It’s no secret that San Francisco is a behemoth — of food, art, history, hilly sidewalks and more. But S.F. is far from the only locale that makes the trip to NorCal worthwhile. And no, we’re not talking Napa: Berkeley, San Francisco’s artsy-hippie sister city / suburb (depending on whom you ask) is a destination in its own right, filled with sights (and eats) for all ages. And while you can and should visit S.F. with kids in tow (obviously), Berkeley offers a more chill vibe and slower pace that doesn’t skimp at all on culture — and is just begging for a family getaway.
But, as with most of our Mom Voyage guides, you won’t just find a chronicle of the best indoor play places and Chuck E. Cheese-quality “restaurants” (yikes) here. These are authentic local spots that may not scream “kids” on first glance — but once you get there, you’ll understand why these picks are exactly the kinds of places your whole family will love. Consider it your cool-mom gift to your kids: Family travel almost guarantees they’re growing up to be cultured and open-minded — and hey, they’re learning from the best (that’s you).
Where to play
The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is an absolute treat. And one of the best things about it, in my opinion, is its digestible scale: You can actually go through the entire art museum, with a — patient, art-interested — child, in one day, which is something NYC natives like me can only dream of (um, going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child was an absolute nightmare. Like were we going to have to live there forever?! That was how I felt at least).
Admission to BAMPFA is free for kids ages 13 and under, and it’s free for their guardian (one adult per child). There are kid-specific tours and hands-on exhibits galore, and every second Saturday the “Gallery + Studio” program brings 12 kids together for an art-viewing/art-making extravaganza — also for free.
If you only go into one Berkeley shop, let it be Pegasus. I was most recently here immediately after the wildfires that ravaged Northern California, and I’m serious when I say there was no better place to remove your gas mask and take refuge for a couple hours. Luckily, our beloved California (and its air quality) is now on the up-and-up after the fall’s tragic fires, but I’ll argue there still is no better place in Berkeley to take refuge than Pegasus — thankfully the gas mask is no longer needed. Its kids’ section is phenomenal (talk about inclusive children’s books, I was so impressed), and there are plenty of lit-related goodies and gift kitsch for all ages.
The Starving Musician
Also a Berkeley classic, The Starving Musician appeals to music-minded kids and parents alike with its legit assortment of instruments, accessories, and all things rock’n’roll. And they didn’t even kick me out when I sat on the floor and played their banjos very badly — so rest assured they won’t kick out your kids either.
Mr. Mopps’ Toy Shop
A Berkeley icon since 1962, Mr. Mopps’ Toy Shop is “a specialty toy shop, which sounds snobby, but it isn’t,” explains the store’s site. And it’s true: If being esoteric is something of a California custom, this place is anything but. Although it specializes in toys that aren’t on the mass market, Mr. Mopps’ is warm and inviting — and encourages kids of all ages to let their imaginations run wild.
Where to stay
Hotel Shattuck Plaza
This hotel has everything families need right in downtown Berkeley, walking distance from it all. The Hotel Shattuck Plaza is plenty accessible for kids and hella chic to boot — guaranteed to please design-discerning parents.
The Berkeley City Club
The Berkeley City Club is a California classic, built by Julia Morgan (holla early-1900s lady architect, we salute you) and one of the official Historic Hotels of America. It’s beyond beautiful, but kids are more than welcome (which is more than we can say for a lot of beyond-beautiful hotels out there). The secret bonus? The hotel is TV-free — which, to many of us moms traveling with kids, is the biggest blessing of all. Just throw the kids in that pool with some floaties and they won’t even miss Netflix.
Where to eat (& drink)
This combo cafe-pizzeria-bar truly has something for everyone, and at practically all hours of the day to boot. We won’t blame you for popping in at the crack of dawn for pastries and coming back hours later for oysters and a nightcap. In fact, you must. Kids love the chocolate croissants and the classic Margherita (you know, a carb for each time of day) and I, personally, love Western Pacific’s 50%-off wine bottle Wednesdays. Because 50% off wine.
And speaking of wine, how do traveling moms sneak in a classic NorCal wine tasting when you’ve got small humans crowding your feet who are totally uninterested in a schlep to Sonoma? If you’re the oenophile type, there’s no better way to get in a quick tasting than at Broc Cellars urban winery. You (and the kids — why yes, I am encouraging you to bring your child to a winery, because wine-making is a fascinating process, we should educate our kids about safe alcohol consumption, information is power, yadayadya and you’re in NorCal for crissakes) can learn all about the pinot perfection process and more courtesy of Broc Cellars. Then, grab a couple bottles to take home and you’re back out on the streets heading to your next museum / ice cream / toy store stop in no time. It’s a lot more efficient than trying to get out to Napa.
Donato & Co.
For classic, classy, up-scale but still decidedly family-friendly fare, there’s no better spot in Berkeley than authentic Italian eatery Donato & Co., the brainchild / love child of chefs and old pals Donato Scotti and Gianluca Guglielmi. Come for the pasta, farm-fresh ingredients and local seafood; stay for the panna cotta and affogato.
And there you have it: For an elegant family vacation beyond the bay, you really can’t beat Berkeley. The lovely little city is bound to please travelers of all ages (and leave them with full hearts and even fuller bellies).