Most people who visit college kids at UC Berkeley choose to stay in San Francisco and cross the Golden Gate Bridge to visit the kids. But staying in Berkeley CA offers its own pleasures, including stress-free driving (sometimes) and lots of open space – two luxuries you don’t find in San Francisco!
Disclosure: The writer was a guest of the Doubletree Berkeley Marina and drove the Mazda6 courtesy of Mazda. Opinions expressed are her own.
On previous trips to San Francisco, I’ve gone to Berkeley, but spent most of my time in San Francisco. This time I flipped the ratio, going into San Francisco just once and spending most of my time in Berkeley. We found lots of great food throughout the area, with plenty of indoor and outdoor activities.
What to Do at the University of California, Berkeley
Even if you don’t have a child at UC Berkeley, or a kid old enough for college visits, you should check out that campus. It offers many interesting and fun things to do, even if you’re not considering enrollment!
Lawrence Hall of Science, an interactive science museum, is part of UC Berkeley, so students get to go free. Everyone else has to pay (everyone over age 2, that is) but it’s worth it for the hands-on fun.
UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley has a Redwood Grove that was closed when we visited. But if you can plan your visit around the beginning of the month, admission is free on the first Wednesday. It is also free for kids under age 6 (and UC Berkeley students). The 34 acres of the UC Botanical Garden include a Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden and a Garden of Old Roses. There are also gardens devoted to native California plants, as well as to plants of the Mediterranean and South America.
UC Berkeley Art Museum lets you bring in a child under age 13 for each paying adult. And the museum is free to all on the first Thursday of each month. The museum opened in 1881 and includes ancient Asian art and works from the Renaissance, along with more contemporary art. Its complete name is The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (aka BAMPFA), so programming includes frequent movie screenings.
Where to Stay Near UC Berkeley
Since many Bay Area visitors stay in San Francisco and ride to BART over to Berkeley, hotel choices are limited. We stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton Berkeley Marina, a pet friendly hotel just across the bay from San Francisco. The hotel had an unexpected benefit: miles of flat, traffic-free roads for running and biking. The Doubletree loans beach cruiser bicycles for free if you want to explore the Berkeley Marina on two wheels.
Even better, if you have four paws, or boundless kid energy, the hotel is right between two parks. Cesar Chavez Park allows dogs to run off leash. This is great place to fly a kite. Shorebird Park is a nature sanctuary on the other side of the hotel. And the Adventure Playground is a destination playground with lots of climbing and building opportunities.
You can see across the San Francisco Bay right into San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, I could see it from my room, the Presidential Suite. The duplex had two balconies, a half bathroom, dining room, kitchenette and living room downstairs, with a king sized bed and bathroom upstairs.
You can take a brunch cruise right from the hotel, with live music and a buffet.
The Doubletree Berkeley Marina had another advantage: easy access to the highway. We were driving up to Napa, and could easily zip out of town.
Getting Around Berkeley
A hotel shuttle drops you off within a three mile radius of the hotel. That meant we could be dropped off just below UC Berkeley and walk through campus to get to any of the museums. Even if you don’t plan to visit the museums, be sure to spend time on campus. UC Berkeley has streams running through it and gorgeous landscaping. The Campanile, or bell tower, has a 10-minute performance every day at 7:50 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. You can climb the Campanile, officially named Sather Tower, for great views of the Bay Area. Sather Tower is the third tallest bell and clock tower in the world.
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We had a sporty Mazda6 for our trip to Napa, and used it when we went to Oakland and hiking. But for downtown Berkeley, the free shuttle or an inexpensive Uber is better. You have to pay to park in Berkeley so you might as well just leave the car. Also, much of the daytime parking is limited to two hours. My daughter lives on a bicycle boulevard, a low speed street that gives priority to bikers. I mean, it’s still Berkeley.
Where to Eat
The Doubletree has a copious breakfast buffet that includes Asian specialties. I had congee (rice porridge) with kimchi one day, just because. There was also oatmeal, plenty of fresh fruit, yogurt and pastries. With the buffet you could get an omelet or eggs cooked to order.
We ran to Fourth Street, just over the bridge from the hotel. This area has great shopping and restaurants. In downtown Berkeley, near UC, we had wonderful vegan food at The Butcher’s Son.
Book your table at Chez Panisse a month in advance. This innovator of California cuisine, in the North Berkeley area called the Gourmet Ghetto, still draws huge crowds.
Oakland, the Brooklyn of the Bay Area, is also nearby and worth a visit. We found plant-based ice cream at Curbside Creamery, a Michelin-starred vegan restaurant called Millenium, and wonderful food and drink at every turn. We also spent a morning at the giant Oakland Grand Lake Farmers Market. The market has tons of vendors with free samples and live music playing while you munch. We picked up provisions for a hike but you can also just eat lunch there.
Enjoy the Outdoors in Berkeley
We hiked in Redwood Regional Park, near the Berkeley Hills. The Park had many trails, and seemingly every hiker had a dog or two in tow. You can bike on certain trails. Be sure to remember where you parked – there are several lots. Only the main gate charges for parking (and for bringing a dog).
I had to drive a very windy road to the parking lot at Redwood Regional Park; in the sport mode, the Mazda handled very well. I was very glad to have a car with lane detection warning and lane keep assist. The road to the hotel was so full of potholes that our Uber driver crept along at 5 miles per hour. At normal speed, the Mazda6 still gave a pretty smooth ride.
Plans for Next Time
I was too intimidated to try running the Berkeley Hills, but I plan to try. And I definitely want to spend more time in Oakland, to visit the Oakland Art Museum, Oakland zoo, and dog friendly beer garden Drake’s Dealership.