10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Berkeley
Renowned for its prestigious university and appreciated for its offbeat Bohemian spirit, Berkeley is a stimulating place to visit. The university's inspiring Neoclassical buildings stand loftily in a woodsy hilltop location overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Although this idyllic setting feels completely removed from the world, the campus was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and the renegade hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Chaotic and bustling Sproul Plaza continues to be an intense scene of student activity: Students, social activists, and drummers still gather here to express themselves in ways that are impossible to ignore. Besides being an intellectual center, Berkeley is a hub for entertainment and gourmet dining. The local organic food movement began here in the '70s with Chez Panisse, a delightful French-California style bistro that's an obligatory stop for foodies. Tourists can enjoy a delicious meal in the Gourmet Ghetto and then watch a world-class performance at one of Berkeley's award-winning theaters. Nature lovers also have a good reason to visit: The city's gorgeous parks and botanical gardens offer spectacular floral displays and stunning panoramic views.
See also: Where to Stay in Berkeley
1 U.C. Berkeley
One of the country's leading academic institutions, U.C. Berkeley is home to famous professors, Nobel laureates, and an elite student body of more than 27,000 undergraduates. Despite the competitive environment, U.C. Berkeley has a peaceful, almost secluded feeling. Perched on a wooded hillside, the 178-acre campus is lush with shady redwoods, oaks, and other trees. The murmuring sounds of Strawberry Creek and chirping birds add to the serenity. At the center of the campus is the most prominent landmark, Sather Tower, also known as the Campanile because it resembles the clock tower in Venice, Italy. Built in 1914, the campanile bell and clock tower was constructed from Alaskan marble, and at 307 feet tall is the third tallest bell and clock tower in the world. In the early 1900s, the Oakland Tribune described the campanile as a "splendid landmark, visible from ocean vessels." Visitors may ascend up to the observation platform at 200 feet to take in the marvelous 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay. The clock tower's bells chime on the hour and three times a day (at 8am, noon, and 6pm) with a recital of classical melodies for 45 minutes.
Other famous landmarks on the campus include Sather Gate, the main entrance to the campus; South Hall, the oldest building on the campus, built in 1873; and Sproul Plaza, a hub of activity where students gather, social activists protest, and street musicians sometimes offer impromptu performances. Visitors will enjoy taking a look at Bancroft Library, wandering up the well-worn marble steps to the main reading room with its intricate artesonado (carved wood) ceiling and a portrait of philosopher George Berkeley, the college's namesake. The U.C. Berkeley Art Museum & Film Archive has an extensive collection of more than 14,000 art objects and a similar number of films. The California Memorial Stadium, built in 1923, is the campus' football stadium, home of the California Golden Bears. Just above the stadium is the Strawberry Canyon Recreational Area, a wonderful place for walking and bird watching. The Neoclassical Hearst Greek Theater is a beautiful 8,500-seat outdoor venue used for a variety of performances such as world music concerts, the Berkeley Jazz Festival, and noteworthy speakers. The U.C. Berkeley graduation ceremony also takes place at the Greek Theater. For more insight into undergraduate culture, head to the Free Speech Movement Café, which displays documents of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Students still come to this café to take study breaks. College Avenue that borders the campus is also a pleasant area with many cafés and bookshops.
2 Gourmet Ghetto
The opening of Alice Waters' neighborhood bistro called Chez Panisse in 1971 marked an essential moment in California culinary history - the beginning of a food revolution. This charming little French bistro would forever change food culture in America. During her undergraduate years at U.C. Berkeley, Waters spent a semester abroad in Paris where she fell in love with the French culture. After college, she lived in France for a year and became even more enamored by French cuisine. Waters appreciated the way the French cooked fresh seasonal ingredients from the local markets and she brought this "farm-to-table" concept to her new restaurant. The menu is updated every evening because the dishes are made from the best ingredients available that day. Chez Panisse uses organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables and sustainably sourced meat, fish, and poultry from nearby farms. Not only is Alice Waters an innovative restaurateur, she is also a food activist who has increased awareness of eco-friendly foods and responsible farming. Recognized as one of the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" by Restaurant Magazine, Chez Panisse is an essential destination for foodies.
Many other restaurants in Berkeley were inspired by Chez Panisse. In the area known as the "Gourmet Ghetto," along Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street in North Berkeley, is a wonderful collection of gourmet restaurants. Some favorites include Lo Coco's, an authentic Sicilian restaurant and pizzeria; Chaam Thai restaurant; the Espresso Roma Café at the French Hotel; Masse's Pastries that sells exquisite European-style cakes and French macarons; and Saul's Delicatessen that offers traditional Jewish cuisine plus Klezmer music performances on Monday nights. The Gourmet Ghetto has a lively European ambience with its sidewalk cafés, small bakeries, shops selling fine foods, and colorful flower stands. Visitors will also find locally owned boutiques such as artisan jewelry shops and clothing stores.
3 Theater and Music Performances
A world-class center of culture, Berkeley boasts a superb offering of theater and music performances. On the U.C. Berkeley campus, Cal Performances presents a program of exceptional artistic performances at Zellerbach Hall; performance genres include classical music, piano concerts, jazz, world dance, ballet, and theater. Also on campus, the Berkeley City Club provides a theater space for the Central Works Theater, a local theater company that writes and produces world-premiere performances. It's worth going to a Central Works Theater performance just to see the Berkeley City Club, a historic hotel and private club. Built in 1930 and designed by Julia Morgan, the Berkeley City Club is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is fondly known as the "Little Castle" because its Gothic details recall the architectural features that Morgan created for Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.
Several theaters are in Berkeley's downtown area. The Berkeley Repertory Theater (2025 Addison Street) is a Tony Award-winning theater group that performs a wide variety of shows throughout the year, from classics by famous authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Shakespeare to contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and musical premieres. On the same street as the Berkeley Rep is a special sidewalk installation, the Berkeley Poetry Walk, featuring cast-iron plaques of more than 100 poems. Look for the poems by Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, and Alice Walker. The Aurora Theater (2081 Addison Street) is another award-winning theater group; the company presents premiere performances in an intimate 150-seat theater where no one is more than 15 feet away from the stage. Jazz lovers will want to check out the California Jazz Conservatory (2087 Addison Street), an independent music conservatory as well as a concert venue. Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse (2020 Addison Street) offers a program of traditional music from different regional, ethnic, and social cultures such as Swedish folk music, Arabic-Cuban-gypsy fusion, jazz, blues harmonica, and hillbilly songs.
4 Lawrence Hall of Science
Above the main university campus, the U.C. Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science offers the public a chance to learn about science and have fun in the process. The 45-seat Planetarium features interactive programs with a superb digital projection system for a realistic impression of the constellations and our solar system including the planets and their moons. To enjoy some of the best stargazing in the Bay Area, bring your own binoculars or telescope and head to Lawrence Hall's Plaza. In a clear night sky, this vantage point allows viewers to easily see the moon, planets, and galaxies far away in space along with the city lights of San Francisco on the horizon. Animal lovers will be delighted by the interactive exhibits in the Animal Discovery Room. Visitors have a chance to hold gentle animals and learn about the habitats of more exotic animals. In the Ingenuity Lab, budding engineers can work with Cal Engineering students to build a prototype or solve an engineering challenge. Little kids will enjoy the Young Explorers Experience, special activities designed for kindergarten-age children and younger. More challenging activities, summer camps, and classes are available for older kids.
Address: 1 Centennial Drive, Berkeley
5 Tilden Park
Nestled in between the Berkeley Hills and the San Pablo Ridge, Tilden Park is a beautiful natural space with many recreational attractions. The 2,079-acre parkland boasts nearly 40 miles of hiking trails, an 18-hole golf course, and a botanical garden that contains native California plants. Kids are always eager to ride the charming carousel animals of the musical Merry-Go-Round. This antique carousel was handcrafted in 1913 with a menagerie of animals including horses, tigers, giraffes, toads, reindeer, zebras, and sea monsters. Near the Merry-Go-Round, a snack bar sells favorite carnival foods like Coney Island hot dogs, pretzels, cotton candy, fresh-baked cookies, and ice cream. Children and adults alike love the park's small Steam Train, which travels along a picturesque hillside with sensational views. The park has several delightful picnic areas, which may be reserved. During summertime, the park's Lake Anza has a lifeguard and is popular for swimming. It's possible to go fishing here year round; catches might include bluegill fish, largemouth bass, sunfish, and channel catfish. The lake even has a sandy beach that is sheltered from the wind and gets plenty of sun. Some trails in the park are designed for cycling and horseback riding. For those who want to see a real working farm, Tilden Little Farm is a fantastic place to visit. The farm has a naturalist program, and the Children's Garden is used as an outdoor classroom to teach kids how vegetables and fruits are grown.
Address: 2501 Grizzly Peak Boulevard, Orinda
6 Botanical Garden
Founded in 1890, the Botanical Garden is an exceptional collection of more than 13,000 plants from almost every continent. Because of the local climate, the emphasis is on Mediterranean plants. The expansive 34-acre garden is divided into several sections representing plants from California, the Canary Islands, Eastern North America, the Mediterranean Basin, Australia, Asia, Central & South America, the deserts of the Americas, and South Africa. The Mexico/Central America section features a cloud forest and the California section has an oak knoll.
The Botanical Garden is in the Berkeley Hills and is most easily accessible by car or by taking the Berkeley campus shuttle (the H line) Monday through Friday. The Botanical Garden is a perfect place for nature walks and picnics; the site has picnic tables in four different areas of the garden. Other facilities include restrooms, a garden shop, and the Julia Morgan Hall. The Mather Redwood Grove & Amphitheater is used as the venue for a summer concert series. The admission fee includes a docent-led "Plants of the World" tour on the first Wednesday of the month and every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1:30pm.
Address: 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley
7 Telegraph Avenue
Just outside the university gates, Telegraph Avenue draws crowds of students who come to hang out, do some shopping, or get a quick bite to eat. With its eclectic shops, Telegraph has retained some of the Bohemian vibe of the 1960s. Hints of Berkeley's colorful counterculture heyday can be seen in the vintage record stores and tie-dye-clad post-hippies wandering the avenue. Most of all, Telegraph caters to starving students with affordable sandwich places, bagels, pizza by the slice, fast food, and casual order-at-the-counter restaurants. Bookshops and record stores are the other main reasons students and locals frequent Telegraph. The legendary Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music vintage record stores and Moe's Books are Berkeley institutions. Telegraph Avenue also has hair salons, clothing stores, computer supply outlets, and other interesting specialty shops.
8 Claremont Hotel
This grand historic hotel enjoys a spectacular location perched on a sprawling wooded estate in the Berkeley Hills, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. An impressive West Coast landmark, the Claremont Hotel dates back to the Gold Rush era when a Kansas farmer named Bill Thornburg built a castle and several horse stables on the extensive grounds. The original building was destroyed by a fire in 1901, and the current resort property was built in 1915. The hotel has a pleasant veranda, an elegant lobby, and luxurious guest rooms. Amenities include tennis courts, three outdoor swimming pools, and a restaurant that offers magnificent bay views. Because of the romantic setting and elegant reception halls, the Claremont Resort is an in-demand venue for weddings.
Address: 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley
9 Berkeley Marina
The Berkeley Marina has a boat bay that is popular for watersports including canoeing, kayaking, and water skiing, while the marina is used to dock sailboats. Many visitors enjoy strolling the Berkeley Marina and then birdwatching at the adjacent Shorebird Nature Center or at the Aquatic Park. For children, the highlight is the Adventure Playground that focuses on creative play such as painting and building a fort. Another attraction for kids is the Dreamland Playground at the Aquatic Park. This special playground features imaginative wooden castles and walkways that encourage kids to explore. Aquatic Park also has picnic areas, a frisbee golf field, and a rowing center.
10 Berkeley Rose Garden
The Berkeley Rose Garden is a lovely terraced amphitheater surrounded by a 220-foot redwood pergola. With 3,000 rose bushes including 250 varieties, the garden is a dazzling spectacle of color and beauty. The garden also offers stunning views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Address: 1200 Euclid Avenue, Berkeley
Where to Stay in Berkeley for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient hotels in Berkeley, with easy access to the university and fabulous restaurants:
- Claremont Club & Spa, A Fairmont Hotel: 5-star luxury, Oakland Hills location, beautiful pools, gourmet dining, tennis courts, full-service spa and salon.
- Hotel Shattuck Plaza: mid-range boutique hotel, central location, organic cuisine, fitness center.
- Holiday Inn Express Berkeley: affordable rates, near BART station and restaurants, free breakfast and parking, helpful staff.
- Knights Inn Berkeley CA: budget hotel, convenient location, clean rooms, comfy beds.