Berkeley can be a curiosity to those visiting from out of town (or out of the States). It is one of the few places in the Bay Area, besides San Francisco, where one can walk down the street and encounter hippie buskers, hipster coffee shops and the hippest new restaurant — all on the same block. And while high-class foodie culture is alive and well in Berkeley, it often comes at a steep price. Fortunately, the large population of struggling artists and college students means there are plenty of affordable places to check out around town. Taking a nod from the New York Times’ “36 Hours in …” series, we’ve compiled a list of Berkeley institutions that make the city its own. Whether you’re new to town or a local resident, take a weekend to fall in love — or back in love — with the sights, smells and sounds of Berkeley.
1. 10 a.m.: Hot coffee and a cool hike
Nestled on the corner of College Avenue and Bancroft Way, Caffe Strada is a staple coffee shop that caters to students, professors and book lovers alike. Order a classic cafe au lait and a blueberry scone or, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, a mocha bianca and a slice of carrot cake. Then, while seated outside under a shady tree, watch UC Berkeley students and city residents hustle and bustle. Properly caffeinated and hunger sated for the moment, head toward Bowles Hall to hike the short (but steep) 15-minute path up to the Big C. Once there, enjoy the nice breeze and cool views of the Bay.
2. Noon: Being on top
Stumbling into Top Dog on Durant Avenue after a late night of partying is somewhat of a rite of passage for many students living in the area. The hot dogs served here are as tasty at 1 p.m. as they are at 1 a.m. Ask for a kielbasa with sauerkraut and brown mustard, or for a bratwurst or hot link for the ungodly ketchup-and-onion lovers out there — better make that two orders. Then head toward the Berkeley campus, dog(s) in hand, with your eye on Sather Tower, known to most as the Campanile. Open from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, the tower offers 360-degree views of the campus, city and bay. After, feel free to take a food-induced nap on Memorial Glade along with tired students and giggling couples.
3. 2 p.m.: Rocking to records, rolling in readings
Named after the infamous mystic of the last czar of Russia, Rasputin Music opened in Berkeley in 1971 and since then has been dishing out thousands of records, CDs and DVDs to cater to everyone from rock ‘n’ roll connoisseurs to indie-pop novices and more. Stroll through the main-floor aisle before checking out the massive collection of records, as cheap as $1, downstairs. After being just short of overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tunes in the store, walk down Telegraph Avenue for a couple of minutes. Stop by Moe’s Books and truly learn what being overwhelmed means, with four floors of wall-to-wall novels, travel guides and memoirs galore. Then be sure to check out all the other stores and vendors on Telegraph Avenue that tickle your fancy.
4. 6 p.m.: A slice of Shattuck
Walk under the marquee of Shattuck Cinemas and you might find yourself suddenly transported back in time. The foyer’s intricate gilded floral ceiling is a commanding entrance, and some of the theaters in the space have an Egyptian-esque decor flanking the small but intimate screen. Try to catch a flick that is playing in one of the theaters with overstuffed leather couches (then try not to fall asleep). When the movie is over, don’t forget to look behind you at the now-lit-up marquee as you make your way to Sliver. Offering only one option a day, Sliver consistently manages to serve delicious, hot vegetarian pizza to the masses (along with its famous green sauce, of course). You can also check its website ahead of time to see what the pizza of the day will be.
5. 9-10 p.m.: I scream, you scream
Still hungry? CREAM is your best bet for a late-night sweet fix. Open until midnight every day except Sunday during the summer, the place is unabashedly straightforward with what it’s selling: ice cream sandwiched between two warm, gooey cookies of your choice. It’s a cheap treat for $2 a pop with cash. If you’re looking for something a little more artisan, skip the infamous Ici Ice Cream, with its long lines, on College Avenue and try Tara’s Organic Ice Cream before it closes at 10 p.m. While more expensive, Tara’s has flavors that change daily and range from classic vanilla and chocolate to yerba mate and garam masala — though white-pepper chocolate chip is a favorite.
6. 11 a.m.: Brunching in Berkeley
La Note is a popular destination for those trying to impress either their date the morning after or their parents. Appropriately, the place gets packed during weekend brunch hours, so try to make a reservation the day before or risk waiting more than 30 minutes. The food is well worth the wait, though. If eating with a friend, you should both order something different — sharing is caring. The Cote Nord and the raspberry oatmeal pancake — with cups of coffee and hot chocolate — make for a great way to start the morning in Berkeley. On sunny days, try to be seated on the patio.
7. 1 p.m.: Learning by art
During the holiday season, the Christmas lights decorating the Fourth Street district of West Berkeley make the area look magical. Even in the summer, though, the area is hopping with upscale restaurants and clothing stores. After window shopping for a bit, head around the corner to the Potter’s Ghetto and brush up on some art skills at Brushstrokes Studio. The studio fee for adults is $9.95, and all you have to pay for is the pottery piece or glass-fusing project of your choice. With your new masterpiece, chow down on some noodles at Toss Noodle Bar on Shattuck Avenue, shoulder to shoulder with a few ravenous local students.
8. 4 p.m.: One with nature
City life, especially in Downtown Berkeley, can be crowded and bustling. Just a bus ride away (take the 67), Tilden Regional Park offers several trails — including paved ones — of different lengths and difficulties to hike to your heart’s content. Wildcat Peak is a popular destination, as are the botanical garden and the antique merry-go-round. Wildlife — and the possibility of getting your hands a little dirty — isn’t appealing to everyone, though. One can always get a taste of Mother Nature at Berkeley Bowl, an independently owned and locally beloved grocery store. Produce is always cheap, and the store offers a huge selection of teas and granola, among other things.
9. 8 p.m.: A feast for kings
Berkeley offers a plethora of affordable Thai options. Racha Cafe on Telegraph Avenue serves simple, no-frills dishes for almost any party size. There is usually a dinner rush. Remember, if service is slow, keep your eye on the prize: hot, steaming, authentic Thai food. Try the beef pad see ew or red curry with duck, and wash the meal down with a Thai iced tea. Portion control at Racha will allow you to save room for a late-night run to King Pin Donuts. Ignore whatever is in the case and purchase one of the freshly made goods still warm from the fryer and resting on the cooling racks. Sink your teeth into the soft, sugary treat, then call it a night.