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Berkeley is a compact, thriving city of a little over 100,000 residents, situated north of Oakland and just a short distance from San Francisco. Although small, the city packs a big punch in its several distinct neighborhoods.
Located in the very center of Berkeley, downtown constitutes the western border of the UC Berkeley campus. Downtown has an eclectic variety of stores and restaurants, and is a regional transportation hub served by BART, AC Transit, and the university's Bear Transit shuttle system. Downtown also is home to the popular theater district, featuring several movie theater complexes and live music and performance venues.
Downtown draws a wide variety of Berkeley students and "regular" residents, as well as countless office workers and visitors. Several new multi-story buildings have opened over the past few years, but the neighborhood is still haunted by image issues related to homeless people and panhandlers. Despite these supposed image issues, downtown is relatively safe throughout the day and night and business is surprisingly robust.
Gourmet Ghetto/North Berkeley
Arguably one of the best places to live--anywhere. This neighborhood of tree-lined streets north of the UC Berkeley campus is defined by Shattuck Avenue and its wealth of great restaurants. The world-renowned Chez Panisse restaurant anchors the neighborhood, as does the wildly popular Cheese Board Pizza and the original Peet's Coffee. Just above Shattuck, in the lower Berkeley hills, it is possible to live in a home (that is visited by deer) with sweeping views of San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges and still be able to walk to shops, restaurants, schools, and bus stops. Downtown Berkeley, with its art, film, theater, and music district is 15 minutes or less south of the Gourmet Ghetto by foot. Dinner at Chez Panisse, a concert at Freight & Salvage, and a short walk back home--life doesn’t get much better than this!
North Berkeley tends to attract graduate students, university faculty, and "regular" Berkeley residents. Panhandling is not too pervasive here but does occur along Shattuck Avenue, but the neighborhood is considered one of the safest in Berkeley.
Inexpensive foods, unique stores, and undergraduates galore define the area immediately south of the UC Berkeley campus. This neighborhood is defined by the university and its numerous student housing buildings, and it is a popular gathering spot for panhandlers and street vendors. The neighborhood's famous People’s Park is a major point of contention between UC, the city of Berkeley, and city activists.
As the center of the city's former “counter-culture” scene and its existing remnants, Telegraph Avenue has long been considered one of the city's most colorful areas. There are real and perceived issues with crime and grit in the area, especially in and around People's Park, and the subject is a perennial consternation of residents and politicians alike. Residents of the Telegraph Avenue corridor and other areas immediately south of campus tend to be undergraduate students.
The great neighborhood of Elmwood consists of beautiful old homes anchored by shops and restaurants along College Avenue and the nearby Claremont Resort. Elmwood borders the Oakland neighborhood of Rockridge, with Berkeley's businesses situated around Ashby Avenue and Oakland's around the BART station. Some residents argue that Elmwood and not North Berkeley is the best place to live in town, but each neighborhood offers a wealth of things to see and do and visitors should judge for themselves. Neighborhood favorites include Ozzie's Soda Fountain at the Elmwood Drugstore and Ici.
Elmwood attracts a mix of undergraduate and graduate students and "regular" Berkeley residents, including many families living on both sides of the Oakland/Berkeley city limit line.
Solano Avenue/Thousand Oaks
This quaint, moderately suburban neighborhood at the far north end of Berkeley is mostly residential and borders the small city of Albany and town of Kensington. The neighborhood has a mix of large, well-maintained homes further up the hill and smaller Craftsman-style bungalows further down the hill. The student population here is small, giving way instead to long-term residents, including retired university faculty who bought homes before property values skyrocketed above $1 million, and newer residents in search of a good school district. Solano Avenue is a lengthy business district in the area, extending west into Albany and east into Berkeley, and features many stores, restaurants, and a couple movie theaters. The Bone Room often makes the list of must-sees for visitors seeking out quirky Bay Area offerings.
Fourth Street/West Berkeley
This up-and-coming Berkeley neighborhood is home to the city's only industrial area, the trendy Fourth Street business district, and the quiet Berkeley Marina. West Berkeley was once the working class community of Ocean View, and the working class roots of this area remain evident almost everywhere (except on gentrified Fourth Street). Home to the Amtrak station, I-80, and San Pablo Avenue--the former route of US Highway 40--transportation has played a key role in neighborhood development for years. In fact, only in West Berkeley can one find anything in this town resembling a strip mall. Fourth Street is home to many high-end shops and the popular Bette's Oceanview Diner, and nearby Vik's Chaat Corner and Takara Sake are unique Berkeley offerings.
West Berkeley and adjacent South Berkeley are more affordable Berkeley neighborhoods. College students do not dominate the area because a wider range of residents are attracted to the diverse offerings of homes and apartments. However, crime has been a persistent issue in pockets of West (and South) Berkeley, especially in Southwest Berkeley.