Ever since the 1960s Berkeley has been synonymous with left wing politics and student protests. And while the city has stayed true to its progressive credo, it offers numerous other reasons for visitors to the Bay Area to make sure they don’t only get trapped in the albeit sublime honeypot of San Francisco. Former US resident and Rough Guides author Nick Edwards runs down the top things to do in Berkeley and explains why you should make a point of jumping on BART to the East Bay.

Beards, books and Birkenstocks

For half a century now the city has been at the forefront of anti-establishment activism and the anti-war movement, ever since the students of UC Berkeley clashed with then Governor Ronald Reagan and the National Guard during violent Vietnam protests.

The university campus, with its iconic campanile, bustling Sproul Plaza and the quieter lush grounds beyond is still the best place to start getting a feel for the place Berkeley occupies in recent American history. It also boasts most of the town’s museums.

Berkeley University, CaliforniaImage courtesy of Visit California

The left-leaning atmosphere extends far beyond the confines of the campus, however, to the numerous cafés that populate the town, where earnest academics can sometimes be seen poring over weighty tomes or deep in serious discussions.

If you want to mug up and be able to join in, you won’t have to go far to find a well-stocked bookstore either. Berkeley is famous for noble establishments such as Black Oak Books, Revolution Books and Lewin’s Metaphysical Books.

Wandering the pleasantly quiet streets that fill the space between the busy commercial strips of Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues near the campus, 4th Street in West Berkeley and Solano Avenue to the north, you will lose count of bearded, besandled residents walking dogs and checking out curios in numerous quirky shops. Just try spotting a Republican placard or bumper sticker – the Grand Old Party long ago gave up even trying to field candidates here.

The cradle of California cuisine

Food activist Alice Waters really started something when she opened Chez Panisse in 1971, setting her stall out to source high-quality organic local produce for her innovative recipes.

This style of embellishing American cooking with European and ethnic touches of flair and promoting a close relationship with local farms became known as “California cuisine”, which has spread the length of the Golden State and beyond.

Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California, USA, North America

So if you want to feast on the likes of grilled Becker Lane Farm pork loin with roasted figs, wild fennel cakes and Early Girl tomato confit, this is the place for you. Just be prepared for a hefty bill.

Chez Panisse is still the jewel in the crown of Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto”, a section of Shattuck Avenue lined with a number of quality restaurants and fine emporia such as Alegio chocolate shop, tucked inside Epicurious Garden along with an array of exclusive food outlets.

Top restaurants are not confined to Gourmet Ghetto though, with other notable places to eat such as Lalime’s, Revival and Gather dotted around town.

Don’t be alarmed if your budget does not stretch to such high-end cuisine though. Berkeley is also blessed with a huge number of excellent and inexpensive multicultural restaurants. You can enjoy chunky burritos at Cancun Taqueria, superb masala dosas at Vik’s Chaat Corner, or a range of authentic Indonesian recipes at Jayakarta.

Musical nooks and crannies

Good old Jonathan Richman, still occasionally to be found strumming on the university steps, named his record label Beserkley when he moved to the state in 1975, a nod to the city’s nickname of Bezerkley. Indeed the local music scene is as underground as its political one, with a variety of eclectic venues and record stores.

Ashkenaz is a quirky world music and dance centre on busy San Pablo Avenue, which is also home to the legendary Albatross Pub.

Balkan DancingBalkan Dancing via photopin (license)

Meanwhile, Freight and Salvage provides a classic coffee house setting for hearts-on-their-sleeve singer-songwriters and La Peña Cultural Center showcases Latin and folk, as well as encouraging cultural activism.

Perhaps the best example of Berkeley’s musical credibility is the uncompromisingly alternative 924 Gilman club, a haven of hardcore and experimental acts that helped launch the likes of Green Day and Sleater-Kinney.

Immediately south of the campus, Telegraph Avenue is a riot of stalls selling tie-dye clothes, political stickers and jewellery in the shape of peace symbols.

It also contains a string of cheap cafés, takeaway joints and two major record shops in the shape of Rasputin Music and the original location of even more iconic Amoeba Records, where there was never any need for a vinyl comeback because it never went out of fashion. Half a block behind it, People’s Park is another site of sixties dissent and still a community-controlled urban space.

The green, green hills above

It’s not all urbanisation in Berkeley though. In fact, the higher you go up the dramatic, verdant hills that rise abruptly to the east, the more you find yourself amidst some surprisingly sublime natural surroundings.

You can start this ascent from the beautifully landscaped thirty acres of the university’s Botanical Garden, featuring a dazzling array of plant and cactus species.

Alternatively, a more northerly route out of town takes you via the exquisite Berkeley Rose Garden and the grey basalt lump known as Indian Rock, so named in honour of the local Ohlone tribe, to the uppermost ridge that gives onto the semi-wilderness of Tilden Park.

Mules Ears in Tilden Regional Park

Here an impressive expanse of over two thousand acres encompasses thick woodland, numerous trails and delightful Lake Anza, perfect for a soothing dip in the warmer months.

Finally, don’t miss the opportunity to pick a spot somewhere along Grizzly Peak Boulevard, where you can gaze back west across Berkeley and the Bay to the gleaming skyscrapers of San Francisco, the elegant span of the Golden Gate Bridge and the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean beyond.

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