The city of Berkeley, California is known for its university, its history of activism, and its ideal location in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dig a little deeper, and you can uncover loads of offbeat and fun things to see and do in Berkeley beyond the typical tourist attractions.
The fun and quirky side of Berkeley involves eye-catching street art, a house shaped like a fish, a shop that puts ice cream inside a donut(!), a reptile-lover’s paradise, a museum dedicated to sake, another dedicated to odors, and one of the tallest clock-and-bell towers in the world. Not to mention some of the coolest bookstores, record shops, and gift shops that you’ll find anywhere.
If you find yourself in the Bay Area, head over to Berkeley to check out some of these unique and fascinating places.
Quirky and Fun Things To Do in Berkeley, California
Sample Varieties of Sake at the Takara Sake Museum
Who knew there was a museum dedicated to sake?! Learn all about the popular Japanese alcoholic drink at the Takara Sake USA factory. It’s the largest sake brewery in America, and it has a free museum room containing exhibits that detail the process of producing sake from fermented rice. The best part? You can sample 7 different types of sake in their Tasting Room for 10 bucks – what a deal!
See the Fish House in Person
There’s a house that supposedly looks like a fish in Berkeley! Find this private residence at 2747 Mathews Street. Designed by Eugene Tssui, whose family used to live in the house, the structure has vaguely fin-like extremities, although it doesn’t really resemble a fish. The house was actually designed after the tardigrade, a microscopic aquatic animal. It’s a strange and unusual sight to come across this house on a quiet residential street.
Eat a Donut Filled with Ice Cream at Milkbomb
It’s always been my contention that ice cream and donuts are the two greatest reasons for living (and that is only a slight exaggeration.) Finally, somebody decided to combine them! At Milkbomb, you choose a donut type and ice cream flavor. Seconds later, the ice cream is stuffed into a halved donut, and this glorious treat is placed in front of you. I went with a glazed donut and strawberry ice cream, but I also recommend the cinnamon donut and churro-flavored ice cream combo.
Observe Huge Snakes and Reptiles at East Bay Vivarium
Easy Bay Vivarium is the go-to place to purchase exotic reptiles in the Bay Area. Even if you’re not interested in buying a pet tortoise or monitor lizard, you can have fun browsing the variety of animals in large tanks. Like Lemondrop, a 15-foot albino reticulated python who used to live at the California Academy of Sciences. Don’t be creeped out by the “self-serve frozen rodents freezer,” which sells frozen mice as food for pet reptiles!
Pose With a Giant Whale at the Lawrence Hall of Science
Cozy up to a life-size fin whale statue named Pheena at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Because the hall is located on a hillside, it also provides a great chance to see a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. And oh yeah, the museum’s cool too, especially if you’re traveling with kids.
Find Dozens of Games You Didn’t Know Existed at Games of Berkeley
This is one of the coolest stores I’ve ever seen. Games of Berkeley has hundreds of board games, card games, role-playing games, and just about every other kind of game you can imagine. My favorites were the weird variations of popular games, like Golden Girls and Scooby Doo versions of Clue, a Harry Potter version of Labyrinth, Game of Thrones puzzles, and endless pop culture editions of Monopoly, including The Simpsons, Fortnite, Rick and Morty, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
See Berkeley From Above at Sather Tower (Campanile)
More than 70,000 people annually take the elevator up to the top of Sather Tower. Also known as the Campanile, this 307-foot-tall structure was built in 1914 and stands as the third-highest bell and clock tower in the world. It’s only a few bucks (free for students) to visit the observation deck and take in views of Berkeley and the entire Bay Area.
Ride the Antique Carousel at Tilden Park
Head up to Tilden Park in the hills above Berkeley to ride one of the few antique carousels remaining in the country. The Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round is more than 100 years old and is actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 2079-acre park also features a miniature railway that carries visitors on a 12-minute ride in the park, plus 39 miles of hiking trails.
Liven Up Your Instagram Feed with Murals and Street Art
Berkeley has lots of street art and murals to add some excitement to your social media feeds. Just keep your eyes open as you walk around. Among the most popular are the “Welcome to Telegraph” at Dwight Way and Telegraph Avenue, and the “Welcome to Fabulous Berkeley” mural at 1015 University Avenue. Here’s a nice guide to murals near Telegraph Avenue.
Experience an Olfactory Paradise at the Scent Museum
A museum dedicated to smells – what a cool idea! In 2017, perfumer Mandy Aftel converted her garage into the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. People visit to sample more than 300 natural scents from flowers, leaves, fruits, trees, and more. Visiting this museum is one of the coolest things to do in Berkeley, but plan ahead: Because it’s a small, family-operated museum, it’s only open on Saturdays.
See Unusual Plants From Around the World at the Berkeley Botanical Garden
Founded in 1890, the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley features diverse collections of plant species from around the world in its 34 acres. Sections of the garden are devoted to various regions around the world, including Australasia, Southern Africa, Mediterranean, Mexico, and South America.
Check out the large puya plants from the Peruvian mountains, the sizable collection of carnivorous pitcher plants, and the unique Welwitschia from the Namibian desert. The Berkeley Botanical Garden also hosts a summer concert series in its towering Redwood Grove. I cannot think of a more scenic location to see live music!
View the Free Speech Monument on UC Berkeley Campus
It’s worth strolling through campus to get a feel for the University of California, Berkeley, which covers 1232 acres and has an enrollment of roughly 43,000 students. On the way, stop by the unusual free speech monument. Look closely, or you’ll miss it! Embedded into the concrete near Sather Gate is a circular granite disk 6 feet in width, with a 6-inch air vent in the middle.
This odd monument is meant as a nod to Berkeley’s history of free speech. Its inscription reads, “This soil and the air space above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.”
Delve Into the World of Pickled Foods at Cultured Pickle Shop
Talk about a niche business! Cultured specializes in one thing – cultured and pickled foods. Numerous varieties of kombucha and sauerkraut are available for purchase, along with seasonal offerings like pickled beets, carrots, and radishes. Take a jar of kraut home if you’re inclined to support one of Berkeley’s unique local shops.
Explore Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina for Killer Views of the Bay
Years ago, what is now Cesar Chavez Park used to be a landfill, until someone realized it made no sense to waste such precious real estate. On clear days, this peninsula in Sam Francisco Bay is one of the best places for views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. The park itself has walking trails and picnic areas, while the rest of the Berkeley Marina features a hotel, restaurants, and a sailing school.
Find Inspiration With the Berkeley Poetry Walk
How many cities have poetry embedded into their downtown sidewalks? The Berkeley Poetry Walk consists of 120 cast-iron plates on Addison Street in the Arts District. Find comfort (or discomfort) from the poetic words. Or use them to contemplate life or seek reassurance. I stumbled across the poem titled “In These Dark Times” by Julia Vinograd and found it timely and appropriate.
Find a Unique Gift at Annapurna
Described as “the subversive heart of Telegraph Avenue,” Annapurna has been catering to the needs of young people with a counterculture spirit for more than a half-century now. The walls and shelves are lined with imported gifts, jewelry, incense, pins, smoke accessories, tarot cards, candles, and posters. “We have 20 departments that you wouldn’t think would be in the same store,” says owner Al Geyer, who has been running the shop since 1969.
See Where Green Day Got Their Start at 924 Gilman
Officially known as the Alternative Music Foundation, 924 Gilman Street has been hosting rock and punk shows since 1986. Acts like Green Day, Operation Ivy, and Rancid famously performed at this nonprofit DIY club many times before they became huge. Green Day returned here in 2017 to shoot their “Revolution Radio” video. You can still attend shows at 924 Gilman every weekend.
View Cutting-Edge Art and Films at BAMPFA
Don’t try to remember the full name of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Just call it BAMPFA, and get yourself a ticket to explore the galleries of paintings, sculptures, films, and just about every other type of art you can imagine. The exhibits here are constantly changing – a recent one I enjoyed was “Strange,” which showcased some of the most unusual and surreal objects in the museum’s massive collection. BAMPFA also hosts an Art Lab for kids and students, and a theater that screens several movies per week.
Check Out the Historic Berkeley City Club Hotel
Not many American hotels hold historic architectural significance, but Berkeley City Club is an exception. Designed by pioneering architect Julia Morgan, the landmark property opened in 1930 as a women’s club. The club has been dubbed the “Little Castle” due to its arched concrete ceilings, courtyards, and large glass windows. You don’t have to spend a night at the hotel to see its interior – grab a fancy dinner at the on-site restaurant Julia’s or a cocktail at Morgan’s cocktail Bar and Lounge.
Pick Up Some Vinyl at a Classic Record Store
Both Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music have been fixtures on Telegraph Avenue for decades. They remain go-to places for music lovers to pick up new and old music. If you’re dying to find an obscure David Bowie vinyl or Sleater Kinney CD, these stores will hook you up.
Learn About the History of Telegraph Ave on Your Phone
Telegraph Avenue was the heart of the counterculture and free speech movement. Today, you can wander down the street while learning about its history with the Telegraph Berkeley Tour mobile app. The app includes audio explanations and photos of businesses and landmarks in the area, such as People’s Park, a spot with a lengthy history of activism.
Support Local Artists in the Sawtooth Building
Dozens of artists have studios in the historic Sawtooth Building and other nearby collectives. During the holiday season, check out the Berkeley Artisans Holiday event on weekends, which invites the public into dozens of artist studios to check out their jewelry, paintings, sculptures, and other more unique types of art. During the rest of the year, individual artists can be reached by appointment or online. Check out Susan Brooks’ series of tiny sculptures (“Objects of Desire & Mirth”) or Jim Rosenau’s creative repurposing of vintage books.
Catch an Intimate Concert at The Back Room
The cozy Back Room is one of the most comfortable music venues I’ve ever visited. How could it not be, with its multiple rows of couches for patrons to lounge on during shows? The intimate venue (100 capacity) hosts folk, jazz, blues, and Americana concerts in its home just off University Avenue.
Find Reading Material at a 60-Year-Old Bookstore
One thing that’s cool about Berkeley is that it still has a lot of thriving independent businesses. Among them is Moe’s Books, a staple of the community since 1959. Choose from more than a quarter million new and used books on just about every subject imaginable at the Telegraph Avenue store.
Other Offbeat Berkeley Attractions
Berkeley is the kind of place where if you’re observant, you may encounter unusual sights around every corner. Other quirky and noteworthy attractions around the city include the large ceramic sculptures outside the Buldan Seka ceramics shop, the bike racks shaped like peace signs (there’s one in front of Berkeley Games), and the bronze monument shown above (“Rotante Dal Foro Centrale,”) located on the UC Berkeley campus.
What are your favorite cool and fun places in Berkeley?
Note: My trip was made possible by Visit Berkeley. For more information on Berkeley, CA, visit www.visitberkeley.com.