There’s nothing that I love more than Berkeley California. After a rough guesstimation, I would say that I’ve been to Berkeley at least 6 times in my lifetime and it just gets more and more exciting the older I get. Every time I visit I see something completely different which is all part of the magic of the place. So, learn from my experiences and check out these 10 things to do in Berkeley, California to make sure you have a great trip – especially if you’re a newcomer to the neighborhood!
New restaurants open up, political movements gain momentum, and someone is always nude in public-somewhere. I’m not kidding. If you leave town and haven’t seen someone’s bare cheeks, I’d be amazed. I came to San Francisco for a wedding this past weekend and I was definitely not disappointed by the food, liveliness, and colorful characters that can be found in Berkeley at any point in time. It’s such a cool place to visit and you always feel revitalized whenever you come here.
So, with that in mind, here’s a simple list of activities to do while in town if you’re a first-timer in the neighborhood, as well as some tips and tricks for visiting the area. Enjoy this article and let me know your favorite hotspots to check out when you’re in Berkeley, California.
1. Go vintage shopping on Telegraph
The beautiful, vibrant beating heart of Berkeley is Telegraph Avenue. Home to the counterculture and protest history of the area, Telegraph is absolutely one of the first places that you need to visit when you get to Berkeley. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see amazing murals and street art around every corner, cool record shops, and intriguing independent gift shops. It’s normally bustling with people, locals, students, and tourists alike, trying to find bargains and going about their daily basis.
One of the other things that is great about Telegraph is the sheer amount of quirky and amazing vintage shops. Literally, there are so many vintage stores to choose from that you can easily spend all day just rummaging through the racks, searching for a bargain find. Whether you’re looking for some cool Berkeley-inspired accessories, or want a whole new outfit, you can definitely find some awesome options on Telegraph!
2. Eat an ice cream sandwich at Cream
Nothing beats the California heat better than a delicious ice cream sandwich, and there’s no better place to go than Cream on Telegraph Avenue. Beloved by residents, students, and tourists alike, this awesome little store is perfect for grabbing a delicious sweet treat. Enjoy the soft and gooey cookies as they come out warm from the oven, selecting your favorite ice cream flavor to go in between. There’s a huge amount of choice from classic flavors to some more hipster or indie options that you might not see elsewhere.
It’s a super popular spot, especially among hungry students trying to procrastinate from university work. If you’re not in the mood for an ice cream sandwich for some bizarre reason, Cream also offers ice cream tacos and sundaes as well. Also, as an awesome bonus, the store also offers plenty of vegan and gluten-free options – like much of Telegraph Avenue – so if you’ve got dietary requirements, Cream have you covered!
3. Appreciate the Amoeba Record Store
While you’re on the wonderful Telegraph Avenue, you definitely need to check out a legendary store that is part of the fabric of Berkeley. Amoeba Record Store is one of the largest record stores in the entire United States, so it’s a kind of mecca for vinyl lovers or just music experts who are looking to find a rare or exclusive album. If you’ve got a missing vinyl from your collection that you’ve been looking for, then chances are pretty good that you’ll find it in Amoeba Records.
This Telegraph Avenue staple also hosts a ton of exciting free local gigs, so make sure you check out the events calendar before you go. It’s an awesome way to enjoy a night out for free in Berkeley and you might even just see the next big thing on the music scene. Either way, you can browse to your heart’s content and pick up some awesome new vinyl or find a buried treasure that’s missing from your collection.
4. Participate in a protest or movement
Berkeley is home to a whole host of free speech movements, protests, and organizations designed to promote social justice. Really, no matter where you are in the area, you’re never a million miles away from a protest, rally, or march. If you want to make an impact in the world, Berkeley is a great place to be and an ideal place to meet the influential changemakers of the future. The ideals of Berkeley, including the university, have always been equality and free speech so they’re still present here today.
In fact, it’s pretty difficult to walk across the UC Berkeley campus without being approached with a clipboard of some kind or hearing some kind of catchy chant through a giant megaphone. You’re almost guaranteed to see some kind of pun-tastic sign, campaigning for a change of some kind. It’s actually pretty cool to see people passionate about change and actively doing something about it – it can get pretty infectious!
5. Grab a gluten-free, dairy-free pizza at Jupiter
With the population of Berkeley being super diverse and operating over a wide range of dietary requirements, there are a ton of great vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free restaurants and bars. One of the most popular is Jupiter, a pizza and beer joint that’s housed inside an old stable from the 1890s. Yep, that’s right – it’s a historic monument and a cool hangout spot!
It’s a great spot to hang out with friends no matter what the weather. You can either chill in the two-story converted stable building, or you can welcome in the evening in the relaxing beer garden. Tuck into one of their delicious, fresh, wood-fired pizzas and their locally-brewed ales and beers. Jupiter is super popular and an ideal place to spend the day, or grab a bite and a brew after a long day of exploring the Berkeley area.
6. Mingle with interesting street vendors/nomads
Berkeley is full of awesome independent stores at every turn, but there are also a ton of cool and interesting street vendors that you can chat with and mingle with. Honestly, people are pretty much always up for chatting, especially if you’re interested in some of their stuff, and a lot of them have some really intriguing stories to tell. There are definitely some characters that have been here for a couple of decades!
It’s also a haven for nomads who are traveling not only across the United States but across the world. You can easily strike up a conversation with the locals in bars, cafes, or at community events. In a more modern way, you can also expect to find a ton of digital nomads in Berkeley, who are looking for a more artsy and creative scene to settle down in for a while. With the range of student-driven workspaces, coffee shops, and co-working spaces in Berkeley, you can easily work and explore this town for an extended period if you wanted to.
7. Sun bath on the Berkeley Common
As a university town, there are quite a few open green spaces for you to lounge out and chill out on. Berkeley Common is a bustling strip of grass around the university campus that is popular with students and locals alike. You can sit against the rows of trees and study, hang out and play sports with your friends, or chill out and eat lunch in this great, open-air spot.
It’s located near the UC Berkeley library so you can take in the university, check out the famous clock tower, and have a nice walk around the grounds. Why not go to Telegraph Avenue, grab some takeout food or an ice cream sandwich from Cream, and wander over to the Berkeley Common to enjoy the gorgeous Californian sunshine?
8. Attempt to find something that’s not at the Berkeley Bowl
If you’re anything like me, you love checking out local food markets when you’re in a new place. The one place to do this in Berkeley is at the iconic Berkeley Bowl. Opened in 1977 in a converted bowling alley, this neighborhood grocery store and market soon became a local institution. When I say that it has everything, I mean it. I’ve literally never been in a more comprehensive store in my life.
From fresh fruit and veggies to nuts and grains to baby items to household goods, it’s got everything. If you don’t want to get supplies for a picnic or do a full grocery shop, you can check out the catered food section which includes huge sushi and sandwich platters, ideal for parties, gatherings, or fueling your next Berkeley-based protest!
9. Try vegan-anything
Berkeley is the hippy capital of the US for a reason. As a result, there are a ton of great vegan options. Whether you’re a fully-fledged vegan or you’re just looking to try out some more eco-friendly and plant-based options, you’ll have your pick of cuisines and vibes. From exciting burger joints to pleasant, casual cafes, to vegan-specific delis, there are so many amazing spots.
In fact, there are over 70 vegan-friendly places listed in Berkeley, so it’s a plant-based heaven that you’ll probably never want to leave. Even the most ardent carnivores are bound to find some vegan junk food that hits the spot and might even convince you to try meat-free Mondays every once in a while!
10. Stand in UC Berkeley’s Circle of Freedom
Honestly, if you didn’t know about this particular Berkeley monument, you’d probably pass by it without a second thought. Housed inside the UC Berkeley campus, you’ll find a small granite circle, that’s inscribed, dedicated to the right to free speech. Sometimes called the Circle of Freedom or Freedom of Speech monument, this small patch of ground is protected, as is the air above it.
The inscription reads: “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” So, the premise is that this small circle of land is the ideal place for speakers to come and talk about politics, social justice issues, and more important – and often controversial – issues. It’s become a key symbol of UC Berkeley and its commitment to free speech, that permeates the entire area!
Getting to Berkeley
If you want to go to Berkeley for the day, or for a long weekend, there are a couple of ways to get there. Most travelers will be coming from San Francisco and Berkeley is super close. It takes around 20-30 minutes to drive to Berkeley from the center of San Francisco. You can either hire a rental car or get a taxi, Uber, or Lyft out there.
Don’t have access to wheels and don’t want to splurge on a taxi? You can get public transport from San Francisco to Berkeley pretty regularly. Traveling on the BART you can get to Berkeley in around 30 minutes, including all transfers and changes – there is normally at least one connection that you’ll need to make depending on the whereabouts in San Francisco you’re starting your journey.
If you’re coming to Berkeley straight from San Francisco International Airport (SFO), you can jump straight on the BART and benefit from one of the straight-through trains that go directly to North Berkeley. It’s a great choice if you’re coming in from further afield, with plenty of connections across the US and the world flying into San Francisco every, single day.
Visiting UC Berkeley
Want to check out the iconic college campus while you’re in Berkeley? Whether you just want to have a look around the iconic buildings and landscape, or you’re interested in attending the legendary university, you can visit any time you like.
While there are specific open days, the campus itself is open to the public at all times if you want to have a self-guided tour. It’s also pretty common for locals to come and chill out on the green, or walk their dogs along the tree-lined avenues. If you wanna sit in on classes, you’ll need to contact the individual departments, but if you just want to wander around and soak up the vibe, you’re free to do so whenever you want.
Is Berkeley worth visiting?
In my opinion, Berkeley is one hundred percent worth visiting. Whether you go on a day trip or stay for a bit longer, Berkeley has such a unique personality that’s so different from a lot of the Bay Area. Especially if you’re interested in modern US history, counterculture, and social justice, it’s a great place to check out and learn more about!
How to get around Berkeley
Honestly, Berkeley is a super walkable city that is best explored on foot. Some residents do have cars, but many opt for bikes instead, so don’t be surprised to see a ton of cyclists roaming around the streets. You can easily hire a bike if you want to get around a bit fast, and there are still plenty of public transport options to choose from. If you do have your own wheels, there are a lot of places to park, but the closer you get to major spots like Telegraph Avenue or the UC Berkeley campus, it does get a bit more difficult to find a parking space.
When is the best time to visit Berkeley, California?
Realistically, there is no bad time to visit Berkeley, but if you want to enjoy the best of the Northern California weather, you’ll want to visit between June and August. That being said, it’s the peak tourist season. A lot of the students are done for the summer and many people roll in for the sunny vacation period.
If you’re looking for a quieter and less humid time to visit Berkeley, I’d recommend going in September or October. The students will be back at college and there’ll definitely be more of a buzz around the place. The other benefit is that accommodation will be a lot cheaper, so you can spend more of your hard-earned cash in those vintage shops on Telegraph Avenue!
So, if you’re a first-timer visiting Berkeley, there are so many cool things that you can see, do, and explore. Whether you wanna go on a vegan food tour, shop until you drop, or take a walk around the town and appreciate the vibrant history of the area, there’s a little something for everyone to enjoy. I know you’re going to love it just as much as I do!
Disclaimer: These photos are not mine and were borrow from the fine Netcitizens of the world. Their websites have been linked into the photos.