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Unconventional, outspoken, left of center. Call it what you will, Berkeley takes it all on the chin and keeps on smilin’.

UC Berkeley campus, image
Photo caption
Sather Tower on the UC Berkeley campus is an iconic figure in Berkeley.

Ask people what comes to mind when they hear the name Berkeley and it’s unlikely you’ll get just one answer. Children of the ’60s may recall the city’s radical days—protests in People’s Park, the Free Speech Movement, the emergence of the Black Panthers. Scholarly types will point to the University of California campus as a leading center of research and intellectual thought. Then there are the Cal Bears fans who eagerly await the annual gridiron matchup with rival Stanford.

These somewhat superficial impressions obscure much of the city’s more subtle flavor from the eyes of outsiders. Couple this with the long shadows cast over the bay by Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, and Berkeley is often forced to behave like a little kid tugging on your sleeve to get you to really notice it. You should, for you’ll discover a few surprises. Thanks to an eclectic mix of neighborhoods, this "college town" has as much character as its big city brethren.

Start off in West Berkeley. Fourth Street is ground zero for hip urban shoppers. Within this concentration of retailers are several devoted to enhancing your living space—Dansk, Cody’s Books, Sur la Table, the Crate & Barrel outlet. Cross University and sample sake and plum wines at Takara Sake USA’s newly designed room and sake museum. When hunger strikes, there’s gourmet pizza at Bette’s Diner, while California cuisine meets the South Pacific at Ginger Island.

On Gilman Street, the hops and barley crowd will be sated with salads and sandwiches at the Pyramid Brewery & Alehouse. The Northface outlet, REI, and a handful of other nearby stores can outfit you for camping, biking, or your outdoor activity of choice.

To the north is Solano Avenue, with several interesting gems, including Zachary’s, where the deep-dish pizza is a local favorite. It’s also the setting for the Solano Stroll, a street fest held each September.

A gastronome’s delight, North Shattuck Village runs between the 1400 and 1700 blocks of Shattuck. Chez Panisse maintains its healthy reputation for California cuisine under the eye of chef and owner Alice Waters. Tasty tapas may be found at Cesar. The pastrami and corned beef at Saul’s Deli will have you saying, "Fagettaboutit." Assemble your picnic basket with stops at the Cheeseboard, the Produce Center, and North Berkeley Wine.

Downtown, sample pub fare at the Triple Rock Brewery, one of the country’s oldest brewpubs, or Jupiter. Dig the beats at Mr. E’s Jazz Club. The 1910 Shattuck Hotel is your best bet here for lodging.

Some 30,000 grads and undergrads hit the books annually at U.C. Berkeley, though visitors have it a bit easier—campus tours show you what’s where.

Soak up a 360-degree view from Sather Tower, also known as the Campanile. Built in 1914, the 307-foot tower’s 61-bell carillon plays several times a day. If you dig fossils, drop by the Valley Life Sciences Building to see items from the Museum of Paleontology’s collection, including a Tyrannosaurus rexskeleton. Artifacts from a myriad of cultures await at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive features 11 galleries and a weekly showcasing of films from around the globe.

Though its reputation waxes and wanes, Telegraph Avenue is worth a peek. Like any student ghetto, it’s a grab bag of bookstores and funky shops. Whatever your musical desire, Amoeba and Rasputin’s Records both carry an abundance of new and used CDs and vinyl. Eateries range from grab-and-go to sit-and-dine—sip white hot chocolate at Caffe Strada; soak up the pub atmosphere of Henry’s Publick House; catch musical acts at both Blake’s and the Bison Brewing Company.

The Telegraph area also supports several historic hotels. The Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club could stand in as the setting for some 1940s film noir. Don’t miss the elegant indoor swimming pool. The 1928 Hotel Durant maintains a European style of service. The Bancroft Hotel, another 1928 landmark, fuses Asian and Mediterranean styles. Take in views of the Berkeley Hills at the Beau Sky. Bed and breakfasts include the Rose Garden Inn, Hillegass House, and Elmwood House.

Patrons of the performing arts will note that Berkeley is home to a symphony, an opera company, a ballet troupe, and a community chorus and orchestra. Theater lovers can enjoy productions by the Black Repertory Group and the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which is in the midst of expanding its venue. Chamber music is the cornerstone of Music-Sources. La Peña Cultural Center is the place for Latin American and other international acts. Cal Performances does it all—classical and world music, ballet, jazz.

On the horticultural front, the city boasts three public gardens. The U.C. Botanical Garden’s specialized gardens and greenhouses include the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden and Rainforest House. Reds, pinks, and whites canvas the terraced Berkeley Municipal Rose Garden. California poppies, Mariposa tulips, and other state natives blossom at the Botanic Garden of Tilden Regional Park.

Tilden is also a popular recreation spot. Situated between the pines and redwoods are an 18-hole golf course, trails for biking and hiking, and a lake for summertime swimming. Or try the Aquatic Park, down near I-80, if you’ve got your water skis or sculls handy.

For a great early morning walk or run along the bay, or to cast a kite into the wind, make a beeline to Cesar E. Chavez Park. Watch sailboats come and go at the adjacent marina or stroll the pier, jutting out 3,000 feet over the water. Should you linger too long, the renovated Berkeley Marina Radisson, with its Bay Grill & Lounge, is right there.

If the kids are in tow, work your way from top to bottom. Start up at Tilden Park’s aptly named Little Farm, where the barnyard animals will elicit choruses of "E-I-E-I-O." Don’t miss the park’s 1911 Hershill Spillman merry-go-round, miniature train, and pony rides. Next, stop by the Lawrence Hall of Science, with plenty of activities aimed at junior scientists and excellent Bay Area views. Head downtown for an interactive look at the human body at the Hall of Health. Berkeley Iceland is the place to practice skating figure eights. Wrap things up by the bay at Shorebird Park’s nature center. Kids can get creative with tools and recycled items at the adjacent Adventure Playground.

What’s left? How about one of the West Coast’s largest collections of Jewish art and manuscripts? Find it at the Judah L. Magnus Museum, which rolls out different exhibits throughout the year.

Photography courtesy of brainchildvn/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.