Whether you call it “The People’s Republic of Berkeley” for its ultra left-leaning politics, “Berzerkeley” for all the freaks and weirdos hanging out on trippy Telegraph Avenue, or just plain Berkeley, this university town is unlike any other community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though its reputation for bleeding-heart liberals, socialists, and radicalism is well deserved — just look at all of those “Nuclear Free Zone” signs posted at the city limits — Berkeley has also proved itself fertile ground for a whole kaleidoscope of human endeavors, from boundary-breaking art, music and food to international Buddhist studies to cutting-edge scientific discovery.
Always colorful and zany, and as thought-provoking as it is sometimes maddening, Berkeley is one place you should see before leaving the Bay Area, that is if you ever decide to go home at all. The city’s reason for being is the venerated University of California, Berkeley. Established in 1866, it’s the oldest university in the state system, which is why everyone calls it just “Cal.” Spend an hour or two wandering around the hillside campus, with its museums, gardens, library, and lecture halls. Orient yourself by looking up for (and listening for the bells pealing out of) landmark Sather Tower, modeled after St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, Italy.
If you’re going to find any hippie drum circles or protestors on campus these days, they’ll probably be camped out in split-level Sproul Plaza, which opens out onto the city’s historic Telegraph Avenue, once the heart of 1960s hippie counter-culture. These days Telegraph Ave. is still chock-a-block with student cafes and shops, including Amoeba Records. On sunny days, street vendors sell just about anything cheaply from sidewalk tables. If you keep heading south, you’ll eventually get to Oakland‘s hip Temescal neighborhood.
Also running south of campus is College Avenue. A few blocks east of Telegraph Ave., it’s a less scruffy strip of upscale boutiques and restaurants, mixed in with the odd crystal-selling New Age bookshop. It merges seamlessly into Oakland’s posh Elmwood and Rockridge neighborhoods. Even farther east is the wealthy Claremont District, where the Claremont Hotel Club and Spa is a Gatsby-esque retreat for the well-to-do. It sprawls below the Berkeley Hills, where you’ll find the open green spaces of Tilden Regional Park tucked among hillside mansions.
Downhill from the west side of campus, Downtown Berkeley stays busy, day and night. Cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops abound, especially on Shattuck Avenue, the main north-south drag, where the Downtown Berkeley BART station lets riders in and out. West of Shattuck Ave., you’ll find some of the city’s top performing arts venues, including the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, while back east toward campus is the brand-new location of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).
North of downtown is (no surprises here) is North Berkeley, best known for its “Gourmet Ghetto” of restaurants that foodies and locals adore, including California chef Alice Waters’s phenomenal Chez Panisse, all on Shattuck Ave. Farther north is another local shopping and dining strip, Solano Avenue, which extends over the border into the neighboring city of Albany.
West of downtown, University Avenue runs past a clutch of international (especially South Asian) shops, markets, and restaurants all the way out to the I-80 Freeway and the waterfront Berkeley Marina, where locals cycle, run, walk, or paddle out into the Bay. Along the way it passes through West Berkeley, an industrial warehouse area undergoing redevelopment, albeit in fits and starts. Fourth Street, north of University Ave., is lined with trendy boutique shops, restaurants, and cafes. South of University Ave., you’ll find a smattering of art galleries, beer and sake tasting rooms, and an eclectic assortment of showrooms and stores.
Wondering how to spend your first day or two in Berkeley, especially if you’re on a student’s budget? Check out our recommended itinerary for experiencing Berkeley for Free and Cheap.
Like most of California’s coastal destinations, you can visit Berkeley any time you feel like it, year-round. August and September are usually the best time (or the worst, depending on how you feel about heat) for blazing sunshine and no rain in sight. Winters are colder and can be rainy between November and March, but you don’t have to worry about snow ever falling. For balmy warm days and cool evenings that aren’t yet cold, October in fall is your best bet, followed by April in spring. May, June and July are typically sunny and dry, but not unbearably hot.
How much time you spend is up to you, but a day or two is enough to give you a taste of what the city has to offer. Take a whole weekend if you really want to explore. You even might want to consider making Berkeley your base camp for exploring the entire Bay Area, since it’s just a quick BART ride from San Francisco. It’s also an easy enough to trip from here to anywhere else you might feel like going around the rest of the East Bay (say, Oakland), down to Silicon Valley and San Jose, over to Marin County, or up to the wine country around Napa and Sonoma.
January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March 31: César Chávez Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July 4: Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
September 9: California Admission Day
September (fourth Friday): Native American Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas
California is located in the Pacific time zone (GMT-7).
To check the local time in California now, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) begins in spring on the second Sunday in March, when clocks are advanced one hour. In the fall on the first Sunday of November, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. With few exceptions, the entire country (including California) participates in this ritual of “springing forward” and “falling back.”
The most important thing to pack for the Bay Area is layers. Lots of layers. Chances are you’re going to experience a few different weather patterns while you’re here, sometimes all in the same city (San Francisco alone has dozens of micro climates). Be prepared for sunshine and rain, as well as unexpectedly cool evenings and mornings until the fog burns off for the day.
Californians prefer to keep it casual as much of the time as possible. You will only need to dress up for dinner at the most haute restaurants and maybe an evening show. One thing that you won’t see many Californians go without is a fleece jacket. If you didn’t pack any fleece, you can pick some up at the REI or North Face outlet stores in Berkeley.
Compared with San Francisco, the Peninsula, and San Jose, Berkeley’s hotel rates often look like a bargain. So does its eclectic mix of student-friendly restaurants, most of which don’t require making reservations weeks in advance (hallelujah!). After paying for accommodations, food, and drink, your next biggest expense might be shopping, since the city’s collection of boutiques, vintage stores, and handmade goods shops will tempt you to keep pulling out your wallet.
If you’re on a tight budget… By staying at cheap motels and sharing a room with your travel buddy, eating take-out meals, getting around on public transportation, and limiting how many attractions you visit and how much nightlife you enjoy, you can get by on about $100 a day.
If you don’t mind spending more… to rent a car to get around, visit a few bigger sights, and go out for drinks and sit-down meals, plan on around $150 a day ($200 or more if you want to shop or see a show).
When you travel won’t make too much of a difference, budget-wise. Winter off-season prices for lodgings may be a tad less than peak summer season rates, and weekdays may be cheaper than weekends. Around major events at the university such as graduation weekend, expects significantly higher prices and for all hotel rooms in the city to be booked up.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in U.S. dollars ($).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $100-300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double room
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16-22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need them to be low, they’re high. And when prices dip, what happens? You have no free time to travel. Sigh.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline websites. That said, it’s advantageous to also visit an airline’s own website before booking. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator sites. Most airlines share time-limited, super-discounted specials via their social media pages or in email blasts. So it pays to be their “friend” or subscribe to their e-mail lists.
When flying into the Bay Area, you have three airports to choose from. The most expensive flights usually land at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is connected to downtown Berkeley by BART (55 minutes, $9.55). Often you’ll find cheaper fares by flying directly into Oakland International Airport (OAK), which is served by smaller airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, Allegiant, and Spirit, in addition to American and Delta. Oakland’s airport is a 40-minute BART ride ($8.60) from downtown Oakland; change trains at Coliseum station.
In San Jose near Silicon Valley, Mineta San José International Airport (SJC) may also have cheaper flights, but getting to Berkeley from San Jose is not feasible on public transportation. If you rent a car, it’s an hour’s drive from San Jose’s airport to downtown Berkeley, but that can easily double during weekday morning and evening commuter rush hours or when sports events are scheduled at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara or Oakland’s O.co Coliseum and Oracle Arena, all located off the I-800 Freeway.
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Online booking websites like Hotwire and Kayak offer comparison price shopping. So does the Costco Travel website (for members only). There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell them what you want to pay and maybe they can hook you up with a car rental company who fits the bill. They have some great deals, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental or which company you rent from.
Tip: Some Bay Area car rental agencies offer automatic tolling programs. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge or highway tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, online.
Available all over the San Francisco Bay Area, Zipcar is an option for short-term rentals of just a couple of hours (daily rates tend to be very expensive, however). If you’ve joined Zipcar in advance of your trip, you can open the mobile app on your smartphone and search for a nearby Zipcar location, then pick up your car and go. Membership starts around $25, while rentals begin at $7 per hour (including gas, insurance, and 180 free miles). Foreign drivers can join Zipcar, too.
Ride-sharing services such as Lyft are ubiquitous in the Bay Area. Through a smartphone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s often cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know they are on their way and how long it will be.
Hopefully, your trip to California goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other countries. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000. U.S. travelers should check if their medical insurance at home will cover them while in Las Vegas.
Trip Interruption For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to cut your trip short, the insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage (up to a certain amount only).
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a storm-prone area during winter, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include free concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz, and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkely, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International, and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight; it’s often contracted with the above major players.
If you have pre-existing health conditions Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But they also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain timeframe after paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance If you buy your airfare or make other travel bookings with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
For more information, contact the US Travel Insurance Association.
The U.S. dollar fluctuates against other world currencies, but its value has steadily risen since early 2015. For current exchange rates, click here.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans may have a tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents), and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Most Californians do not carry a large amount of cash with them on an everyday basis, and neither should you.
If you withdraw cash from an ATM machine, most banks apply a surcharge of around $3 per transaction. Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, banks in California will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets such as pharmacies will allow you to get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods with your debit card – this is an easy way to get some cash while on the go without paying a surcharge.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card issuer before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state, and even Californians traveling far from home. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card declined when you try to use it at your destination in California. You should also call your bank or credit card issuer immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card – which doesn’t help if it is lost or stolen. Make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access, for example, by taking a photo of the back of the card with your smartphone.
Recently cards with embedded chips to deter counterfeit fraud have been issued. Banks and merchants that don’t offer chip readers may be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details about your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any California trip. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but a few other special situations also apply.
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% of the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10% to 15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In most places, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, restaurants in major metropolitan areas are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized on the bill – if you look closely for it, that is.
Bellhops normally receive $1 to $2 per bag that they assist with, but if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, tip them $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day, left under the card on in the envelope provided. Tip $5 per day at higher-end properties.
At hotels with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff (around $10 to $20 per day) who help you plan activities, make restaurant reservations, or acquire tickets. Concierges do not expect tips for giving out simple information, such as directions.
Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) deserve a 20% tip for their services when performed well, whether at the spa or in your hotel room.
At bars, tip bartenders and cocktail servers at least $1 or $2 per drink, up to 15% to 20% per round.
Airport porters are normally tipped $2 or $3 per bag.
Taxi drivers are tipped 15% to 20% of the total fare, rounded up to the next whole dollar amount. Limo drivers expect a minimum $20 tip.
Tip parking valet staff a minimum of $2 when they hand back the keys to your car.
In Berkeley, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services is 9.5%. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax in Berkeley is a whopping 12%. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by some hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
If you’re driving around the Bay Area, don’t count on finding free parking, especially not in crowded urban neighborhoods. In Berkeley, municipal street parking costs $2 per hour, usually between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. Many parking zones are time-limited (for example, a two-hour maximum). Pay the parking fee directly at meters or at centralized parking pay stations, which usually accept both credit cards and coins. When parking in residential neighborhoods, carefully check all posted time limits, restrictions, prohibited days and hours (usually for street cleaning), and residential parking permit requirements (if any).
Compared with metered street parking, parking garages around Berkeley may charge higher or lower hourly rates, usually with a daily maximum of around $20. Shopping malls usually offer free parking, sometimes for a limited time only. Very occasionally, local businesses will validate parking at a reduced rate in an adjacent or a nearby garage, but only if you make a purchase and bring your parking ticket with you to get it stamped by the cashier.
All of the freeways around the Bay Area are exactly that – free. However, crossing any of the bridges in the Bay Area requires paying a toll in one direction (the other direction is free). This applies even to visitors driving rental cars, as otherwise the car rental agency will bill you later not only for the toll and associated fines, but also a hefty administrative surcharge.
The most popular way to get to the Bay Area is to fly, though many people do drive here from elsewhere in California and the rest of the country. Long-distance Amtrak trains are a scenic option for arriving in nearby Emeryville or Oakland. Long-distance Greyhound buses to Oakland are a reliable, though less comfortable option that may save you some money. Even so, airfares to Oakland are often cheap enough that it only makes sense to fly, given how much time you’ll save by doing so.
Getting around Berkeley and the East Bay is easy, though not always fast. If you rent a car, keep in mind not only the costs of parking and bridge tolls, but also traffic jams on Bay Area freeways and bridges. Unless you’re going to be taking day trips out of town, a car isn’t necessary just for exploring Berkeley, which is well served by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains, AC Transit buses, taxis, and on-demand ride-sharing services like Lyft. Many neighborhoods are pleasantly walkable, too. Renting a bicycle and cycling around town is another fun way to experience the city.
California defines casual. The uptight rules of etiquette that you might find on the East Coast (or “back East,” as Californians says) rarely apply here. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, in California you can wear a Hawaiian shirt to dinner at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and have surprisingly frank and intimate conversations with people who were strangers until just 10 minutes ago. On the other hand, you might make plans to go out and have fun with someone here, only to have them cancel at the last minute by text or never show at all. (Californians are notoriously flaky.)
Still, elements of the social contract are essential to life in a state as diverse as California, where almost 40 million residents speak 140 different languages. Being laid-back is arguably the most important virtue among Californians, followed by tolerance for everyone else’s religious and political views, gender and sexuality, and choices of body piercings, tattoos, and hairstyle.
Smoking As in many areas of the U.S., smoking is banned inside all public buildings, which includes hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. Smoking may be permitted on outdoor patios at restaurants and bars, but not always. Ask before you light up and look around for ashtrays first.
Shoes When visiting someone’s home in California, or when staying in a bed-and-breakfast or private vacation rental, expect to take your shoes off at the door. Wearing shoes indoors isn’t commonplace, especially along the coast.
Tipping One unquestionable rule of etiquette that even Californians abide by: tipping is not optional.
The state’s official tourism website by the California Travel & Tourism Commission.
The city’s official tourism website with more trip planning ideas and an online events calendar.
East Bay Regional Parks
Learn more about dozens of public parks, historical sites, nature reserves, and recreation areas.
East Bay Express
Free alternative tabloid weekly covers news and events, arts, entertainment, and the food scene.
KPFA 94.1 FM
Community radio on the Pacific network for news, talk shows, music, and more.
Oakland Bikeways Maps
Links to cycling route maps around the East Bay, including Berkeley.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Map
The same system map you’ll see plastered on the walls of every BART train and station.
511 Transit: San Francisco Bay Area Trip Planner
Get real-time traffic reports and plan your trip on public transit (buses, trains, and ferries).
California Highway Information
Enter the highway number you’ll be traveling on to get up-to-date information about road closures and construction. The toll-free phone number is (800) 427-7623.