Welcome to California’s tech-centric brain pool. Wrapping around the south end of San Francisco Bay, the communities collectively known as Silicon Valley are home base for the heart and soul of computer technology, including silicon chip technology, computer design, apps and Apples, smart phones—smart everything. Some companies are so big and so influential that their names have become part of our vocabulary (if you don’t believe us, just Google it). Hike or bike a trail and overhear the next big idea. Visit a museum that blinks and buzzes with what-if technology. And enjoy the riches of a booming economy, with performance spaces, high-end shopping, and multi-starred restaurants.
So much of the magic of the modern era happens invisibly and at nano scale, but The Tech Museum of Innovation—or simply “The Tech”—does a great job of creating a fun laboratory and learning experience for curious people of all ages. Dive into interactive exhibits showing the power of technologies ranging from robots to gene-splicing to alternative energy. Let virtual butterflies alight on your arm, and let the kids play with the ultimate video games—you’ll probably want to play too. Another highlight is the Silicon Valley Innovation Gallery, showcasing the machines that revolutionize human thought, creativity, and communication. Man does not live by bits and bytes alone—so relax in the café, the peruse tech-and-science-y items in the gift shop (especially great for holidays and birthdays).
Perhaps Silicon Valley’s strangest and yet most enduring attraction is Winchester Mystery House, a 160-room Victorian mansion that was owned and built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester fortune. Construction began on the house in 1884 and continued, almost nonstop, until 1922—racking up a bill of $5.5 million. Why the unending, breakneck pace? Because Sarah had been convinced by a medium that all the spirits of the people killed by Winchester firearms had placed a curse on her family and would haunt her forever unless she moved West and built a house to match their specifications, as revealed to her in séances.
Whether spirits gave her pointers or not, Sarah designed one heck of an oddball house. Guided tours let you ponder the heiress’s unusual designs, including doors that open onto blank walls and a stairway that leads straight into a ceiling. Other weird facts: the mansion has 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 3 elevators, 2 basements, and 13 bathrooms but just one shower.
Companies like Facebook and Google don’t have formal tours, but at the Googleplex campus in Mountain View you can witness the “Googlers,” alarmingly youthful employees talking, tweeting, and riding signature Google bikes on their way to changing the world. Head to the east side of the campus, along the paved bike path, to look down on manicured playing fields that are the exclusive domain of employees. What you can’t see (but wish you could) are the campus’s gourmet-food-for-free cafeteria, on-site masseuses and daycare center, and assorted nap pods—a Eutopic campus on the edge of San Francisco Bay.
"At the Googleplex campus in Mountain View you can witness the “Googlers,” alarmingly youthful employees talking, tweeting, and riding signature Google bikes on their way to changing the world."
Just south in Cupertino, pick up logo t-shirts, baseball caps, and mugs at another legendary campus, Apple, at One Infinite Way.
North in Menlo Park, the Facebook campus continues to expand. It’s also closed to visitors, but the sign out front—the iconic, thumbs-up “like” in baby blue—has become a popular backdrop for selfies. You can do it too: just pull over, smile, click, and post.
And then there’s the modest building where it all began: the shed/garage at 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto, where, in 1939, Bill Hewitt and Dave Packard forged a partnership that would become the global tech powerhouse known as HP.
For the city’s most luxurious shopping experience, visit this snazzy outdoor mall, a mix between California’s relaxed stylishness and a swanky European village on market day. This walkable, nook-and-cranny-filled complex has benches for relaxing under leafy oaks, large sculptures by French artists André Dumonnet and Christine Foulché, antique fountains, live musicians, and open-air seating outside quality restaurants. It’s the kind of place where you can easily while away the hours, sitting on a bench perusing your purchases while nibbling fresh croissants from Cocola. If your shopping tastes run more toward Main Street than Paris boutique, there are familiar chains including Orvis and H&M. And, in the ultimate Silicon Valley indulgence, why not custom-design your own luxury all-electric car at Santana Row’s Tesla store.
You can almost feel the smarts when you visit this elegant, red-tile-and-sandstone campus. Stanford is the academic home of 22 living Nobel laureates, 5 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 3 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not bad for a place nicknamed “The Farm.” Fortunately, mere mortals are welcome to enjoy Stanford’s riches, and a bike ride around the large, mostly flat campus to uncover some wonderful finds. Start with a visit to Hoover Tower; on clear days views from its observation deck on the 14th floor can stretch for miles.
Next, take in the exquisite mosaic tile work fronting Memorial Church, a popular wedding spot for alumni. See 20 original Rodin bronzes in the sculpture garden outside Cantor Arts Center; there are roughly 170 more works by Rodin on view inside, along with other international treasures. Time your visit to catch a performance at Bing Concert Hall, a $111.9 million masterpiece on the campus’s north side. First-rate scholars show they are first-rate athletes at Stanford too, with outstanding teams in intercollegiate soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming and diving, water polo, and more. As for that nickname, it comes from founder Leland Stanford’s original horse farm. The original Red Barn, a soaring Victorian structure that has been restored to its late-1800s glory, is located in the hilly western side of the campus, just north of the campus golf course. Oh, and those Stanford links? That’s where a promising collegiate named Tiger Woods played.
Once a train stop and a sleepy “Professorville” for Stanford University, Palo Alto’s profile and cred took off like a rocket beginning in the 1980s, as both Stanford’s prominence and Silicon Valley’s fortunes exploded. Today, think twice before passing a parking spot in the town’s thriving downtown; this almost-perfect town is always a hive of activity. No worries—it’s a great place for strolling, so ditch the car and walk the grid of flat streets to favorites like trendy Lyfe Kitchen. Appealing shops line the main drag of University Avenue, which leads to—you guessed it—the heart of the Stanford campus. Also near the university is the posh Stanford Shopping Center, with Armani Exchange, Tiffany & Co., Stella McCartney, and valet parking and EV charging stations for your Tesla. Dinner and a movie? Nab a reservation at Greek-themed Evia or fusion Tamarine, then watch a classic at the Stanford Theatre, a richly restored art-house cinema that includes nightly performances on an original Wurlitzer organ.
"This almost-perfect town is always a hive of activity."
Palo Alto also has a natural side. See birdlife and beauty (especially at sunset) on the 1,940-acre/785-hectare Baylands Nature Preserve. There’s also “The Dish,” an approximate 3-mile/5-kilometer paved loop circumnavigating a retired satellite dish on the campus’s southwest side.
The west side of the Silicon Valley, where the land rises to meet the rumpled, wooded folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains, has become an inviting wine-country destination. The charming village of Saratoga is the region’s hub, with in-town tasting rooms including Cinnabar, where you can savor small plates and award-winning Mourvedre on a shaded patio. For a real treat, check the calendar and catch an evening of entertainment at the historic Mountain Winery. The legendary Paul Masson, who emigrated to San Francisco from Burgundy, France in the late 1800s, acquired a Saratoga vineyard where he developed fine California sparkling wines. Today, his winery is the site of summertime concerts in an intimate venue under the stars—a worthy splurge.
Saratoga has a spa tradition too, thanks to natural mineral springs and lavish retreats built around them in the late 1800s. Today’s modern Shangri-Las include Nilou and Preston Wynne.
After decades in a foggy, chilly wind tunnel known as Candlestick Park, the San Francisco 49ers football team has moved south to one of the snazziest stadiums around. Players now huddle, punt, and play in 68,500-seat Levi’s Stadium, a high-tech marvel northwest of downtown San José. The stadium, slated to host Super Bowl 50 in 2016, also boasts eco-friendly features like a living roof, solar panels, and field irrigation that uses recycled water. If you’re lucky enough to settle into a luxury suite, check out the woodwork: it’s made of sustainable bamboo.
Befitting a stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley, Levi’s Stadium is also high-tech to the max, with fan-friendly touches like Wi-Fi access in every seat, so you can tweet, post, and chat about the game, not to mention order food without missing a play. If you do venture out to eat, it’s not all lukewarm hot dogs and soggy fries. Celebrity chef Michael Mina overseas the stadium’s high-end steak house, which offers inside-the-park tailgate parties throughout the season.
Beyond football, the venue is slated to host college football games, domestic and international soccer matches, motocross events, concerts, wrestling, and more. Public tours of Levi’s Stadium and its new 49ers Museum let you check out all this fabulousness, even if you’re not going to a game or event. The stadium also makes it easy to use public transit, with close-by access to local light rail, bus, and Caltrain.
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It’s not everyone’s cup of Red Bull, but if you really want to get your geek on, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View lets you get right to the region’s cyber roots. ‘Birth of the Computer’ and other exhibits remind us of the not-so-long-ago time when basic computers took up entire rooms. Another fascinating exhibit sheds light on the little-known story of Colossus, an electronic code-breaker device developed by British maths whizzes and engineers, that helped win World War II. You can also learn about the surprisingly complicated science behind computerised chess, and unravel the amazing technology behind microelectronic silicon computer chips.