A Local's Guide to Visiting Silicon Valley and the Bay Area: Attractions, Culture, Tech, & Nature
What to See When Visiting the Bay Area, California
Silicon Valley has now become the tech hub of the country, if not the world. We have major companies here like Facebook, Google, Apple, as well as many outcroppings of startups. Not to mention, the Microsoft computer line, Apple, was created here by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
The Bay Area is also the home of the Warriors, the 49ers, the Raiders (pending), and the Oakland A's. From the sidewalks of Palo Alto to the hills of San Francisco, to the culture of Oakland, the rumblings of Berkeley, and the halls of Stanford University, there's a lot going on here.
Must-See Attractions in the Bay Area
You'll find everything you're looking for here—whether it's nature, tech, food, art, wine, beer, or counter-culture. We're an active bunch, so why not venture out to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or Big Sur while you're here? You can see the snow, El Capitan, the Redwoods . . . or enjoy the nightlife in the Castro district in San Francisco. Whatever you chose, you'll find it right here.
If you're into tech, then you've come to the right place. You can check out some of these tech hotspots. It's also all around you, so finding it isn't too challenging.
Palo Alto—The Peninsula
Palo Alto means "Tall Tree" and was once inhabited by the Ohlone people before the arrival of Spanish missionaries. Once orchards and open space, it's now a bustling are of entrepreneurs.
It's likely that you won't want to stay in Palo Alto because lodging can be limited, but there's a lot to see in this area. Palo Alto was once the headquarters of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Logitech, Intuit, Pinterest, and Paypal, and major companies like Hewlett-Packard (HP), Tesla, IDEO, Skype, Palantir, and Houzz currently call this place home.
Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs?
Palo Alto is known for a few things: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Stanford University, Jeremy Lin, etc. You will see people driving Teslas, Pruis (Prii?), and you won't be able to find a plastic bag or styrofoam in the area. Why? Palo Alto is big on being green . . . and is very vocal about social issues (of mentioning, the very active Raging Grannies chapter).
Steve Job's place of residence here in Palo Alto has become a major tourist attraction since his passing. For that very reason, I will not reveal the location, but I'm sure it can be found. So many visitors passed through the neighborhood to take pictures of his home at one point that it became problematic.
- Computer History Museum: Sit in a self-driving car, delight in the history of the internet, dapple in coding, revisit old tech relics–the Computer History Museum is everything Silicon Valley has to offer, literally. You won't be disappointed. While you're at it, you may as well check out Palo Alto's Apple Store—living trees, glass windows, tall ceilings, and the genius bar (it's a trip).
- Stanford University: With little need for explanation, this university is well-known for its sports and academics. Tour it's lovely architecture—like the Hoover Tower—and the Rodin Sculpture Garden onsite—it neighbors Palo Alto High School and Stanford Mall.
- Facebook Headquarters: (1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park, California) You can visit and tour the area. Don't miss out on taking a picture of the iconic Facebook sign. The same can be said about visiting Google HQ. Park in a visitor spot and tour the campus and take pictures of their Googled-out bicycles if that's your thing.
- Philz Coffee: Yeah, the original Philz coffee is in San Francisco, and you might want to see it, but the O.G. Palo Alto Philz is on Middlefield Rd.. It's already packed and busy, so revealing this spot won't change much. Philz will get you hooked. It's strong, it's caffeinated, and it's an experience. If you want a feel for some real Palo Alto, stop at this spot. The liquor store around the corner brings in excellent wines and has been family owned for years (and survived the growing pains of the area).
- Redwood City: Redwood City became the home of BOX recently. After that everything blew up. The City Hall of Redwood City is a gorgeous piece of architecture at night. You have the FOX Theatre which regularly hosts music events, Freewheel Brewery, Milagros (modern Jaliso-region Mexican fare), Vesta (some of the best wood-fired pizza in the area—all local ingredients), Venga empanadas, Martin West, Kristi Marie's (great local coffee), LV Mar tapas and fine drinks, and a fun nightlife at bars like Blacksmith. If you want some authentic chain-type Mexican food, visit Taqueria El Grullense—great for the late night munchies.
- Palo Alto Airport and Golf Course: Yes, there is both—if you're someone who likes to fly or play golf—in that luxurious way of yours—check out these two locations. You can also take some time to walk the Palo Alto Baylands and check out some true marshland (especially if you're into birding) and Shoreline amphitheater/the lake—you may even catch some kiteboarders. If you have kids, you can visit the boathouse and do all kinds of things like sailing, SUP yoga, and kayaking.
- San Pedro Market: Check out San Pedro Market while you are in the South Peninsula—from special events to live music and good eats, this place is always bustling. It's perfect for foodies and history seekers. Wander nearby and check out some local barbershops, breweries, and of course, there's always Psycho Doughnuts in downtown San Jose.
From the Marin Headlands to Big Sur—in the Bay Area, we consider it all one big environment. We like to get out and do stuff here. Check out some of these top nature destinations.
- Cannabis Clubs: Yes, cannabis is legal and can be used recreationally in certain counties, so don't be surprised if you see advertisements for such. If you want to checkout a super boutiquey spot, visit Airfield Supply company. It's like walking into a 21st-century spaceship. It very well might change your perspective on the cannabis industry.
- Other eats: For additional fun dining experiences in the area, check out the authentic Sam's Sushi (San Mateo), Madras Cafe in Sunnyvale (authentic South Indian cuisine), the Palo Alto Farmer's Market (California Ave on Sundays)—be sure to get in line for those Manresa baked goods. The Village Cheese House at Town and Country serves some of the best submarine sandwiches in the area. For your fine dining options, just get on Google—there's plenty to choose from!
- Palo Alto Art Center: You can visit the Palo Alto Art Center which was founded in 1971. It hosts temporary art exhibitions and gives local San Francisco Bay Area artists a venue for sharing their craft.
- Beer: Yes, there is a blooming brewing culture here. As mentioned, there's Freewheel Brewery, Palo Alto Brewery, Devil's Canyon Brewery (which hosts large events), Ghostwood Beer Company (new), Alpha Acid (Belmont), Fieldwork Brewing (San Mateo—has a nice outdoor space), and various cider houses in the area. Do not skip on drinking Anchor Steam on draft—it's a classic.
- Hidden Villa: Perhaps one of my most favorite places in the Bay Area, this small, organic farm is nestled in the Santa Cruz hills. You can come onsite to see recently birthed lambs, and free-roaming chickens, pigs, and goats. It's an educational farm, so most of the activities here are totally interactive. Venture off on some of the nature trails (be sure to bring a map), and get a breath of fresh air and a break from the buzz of the area.
- Hiking: If you're an avid hiker, there is much to see and do. You can venture out to Castle Rock State Park to see some amazing geologic formations off Skyline Boulevard (but be sure to bring a map). Arastadero, Sykline, and Alpine Road also offer some great hiking trails, as well as "The Dish"—otherwise known as the "The Stanford Dish" a true landmark built in 1961 by the Stanford Research Institute (just be sure to back-in when you park or you'll get a ticket). If you're into big trips you can venture out to Mt. Tam up near Muir Woods north of the Golden Gate.
- Castro St: Castro Street in Mountain View recently blew up with a younger tech scene, so the nightlife is happening. From clubs to Irish pubs, from dining to music shows, it has it all. Take some time earlier in the day to check out some of the cute shops on the street. There's a lot to take in. P.S., if you're savvy enough, there are some hidden bars where the locals go—but that will take some digging.
If you are a foodie or an adventurist for that matter, you've come to the right place. The Bay Area is a hub for many different cuisines, so delight in the various options you have available!
Visit the Marin Headlands
The Marin Headlands is an area rich in history, once inhabited by the Miwok and the American Military, it is rich in biodiversity and views. Just north of the Golden Gate bridge, you will get one of the best overlooks and iconic shots of the bridge. You can drive around the loops, and if you are feeling daring, there's one road with an 18% grade. If you are not feeling that daring, consider entering to the North. What to see:
- Point Bonita Lighthouse: Beautiful suspension bridge on the cusp of the coast. Hours: Sundays and Mondays 12:30 to 3:30 pm
- The Marine Mammal Center: Elephant seal and California Sea Lion rehabilitation center. Hours: Daily from 10:00 to 4:00 pm
- Dine at Fish in the Sausalito Harbor (350 Harbor Dr, Sausalito, CA 94965) a sustainable seafood restaurant. Check out their menu.
- You can even sail out of the harbor aboard a charter like the iconic Hasty Heart.
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay is a must-see. It is an area ripe in agriculture (hosting pumpkin festivals) with various greenhouse attractions (lavender, carnivorous plants, succulents), but it is also the home to Mavericks surf competition and Old Princeton Landing harbor. Equipped with everything from a skate ramp overlooking the ocean, surfers, seafood, lighthouses and nature hikes, go make a trip of it and drive Highway 1.
- Old Princeton Landing: This is where the fishermen and fisherwomen arrive after a morning out at sea. Consider buying fresh seafood from them straight off the boat (support local commerce).
- Good Eats: Check out Barbara's Fish Trap (Barb's) for some in-season dungeonous crab and water views right next to Mavericks. You can follow Pillar Point Harbor out with a 1.2 mile out-and-back walk to peak at this world-famous surf break. Also check out: Sevilla (Spanish tapas), HopDogma Brewery, Mezza Luna, Pasta Moon, Sushi Main Street (beautiful interior), etc.—just get on Yelp. There are some great local grubs as well—you'll be able to tell from the pictures.
- Highway 84: If you're done for the day driving down the beautiful highway 1 and stopping at berry picking farms, cut over near San Gregorio to head back into the Peninsula. Make a visit to the general store. With delicious artichoke bread, bloody marys, live music, and trinkets, it's worth the stop. The iconic road winds up through the redwoods back into the bay.
- Duarte's Tavern: If you are really in the mood for venturing off into some local territory, visit Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero and be sure to eat their ollalieberry pie.
- Pigeon Point Lighthouse: You can stop at Pigeon Point Lighthouse which is also a hostel and a fun place to stay. Catch the clear winter days here for a beautiful postcard-esque shot of the lighthouse against the sunset.
- Davenport: As you continue South, you'll come across Davenport: population 408. Check out the Whale House Bakery for some delicious pies, huevos rancheros, and live music in the evening. Consider walking down to the beach or the cliffs just across the way (dilapidated Odwalla plantation marks the spot). Clean up after yourself—the locals are big on keeping their beaches clean.
- Año Nuevo: From December to March, elephant seals come to breed on these beaches. The bulls can weigh up to 5,500 pounds! Docents will guide you for a nature walk as you go to see these huge males fight.
The history runs deep here. From the days of the Golden Gate's construction, from the new overwhelming Salesforce tower, there are sights to behold!
What About the Culture: San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland?
Will the Peninsula's culture runs deep—think Grateful Dead, orchards, and famous people—you'll want to pay a visit to San Francisco, Berkeley (like Telegraph Ave), and Oakland (Lake Merritt), but that's for another article. Of course, you probably already have an idea to check out these San Francisco Highlights:
- Haight-Ashbury Street: The origin of hippie counterculture.
- Alcatraz: An island about 1.25 miles offshore of SF that hosts the federal prison which was active from 1934 until 1963 and held some of the country's most notorious criminals. Take the ferry and the tour.
- Fisherman's Warf: One of the most popular tourist destinations—plenty of things to spend your money on, eat, see, and delight in.
- Lombard Street: Runs east-west and is iconic for being known as the "crookedest" street in the United States.
- Chinatown: Full of herbalist, bakeries, and souvenir shops. Hosts beautiful temples as well as Tien How and the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum.
- The Mission District: Land of the hipsters and techies which were drawn in by the rich culture and good authentic eats of the area. Visit the iconic Mission Dolores Park and the Full House TV show house (1709 Broderick St, San Francisco, CA 94115-2525).
- The Golden Gate Bridge: 4,200 famous suspension bridge, opened in 1937.
- Pier 39: Tourist attraction with street performers, salt water taffy, and views of Alcatraz ferries.
- North Beach: Italian eats, the Beatnik generation, City Lights Bookstore (landmark independent publisher).
- Ocean Beach: The Cliff House and the Sutro Baths.
- The Presidio: Park and former U.S. military fort.
- Coit Tower: 210-foot tower in Telegraph Hill; art deco tower made of unpainted reinforced concrete; added to the National Register of Historic Places.
While there have been concerns that the culture here is being diluted due to gentrification, some micro-communities are alive and well.
What Are Some Neighboring Cities to Check Out?
- Santa Cruz
- Big Sur
- Point Reyes
- Stinson Beach (and a little town near there)
Accommodations: Where Should I Stay?
The bay area is pricey—so your best bet is looking for affordable spots on AirBnB and checking out local hostels like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel, the Montara Lighthouse Hostel, Marin Headlands hostel (haunted), etc.
If you're looking for fancy accommodations, they abound—expect to spend several hundred dollars a night if this is the case. I would avoid staying at the outskirts like East San Jose, South San Jose, Los Gatos, Los Altos, etc.—even Pacifica (though Pacifica is beautiful). These areas can be quite isolated and/or are impacted by daily, heavy traffic.
What Happened With the Tech Boom?
Silicon Valley, back in its golden years, was a new frontier. Entrepreneurs found a common ground to collaborate and create. Prior to the changes that occurred with tech, social media, and startups, Palo Alto and the surrounding area was a quiet, humble town, full of families, professors, and creatives. This was the kind of environment that, when you left the house, you saw the faces of family and friends in the supermarket (every time you went out). Nowadays, this isn't the case.
Bay Area Population Growth
What to Expect When Visiting Silicon Valley
The area is extremely costly, but for those on a budget look for deals on AirBnB or check out some of the hostels (you will need a car to access these).
The drinks and fine dining here are enormously expensive. The good news is that there are some local coops, farmers markets, and your inexpensive chains like Trader Joes and Sprouts that can give you a good jumping off point for home cooking.
Traffic is around the clock (even weekends). If you are looking for alternatives besides renting a car (don't forget those bridge tolls!) there is BART, Caltrain, Uber, Lyft, and various rideshare projects as well as the bus and free shuttles.
This area is always ON, that is, you are in the land of the hyperproductive. The vibe here is go-go-go. You will notice that the pace and stress level here is different. People have a lot on their minds and a lot to do. Don't be intimidated—people just have to get their to-do list done.
You may be surprised to note that people are on their phones 24/7! That means coffee shops, restaurants, events even. People wear their phones and their devices like it's their personal identity. This has just become a norm.
You can essentially find anything you want here, from meditation centers to sex clubs.
Depending on what county you visit, they charge for grocery bags, we recycle, and we aren't fond of litter. Bring your bags and bring your straw!
A Word About Gentrification
Years ago, there used to be such a divide in the regions. That is, areas like East Palo Alto and Oakland were plagued with crime. In fact, at one point, East Palo Alto had one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Now, homes in East Palo Alto sell for 1 million, and Oakland has become the new magnet of the young and hip. Although it always had an underground culture of music, academics, food, and creatives, it's now in the spotlight. With population growth, the tech industry, and a housing crisis, heavy gentrification has occurred.
While some of the authenticity of the area that makes it what it is has been lost (small shops going out of business), there is still amazing sights to see that have outlasted and survived the tech bubble. Some of it requires some digging. Happy searching.
Video: Palo Alto Tourist Attractions
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Layne Holmes