Telegraph Avenue may be the spiritual heart of Berkeley and the University of California campus the focal point, but from a visitor's point of view, downtown is the ideal place to stay. It's close to everything and has its own vibe, with an eclectic hodgepodge of iPhone-wielding professionals, hippies young and old, students and the homeless. I stayed downtown for the weekend and met my friends Susan and Rich, who live nearby. The tab: $510, including $370 for two nights at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza and $140 for meals.
The once-proud 1910 hotel (2086 Allston Way;  845-7300, http://www.hotelshattuckplaza.com) had deteriorated over time, but in 2009 it was reincarnated as a modern gem that pays homage to the past. Step inside and you're greeted by a large 1960s peace symbol gracing the floor; vibrant colors and textures mix with classic black-and-white décor. The classy Five restaurant echoes the past with its antique chandelier, high columns and ornate moldings. Upstairs, my room was snug but stylish with high-tech amenities. All in all, good vibrations — right down to the do-not-disturb signs that say "Peace Please."
Sushi California (2033 Martin Luther King Jr. Way;  548-0737, http://www.sushical.com), a casual favorite of Susan and Rich's, has a secret ingredient: Chef Ryoji Arakaki. We savored every bite of his delectable sashimi. La Fable (1508 Walnut St.;  849-9995, http://www.lafable.net ), a new French bistro, is a good choice for lunch. I had two petite ham-and-cheese sandwiches and fresh-brewed pear ginger iced tea. Rivoli's (1539 Solano Ave.;  526-2542, http://www.rivolirestaurant.com) illuminated garden backdrop was a hit, as were the portobello mushroom fritters and Moroccan lamb chops. (Skip the braised pork, which was lackluster.)
The Downtown Berkeley Arts District (www.downtownberkeley.com/arts-entertainment) is a short walk from the hotel. The Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre takes center stage with two venues; the Aurora Theatre is an intimate space; the Jazzschool showcases — you guessed it — jazz, with an emphasis on teaching as well as performing. Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, an all-ages venue, is popular for roots and acoustic music. I wished I'd had a kid with me to take to the Saturday matinee of "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale" staged at Freight & Salvage by the Bay Area Children's Theatre.
The lesson learned
It's easy to escape the urban crush. Go fly a kite at César Chávez Park, on San Francisco Bay. Take a jog past the wetlands that grace Aquatic Park. Or take to the heights in Tilden Regional Park, in the hills above the UC campus — there are miles of trails and spectacular views of San Francisco and the bay. (Go to "Index of Parks" at http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/prw.)