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9 Unforgettable Things to Do in Berkeley, California

SmarterTravel

Berkeley is often painted in broad strokes—university town, liberal hotbed, ex-hippie bastion, stronghold of seasonal cooking, etc. But try to pin Berkeley down to a particular label and you’ll miss out on its rich, quirky diversity of identities. Visit Berkeley with an open mind and a willingness to explore, and you’ll find a welcoming Bay Area city that’s full of former visitors who liked it so much they decided to stay. Here are nine great things to do in Berkeley.

Head to Campus

The University of California at Berkeley has an outsized presence in the city—its population of 42,000 students is a third as large as Berkeley’s entire population. Its dorms, museums, and satellite campuses are scattered around the city, but the heart of the university is the Cal campus, designed by the same landscape architect who imagined Central Park into being—and it’s worth a visit, even if you’re not a scholar.

Explore on your own, using VisitBerkeley’s Cal Secret Spots guide as inspiration.  Take a campus tour, ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile (pronounced camp-a-neely) for great views, or catch an evening performance or noon concert.

Stay nearby: The Graduate

Take a Path Walk

The Berkeley Hills are a magnificent tangle of arts and crafts homes and narrow winding streets that follow the natural terrain. In the hills you’ll find rock parks—parks studded with massive rock outcroppings tucked into residential neighborhoods—and hundreds of pedestrian pathways that offer off-road shortcuts through the hills. Originally designed to give early 20th-century residents easier walking access to existing rail lines down the hill, the paths remain a hidden treasure of Berkeley. Explore independently using the Berkeley Path Wanderers’ Association Path Map or join a walking tour to discover the history and stories of the paths.

Watch a Play or Show

What Berkeley lacks in raucous nightlife, it more than makes up for in evening cultural activities. The Downtown Arts District encompasses theater, music, and arts favorites, all within a few blocks of Downtown Berkeley BART (the Bay Area’s rapid transit rail system). Catch a play at Berkeley Rep or Aurora Theatre Company. Enjoy a night of music at Freight and Salvage, the California Jazz Conservatory, the UC Theatre, or The Back Room. Or take in a visual arts show or a film at BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Stay nearby: Hotel Shattuck Plaza

Explore Tilden

Crowning the hills of Berkeley, just a few minutes’ drive from downtown, sits the 2,000-acre wilderness of Tilden Park. Part of a string of parks that preserve the wild ridges of Berkeley, Oakland, and beyond, Tilden offers a mix of hiking paths, bike trails, and open spaces. An abundance of family-friendly delights tops off the offerings—check out the miniature steam train that winds through the forest, Lake Anza with its sand beach and swimming area, the Little Farm collection of kid-friendly farm animals, or the antique carousel. Kids and adults alike appreciate the picnic areas throughout the park and the Botanic Garden, a 10-acre wonderland of native California plants.

Stay nearby: The Claremont Club & Spa, a Fairmont Hotel

Eat Well

Berkeley is serious about food. As the birthplace of Peet’s and Chez Panisse, Berkeley prides itself on creating a rich mini-universe of food that celebrates both local bounty and global influences. As you’re considering your options, don’t dismiss Berkeley’s cheap eats—spots like Cheese Board Pizza, Picante, and Vik’s Chaat Corner, offer great food at good value.

The UC Berkeley campus has been coming into its own as a culinary destination in recent years. Try Rice and Bones (helmed by Slanted Door chef Charles Phan); Brown’s, which features foods from within 250 miles of campus; and pop-ups featuring everything from Syrian to soul food.

Shop on Fourth Street

Berkeley doesn’t have a mall; it has a Fourth Street. This four-block-long stretch of West Berkeley mingles independent boutiques with an increasing number of upscale chains for a sort of modern-Berkeley culture clash. Here you’ll find sustainable vegan clothes, whimsical stationery, handmade leather shoes, and artisanal homewares at locally owned shops sandwiched between standard favorites like Apple, Lululemon, and even Amazon.  In the mix are cafes and restaurants, including longtime Berkeley favorite Bette’s Oceanview Diner, home of the impressively lofty soufflé pancake.

Stay nearby: Holiday Inn Express Berkeley

Stroll Telegraph

Jutting off the south end of the UC Berkeley campus sits Telegraph Avenue, which rose to fame in the 1960s as a symbol of the counterculture and has remained distinctly different ever since. Walk the blocks of Telegraph between campus and Parker Street to the south, and you’ll find street vendors, shops, cafes, restaurants, and even a cannabis dispensary (this is post-legalization California, after all). Students, locals, panhandlers, and street performers mix along the sidewalks, creating the Telegraph vibe that’s characterized the destination for decades. Pro tip: Some of the cross streets hold treasures as well—including 1951 Coffee Company, a non-profit café that trains refugees to work as baristas, and a used bookstore run by the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library.

Stay nearby: Berkeley City Club or Bancroft Hotel

Play at the Marina

Ringed by the San Francisco Bay, the Berkeley Marina excels in whimsy. Home of a major annual kite festival, it’s a popular spot year-round for serious enthusiasts to pilot their kites, which range from small traditional kites to massive sky dragons and octopuses. The Marina is also home to the beloved and unique Adventure Playground, a build-your-own Adventureland where kids construct the playground even as they play in it.

Stay nearby: DoubleTree by Hilton Berkeley Marina

Neighborhood Hop

Berkeley has a downtown, but visitors in the know get beyond the Shattuck-and-University downtown core to explore Berkeley’s many smaller neighborhood commercial districts. North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto is home to Chez Panisse, the original Peet’s Coffee, the Cheeseboard Collective, and other food favorites, plus a collection of shops and the weekly Thursday farmers’ market. Elmwood mingles shops, restaurants, and a small cinema along a bustling two-ish block stretch of College Avenue. The up-and-coming Lorin District has antique stores, quirky boutiques, and small bakeries and restaurants near Ashby BART, and the long Solano Avenue has the feel of a revitalized classic Main Street. And in recent years, mini-neighborhoods built on creativity and cheaper rents have revitalized the West Berkeley thoroughfare San Pablo. Check out San Pablo near University for food, or farther south near Dwight for shopping and cafes.

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Christine Sarkis loves Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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