Spotlight: Berkeley

Courtesy of Visit California

A haven for backyard artists and coffee-shop philosophers, Berkeley has deep roots in the Flower Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But while California’s spirited city of free speech still stands strong, Berkeley can also boast of a booming food, wine, and craft-brew scene, sprinkled throughout with arts and culture. Add an easy-to-use public transit that makes San Francisco a quick light-rail ride away, and Berkeley rates high on any Bay Area must-see list.

“You will be hard pressed to ever say, ‘OK, I did Berkeley,’” says Dan Marengo of Visit Berkeley, the city’s local tourism group. “There’s too much to cover, which is a little amazing considering it’s roughly a quarter the size of Oakland.” The town, originally named in 1866 after Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, is great for exploring, with welcoming neighborhoods that bustle with shoppers, parents walking dogs and pushing strollers, and joggers and skateboarders gliding by. Top-notch University of California, Berkeley gives the city an energetic jolt, and students from around the world add an international and intellectual flair. How diverse is Berkeley? Along the main drag of University Avenue, you can buy an exotic outfit at Sari Palace, sample Indonesian food at Jayakarta, and enjoy house-roasted beans at Algorithm Coffee Co.

Stop by the visitor information center a block north of the downtown Berkeley BART station (the hub for the local light-rail system that accesses San Francisco and other Bay Area towns). There you can chat with helpful staff, pick up brochures and maps, and find out what to see and do along dozens of do-it-yourself walking tours.

Tilden Park

In the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area, it sounds implausible: a wilderness sanctuary spanning more than 2,000 acres, rife with wildlife, offering panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay. But that’s what makes Tilden Park, nestled between the Berkeley Hills and San Pablo Ridge, so special. It takes its name from Charles Lee Tilden, a Bay Area attorney and businessman who purchased much of the land in the 1930s to preserve it for the public. He went on to become the first president of the Park District Board of Directors.

Today, activities at Tilden Park abound for all ages: Visitors can take to its network of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding or stroll through the botanical garden. Small children will gravitate toward the Redwood Valley Railway’s miniature steam train, old-time carousel, and the goats, pigs, and cows that they can feed at Little Farm. (Hint: bring your own lettuce and celery.)

There’s also an 18-hole golf course, a steam train that chugs along a scenic ridge, and a lake nearly 1,000 feet long, perfect for an afternoon dip and picnic. On a clear day, set off on the East Bay Skyline National Recreation Trail, which offers views of the San Francisco Bay to the west and Mt. Diablo to the east. Though it’s only a few miles from the city, it feels half a world away.

Hiking in Berkeley

Walking is part of Berkeley’s eco-friendly DNA. Since the beginning, the city has been threaded through with staircases and paths. They were originally for commuting—early residents walked along them to catch trolleys to Oakland. Now, they offer a quiet portal into Berkeley’s neighborhoods, providing glimpses into idyllic gardens. Constructed out of an assortment of brick, boulder, and concrete, and with bits of moss and wildflowers springing from every crack, the paths don’t lack for personality.

The popular and easy-to-find Indian Rock Path starts at the corner of Solano Avenue and the Alameda, and climbs before running smack into its namesake. Climbers can hone their skills at Indian Rock, but almost anyone can ascend the footholds in the massive stone to find a wide-open view of the bay that makes you want to stay forever. Like what you see? Consider learning the basics at Berkeley Ironworks, a local climbing gym and school.

You’ll find another pretty escape while following the paths at the U.C. Botanical Garden. The 34-acre facility features more than 13,000 plant varieties—especially California natives—all thriving in naturalistic plantings in the Berkeley Hills above town. Be sure to stop by the Julia Morgan Hall, a charmingly rustic structure designed by the renowned architect as a home for the school’s women students back in 1910.

U.C. Botanical Garden at Berkeley

Climb into the Berkeley Hills to visit this dramatic 34-acre site. Shaded by soaring (and native) coast redwoods, this research garden and museum belonging to the University of California at Berkeley lets you follow winding paths to see naturalistic landscapes that feature more than 13,000 plant species, including rare and endangered plants.

Make sure to swing by Julia Morgan Hall, a rustic, wood-sided structure laboriously moved to the site from its original location on campus, and named in honor of its architect. Now overlooking the garden’s California native plant collection, the simple cottage-like building is polar opposite to Morgan’s best-known and arguably most lavish project: Hearst Castle along the Central Coast.