Berkeley, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, is an extremely cool town. It's not necessarily the University that makes it cool, or at least it's not the undergraduates, who don't look much different from undergraduates anywhere else. What it is is the mass of scraggly humanity that the town has built up over decades and decades of being an alternative-minded kind of place.
Telegraph Avenue is the main thoroughfare. It's got some of the best bookstores in the country, enough guitar-strummin' storefront coffeehouses to keep you high on caffeine and humming James Taylor songs all through the night, and loads of 'street people', the Berkeley term for homeless people, although most of the street people are young, healthy and obviously there by choice.
West of Telegraph is the residential area (Shattuck Avenue is the main street) that Jack Kerouac immortalized in his novel 'The Dharma Bums,' about the Buddhist fad that swept through Jack's crowd of poetry friends in the mid-1950's. The Beats were still obscure at this time, but they were about to become world famous, especially after Allen Ginsberg and four other local poets presented the seminal poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
Other Random Stuff About Berkeley
Berkeley was famous for its student riots in the Sixties. A small patch of land east of Telegraph was the subject of a bitter fight between the University and the 'People'. The People won, and the patch of land is now, appropriately, known as People's Park.
The city was named in honor of the great Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, the second of the three philosophers known as the British Empiricists (along with John Locke and David Hume). Berkeley once famously stated "Westward the course of empire goeth", thus inspiring the founders of this western town to name it after him. His unique and somewhat extreme belief system was based upon the idea that absolutely no knowledge about the material existence of the physical world can be discerned from sensory or empirical experience, and I really cannot figure out how this epistemological idea reconciles with his famous statement. How can we know there is an empire? How can we know it goeth westward? It really doesn't make sense to me. But that's okay.
Patty Hearst was living in Berkeley (and studying at the University) when she was abducted in her apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Elaine Robinson, the character Dustin Hoffman's character falls in love with in 'The Graduate,' was also a student at Berkeley, and there are a few quick shots of the campus in the movie.
Several radioactive elements were discovered at Berkeley, and one was named 'Berkelium' (atomic number 97).
The Computer Sciences department at Berkeley led the Unix revolution of the mid-80's, surpassing AT&T as the center of Unix innovation during this time. Among their credits: the 'Sockets' interface (sometimes called 'Berkeley Sockets') that made Unix and TCP-IP work together so seamlessly. If it were not for Berkeley's Computer Science department, you would not be on the Internet right now. You might be on something, but it wouldn't be the Internet.
My favorite literary web-zine, Enterzone, was originally served from a Mac in Cal Berkeley's Anthropology Department, although it has since moved to a higher-capacity site.
I have to say that some of the Indian and Mexican restaurants on University Avenue are disappointing. I'm from New York and I like my food spicy. I complained to a waiter at an Indian restaurant on University Ave. that there seemed to be virtually no flavor to the food. "Yes," he said to me in a polite Indian accent, "but that might upset some of the customers." He actually said this. Later on the same trip, we had a Mexican meal so bland that a friend of mine almost wept into his refried beans.
But that's the only thing I have to complain about. For street culture, stores, and freaky political-artistic zeitgeist Berkeley is the best.