You might be surprised that Silicon Valley and surrounding San Mateo County is a great area to visit—whether you're into high-tech or not. Just a short drive from San Francisco, you’ll find plenty to do and some places to stay that will wow you. In fact, I had one of my all-time favorite hotel stays in the heart of Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley area is filled with great outdoor activities, farm-fresh dining, art, and architectural treasures, and museums.
Sometimes it’s all too easy when flying into a big city like San Francisco to never explore the nearby gems. That’s definitely the case with San Mateo County and Silicon Valley. As you head south from San Francisco, San Mateo County stretches across the peninsula covering such a diverse area that you can find something for everyone—from the beautiful greater Bay Area to high tech giants in Palo Alto; the rugged beauty of the Pacific Coast and Highway 1; amazing sunsets and fresh seafood. Come along as we explore where high tech meets high touch in Silicon Valley.
Do the High Tech Side of Silicon Valley
There’s no denying that Silicon Valley is the heart of high tech and you feel it everywhere when you visit. As you drive down the street in Palo Alto, you go past the giants—Apple, Google, Facebook. Yes, you can stop by the Company Store at Apple during the week to pick up logo items or pose for a photo in front of Facebook’s headquarters (sorry, there’s not a visitor center at Google), but I’d suggest skipping all three of those and heading to the Computer History Museum.
Learn About the Silicon Valley Computer Story
The Computer History Museum is one of the best ways to experience the entire history of computers, from its earliest roots to today and beyond. For just $17.50, you get a look at the entire computer, well, history.
Note: Check the museum website as the re-opening was delayed due to issues related to the pandemic.
The museum provides an interactive experience that engages even those who might not be professed “geeks”. I love that it explains mainframes and punch cards—and on select days there’s a demonstration for those who have no idea what punch cards are and how noisy computers used to be in the old days. I’m fortunate I never worked on those, but that old technology makes me stop when I complain about the slow internet and that my computer isn't fast enough! The museum also moves forward to today’s gaming world and even looks ahead to the world of self-driving automobiles and beyond.
Dream of Flying
Another great museum is the Hiller Aviation Museum, which also embraces the high-tech side of Silicon Valley. I must admit I was like a child at Hiller, playing with all of the interactive exhibits while visiting Silicon Valley.
Hiller was founded in 1998 by helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller, Jr. He started as a childhood prodigy and went on to create all sorts of aircraft for the US government. There are so many fun things in this museum. You can climb inside of aircraft and simulate landing a plane. I enjoyed playing with the Google Earth Sky Portal that shows real-time where planes are in the world, where you live, and flight routes of famous flights, such as Amelia Earhart’s final flight in 1937.
One of the best exhibits at Hiller Aviation Museum, however, let me bring out my travel geek side in Silicon Valley. They have the nose section of a Boeing 747-100. It’s the first-class cabin and cockpit of the double-decker Boeing 747. There I was, climbing up the stairs, sitting in the old first-class seats, then going inside the cockpit, sitting in the pilot’s seat, pushing the controls, and imagining what it would be like to be at the helm of an airliner. How cool is that? It’s one of their most popular attractions and truly a find.
Stroll the Famous Campus of Stanford University
Silicon Valley is also home to one of the most renowned universities in the country—Stanford University. It is easy to walk the campus and get a feel for the history and culture of the school. The Main Quad is picturesque and historic with a blend of architectural styles. There are a number of campus tours available for free, led by students and lasting for a little over an hour. They take place at various times, depending on which tour you choose, and start at the Stanford Visitor Center.
Alternatively, you can pick up a map or download one and stroll on your own. You can also choose to climb up to the observation platform on the 14th floor of Hoover Tower for a look over Stanford and the San Francisco Bay Area. The tower is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm and there is a charge of $4 (cash only) to climb the tower. The 285-foot tower was completed in 1941 to celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary.
Note: The Hoover Tower is temporarily closed. Check the website for updates.
Find the High Touch Side of Silicon Valley
But Silicon Valley isn’t all about high tech. I also discovered that San Mateo County is a diverse area with plenty of high-touch. A place filled with art, architecture, beautiful landscapes, great dining, and amazing wines.
Peruse the Art of Silicon Valley
While you’re visiting Stanford University, make your way to the Cantor Arts Center and check out the art exhibits. The building is quite stately and I expected to only find traditional art. I was surprised that there was such a mix of traditional and modern art, along with architecture, textiles, and more.
There is a lovely sculpture garden outside and the lobby is breathtakingly beautiful. The best part of this art museum? It’s free to the public.
As I wandered the exhibits, I was surprised at the breadth of the exhibits. Rodin sculptures. Fine European and American artwork dating from 1500 to 1800. But there were also fun and whimsical collections. One of my favorite moments was rounding a corner and wondering why a man was leaning against a wall. Realizing it was a piece of art, I laughed out loud. I love when museums make me question my own preconceived ideas.
Wander the Gardens of Filoli
I never expected to find English Renaissance and Georgian-style gardens during a visit to Silicon Valley. But that’s exactly what awaits at the historic Filoli Estate in Woodside. The estate was built between 1915 and 1917 and was endowed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975.
Today, you can visit the beautiful home and gardens and enjoy this paradise just moments from the high-tech centers of Silicon Valley.
It is decked out for the various seasons and I don’t think there’s a bad time to visit. I was there in late summer, just before the leaves changed, but I can imagine it in spring with flower blossoms everywhere.
It also seems magical in fall with the golden colors of the leaves.
If you visit in winter, Filoli Gardens decorates for the holiday season and everything is filled with twinkling lights at night.
Wandering these gardens gives you a chance to unwind, step away from everything high-tech, and reach out to nature. There’s also a lovely gift shop where you can take home some of the items made from the herbs grown in Filoli’s gardens.
Note: You must reserve your visit online in advance.
Savor the Foods of Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley boasts more than 250 days of sunshine. With the ocean on one side and the bay on the other, it is a fertile land filled with amazing flavors. You can enjoy the fresh bounty from both land and sea.
One of the most innovative places for seafood is at The Sea by Alexander’s in Palo Alto. Chef Yu-Min Lin features fresh, wild, and sustainably harvested items. I recommend the lobster rocks to start—little deep-fried lobster bites with almond purée, truffle, and mitsuba are beyond exquisite. For entrées, select from an ever-changing menu of fresh-sourced seafood and beef. For seafood, you might find wild Maine scallops or lobster (depending on the season), Hawaiian tuna, New Zealand John Dory, Maryland bass, wild Monterey black cod or king salmon, Alaskan halibut, or Washington salmon. Beef offerings include Australian Tajima or Japanese Wagyu.
For something a bit more rustic, head to Donato Enoteca in Redwood City. This is a bit like eating in an Italian farm kitchen. The menu changes regularly, but pasta is made fresh daily. If available, start with the prosciutto platter served with an amazing little cheese tart and homemade pickles.
Follow a Wine Trail
You can really get a feel for that high-touch side of Silicon Valley when you stop for a wine tasting during your visit. The area has three wine trails and a wine road: Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail, Los Gatos-Saratoga Wine Trail, Mid-Peninsula Wine Trail, and Summit Road Wineries. These range from small urban wineries to sprawling estates, so you can create your own wine experience just moments from the heart of all that high-tech—and less than 30 minutes from San Francisco International Airport.
If you only have time to visit one, I recommend Domenico Winery in San Carlos. If he’s around, owner Dominick Chirichillo will regale you with stories about his East Coast heritage. When I was there, I enjoyed sampling the Amador County Viognier and the Amador County Primitivo. You can get a flight of four wines for $18.
See the Rugged Pacific Coast During Your Visit to Silicon Valley
Many people forget that Silicon Valley has a beautiful, rugged coastline and majestic Highway 1 runs down San Mateo County’s western edge.
A great way to experience this breathtaking beauty is with a stop at the Devil’s Slide Trail. This 1.3-mile trail is part of the San Mateo County Park system and is built on what was once a treacherous part of Highway 1. Today, you park and walk along the flat stretch of paved trail to enjoy spectacular views of the California coast.
Relax and Dine at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay
Just a bit up the road you'll find Half Moon Bay, a tiny coastal town with a quaint downtown dating back to the 1840s, impressive bluffs, beautiful California redwoods, and the iconic Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. The Ritz-Carlton celebrates the local food heritage by sourcing from nearby organic farms, local fishermen, and area wineries.
While a stay at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay is unforgettable with views that go on forever over the Pacific Ocean, lunch at The Conservatory or dinner at Navio can be a great side trip for your Silicon Valley experience.
Stay in the Midst of Silicon Valley
When you visit Silicon Valley, you experience high-tech blending with high-touch best in its amazing accommodations. I had two great experiences that I recommend—both unique and it’s up to you which you prefer, based on what you look for when you travel.
The Clement Hotel Merges High Tech with All-Inclusive Luxury
The Clement Hotel in Palo Alto was one of the most amazing hotels I’ve visited in a long time. This is the ultimate experience for someone who wants to seamlessly blend high tech and high touch, offering an all-inclusive experience in the heart of Palo Alto. Before my arrival, the hotel asked me what types of wines I liked, what types of non-alcoholic drinks I preferred, and which snacks I enjoyed. When I arrived, they had the wines available in my room, along with a fully stocked refrigerator and the salty snacks I had mentioned.
But there is so much more. Forget a plug to recharge? The drawer is filled with chargers. Tired of slow internet? No worries here, it’s faster than any internet I’ve seen anywhere. Have the munchies in the middle of the afternoon? Head to the kitchen where trays of fresh fruit, cheese, and an array of foods await… or ask the chef to prepare you something daily from breakfast through dinner.
You can relax downstairs in the living area, enjoy the rooftop pool, or soak in your luxurious bathtub. Dinner was exquisite and the wine choice was exceptional—all-inclusive, of course. I mentioned in my pre-trip survey that I adore eggs Benedict, but can’t have processed meat with nitrates. Not to worry; the chef sourced local bacon and served up amazing eggs Benedict. I didn’t get nearly enough time to enjoy everything The Clement has to offer, including the most hospitable and discreet staff.
Dinah’s Garden Hotel is a Perfect Retreat
For something completely different, I recommend Dinah’s Garden Hotel in Palo Alto. The Handley family opened this one-of-a-kind hotel in 1957 and Mr. Handley’s daughter operates it today.
The family traveled the world and each room includes finds from those travels.
Exotic plants and koi ponds make this a garden oasis.
The pool area is perfect for breakfast and The Sea by Alexander is adjacent to Dinah’s, making it convenient for foodies. Rooms are large, there is plenty of free off-street parking (which is at a premium in Palo Alto) and you will forget you’re in the center of town. Once again, as expected for this high-tech capital, the internet is super fast!
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Plan Your Escape to Silicon Valley and San Mateo County
The next time you’re looking to escape, I recommend a visit to Silicon Valley and San Mateo County. It’s easy to book a flight to San Francisco, then whisk away to the peninsula that surprised me with its diversity. I can’t wait to return and discover more treasures when I visit Silicon Valley—where high tech meets high touch. Be sure to check out more on Wander about what to do when you visit San Francisco and more great California destinations.