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14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Berkeley

Written by Lisa Alexander
Feb 26, 2019

Renowned for its prestigious university and appreciated for its offbeat Bohemian spirit, Berkeley is a fun place to visit. The university's inspiring Neoclassical buildings stand loftily in a woodsy hilltop location overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The campus was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and the renegade hippie counterculture of the 1960s, and the chaotic and bustling Sproul Plaza continues to be an intense scene of student activity.

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, which is 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. For more ideas, read our list of the top things to do in Berkeley.

See also: Where to Stay in Berkeley

1. Botanical Garden at UC Berkeley

Botanical Garden

Botanical Garden | Charlie Nguyen / photo modified

Founded in 1890, the Botanical Garden has an exceptional collection of more than 13,000 plants from nearly every continent with an emphasis 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 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. It's a perfect place for nature walks and picnics, with 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.

Address: 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley, California

Official site: https://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu

2. Berkeley Marina

Boats at Berkeley Marina

The Berkeley Marina includes the city marina and the surrounding area, comprising more than 100 acres of parkland. César Chávez Park occupies the majority of the space, offering stunning panoramic views of San Francisco Bay's three impressive bridges, Angel Island, and Alcatraz. The park is also home to miles of nature trails, picnic areas, and a 17-acre off-leash dog park, among other recreational activities.

Accessible via pedestrian bridge over I-80, the Aquatic Park is another popular attraction at the marina, offering many recreational activities including non-motorized water sports, hiking, and bird-watching. Families will want to visit the Dream Land for Kids playground, an extensive play space filled with structures and equipment to help the kids burn off their energy and spark imagination. More adventurous families will want to check out Adventure Playground, also located within the marina.

At the marina, you will also find the Shorebird Park Nature Center, home to aquariums, birds, and educational exhibits that explore the local wildlife and ecosystem. The center's straw-bale building is another attraction in its own right, a green building that can be seen via self-guided tour.

Address: 201 University Ave, Berkeley, California

3. Tilden Park

Quiet woods of Tilden Park

Nestled in between the Berkeley Hills and the San Pablo Ridge, Tilden Park is a beautiful natural space with many recreational attractions. Things to do at this 2,079-acre parkland including hiking the nearly 40 miles of hiking trails, as well as cycling and horseback riding. Other outdoor activities include an 18-hole golf course, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden with native California plants, and swimming at the park's Lake Anza.

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. Tilden Little Farm is also a fantastic thing to do with kids. 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.

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. The park also has several delightful picnic areas, which may be reserved. Children and adults alike love the park's small Steam Train, which travels along a picturesque hillside with sensational views.

Address: 2501 Grizzly Peak Boulevard, Orinda, California

Official site: www.ebparks.org/parks/tilden

4. Berkeley Rose Garden at Codornices Park

Berkeley Rose Garden

Berkeley Rose Garden | K.Oliver / photo modified

The Berkeley Rose Garden is set in a lovely terraced amphitheater surrounded by a 220-foot redwood pergola. With 1,500 rose bushes representing 250 varieties, the garden is a dazzling spectacle of color and beauty with peak season blooming in mid-May. The garden also offers stunning views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The rose garden is adjacent to Codornices Park, with a tunnel beneath Euclid Avenue connecting the two and providing wheelchair access to the gardens. At the park, tourists will find a good scenic overlook, as well as several hiking trails among copses of redwoods, oaks, and bay trees. Families with younger children will appreciate the kiddie play area, as well as the school-age playground, which is equipped with ways for the kids to work off that extra energy.

Address: 1200 Euclid Avenue, Berkeley, California

5. Sather Tower and the U.C. Berkeley Campus

U.C. Berkeley

Sather Tower at U.C. Berkeley | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Perched on a wooded hillside, the 178-acre U.C. Berkeley campus is lush with shady redwoods, oaks, and other trees. At the center is its most prominent landmark, Sather Tower. 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. Visitors may ascend 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 perform a 45-minute recital of classical melodies three times a day.

Other famous landmarks on the campus include Sather Gate at the main entrance to the campus and South Hall, the oldest building on the campus, built in 1873. Sproul Plaza is another well-known landmark, made famous as the gathering place of early free speech activists. It is still a hub of activity where students gather, social activists protest, and street musicians sometimes offer impromptu performances. 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.

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. 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. College Avenue, which borders the campus, is also a pleasant area with many cafés and bookshops.

To get the most out of your visit, take a guided walking tour of Berkeley, which includes both a campus tour and a tour of downtown Berkeley.

VisitorCenter Address: 2227 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley, California

Official site: https://visit.berkeley.edu

6. Theater and Music Performances

Berkeley Repertory Theater

Berkeley Repertory Theater

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 Central Works Theater puts on performances at Berkeley City Club, the historic hotel and private club, which is fondly known as the "Little Castle" because its Gothic details echo those of Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

Berkeley's downtown area is also home to many theaters and venues, most of which can be found on Addison Street. The Berkeley Repertory Theater is a Tony Award-winning theater group that performs a wide variety of shows throughout the year, from classics 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 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, an independent music conservatory, as well as a concert venue, and the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse 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.

7. Indian Rock Park

Rock climbing area at Indian Rock Park | Sam Wilson
/ photo modified

Indian Rock Park is popular for its scenic vistas overlooking San Francisco Bay, accessible via steps carved into the rocks. More adventurous tourists can try scaling the stones, appropriate for beginner-level rock-climbing. Indian Rock is credited as being the first training ground of Dick Leonard, a pioneer in modern rock-climbing techniques, as well as for David Brower, whose climbing manuals helped U.S. forces defeat the Germans during WWII.

Novice rock-climbers can find several other good parks in Berkeley, including beginner climbing at Contra Costa Rock Park, Cragmont Rock Park, Great Stoneface Park, Mortar Rock Park, and Grotto Rock Park.

Address: 950 Indian Rock Avenue at Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California

8. Telegraph Avenue

Mural on Telegraph Ave, Berkeley | Afshin Taylor Darian / photo modified

Just outside the U.C. Berkeley 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.

9. Lawrence Hall of Science

Lawrence Hall of Science

Lawrence Hall of Science | Kai Schreiber / photo modified

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, even 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.

Address: 1 Centennial Drive,Berkeley, California

Official site: www.lawrencehallofscience.org

10. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) | Sharon Hahn Darlin / photo modified

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is UC Berkeley's center for visual arts research, home to nearly 20,000 art works and 16,000 videos and films. It is housed in an architecturally spectacular building adjacent to the university campus, and hosts performances, films, and lectures. BAMPFA also presents a large number of changing exhibits in addition to its permanent collections.

Among the museum's permanent collections, a wide range of artworks represent cultures from around the world and a significant span of human history. Works include Chinese paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties, prints and drawings by the old masters, early American paintings, contemporary and conceptual art, and early photography.

Highlights of the extensive film collection include the largest Japanese film collection outside of Japan itself, Soviet films, international animation collections, and a section dedicated to West Coast avant-garde films.

Address:2155 Center Street, Berkeley, California

Official site: https://bampfa.org

11. Culinary Adventure in the Gourmet Ghetto

Chez Panisse in the Gourmet Ghetto | rrunaway / photo modified

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. After training and living in France, Waters brought the "farm-to-table" concept to her new restaurant and has since become a food activist who has increased awareness of eco-friendly foods and responsible farming. Recognized as one of the world's best restaurants, Chez Panisse is an essential destination for foodies.

Many other restaurants in Berkeley were inspired by Chez Panisse, and the area along Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street in North Berkeley is known as the Gourmet Ghetto thanks to the influx of excellent 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, which sells exquisite European-style cakes and French macarons; and Saul's Delicatessen, with 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.

12. Adventure Playground

Adventure Playground | Teddy Cross / photo modified

Regaled as one of the top playgrounds in the country, Adventure Playground is one of the most unique experiences your kids will ever have. It may take parents a few moments to adjust to the concept, however, since the play here is much more hands-on and interactive than anything you could imagine. Inspired by an innovative European concept, children visiting Adventure Playground have the opportunity to create, build, and explore, contributing to the playground itself.

Indeed, a seven-year-old wielding a hammer and saw is a surprising sight at first, but just one look around will show the boundless creativity of the kids who have been here before. Staff keeps an eye on things to keep it safe, and parents are encouraged to be a part of the creative process with their children (kids under seven must be directly supervised by a parent at all times).

Kids can design and work on new playground structures, build a smaller project of their own, paint or decorate existing structures, or simply play within the exciting landscape. A favorite activity is also the kid-sized zipline. Safety is taken seriously here, so visitors should be sure to review the rules and dress appropriately, including proper footwear.

Address:160 University Ave, Berkeley, California

Where to Stay in Berkeley for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: The Claremont Club & Spa, A Fairmont Hotel is the perfect spot for a romantic getaway. This five-star luxury hotel sits perched on a sprawling wooded estate overlooking the San Francisco Bay and offers top-notch amenities, including a full-service spa and gourmet dining.

    An excellent four-star hotel in the heart of downtown Berkeley is Hotel Shattuck Plaza. This newly renovated property provides spacious, well-appointed rooms and suites in a convenient location just two blocks from U.C. campus and within walking distance of the city's best restaurants and entertainment.

  • Mid-Range Hotels: Housed in a historic building with iconic architecture, the Berkeley City Club is a unique and distinguished lodging located at the edge of the university campus. Highlights include a unique vaulted pool room, an on-site spa, fitness classes, and an in-house theater.

    Holiday Inn Express Berkeley is located just a few blocks from the Berkeley Marina and close to a BART station, as well as several good restaurants. Amenities include free parking, complimentary breakfast, self-service laundry, and free Wi-Fi.

  • Budget Hotels: The Berkeley Rodeway Inn is located in central Berkeley on University Avenue, about half way between the Marina and the university campus. Amenities include a fridge and microwave in each guest room, and both parking and breakfast are included.

    Just up the street, Knights Inn Berkeley CA offers clean rooms and comfy beds, as well as free parking and breakfast. Family rooms are also available, and all rooms are equipped with a mini-fridge, microwave, and free Wi-Fi.

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The Bay Area and San Francisco: The Bay Area is full of beautiful sights and things to do, home to top California attractions like the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is one of the state's most famous cities, with a wide range of tourist attractions and a hilly landscape that gives it a unique and distinct character.

Day Trips: Berkeley is a favorite day trip from San Francisco, just a 20-minute drive on I-80 across one of the bay's three scenic bridges. Tourists looking for a slower pace can take the Golden Gate bridge or a ferry past landmarks like Alcatraz and enjoy an afternoon in laid-back Sausalito.

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