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13 miles NE of San Francisco

Despite the gentrification changing the entire Bay Area, the city of Berkeley maintains its well-known character as a vibrant, multicultural salad of people with a decidedly liberal bent. UC Berkeley, or “Cal” as it’s often called by locals and alums, continues to inspire and entice applicants (more than 82,000 students applied in 2016, of which a lucky 14,433 were admitted). Despite the media portrayal, the university is more academic than psychedelic, with 29 Nobel Prize winners over the years (seven are currently active on staff). But there’s definitely still idealism in the air, and the campus remains the occasional site of protests, both peaceful and less so, especially in the current political climate.

There’s loads to do beyond the campus, too; drop into the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to see a film or do some impromptu drawing in the Art Lab; feed a goat at Tilden Park’s Little Farm; or queue up for some world-famous Cheese Board pizza. Whatever you do, you’ll see that due to the big money and wealthy young professionals pouring into San Francisco these days, this part of the Bay Area is far more diverse in population and personality than ever. 

Getting There - You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get to the east bay from San Francisco. Downtown Berkeley Station—the second Berkeley Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station if you’re coming from the city—is 2 blocks from the university. The fare from San Francisco is about $4 one-way. Call tel. 511 or visit bart.gov for detailed trip information and fares.

If you are coming by car from San Francisco, take the Bay Bridge. Follow I-80 east to the University Avenue exit, and follow University Avenue until you hit the campus. Parking is tight near the university, but there are plenty of parking lots and garages in the area and the prices are lower than what you’ll find in San Francisco (not that that’s hard to accomplish; city parking rates are insane). In other areas of Berkeley, there is more bountiful street parking; just keep an eye out for signs posting parking time limits in both commercial and residential areas, as parking violations come with steep fees. 

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What to See & Do - Prospective students, history buffs, or anyone interested in learning about the town’s most profound cultural influence should take advantage of the free campus tours (reservations required), which depart daily at 10am from the Koret Visitor Center at 2227 Piedmont Ave. in historic California Memorial Stadium (berkeley.edu/visitors; tel. 510/642-5215). Of course, the student-led tours are also used by prospective scholars, so in springtime your group may swell to 200 and your guide may dwell on the school’s rivalry with Stanford, but everyone is welcome. You’ll get heaps of fascinating historical information about the educational institution that fomented some of the strongest protests of the 1960s and '70s; you may also hear about the many important discoveries Cal is responsible for—including vitamins B, E, and K; plutonium; uranium 238; and the stumpy London plane tree, a hybrid that you’ll only see here and in San Francisco.

A noteworthy building you’ll only have access to on the tour is Le Conte Hall, the home of the Physics Department and the site of the first atom collider. (Keep your eyes peeled for parking signs that read, in total seriousness, reserved for nl—meaning Nobel Laureate; you know the parking situation is grim if you need a Nobel Prize to get a space.) The Doe Library doesn’t allow public access to the 10 million books in its stacks, but its lobby area, lined with glass cases filled with priceless manuscripts, is open to all. In a reading room upstairs, you’ll also find Emanuel Leutze’s 1854 painting Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, which was intended to be a companion piece to his Washington Crossing the Delaware (now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). In all, the Cal campus has a total of 32 libraries covering more than 12 acres, making it one of the largest library complexes in the world.

Berkeley has two noteworthy museums. The first is the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St. (bampfa.org; tel. 510/642-0808), which reopened in its current space in 2016. The stunning museum grounds integrate a 48,000-square-foot Art Deco building built in 1939 with a new 35,000 square-foot-structure designed by NYC architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The space features multiple galleries, two film theaters, a venue for live performances, a reading room, an art lab, a cafe, and more. If you’re a film buff, definitely check out the film series calendar, which offers roughly 450 screenings a year, including films from every single cinema-producing country in the world, and silent films accompanied by live music. Film tickets are available online and at the museum, and they include same-day gallery admission, so if you plan ahead of time, you can take in the museum and a movie, all for about what you’d pay at a regular theater. The museum is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 11am to 7pm, and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 9pm. Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for seniors, non–UCB students, and visitors with disabilities; and free for ages 18 and under.

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If you’re traveling with kids, head to the hands-on, kid-friendly Lawrence Hall of Science (east of campus at 1 Centennial Dr., lawrencehallofscience.org;tel. 510/642-5132). Filled with things to do, this interactive museum will keep everyone busy for at least a couple of hours, especially if the weather’s nice and you step outside for Forces That Shape the Bay, an outdoor park that lets you play with soil erosion, direct water flow from simulated Sierra Nevada mountains, and peep through a telescope set up over the sweeping views. It’s open daily from 10am to 5pm; admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, students, and children, and free for kids 2 and under.

Cal also boasts the Hearst Greek Theater, an 8,500-seat outdoor amphitheater that’s been host to the greatest talent and celebrities of the last century, from Elvis to the Grateful Dead to the Dalai Lama to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Chances are there’s a fantastic show during your visit, where you’ll take in the amazing acoustics while enjoying views of the entire bay and San Francisco skyline. There’s not a bad seat in the house, but you may want to pay for reserved seating unless you plan to get there early to claim a spot on the lawn; dedicated fans usually start to line up fairly early. Check the website for the calendar or call the box office (thegreekberkeley.com; tel. 510/548-3010) for more information.

Parks - Golden Gate Park might have the name recognition, but Berkeley has some of the most extensive, beautiful parks in Northern California, and you can often count on temperatures being about 10 degrees warmer than San Francisco. If you enjoy hiking, swimming, sniffing roses, or just getting a breath of California air, head for Tilden Park ★, where you’ll find plenty of flora and fauna, hiking trails, an old steam train and merry-go-round, the Little Farm (a farm and nature area for kids), and a chilly tree-encircled lake. If you head to the Little Farm to see the animals, bring some lettuce or celery for the always-hungry goats and sheep—if you’re visiting in the spring, you might get a chance to see some baby goats or piglets. The East Bay’s public transit system, AC Transit (actransit.org; [tel] 511), runs the air-conditioned no. 67 bus line around the edge of the park on weekdays and all the way to the Tilden Visitors Center on Saturdays and Sundays. Call tel. 888/327-2757 or see ebparks.org for more information.

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Shopping - For boutique shopping, head to College Avenue, from Russell Street to the Oakland border at Ashby and beyond into Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. Eclectic boutiques, antiques shops, bookstores, and restaurants line this street, making it a favorite among students and locals. The other, more upscale option is Fourth Street, in west Berkeley, 2 blocks north of the University Avenue exit off of I-80. This shopping strip is the perfect place to go on a sunny morning. Grab a cup of java and outstanding pancakes and scones at Bette’s Ocean View Diner, 1807 Fourth St. (tel. 510/644-3230). Read the paper at a patio table, and then hit the Crate & Barrel Outlet, 1785 Fourth St., between Hearst and Virginia streets (tel. 510/528-5500), where home furnishings are priced at 30% to 70% off retail. It’s open daily from 10am to 7pm. This area also boasts small, wonderful stores crammed with imported and locally made housewares. And don’t miss out on a visit to Castle in the Air at 1805 Fourth St. (castleintheair.biz; tel. 510/204-9801), a whimsical shop specializing in all sorts of surprising little trinkets and pieces to add to fairy houses, wreaths, dioramas, and anything else you can dream up.

Where to Eat - The Bay Area foodie scene these days is more about the East Bay, both Berkeley and neighboring Oakland, than San Francisco itself. Prices are slightly better here, along with more parking and generally larger spaces, which means less wait time for a table; a focus on ethnic food adds diversity to your dining options.

If you want to dine student-style, eat on campus Monday through Friday. Buy something at a sidewalk stand or in the building directly behind the Student Union. Nearby Telegraph Avenue has an array of small ethnic restaurants, cafes, and sandwich shops. Follow the students: If the place is crowded, it’s good, super cheap, or both.

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You can’t get more “Bay Area,” however, than opting for a farm-to-table dining experience. Go for the restaurant that shaped an entire generation of chefs with Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse at 1517 Shattuck Ave. (chezpanisse.com; tel. 510/548-5525 for restaurant and tel. 510/548-5049 for cafe); try to reserve a few weeks ahead. Locals go wild for the Cheese Board Pizza, just two doors down from the mouthwatering baked goods and cheeses at the Cheese Board Collective ★ (1504 Shattuck Ave.; cheeseboardcollective.coop; tel. 510/549-3183). If you happen to be in Berkeley on a Sunday, try something different and delicious and head to Wat Mongkolratanaram and its Thai Community Brunch (yelp.com/biz/wat-mongkolratanaram-berkeley). Bring cash to buy tokens for authentic Thai noodles, soups, curries, and dumplings. This temple fundraiser gets crowded, so it’s a good idea to show up a few minutes before it opens (open 10am–1pm).

 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.