Enjoy Affordable Adventures in Walkable, Relaxed, Culturally Connected Berkeley, California

Enjoy Affordable Adventures In Berkeley California

In a Nutshell: Some cities are travel-friendly because of their proximity to places where people really want to be. Berkeley, California, is like that — it’s across the bay from San Francisco and near California’s wine country — but it also has more than enough charisma to stand on its own. Berkeley is a charming college town with a ’60s counterculture legacy and a relaxed intellectual vibe. It’s also a cultural locus, a foodie wonderland, and a walkable base camp for outdoor lovers. With lodging rates about 25% lower than in San Francisco, families seeking affordable adventures in a dynamic California region find Berkeley irresistible.

Berkeley, California, is a university town through and through. By that we mean that the university came to Berkeley, and the city grew around it.

Originally a site planned for a private college, Berkeley was a nearly empty street grid when it became the home of the University of California’s first campus in 1868. It has nurtured an iconoclastic reputation ever since, especially since the 1960s, when students at UC Berkeley launched the Free Speech Movement and helped usher in the counterculture era.

Berkeley, California

Have things calmed down since then? Absolutely, to the point where Berkeley, with its 125,000 residents, is an ideal home base for families seeking affordable travel adventures. If you see the wisdom in broadening your horizons or introducing your children to the wider world, Berkeley is the place to do it.

Visit Berkeley logo

“Berkeley is a college town in its essence, but it’s slightly askew from other cities like it — it has its own unique energy and vibe,” said Dan Marengo, Director of Marketing and Communications at Visit Berkeley. “There’s no on-campus housing, so students live in the city and create this exciting and fun energy, especially when school is in session.”

Berkeley also has a logistics advantage for families interested in sampling San Francisco across the bay to the west, the Napa Valley wine country to the north, or many other enticing California destinations. Lodging rates are about 25% lower than in San Francisco, airport and transit access is seamless, and the city offers a walkable, relaxed, neighborly feel that is perfect for winding down.

“We like to say Berkeley is your Bay Area base camp — you can really just start here and then explore in different directions,” Marengo said.

Year-Round Attractions for Family Fun

Located on a peninsula next to the Pacific, San Francisco is known for the fog that envelopes the city. Romantic as that may sound, reduced visibility makes foggy weather unsafe and — dare we say it — somewhat monotonous.

Most of the fog burns off before it reaches Berkeley east across the San Francisco Bay, leaving the town with spectacular views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate leading to the ocean. Berkeley is temperate — neither too hot nor too cold — making it suitable for visiting any time of the year.

Berkeley overlook
The hills overlooking Berkeley include Tilden Park and numerous hiking trails and vistas.

“If we get into the 80s, it’s a heatwave — people are like, wow, this is crazy,” Marengo said. “If it hits 90, forget it. We’re in that sweet spot of the upper 60s to the mid-70s because of the modifying factor of the fog and breeze coming through the Golden Gate.”

Summer is an excellent time to visit because many students aren’t around. It’s not like the city shuts down when the students leave. On the other hand, interacting with thousands of budding intellectuals in spring, fall, and winter also has its charms, especially if you’re attempting to inspire your child to study more.

The Summer Concert Series at UC Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theater, an 8,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, is a huge draw. The Bay Area Book Festival, held during the first weekend of June, is growing fast and has become a big event for the city. A half marathon running event attracts many visitors in the fall.

But there’s always plenty to do. The event calendar on the Visit Berkeley website has a filter for kid- and family-friendly events, many free or low-cost.

“Berkeley is a chill vacation spot in the summer, but events and festivals are year-round,” Marengo said.

Soak Up the City’s Neighborhood Vibe

The only times to consider avoiding a visit are weeks in May and August when students move in and out of the city, skewing lodging rates due to increased demand. Prices are never so steep that visiting during moving times is out of the question, Marengo said.

Part of Berkeley’s charm is that it’s a city of neighborhoods. Every Berkeley district has something to offer, but the areas that surround the university and comprise the city’s heart will most captivate visitors. Those include the downtown business district, the student-oriented area known as Telegraph Avenue, and North Shattuck, the foodie section of town.

“Berkeley has a mom-and-pop, maker-oriented local economy with shops, retail, and food creators,” Marengo said.

Chez Panisse
Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse restaurant offers a reasonably priced upstairs cafe menu. Many of Berkeley’s 350+ eating establishments cater to student budgets. Photo by Ariawna Talton.

Chef Alice Waters and her iconic restaurant Chez Panisse made Berkeley the ’70s incubator of the farm-to-table style of eating known as California cuisine. That restaurant is a little pricey, although an upstairs cafe is more reasonable than the downstairs portion with its prix fixe menu.

Meanwhile, Berkeley’s more than 350 eating and drinking establishments run the gamut in price and approach, with many catering to students’ budgets. Hearkening back to ’60s hippie days, many are employee-owned.

The Cheese Board Collective, a cheese shop and pizza restaurant, is one prominent employee-owned food business. Other establishments share the facilities at The Berkeley Kitchens, which rents space to proprietors such as Cult Crackers, Third Culture (which makes Mochi Muffins®), Standard Fare, and Boichik Bagels.

Every year in March, Berkeley Restaurant Week entices locals and visitors with tier-based pricing from dozens of proprietors. The 2024 version of the event saw Visit Berkeley teaming up with the Berkeley Food Network to raise donations and awareness to end hunger and poor nutrition, and build a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable food system.

“It’s farm-to-table food at very approachable price points,” Marengo said.

The Bay Area’s Base Camp

We’re scratching the surface here. Unsurprisingly for a university town steeped in the ’60s, Berkeley is an arts hotspot. Marengo said the downtown arts district’s theaters and live music venues are always vibing.

One of the major players in the arts district is Freight & Salvage, an Americana and folk music venue. Berkeley Repertory Theater is the leading stage theater. UC Theatre is a venue for metal, punk, and alternative music. An arts anchor is the reasonably priced Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA.

Another spot, 924 Gilman, is where Berkeley favorite sons Green Day got their start.

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden
The Botanical Garden at UC Berkeley offers scenic family fun. Photo by Christine Tsai.

“It’s a punk rock club — nothing fancy, no frills,” Marengo said. “But for Green Day fans, it’s a pilgrimage to go there and see a show.”

Not all of the above options are family-friendly, to be sure. But the Berkeley Public Library is known to stage music programs, and the helpful site at Visit Berkeley lists many family options.

Of more universal appeal are Berkeley’s outdoor attractions, including hiking and cycling at Berkeley Marina down near the bay or east above the city at Tilden Park, where the merry-go-round beckons children and the young at heart. UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden is also a highlight.

Berkeley visitors may forget the nearby world city of San Francisco, the spectacular wine country, and much of what makes California a prime tourist destination. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) connects the Oakland and San Francisco international airports to the city and its environs. The AC Transit bus system provides excellent ground transportation. Add widespread ride and bike shares, and cars are nearly redundant. You’re set even if you never leave town.

“Stay in Berkeley — there’s more room to spread out and relax,” Marengo said.