to Do in Berkeley
There's a ton to do in Berkeley, and the don't-miss attraction depends on what your interests are.
- University of California at Berkeley: Visitor services offers guided campus tours, or explore on your own. You can even download a podcast tour and listen to it on your MP3 player. Highlights include Sather Tower (The Campanile) which has sweeping views of the surroundings, campus museums and the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive. Cross Bancroft Avenue on Telegraph Avenue for a lively weekend street market scene, populated with the full range of Berkeley shoppers: local characters, students and gawking tourists.
- Food-Lovers' Mecca: Besides the dining spots mentioned below, try Takara Sake for a new twist on wine-tasting: theirs is sake (rice wine). If you're a beer lover, don't miss Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room, or for a different beer tasting experience try The Rare Barrel, whose specialty is tasty sour beers. Cooks shouldn't miss the Berkeley Bowl, with a produce department the size of a parking lot, offering up to 20 kinds of apples and a dozen varieties of eggplant.
- Family Fun: Everyone seems to love the full-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton on display at the Valley Life Sciences Building on the university campus. On 5th street, reptile-loving kids will like the East Bay Vivarium, one of the largest reptile specialty stores in the country. For more hands-on type science fun, we found bunches of kids having a great time at the Lawrence Hall of Science, which also boasts great views from its hillside location. And while you're up there, how about a stop in Tilden Park to ride the carousel?
- Performing Arts: This theatre-loving writer discovered Berkeley Rep about the same time the Tony Awards folks did. It won their award for regional theatre in 1997 and has exported 7 of its productions to New York in the past 7 years. Cal Performances hosts a wide range of performers in all the arts.
- Shopping: City government resists the incursion of chain stores so successfully that local residents may have to go out of town just to buy pillowcases. Their inconvenience is a shopper's bonanza: interesting local boutiques cluster along exciting shopping streets all over town. Some of the best include Fourth Street (best for outlet shopping), Solano Avenue and Elmwood (don't miss Ici Ice Cream here).
- Golden Gate Fields: October through April, you can watch the horses run at the track just north of town.
Annual Events You Should Know About
Even if you don’t want to attend, it's a good idea to know what's going on at the university. Check their football schedule and basketball schedule. Commencement ceremonies take place in mid-May and homecoming is in early October.
Cuisine in Berkeley ranges from simple homestyle fare to the groundbreaking Chez Panisse and all its offshoots (Cesar, Ici Ice Cream and more). If you're looking for a place to eat breakfast during your weekend getaway, try Bette's Oceanview Diner on Fourth Street.
Where to Stay
Accommodations people like best are a varied lot, from the Rodeway Inn to bed and breakfast inns. Hotel Durant is a good choice if you want to stay near the University.
Getting to Berkeley, California
Berkeley is just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. Take I-80 east. Exit at University Avenue for the university and most other sights. Exit Ashby Avenue for the Claremont Hotel and Elmwood shopping.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a no-hassle option if you're just going to the Berkeley Rep Theatre or are willing to walk a mile or more round trip to the campus. Recently BART opened the OAK Connector, offering an easy, one ticket rail transfer from Oakland International Airport to Berkeley. Otherwise, Berkeley is best explored in an automobile. If you want to see it all and leave the driving to someone else, A Friend in Town tour company offers customized Berkeley tours.
The nearest airport is in Oakland.