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Monday 21 July 2014

A Berkeley Staycation

With ten and a half weeks of Summer vacation to fill each year I'm always on the lookout for ideas to keep the kids occupied. With San Francisco so close (I can literally see the city out my lounge room windows) we tend to find ourselves crossing the Bay on a regular basis to explore the city.

The kids and I absolutely love San Francisco and enjoy spending time there but sometimes it's nice to stay a little closer to home. This got me thinking about all of the fun things that we can do right here in Berkeley. Our little city is full to the brim with a wide variety of fun activities and adventures for the kids.

So instead of hopping on BART and heading across (or rather, under) the bay to San Francisco, let's spend a little time here exploring our own backyard with a Berkeley staycation.

To make it feel more like a vacation, I've come up with a five day itinerary for the kids and I. Each day is filled with fun activities in one particular area of Berkeley. As we don't have a car I've tried to keep the activities relatively close to each other. Most things are within fairly easy walking distance (or bus distance) of Downtown Berkeley.

Day 1: Gourmet Ghetto, Live Oak Park & Indian Rock Park

Yes, you read that correctly. Berkeley has a neighborhood called the Gourmet Ghetto! I've always found this name a little odd, but as you can probably guess it's a neighborhood filled with fine cuisine. One of California's most famous restaurants, Alice Water's Chez Panisse, is located here along with many other well known establishments including Cheeseboard and the first ever Peet's CoffeeChez Panisse may be a little out of our family's dining league but Cheeseboard fits us perfectly. In fact, because it's right around the corner from Ava's school we go there almost every day!

Start the day with a late breakfast or brunch at one of the Gourmet Ghetto's many cafes. We quite like Saul's Delicatessen. Then head to Cheeseboard to stock up on sourdough goodies for lunch. Our favourites are bialys, asiago schticks, zampanos and brioches. And don't forget the cheese!

From the Gourmet Ghetto walk north along Shattuck Ave to Live Oak Park. This park is a great place to spend a few hours. There is a playground which includes a fenced in area for smaller kids, basketball courts, grassy areas perfect for picnicking, a community center, beautiful shady trees for climbing, stone fences, bridges and a big disused outdoor chimney, also perfect for climbing, and, our favourite part, a lovely little creek. Ava and Lola can spend hours exploring and splashing about in the creek. Take a bug catcher and let the kids see what kinds of bugs they can find down by the creek. And don't forget a ball or frisbee for when the kids (eventually) tire of playing in the creek and playground.

All that play makes little tummies hungry so find a nice shady (or sunny if you prefer) spot on the grass for your picnic blanket and enjoy your goodies from Cheeseboard.

From Live Oak Park continue north on Shattuck Ave to Indian Rock Park. I'm not going to lie, it does get hilly. There is a bus that will take you most of the way there but no matter what you're going to have to walk in an upwards direction at some point! But that's half the fun of walking around in Berkeley!

Indian Rock Park is one of our most favourite places in Berkeley. This large rocky outcrop is pretty easy to climb and has amazing views over Berkeley, the bay and San Francisco from the top. My girls love to scramble up and down the rocks but there are also steps carved in for those of us less adventurous - or those of us carrying young babies!

If you're still feeling up to it after all that walking and climbing the walk back towards the Gourmet Ghetto is quite nice. There are paths with staircases (heading down this time!), a round-about with a fountain in the middle and even a vehicle tunnel going under a hill  to see. Otherwise a short walk down a path will take you to a bus stop.

Stop by Cheeseboard again and join the incredibly long queue for one of the most delicious pizzas imaginable. The queue may be long (sometimes stretching down the street and around the corner!) but it moves quite fast as there is only one variety of pizza on offer each day. The only decision you need to make when you get the counter is if you want a slice, a half pizza or a full pizza. Easy! It can be tricky to get a table at Cheeseboard so many people sit on the grassy island in the middle of the road. It's actually illegal but it's somewhat of a Berkeley tradition to sit there and you'll see plenty of people enjoying their pizza in the middle of the road.

Finish the day with a frosty treat from either (my favourite) Lush Gelato directly across the road or, (Ava and Lola's favourite) Caravaggio a little further down the road towards Downtown.  

Day 2: Tilden Park
Now this may be the one day that you'll want a car. Parts of Tilden Park are accessible by bus but it's not always easy and on certain days it may not take you all the way to your destination. Yep, we've been caught before. Twice!

Tilden Park sits high up in the Berkeley Hills and is a wonderful spot for a family day out. There's a Little Farm, a carousel, a steam train, a lake, camp grounds, botanical gardens and plenty of hiking trails.

Start the day by heading to the Little Farm. The Little Farm is a firm favourite with kids in Berkeley and mine are no exception. Take some lettuce and/or celery with you and you can feed the animals. There are cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits... You know; farm animals!  

From Little Farm drive to the carousel. That's right, I said drive. Now that I think of it, you'll definitely want a car for this day. Getting to Tilden Park by bus is possible but getting between destinations in Tilden Park by bus is almost impossible.

Anyway, the carousel is of the lovely vintage variety and, like all carousels, is hugely popular with the kids. There is a kiosk here where you can purchase lunch or bring a picnic with you to enjoy on the grass. You've got a car with you today after all so carrying picnic supplies is a cinch!

After lunch head to Lake Anza for a dip. There is a small fee to enter the swimming area. Here'll you find a nice grassy area for relaxing after your swim, change rooms and a kiosk where you can buy that after-swim ice cream. Ice cream is always needed after a swim! Oh, and as you can tell from the picture below, the fog can roll in pretty quickly up here in the hills. Be prepared and make sure you have a light jacket, hoody or cardigan with you. Then again, that's the rule for pretty much the whole Bay Area so you'll have a jacket with you anyway!

After a swim, head to the eastern end of Tilden Park to ride the steam train. We haven't made it to the steam train yet but I'm keen to take the kids soon.

As Tilden Park sits high up in the hills there are some pretty spectacular views over the bay on offer. Or sometimes it may be a view of low lying cloud or fog. Sometimes your kid might insist on holding a jagged piece of wood in your photo of that spectacular view. Or maybe that's just my kid playing vampire slayer in butterfly face paint!

Day 3: University of California
Mention Berkeley to most people and one of the first things that comes to mind is the university - or maybe hippies. Berkeley is indeed a university town and the campus takes up a very large area in the base of the hills. The campus is full of  stately buildings, lush wooded areas and expanses of lawn. Most of the campus, including some of the buildings, is open to the public and it's a great place to explore.

Start at the entrance off the aptly named University Ave and walk towards the Eucalyptus Grove. We like to go here to feed the may squirrels that live in the area. Take a pack of unsalted and unshelled peanuts with you to feed to the squirrels - and yourself if you get hungry too! 

Once your kids have tired of feeding the squirrels - which may take some time - head to the Valley Life Sciences building which houses a paleontology museum. The main museum is for research purposes only and not open the public. However there are quite a few dinosaur skeletons and fossils on display for the public. These include a full tyrannosaurus-rex skeleton, a pteranodon skeleton suspended from the ceiling and a triceratops skull. If your kids are dinosaur buffs (and whose kids aren't?) they'll be pretty excited to check these out.

From the Valley Life Sciences building head further into the university toward Sather Tower (commonly known as the Campanile). You can't miss it. It can be spotted from pretty much all over Berkeley. In fact, at 307 feet it's the third tallest bell and clock tower in the world. As you can imagine, being that tall there's a pretty spectacular view from the top. For just $3.00 ($2.00 for kids aged 3 - 17) you can take the elevator to the top of the Campanile and take in the views over Berkeley, Oakland, the bay and San Francisco. If you're lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it!) the bells may just ring their tune while you're at the top of the Campanile. It's extremely noisy being next to the bells when they ring but it is very interesting to see how they work.

From the Campanile head through Sather Gate to Sproul Plaza. There always seems to be something happening here. If you're lucky you might just catch the Cal Marching Band or maybe even Cal mascot Oski Bear.

There is a little creek running alongside Sather Gate that Ava and Lola love to explore. Bring a bug catcher with you again and see what you can find living near the creek. Or just play in the creek. The cool water is always nice on a hot day.

There are plenty of other interesting places to explore in the university campus. Maybe take a shuttle bus up into the hills to visit the UC Botanical Gardens or California Memorial Stadium. If shopping is more your thing head south out of the campus and onto Telegraph Ave where students shop for books, music and fashion. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants on Telegraph Ave. Or, maybe walk further up the hill to Piedmont Ave and explore Frat Row! Coming from Australia where frat houses don't exist I always find it amusing to check out the Greek lettered houses. Until I moved here I honestly had no idea that frat houses actually existed outside of B-grade Hollywood films like  Revenge of the Nerds!

No visit to the university campus is complete for us without a stop on the way home at Cinnaholic for fresh vegan cinnamon rolls. They are so, so good. Trust me, you've got to try them.

Day 4: Lawrence Hall of Science, Codornices Park & Berkeley Rose Garden
Start the day with a trip to Lawrence Hall of Science located high in the Berkeley Hills, but easily accessible by public transport. Lawrence Hall is actually part of the university campus but because a visit requires about half a day I've listed it separately to the rest of the activities at the university.

Lawrence Hall is full of fun hands on science based activities for kids of all ages. There is a planetarium, 3-D theater, animal discovery room, KidsLab for younger kids, outdoor play areas and a cafe. Each day there is a different project to make. The air-propelled paper rockets are Ava and Lola's favourite, not only because you get to test them out in the lab but because you also get to blast them into the sky outside the museum. Super fun!  

Also outside the museum kids can play on a life sized model of a whale, climb through a giant DNA sculpture and enjoy the fountain. And, of course, being high up in the hills there are fabulous views over the Bay Area. I'm sure you're not sick of that view by now!

After spending half a day or so at Lawrence Hall head part way back down the hill to Codornices Park. If you take the bus to Lawrence Hall it will pass right by Codornices Park. The highlight here is the concrete slide that winds its way down a hill. Cardboard is needed to slide in order to avoid scraping skin and ripping clothes. Plus it makes you slide faster! There is always plenty of cardboard around the base of the slide.

For kids who are a little less adventurous Codornices Park also features regular playground equipment, plus a basketball court, baseball field, lots of grass for running around (or relaxing), lots of big shady trees and another little creek.

A short walk through a tunnel under the road will pop you out into Berkeley Rose Garden. Even if your kids aren't super keen on checking out the flowers they will inevitably love running backwards and forwards between the rows as well as up and down the stairs.

And once again there's that spectacular view over Berkeley and the bay.

Seeing as it's downhill from here, walk to the Gourmet Ghetto and line up at Cheeseboard again for pizza. Or, you know, you could eat somewhere else but I'm quite partial to a Cheeseboard pizza.

Day 5: Down by the Marina
Time to stick to a flat part of Berkeley. Hooray!

Start the day by heading down to Fourth Street for a little shopping. Fourth Street is one of Berkeley's premiere shopping destinations with a large range of beauty, fashion, electronics, furniture, toys and home goods on offer. And food. Lots of good food.

For a shop of a different kind, head to Fifth Street for East Bay Vivarium. East Bay Vivarium is the largest vivarium store in the country and sells a huge number of reptiles and creepy crawlies. If you're not in the market for a snake, lizard or tarantula, never fear. For a charge of  $5.00 per five minutes visitors can pat or hold some of the friendlier animals such as baby tortoises, ball pythons and blue tongue lizards. Not up for holding or patting the creatures? Then just take a walk through the store and check out the animals for sale which are safely locked up in their enclosures. We go there every week to buy crickets for Ava's pet gecko and the girls never tire of checking out the animals, especially the snakes.

From East Bay Vivarium, head down to the waterfront and the fun, wooden playground in Aquatic Park. This wooden "fort style" playground is a huge hit with local kids. Tyre swings, slides, zip lines, monkey bars and plenty of climbing equipment await playful kids. Ava and Lola just can't get enough of this playground.

When you're done playing, or maybe even on the way there, stop along the lagoon to feed the ducks and geese.

If your kids are feeling creative a great place to spend a few hours is Brushstrokes Studio in the nearby Ceramics District. Here kids (and adults) can paint ceramics and make mosaics etc.

If you've still got time hop on a bus headed for the marina and visit Cesar Chavez Park. You can also take the pedestrian bridge across the freeway and lagoon to get there if you prefer. There's always a good breeze at Cesar Chavez Park making it the perfect location for kite flying. 

Take a walk along the marina and maybe a paddle in the bay at Shorebird Park.

And one last time, take in the stunning views over the bay and San Francisco!

So there you have it, our five day Berkeley Staycation itinerary.

I'd love to hear if there are any other fun places in Berkeley you like to go with your kids.

For more information you can find detailed posts and lots more photos of many of the places featured here by clicking the links below.

Live Oak Park
Indian Rock Park
Tilden Park
University of California (and again here)
Lawrence Hall of Science
Codornices Park
Aquatic Park

sunshine kids blog hop 2014

Places to Visit with Kids in California:

Sunshine Kids Blog Hop 2014

Summer is a great time to explore with your kids - and you don't have to travel far to do it! California has so much to offer to families. Take a great staycation this summer by visiting your local treasures! In our second annual Sunshine Kids Blog Hop, we are focusing on our favorite places to visit with kids in California. Enjoy! And be sure to add your own family-friendly California posts in our linky at the bottom. You can also check out even more California posts on our collaborative Kid Friendly California Pinterest board!

Participating Blogs:

Alldonemonkey.com Sparkling Buds baykidsplaybutton
A Mom With a Lesson Plan Little Hiccups EHM Grab Button 250x250
Capri+3 Savvy 3 MeMeTales
SoCalPocketMemories made-with-happy-square-200
Adventure Bee
  And now it's time to see what everyone has been up to:


  1. Looks like so much fun! I have never been there! I love the little farm!

    1. The Little Farm is one of our favourite places. It has recently undergone renovation work and just opened back up a week or two ago. I can't wait to take the kids back there again.

  2. I live 25 mins from Berkeley. I did not know that Berkeley has this much to offer. Thanks for sharing!

    1. We're lucky to have so much fun stuff so close by. I'm sure there are plenty of fun places that I've missed too!

  3. I'm like Dhiyana - We live close to Berkeley, but I had no ideas there were so many treasures tucked inside there! I've been wanting to take my son to the Lawrence Hall of Science, so it's great to have some ideas of other things to do in Berkeley as well. Thanks for participating in the blog hop!

    1. Lawrence Hall of Science is fantastic! Your son is going to have so much fun there.
      Thanks for organising the blog hop :)

  4. You are an amazing writer, Sally! You have the ability to make me (and many more with me I'm sure) WANT to go where you are writing about!

    1. Thanks Nina :)
      Can't wait to show you and the girls around the place we call home when you visit one day xx

  5. I've been to many of these places (Live in Oakland. Work at Cal). So many fun things. Have you been to Head over Heals in Emeryville or Habitot? Those are great places for kids too.
    Are you going to Pedalfest on Saturday? I first heard about it from your blog and bringing my toddler.

    1. We'll be going to Pedalfest on Saturday too! And then the Berkeley Kite Festival on Sunday (it's also on Saturday). It's going to be a busy weekend!
      We used to go to Habitot a lot but my big girls have kind of outgrown it. I'm sure I'll be back there regularly again once Mathilde is a little older.
      We haven't been to Head Over Heels yet but I've heard great things about it. I was keen to take the girls there over Summer but they don't run week day drop in sessions while Summer camp is on. We'll have to wait for a weekend that isn't already filled with activities :)

  6. Thanks Sally for sharing all these fun spots, I know most of them but I m pretty exited to discover some we've never been before!

  7. I love this staycation guide, Sally. Thanks!

  8. This is incredible! We moved to Alameda from out-of-state over the summer, and have been all over the Bay exploring. We've done Shattuck, Codornices and Tilden, but most of this is new. So excited!


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