Words by Sharon McDonnell
If your views on Berkeley are rooted in the Big Game rivalry (especially if you’re of the #BeatCal persuasion), it may be time to broaden your perspective. That’s because Berkeley is oh-so-much more. Kindling revolution in free speech, food, gourmet coffee and scientific inventions since the ’60s, this city possesses an international, creative vibe and eminently walkable neighborhoods. Nestled between the Bay and forested hills, it’s also an easy day trip from the Peninsula.
WHAT TO DO
Looking for a songful start to your outing? The longest-running outdoor amphitheater in the country, UC’s Greek Theatre, celebrates its 120th anniversary this year with an enticing lineup that includes John Legend (June 17), Jason Mraz (July 19) and Steve Miller Band (September 22). In downtown Berkeley, find Freight & Salvage, a wonderful music club for traditional roots music, from Zydeco and Latin to bluegrass and Ethiopian. Meanwhile, Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents plays and musicals that have won a Pulitzer, Grammy and six Tony Awards. And don’t forget UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on campus, home to Cal Performances and almost 100 concerts and talks each year.
Courtesy of BAMPFA / Cover Photo: Courtesy of Visit Berkeley – Chao Kusollerchariya
For films and art featuring underrepresented groups and lesser-known topics, stop by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Current offerings include an exhibit on Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, whose grandparents were a Haitian slave and a French aristocrat (through July 30) as well as films from Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova (through May 14).
Follow your nose (Saturdays only) to the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, located in the back of perfumer Mandy Aftel’s shingled cottage in the North Shattuck district. From more than 200 natural essences, sniff and choose five samples to take home and explore one-of-a-kind artifacts, including a 16th-century alchemy book with recipes for magic. Aftel also bottles and sells high-end custom blends of natural botanicals, perfumes and drops.
Courtesy of Aftel
For more fragrances, step into the UC Botanical Garden featuring nine geographic areas from Asia (a Chinese medicinal herb garden included) to Latin America, plus nationally-recognized collections of magnolias, cycads, ferns and oaks on its 34 acres. Up in the Berkeley Hills, Tilden Regional Park sprawls over 2,000 acres, and includes the world’s most complete California plant collection in its Botanic Garden, plus an 18-hole golf course.
WHERE TO EAT
Worked up an appetite? Pay a visit to the birthplace of California farm-to-table seasonal cuisine, Alice Waters’ acclaimed Chez Panisse, which offers a restaurant in addition to a moderately-priced café upstairs. Across the street, The Cheese Board, a worker-owned collective since 1971, always has a line for its hot pizza (one unique veggie combo each day) and fine cheese selection.
In downtown Berkeley, the large lush patio at Jupiter cultivates a chill atmosphere. Wash down 15 types of wood-fired pizza with Jupiter’s own (and guest) craft beers. Located in a former 1890s brick horse stable, the popular beer garden hosts bands Thursday through Saturday. For a Korean fusion and American brunch, rise and shine with Berkeley Social Club, known for dishes like candied Millionaire’s Bacon and Korean Fried Chicken Benedict.
Courtesy of Chez Panisse
Gather serves eight pizzas, including a butternut squash, chimichurri, burrata and leek cream sauce option. Look for a bluegrass band performing for Saturday lunch. When the caffeine craving kicks in, make haste for MY Coffee Roastery, an adorable cottage-like setting with a tented patio that roasts coffee beans from around the world. Hawaiian bakery Ono Bakehouse will put you in an aloha mood with its chocolate haupia pie, topped with coconut custard. For more tasty carbs, venture to the Elmwood district’s Boichik Bagels, recognized by The New York Times in its 2021 Bay Area-Big Apple bagel battle article. (Note: Boichik also recently opened a second bakery in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village.)
Other culinary adventures include West Berkeley’s La Marcha, which offers paella in six varieties and a marvelous 4-6PM happy hour with rotating tapas, red & white house wine or housemade sangria for $6 each. Two blocks away, a married couple from Hamburg own the casual eatery Gaumenkitzel, specializing in organic slow German food like Pork Jagerschnitzel and Spätzle Mushroom, along with the East Bay’s biggest selection of German beers and wines.
For more libations, explore a cluster of urban wineries located in West Berkeley’s Gilman District with tasting rooms open on weekends. Broc Cellars, Donkey & Goat and Hammerling Wines all serve natural California wines with outdoor and indoor seating, complemented by food pop-ups, like Japanese street food from Daruma Kiosk or Mexican food with handmade salsa from Tacos Everywhere. The First Friday block party adds live music into the mix. And if hops make you happier, Gilman Brewing Company serves award-winning craft brews including saisons and farmhouse ales.
WHERE TO SHOP
If you’re still not ready to drop, don’t leave without perusing Berkeley’s shops. Perfume sourced from Grasse, France, is sold at Le Labo. Its bestseller, the unisex Santal 33, blends sandalwood, leather, tobacco and cardamom. For vividly-colored Mexican home and garden décor, head straight to downtown Berkeley’s Talavera Ceramics & Tile. You can even create your own tile murals from two-inch-square handmade tiles in hundreds of designs. Considered one of the nation’s legendary bookstores, Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue has carried pages for all ages since 1959 and currently features over 200,000 new and used books on four floors.
Courtesy of Talvera Ceramics & Tile
Stop by Builders Booksource for architecture, design and gardening titles.
In the Solano Avenue Shopping District, purchase wind chimes, yard art and more at Fern’s Garden, a whimsical gift shop owned by a mother-daughter team. You’ll find dozens of studios belonging to artists and craftspeople in West Berkeley’s Sawtooth Building, whose distinctive roofline is formed by 20 sawtooth-shaped banks of skylights. Some open for First Saturdays year-round, with about 25 welcoming visitors during East Bay Open Studios, scheduled for the second and third weekends in May.
Still hesitating? Consider this: Even if your allegiance runs cardinal red, the next Stanford/Cal match-up isn’t until November 18 at Memorial Stadium. So go on, enjoy a big day in Berkeley without worrying about the Big Game.