What to See and Do in Palo Alto and Silicon Valley

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One of the odd things about Palo Alto is how small it is. Friends from NYC wonder where are the skyscrapers. There are only two small shopping streets (University Ave. and California Ave.) and lots of small (but wildly expensive) homes. Palo Alto has 65,000 people, perhaps 75,000 companies, and 17 Fortune-500 corporate headquarters. Palo Alto is the center of Silicon Valley, which means it’s intensely focused on computers.

At the same time, there’s also the local Palo Alto, with a wonderful city government, lots of neighborhoods, many parks, and some 150,000 trees. Nearly every summer weekend, there are street festivals, art festivals, park events, and so on in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, and the surrounding cities.  The weather is basically summer most of the year with a few cool cloudy days that pass for winter.

The computer industry and the local life means there are restaurants for business lunch and dinner, but there are also restaurants for the locals. I’ve listed a few of both below.

As for the computer industry, over two billion dollars in investor money comes into Palo Alto every month. This happens nowhere else in the world.

Yet… you won’t see much. That’s what visitors notice the most: nothing to see. It looks like a small town of graduate students walking, on bicycles, or driving a Prius or perhaps a Lexus. You won’t see Ferrari or Lamborghini; nobody wears a tie; many just wear a faded polo shirt, shorts or jeans, and sandals. People in LA or NYC show their wealth, but not here. I often saw Steve Jobs, who drove his own Lexus. Someone in NYC with not even a hundredth of his money would be flown around by private helicopter,  and that’s if Steve even bothered to drive at all: he always walked a few blocks from his house to lunch. This isn’t not fake modesty (“I’m oh-so rich I can pretend not to be rich“); it’s the way people are in the computer industry. Engineers really care about engineering, not clothes, cars, or houses. So no palaces, Maybachs, or private jets. You won’t see much really. You’ll only see a small California town… which produces about $500 billion. It has the highest GDP of the US. See also my Guide to San Francisco.

What to See in Palo Alto

Palo Alto isn’t like Paris with wide boulevards and large monuments. There are a bunch of computer corporate headquarters, but you can’t go in them. There are fifteen thousand startups, but you can’t visit any of them. You can see most of SV in one day by car.

Here’s a list of Palo Alto houses. Global computer companies started in the garages of these small houses.

  • HP Garage at 367 Addison (Addison and Waverly). Hewlett Packard started here. Hewlett lived upstairs in the house and Packard slept in the garage. They spent two or three years there.
  • Steve Jobs’ house at 2101 Waverly (at Santa Rita). Note the small orchard of apple trees.
  • Mark Zuckerberg’s first house at 819 La Jennifer Way. Facebook was here for two years. Look for the chimney. That’s the one that broke off in the movie.
  • Google’s first house at 232 Santa Margarita Ave, Menlo Park. Google was in the garage here for two years.
  • 165 University Ave: Google, Logitech, PayPal were all headquartered here once.
  • William Shockley’s original office at San Antonio. The first prototypes of semi-conductor transistor chips were developed here by Shockley, who was a brilliant Nobel-winning researcher but a very bad manager, so the chips never came to production. His team, frustrated at his violent anger and lack of business skills, quit one day and went down the street to open Fairchild.
  • Fairchild. Modern Silicon Valley started in this small green building. The Fairchild team built the first practical computer chips (integrated circuits, or IC chips). These men went on to found Intel, AMD, Kleiner Perkins, and a number of other companies. 844 Charleston Road, Mountain View.
  • Stanford University: HP, SUN, Yahoo, Google, Nike, Snapchat, and many other companies started in the dorm rooms. There’s lots of very cool things to see at Stanford, but it’s maze of a campus and you need someone who really knows the place to guide you around.
  • Sand Hill: NASDAQ, Kleiner Perkins at 2750 Sand Hill Road. Sequoia, etc. are also here.
  • Page Mill: Wilson Sonsini, HP, NYSE, Wall Street Journal all have offices along this street.
  • Barron Park. Perry the donkey lives here. He’s the most famous movie star in Palo Alto. Remember the donkey in Shrek? That’s him. Really.  Go to Barron Park, park your car, walk to the far end, continue along the paved path, cross the little bridge, and on your right, there’s a small enclosure with two donkeys. Perry is the smaller one.

What to See in Mountain View

Here is a short list of company headquarters. However, none of these will let you in.

  • Google in Mountain View. You can’t go in. The guards will chase you with tasers. No gift store. Nothing to see, really.
  • The Google Android Statutes. Okay, these are cute. Great for photos. Plus a bunch of Google bicycles nearby so you can ride around in the parking lot. Go to 1072 Landings Drive, Mountain View.
  • Yahoo at 701, 1st Ave., Sunnyvale (north on Matilda).
  • Facebook in Menlo Park. So it’s not Mountain View. From Palo Alto, take University Ave. east through East Palo Alto. At the end, turn left. Go down about a mile or so. Facebook on both right and left side. It’s connected by a tunnel under the road.
  • Apple started in the garage at 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos, where Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs built their first computers. At Apple HQ at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, there is also a gift shop where you can buy lots of Apple stuff, but no T-shirts.

The only place that you can enter is The Computer Museum (at 1401 N Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View, near Google), which is the world’s best computer museum (of course). If you like technology, you must go to this museum. Good gift shop with all sort of computer-related things.

Another great computer museum is at Intel corporate headquarters, 2200 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara.

Shopping in Silicon Valley

  • Stanford Mall, Palo Alto: Neiman-Marcus, Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and more. LA has the Beverly Hills Mall; Silicon Valley has the Stanford Mall. It’s an outdoor mall with covered walks. Lots of cafes, restaurants, and shops.
  • Santana Row (San Jose): Lots of luxury shops plus many restaurants in a pseudo-post-Italianate walking street. During the summer, mariachi play music. The Valley Fair Mall at the east end of Santana Row (just a big mall).
  • Gilroy Premium Outlet (Gilroy): 145 stores. 1 hour south from Palo Alto. Website.
  • Livermore Outlet (Livermore): Officially, it’s the San Francisco Premium Outlet, but it’s in Livermore, about an hour east from Palo Alto. 135 stores.  Website.

If you come from Europe or China, go to the two outlet malls. You’ll save so much on clothing and shoes that it covers the cost of a round-trip flight. Plan on three to four hours at each mall. The Livermore Outlet has the most luxury brands.

Restaurants in Palo Alto

If you want very good food, go to NYC or Denmark. SF is pretty good. As for Silicon Valley, well, it’s okay. You’re here to work with computers, not eat. There’s a few good places for locals (little advertising, no tourists, you have to live here for a long time to find these places). Here are several places, in no particular order:

  • Il Fornaio: Downtown Palo Alto. $$
  • Madera: 2825 Sand Hill Rd. $$$.  Reservation recommended.
  • Restaurant 3000: 3000 Sand Hill Rd. $$$.  Reservation recommended.
  • Evvia Estiatorio: One of the best restaurants in Palo Alto. Gourmet Greek. Downtown Palo Alto. $$$. Reservation required.
  • Reposado: Yes, gourmet Mexican. Downtown Palo Alto. $$. Reservation recommended.  (Kids friendly)
  • La Bodeguita del Medio: Cuban restaurant. On California Ave. $$
  • LYFE. Downtown Palo Alto. $.
  • Cibo. On El Camino in South Palo Alto. $$.
  • Gordon Biersch. Downtown Palo Alto. $$.
  • Fuki Sushi. The best sushi in Silicon Valley. South Palo Alto. $$$. Reservation recommended.
  • The Creamery: 1940s diner with burgers, etc. Downtown Palo Alto at Emerson and Hamilton. $ (Kids friendly)
  • Mayfield Bakery: At Town & Country shopping center, near Stanford. Palo Alto. Nice place to sit outside for lunch or dinner. $$.  (Kids friendly)
  • Calafia Café: Next to the Mayfield Bakery. $$  (Kids friendly)

Restaurants in Silicon Valley

All of these are great for kids.

  • In-and-Out: The best burgers, and a very Californian place. Mountain View at Rengstorff and 101. $
  • Tres Hermanos next to Castro (Mountain View). $
  • Blue Line Pizza. The best pizza. Mountain View. $$
  • Burgers at roadside restaurant on El Camino Real, Mountain View.  $
  • BBQ: The best BBQ in Silicon Valley is Andy’s BBQ (2367 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95050). Armadillo Willy’s in Mountain View is fairly okay. Both are $.
  • Chinese restaurants in Cupertino. $$
  • The Habit Burger Grill: 146 W El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, CA 94087.  $
  • Buck’s in Woodside. $$

Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel

  • Santa Cruz Boardwalk
  • Ocean Ave., Downtown Santa Cruz. Lots of shops, restaurants, etc.
  • Phil’s Fish Market (South of Santa Cruz)
  • Monterey Aquarium
  • Carmel By-the-Sea (town). 17-Mile Drive. Pebble Beach Golf Course is the #1 golf course in the USA.

The Outdoors around Silicon Valley

When you drive out of Silicon Valley, you go from the 22nd century to the 16th century within a few miles. Roads become very narrow as you go through redwood forests which have lots of deer, possums, squirrels, wild turkeys, and mountain jays. Most people in SV don’t care much about nature, so you’ll be by yourself.

Which means be careful. There is lots of poison ivy. If it touches your skin, it’ll burn for weeks. Very painful (get a cream at pharmacies). If you don’t know what it looks like, ask someone. Those cute raccoons have razor-sharp teeth and can be pretty mean. And there are also mountain lions, cougars, and panthers, which are all very shy and you’ll rarely see one, but don’t run, which may get it to chase you. Just leave them alone.

  • Foothill Park for view over Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. Lots of hiking, great fields for picnics, and a lake with canoes that you can use. Lots of deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, and mountain lions. But the park is only for residents of Palo Alto. Yes, a private city park. You need to be accompanied by a resident of Palo Alto.
  • Lick Observatory: On a mountain overlooking San Jose. Very good view of Silicon Valley.
  • Canoe on Russian River. Go in July or early August. Reserve your canoe at Burke’s Canoes (tel. 707-887-1222).
  • Horseback at the Pacific Ocean: Rent horses and gallop in the surf at Seahorse Ranch (south of Half Moon Bay)
  • Go Fishing: There are two ways to go fishing. If you fish from a pier, you don’t need a license (but if you step on the beach, you’ll need the license so Fish&Game will be waiting for you). You can go to Pacifica Pier or the Dumbarton Bridge Pier. The second way is a boat, which has everything: poles, bait, etc., and they know where to go. We’ve gone with Captain Tom Dolan, Nice guy. Our group caught 80+ fish in one day. Leave from Santa Cruz. $150 per person (six max). You need a one-day license ($15) that you can buy at the dock. SantaCruzCharters.com (tel. 888-662-9800).
  • Big Sur: If you have a full day, start from Palo Alto and go to the Pacific through redwood forests and then to Big Sur. Hwy 1 is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with spectacular views of cliffs, beaches, and the Pacific Ocean. It’s south of Silicon Valley along the Pacific Ocean. First, start at 8 am with a full tank of gas. And don’t start hungry. No gas stations or food for many miles. From Palo Alto, take Page Mill west. Cross Hwy 280 and continue west, up into the mountains. The road becomes narrow and curvy. At the top, it crosses Skyline Boulevard. Look back at Silicon Valley and wave goodbye to civilization. Cross the road and take Alpine Road, heading to Pescadero (a small town). You thought the road was narrow and curvy? Ha! Now it really gets narrow. Go down to the Pacific Ocean through redwood forests. Take a break at Sam McDonald Park where you can walk in a redwood forest. Continue on Pescadero Road. Stop at Pescadero, a hundred-year-old Portuguese fishing village, where you can get sandwiches at the various cafes. Where the road meets Hwy. 1 at the ocean, cross the road and park. There’s a great spot to walk around on the beach. Don’t swim in the ocean: it has very strong riptides and visitors often drown. Continue south via Hwy 17 to Santa Cruz and continue south on Hwy 1. At Monterey, you can go on the 17-Mile Drive, a beautiful road along the Pacific. Stop for lunch in Carmel. Afterwards, continue south on Hwy 1. After 15 miles, you’ll see the Bixby Bridge. Stop before the bridge to take photos. 14.3 miles later is the Big Sur Bakery, where you can have lunch, snacks, or get sandwiches. Two miles later is Nepenthe, a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. There are two levels. Go to the upper level and try the Ambrosia Burger (#34 in the list of the best restaurants in the world). On both levels, you can sit at large balconies with spectacular views of mountains, cliffs, and the Pacific Ocean. With sandwiches from Big Sur Bakery or Nepenthe, go north from Nepenthe on Hwy 1 precisely 1.8 miles and turn left on an unmarked road (if you see Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on your right, you went too far). Yep, another one-dog trail. Head down a steep narrow road for two miles to Pfeiffer State Beach, an unmarked spectacular sand beach. Bring a $5 bill for parking. It’s often windy, so wear long pants and thick jackets. Along the cliffs, you can find a place for a picnic. It’s a very long beach for a good walk. This is an all-day outing. You’ll get back to Palo Alto by 8 pm. On the return, you can shortcut from Monterey via Hwy 156 to Hwy 101.
  • Yosemite: One of the ten best things on the planet. You can do this either in one (very long) day or over two days. I recommend two days. If you do it in one day, you’ll drive 18 hours. It takes 4 hrs to go from Palo Alto to Yosemite. Leave at 6 a.m. Take I-580 to Manteca, then Hwy 99 to Merced, and then Hwy 140 to Yosemite. Return by same way. I’ve tried the other route: not worth it. Either leave from Yosemite by 8 pm to get back to Palo Alto at midnight or stay at lots of hotels nearby (reservations recommended). Dinner at the Ahwahnee Lodge is spectacular. You must get reservations as soon as you can. Tip: many people reserve for 5 or 6 pm but don’t show up. Talk with the concierge. At Yosemite, go up to Glacier Point and stop at the various view points on the way. Afterwards, go on the Loop. Have coffee and cake at the Ahwahnee Lodge. Go on hikes. Tip: go in June or up to mid-July. By August, it’s crowded and not nice.  Another way is to take a bus tour. They do the driving and you can sleep or read. I recommend this, since there’s nothing to see for hours between San Jose and Mariposa. By the way, there’s also not many restaurants along the way. At Mariposa, there are a dozen or so shops where you can get sandwiches, etc. for picnic. Be sure to buy lots of film for your digital camera. If you can, go in a convertible.
  • Mono Lake: If you have an extra day or two, go from Yosemite to Mono Lake via Tuolumne Road. There are spectacular mountains, valleys, alpine meadows, and alpine lakes. If it’s between mid-September and May,  call Yosemite (or go to the Yosemite Weather Page) and check the weather. If there’s snow, the road will be closed. At Mono Lake, there are a number of small motels.  From there, we went north to Lake Tahoe and stayed at Squaw Valley, which is very beautiful and has few people in summer, so the hotels are inexpensive. Great for walks, hiking, picnics, etc.

See also my Guide to San Francisco.