Around Palo Alto in 5 Minutes
Nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is the epitome of technology, innovation, and education. It’s home to Stanford University and is the subject of jokes about wealthy, young tech bros and references to entrepreneurial dropouts and venture capitalists.
Though the stereotype may be rife with hipsters and CEOs, my hometown isn’t just for 20-something coders. Almost equidistant from San Francisco and San Jose, it offers a quieter lifestyle than San Francisco and an ideal family environment, but there is no shortage of great food, nature, and social spots. I grew up in Palo Alto, attending local public schools and gallivanting through the parks and streets. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted shelter-in-place orders since March, barring community members from partaking in most group activities and visiting many of the establishments in town, there are so many places in Palo Alto that have shaped who I am. When travel becomes safe, I hope that others can visit them, too, and experience a slice of the community I have been so lucky to be a part of.
One of the best and most unique places to get coffee is Philz Coffee on Middlefield Road in midtown. It’s a good escape from the bigger chains like Starbucks and Peet’s. Though there’s also a location downtown, the wooden building on Middlefield feels authentic and rustic, with a large outdoor seating area in the shade suitable for meetings and intimate conversations. There’s also a brightly painted mural of an ocean view that I’ve seen used countless times in the backdrop of Facebook profile pictures. The coffee is great, but I’d also recommend the bagels, topped with cream cheese and the Palo Alto Firefighter Sauce (a game-changing hot sauce made by local firefighters). You’ll find people from all ages and backgrounds here – high schoolers (I’ve met with peers and prepared for Model UN here), seniors (I’ve run into my retired contemporary world history teacher reading the newspaper and discussing current events with his friends), and yes, hipster tech workers.
Backyard Brew is an eclectic coffee shop located on California Avenue, a business street often referred to as Palo Alto’s second downtown. From the street, enter into a narrow alleyway. Inside, you’ll find an open courtyard with umbrellas and canvas tent-like spaces. It seems more like a co-working space than a coffee house. Almost everyone is on a laptop, rather than casually enjoying a drink or chatting with a friend. It’s crowded, and many Stanford students and young people are hard at work with their headphones in under the tent.
As a town with a sizable Asian population, Asian food in Palo Alto is authentic and tasty. The best Korean place would probably be So Gong Dong Tofu House on El Camino Real. Along with generous free side dishes such as jap chae, kimchi, and potatoes, it has a wide selection of menu items including barbecue, bibimbap, and soft tofu soups (great for cold winter nights). For Chinese, I’d recommend Hong Kong Restaurant on El Camino for Cantonese cuisine, as well as Chef Zhao’s in Edgewood Plaza for Shanghai-style food. Because the dishes are great for sharing, these are great places to go with family. Zareen’s on California Avenue is a nice stop for South Asian food.
On the European side of things, Bistro Maxine does crêpes, and Cafe Pro Bono offers classy Italian meals. And if you’re looking more for California beach girl vibes, sweetgreen (specializing in salads) and Lemonade LA (offering comfort food, and of course, lemonades), both downtown, are good modern fast-casual chains to hang out with a friend or meet someone new on a summer day. Driftwood Deli & Market on El Camino Real is another must-visit for sandwiches.
But of course, a trip isn’t complete without dessert. I’m a huge fan of ice cream, so I’d recommend trying Tin Pot Creamery in Town & Country Village (although I’m biased because I worked there for a summer as a scooper). It’s definitely on the pricier side, but the flavors (like earl grey tea or lavender with lemon poppy cookies) and the quality of the ingredients make it worth it. CREAM is also lovely for ice cream sandwiches, and the star of the show would be the delicious cookies.
Winter Lodge on Middlefield Road, unsurprisingly only open in the winter, is Palo Alto’s outdoor ice rink. Time and time again, I’ve found myself clinging to the walls at the edges of the rink trying to regain my confidence in skating, from my fifth grade class outing to meetups with friends and bonding events with my high school newspaper. Around Christmas, a Christmas tree is put up in the center of the rink, and friends on skates pose for photos. Thinking about Winter Lodge gives me nostalgia for wholesome memories with friends, listening to Christmas music, bundled up in scarves drinking hot chocolate.
Mitchell Park is the go-to for any lover of sports and play. The park is one of the biggest within the city (you can walk across most other parks within a minute or two), and it boasts tennis courts, fields for soccer, picnic areas, and an inclusive playground for kids regardless of disability status. It’s also home to a really cool library and community center, where I often studied and participated in events, with modern architecture and sustainable features like a rooftop garden.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, Foothills Park is another level beyond that. On the outskirts of the city, you’d probably have to drive in, but the amount of open space and nature is expansive. It’s a good spot for a more private hangout, canoeing in the lake, and beginner-friendly hikes. The Baylands Nature Preserve, by the San Francisco Bay, is a great place to observe birds and other wildlife, and at Arastradero Preserve, you’ll see a different style of habitat on the more inland, hilly side of town. All of these are great natural spots to take photos, but I took my pre-prom photos at Gamble Garden, a beautiful little spot for you to live your royal dreams.
With Palo Alto often termed “the birthplace of Silicon Valley,” you might want to see some of the places where it all started. The HP Garage is a museum and the place where Hewlett Packard started. You could also try going to look at the homes of famous tech founders like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs, although I have never attempted this and have no idea where they are, so good luck with that.
Stanford University, founded in 1891, is pretty old by California standards, and its existence has had a lasting impact on the area. With over 8,000 acres of land, there is no shortage of things to see at Stanford. Don’t miss Palm Drive and The Oval, which welcome visitors into the campus, and Hoover Tower and Memorial Church, perhaps the most iconic symbols of the university. You can also relax at Tresidder Union, where there are casual food options, and Stanford Shopping Center, which is a very upscale outdoor mall. The Stanford Dish is another popular destination for hilly hiking, and the Cantor Arts Center has a vast collection of works, including many Rodin sculptures.
The magic of all these places, however, isn’t just in the food or the books or the beautiful sunsets. It is in the sense of belonging and connectedness felt while there. On your next trip to Silicon Valley, definitely check out the places that make me proud to call Palo Alto home.