Berkeley for Free and Cheap

Photo by Andrew Mager

Exploring this California university town on a student's budget is a cinch

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Berkeley, California, is not the cheapest place to visit in San Francisco‘s East Bay (which includes Oakland), but there are still loads of ways to have fun for free (or next to nothing). Amble around the university campus, then shop for secondhand clothes and used books and music and grab some cheap eats on Telegraph Ave. Feel like being more active? Detour to the Berkeley Marina, green parks in the Berkeley Hills, or a cheap community yoga class. After dark, have a few drinks at local breweries and bars packed with Cal students or catch a music, dance, or theater show with discount tickets. Stay for a day, or stretch your budget over a weekend — don’t worry, you won’t go broke in Berkeley.

You can just about everywhere around town on foot or by bicycle (rent your own wheels at Lulu’s Cyclery on Telegraph Ave.). To get to West Berkeley, the marina, or the Berkeley Hills, you’ll have to drive or catch an AC Transit bus check schedules first, allow extra time for slow buses, and don’t be surprised if you end up walking a bit). If you’re coming in from out of town, the Downtown Berkeley BART station is most centrally located. (See the Berkeley Transportation section for details on both.)

Breakfast and Brunch in Berkeley

Near the UC Berkeley campus, Café Durant has big breakfast combo plates of Mexican and American comfort food for less than $10, or get espresso and a pastry to at Caffe Strada, another student hangout. On Saturdays, hit the Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market, which opens at the entirely reasonable hour of 10 a.m. and doesn’t close until 3 p.m. For Sunday brunch, Wat Mongkolratanaram is a neighborhood Thai temple south of downtown that serves food from outdoor stalls, pricing dishes at 5 to 8 tokens each (exchange $1 for one token). Over on 4th St. in West Berkeley, sparkling Bette’s Oceanview Diner isn’t quite as cheap, but does make the best buttermilk pancakes and waffles in town.

Daytime Sights

You could while away an entire morning or afternoon just on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Make reservations in advance for a free campus walking tour, available daily and led by enthusiastic Cal students with a sense of humor. Piercing the sky over campus, Sather Tower (aka the Campanile) is modeled after the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. It costs just three bucks to climb to the observation platform at the top, or you can enjoy the thrice-daily carillon concerts, when 61 bells peal, from the esplanade beneath the tower. Then step inside the nearby Bancroft Library, where a gallery hosts free rotating exhibits. Admission to the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley is normally $10, but it’s free for everyone on the first Wednesday of every month. Pick up the university’s free newspaper, The Daily Californian, to find out about free and cheap campus events.

Just off campus in downtown Berkeley, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life is free to visit and open during the academic year. Two blocks away is the bold, beautiful and new location of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which is free to the public on the first Thursday of every month. If you want to find out more about the city’s history, make reservations in advance for a guided walking tour ($10) with the Berkeley Historical Society. For more raucous fun, head out to Golden Gate Fields racetrack on Sundays during the live racing season, when admission, parking, a beer, a soda, and a hot dog cost just one dollar each.

Get Active

Ready to get outside? Up in the Berkeley Hills, sprawling Tilden Regional Park offers hiking trails, sunset panoramas of San Francisco Bay, a botanic garden, and an environmental education center and children’s petting farm, all for free. For a couple of dollars, you can go swimming in Lake Anza on spring weekends or any day during summer, or let your kids climb on the park’s merry-go-round or steam trains.

On the waterfront in West Berkeley, the Berkeley Marina is free to visit and have a picnic. You can walk, cycle or run all the way around the shoreline, or hike and fly a kite in neighboring Cesar Chavez Park, one of the city’s best free parks. Other favorite municipal parks, all free to visit, include the Berkeley Rose Garden, Indian Rock Park, and Codornices Park (which has a 40-foot concrete hill slide!), all in North Berkeley. Back at the marina, take the kids to the Adventure Playground or throw a Frisbee around the disc-golf course at Aquatic Park, on the opposite side of the freeway.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that there are a lot of yoga studios in Berkeley. Many offer weekly classes that are either free or by donation, or community classes that are low-cost. At the non-profit Yoga to the People, classes are always a suggested donation of $10.


Without a doubt, the cheapest place to shop in Berkeley is where all the students go near campus: Telegraph Avenue. There you’ll find used tomes at Moe’s Books, secondhand and vintage clothes at Buffalo Exchange, and used music and movies at Rasputin Music and Amoeba Music (the latter sometimes has free live shows and DJ sets). For super cheap goods, browse whatever the hippie, New Age and Rastafarian street vendors on Telegraph Ave. are selling, or shop for beads, incense, soap, candles, and other DIY crafts at the Berkeley Flea Market, held every Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Ashby BART station parking lot. Finally, though we know it’s not exactly cheap, you could still score serious discounts at the North Face Berkeley Outlet in West Berkeley.

Lunch and Dinner in Berkeley

Walk south of campus down Telegraph Avenue, crammed with student-friendly eateries like Koja Kitchen, the brick-and-mortar shop of a Korean-Japanese food truck, and CREAM, making ooey-gooey ice-cream sandwiches. Another busy street for student eats is Durant Ave., where Smoke’s Poutinerie may be Canada’s finest export to California. Downtown, John’s Ice Cream incredibly charges just $1 for a scoop.

Foodies will want to check out North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto along Shattuck Ave. If you can’t afford the stratospheric prices at chef Alice Waters’s landmark restaurant Chez Panisse, try the budget-priced Epicurious Garden food court up the block, or get in line for a cheap slice of vegetarian pizza and a salad at the Cheese Board Collective, which also has free live music at both lunch and dinner. North Berkeley’s organic farmers market happens every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m on Shattuck Ave. at Rose St.

If you’re over in West Berkeley, feast on Indian street food and sweets at Vik’s Chaat, an enormous cafeteria at the back of an Indian grocery store. You’ll find plenty of other chaat houses and Indian restaurants on University Ave., where La Mission is the spot for tasty Mexican food, especially delicious mole poblano and mole guajillo — dig into your heaping plateful on the side patio at outdoor tables underneath shady trees.

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Drinks, Nightlife, and Shows

Do you love beer? Go straight to West Berkeley, where you can sample amazingly good craft beer at Fieldwork Brewing Co. and all-sour brews at Rare Barrel. On 4th St., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Torpedo Room has 16 rotating taps of not only its own small-batch beers but also guest brews, with tasting pours costing from $2. Show up earlier in the afternoon to visit the free museum and for a tasting flight ($5 or $10) at Takara Sake USA, down the street. Reserve ahead for a free afternoon brewery tour at the Trumer Pils Braueri, farther north.

Downtown, Jupiter pizzeria pub has an eclectic selection of craft beers on tap and a back garden where you can share a pizza with friends. Just a few blocks north on Shattuck Ave., Triple Rock Brewery & Ale House is just as popular with Cal students. Farther west on Addison St., you can catch an affordable live music show at the 1960s-era Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse or the California Jazz Conservatory. There are no cheap seats inside the revered Berkeley Repertory Theatre, but tickets are steeply discounted if you’re under 30 or show up for rush tickets one hour before showtime with a student or senior ID.

Elsewhere around town, you can always have a cheap night out at La Peña Cultural Center, a multicultural performing arts space with Latin soul, near the Ashby BART station. In West Berkeley, it’s always a very Bezerkeley scene at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center, which puts on international music shows and group dance lessons in tango, bhangra and Balkan folk dancing. And who better to keep the live-free-or-die vibe alive than punk rockers at 924 Gilman, an all-ages music club in West Berkeley where the band Green Day got its start?

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