Perched in the hilltops overlooking San Francisco Bay, Berkeley, California is equal parts beautiful, iconic, and historic. Home to 1960s counterculture, today Berkeley is best known for its thriving arts scene, incredible parks, gorgeous vistas and views, and of course, its University of California campus.
Here are nine of the best things to do when you’re visiting this truly original American city.
1. Explore The Campus
It’s probably best to begin with a walk through the stunning UC Berkeley campus. The oldest campus in the University of California system, it was established in 1868 as the state’s first land-grant university. It relocated from Oakland to Berkeley in 1873, and along the way, it’s been home to Nobel Prize laureates, Fulbright Scholars, and MacArthur Fellows. UC Berkeley has also long been known for its student activism and was where the Free Speech Movement first took shape.
Today, the campus referred to as simply “Cal” by students and locals, is a gorgeous place to explore. Start from the top: Take an elevator ride 200 feet up Sather Tower (also known as the Campanile) to get a bird’s eye view of the entire campus and the bay. Stroll Sproul Plaza, the epicenter of much of the campus’s activism through the years. And when you’re ready for a quick escape from the hustle and bustle, the university’s 34-acre Botanical Garden is the perfect stop. With more than 10,000 types of plants, including some rare and endangered species, the garden is a great go-to for a bit of serenity.
2. Hike And Explore The Parks
Berkeley’s blessed with many outdoor recreation opportunities, plenty of gorgeous places and parks to get your daily steps in. For a terrific hike, head to Tilden Regional Park. The sprawling space encompasses more than 2,000 acres and offers visitors all sorts of amenities, from hiking trails (Nimitz Way is paved, wheelchair accessible, and quite popular) to a carousel, the charming Little Farm with adorable animal residents, and a botanical garden. And don’t miss a walk on the shores of -- or perhaps a swim in -- Tilden’s Lake Anza. All in all, the park packs a lot of punch and is a terrific spot to spend an afternoon. It also has plenty of restrooms and water fountains.
Another gem in Berkeley is Indian Rock. Gifted to the city in 1917, this park includes a craggy outcrop that provides stunning views of the bay and rock-climbing opportunities for beginners. In fact, this spot is important for the sport: Dick Leonard, known as the father of modern rock climbing, developed his technique here. There are steps carved into the rock to allow non-climbers access to the vista. There are also areas with smaller outcrops, grassy fields, and a small picnic area, but no restrooms onsite.
3. Stop And Smell The Roses
One of the sweetest-smelling spots in all of Berkeley has to be its historic Rose Garden. Tucked into a residential area, it’s home to 1,500 rose bushes and 250 varieties of the flower. Its terraced amphitheater comes alive with color, at its most riotous in May. The garden was built by the Works Progress Administration back in 1937, and today the roses are lovingly tended to by dozens of volunteers. It’s considered one of the best rose gardens in California, and when you stop to consider it’s the state that hosts the Rose Bowl each year, that’s no small accolade! You’ll want to take your time to stop, sniff, and take in the incredible views of both the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge at this special spot.
4. Get On The Water
As mentioned previously, Berkeley sits right on the San Francisco Bay, and no trip here is complete without some water time. Perhaps the best place to head is the city’s marina. The area is undergoing capital improvements, but don’t let that stop you from visiting; there’s much more to do than just gaze at the yachts that are docked here! The marina complex includes 7 miles of hiking trails (the San Francisco Bay trail is terrific for joggers and bicyclists) and four-legged friends are also welcome at the 17-acre off-leash dog park. And Shorebird Park, with its adjacent Shorebird Park Nature Center, will delight birders. Keep an eye out for the herons, egrets, cormorants, and coots that make the Bay their home.
5. See A Live Performance
Berkeley buzzes with artistic, creative energy, and the best way to encounter it is to take in a live performance. From live music to dance and theater, there is always something on offer! UC Berkeley’s online guide Cal Performances will quickly show you what’s coming up, and you can buy tickets in advance of your visit. The scope of Cal’s offerings is truly robust and holistic. The Berkeley Rep, founded in 1968 as a small storefront performance center, today is considered a national leader when it comes to presenting innovative theater. If you’d like to get your classical fix in, score tickets to see the Berkeley Symphony. While the ensemble routinely programs traditional repertoire, it also weaves in works from new and upcoming composers. Also, keep in mind Berkeley has a lively, funky cafe and bar scene where live music figures in prominently. For starters, check out Cheese Board Collective, where you can enjoy live jazz with your slices of pizza.
6. Berkeley Art Museum And Pacific Film Archive
Art lovers and film buffs will both delight in a visit to one of Berkeley’s most dramatic buildings -- the UC Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive -- or BAMPFA. Built onto a 1939 Art Deco printing plant, BAMPFA’s stainless steel addition is just as striking as what you’ll find inside. Here, art and avant garde film stitch together seamlessly: The university’s pieces -- mostly from donors-- populate the galleries, and two film theaters routinely provide screenings. There are special exhibitions throughout the year, and BAMPFA also hosts special events, plus live performances.
As you wrap up your visit, consider a quick sustenance stop at Babette, the museum’s onsite cafe. It’s a good place to pick up a coffee and pastry. And don’t forget to hit up BAMPFA’s museum store, full of unique objects inspired by the art within its walls.
7. Get A Farm-To-Table Taste
Berkeley is the epicenter of the farm-to-table culinary movement kicked off by the iconic Chez Panisse restaurant. Founded by Alice Waters five decades ago, Chez Panisse is still the undisputed champ when it comes to an impeccable menu centered around the fresh, ripe, and in-season produce, and locally raised dairy and meats. It was so influential that the restaurant scene that sprung up around it is still referred to as the “Gourmet Ghetto.” You can truly taste the care in every dish, and a meal at Chez Panisse is pretty much mandatory. Make reservations WELL in advance.
Gather is another terrific sustainable dining experience with a New American menu and cocktails crafted around local farmers and producers. Vegan and gluten-free options abound here, but Gather’s roast chicken and burgers are equally delicious. Standard Fare serves up fresh meal options -- sandwiches, salads, and drinks -- in a breezy, laidback lunch-counter setting. And Revival Bar + Kitchen is a craft cocktail lounge with elevated classic comfort food including fried chicken, ribs, and macaroni and cheese.
For a south-of-the-border twist on the farm-to-table concept, head to Cancun Sabor Mexicano. The salsas are especially bright and the kitchen uses locally grown, raised, and harvested foods for its authentic Mexican recipes, including burritos, bowls, and tacos.
8. Indulge In Retail Therapy
It should come as zero surprise that great shopping opportunities abound in Berkeley. What’s more, they go far beyond the typical mall or big-box offerings. Berkeley’s funky vibe absolutely extends to its retail experiences. For a terrific first stop, head to Fourth Street. The district, which was first envisioned as an industrial park in the 1960s, has grown to become one of the city’s top retail destinations, filled with charming boutiques, with larger brands also mixed in. It’s a splurge-worthy spot, with bath and beauty, home decor, and fashion options sure to delight any shoppers. What’s more -- there are plenty of cafes and coffeehouses should you need to rest and refuel. You’re bound to find the perfect souvenir on or around Fourth Street!
The Addison Street Arts District, lined with shops and galleries, is also worth considering for a shopping spree. Here, you’ll find one-of-a-kind masterpieces in an array of mediums and styles.
9. Spend Some Spa Time
If after all your adventure, you need some zen, it’s completely understandable. Good thing Berkeley’s got a thriving spa scene, with plenty of places for you to get your treatment of choice. Rockbridge Day Spa has a number of packages to help you relax and unwind, as does Sundhari Holistic Spa.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind, Berkeley is quite connected when it comes to public transport. There are three BART stations in the city, with each offering service to both San Francisco and Oakland. It’s an inexpensive, efficient option to consider should you want to include other cities in your north California itinerary.