There’s a movie out today called “Palo Alto“, a film based on actor (and Palo Alto, California-raised) James Franco’s book of short stories by the same name. While the premise of the film isn’t particularly unique (i.e. rich teenagers behaving badly), the choice of setting intrigues me. Today, there’s more attention than ever before on Silicon Valley and the diverse local communities in the region, like Palo Alto.
Home to Stanford University, and the first computer electronics made by Hewlett-Packard back in the 1930’s, Palo Alto is considered the birthplace of Silicon Valley. Today, the city continues to draw tech startups, engineers, and entrepreneurs.It’s an exceedingly livable city and there is no wonder tech founders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s late Steve Jobs have made their home right downtown. Palo Alto is home to a lot of wealth, but being a college town still seems a fairly accessible place.
Kevin’s office is in downtown Palo Alto and my good friend, Cathy, teaches at a local elementary school, so I spend a lot of nights and weekends exploring the community.
Here are my 5 favorite things to do in Palo Alto:
1. Walk or bike around town:
Palo Alto is connected to the rest of Silicon Valley and San Francisco by Caltrain (regional commuter rail), pedestrians and cyclists can get to either of the two downtown areas via the University Ave. or California Avenue Caltrain stops. The quiet tree-lined streets of the city make it a nice place to walk, bike, or run.
Palo Alto is one of the most bike friendly cities in the U.S. At any time of day, the streets are filled with cyclists, who cross the city safely using one of the city’s many bike lanes or the Bryant Avenue “Bike Boulevard,” a residential street where cars are slowed (or prohibited from traveling in certain areas — see photo below), to prioritize bicycle traffic over cars.
2. Explore the Green space, tree-line streets, public art, and quirky public parks:
You can’t walk very far in Palo Alto without coming across a park or public square. Look for the bizarre, trompe-l’oeil murals of aliens, kids at play, and working folk painted by local artist Greg Brown.
The Lawn Bowling Green on Embarcadero, is a public park devoted to the sport of “lawn bowling”. Lawn bowling is like bocce but played using a slightly flattened ball. The park offers free lawn bowling classes each weekend.
Just a block down from the lawn bowling green is the nonprofit Elizabeth F. Gamble Gardens which features hundreds of lovely flowering and ornamental plants. The gardens are open to the public every day during daylight hours.
The Barron Park Donkeys are locally famous attraction at Cornelis Bol Park. Two donkeys named “Niner” and “Perry” live at the park. Perry is the miniature donkey that modeled for the animators work on the movie, Shrek. Care and feeding of the animals is a community effort and supported by donations to the Palo Alto Donkey Project, administered by a local environmental organization.
3. Relax in one of many great cafes:
Being a college town and home to lots of well-caffeinated students, engineers, and entrepreneurs, there are dozens of unique coffee shops to fit whatever mood you are in.
These are some of my favorites:
Zombie Runner: The strangest coffee shop I’ve ever been to. Built inside a running shoe store (that was built inside of a historic theater!), the cafe roasts their own single origin coffee beans, sells their own custom blend of spicy chai tea, and a unique selection of cafe snacks, a dozen varieties of European black licorice, right next to a wide selection of beef-flavored granola bars, catering to their athletic clients who follow the trendy “Paleo diet”.
And did I mention the place is zombie themed?
Philz Coffee: Palo Alto has two outposts of this much-loved, San Francisco based chain. The sprawling downtown location is constantly packed with young start-up engineers and entrepreneurs meeting amidst Stanford University students. The smaller second location (on Middlefield Road) is closer to the residential neighborhood, has quirky murals and large outdoor garden, drawing more business from home engineers and young spandex-clad moms having coffee after their pilates class.
Coupa Cafe: Sells exclusively Venezuelan coffee, chocolate, and cafe snacks including “arepas”, a traditional one cornmeal pancake filled with savory treats. The cafe is always packed with Stanford students and South American expats.
4. Local Sweets:
Palo Alto has so many delicious sweet shops with hand-crafted treasures — this is why it’s the location for our next Bay Area SweetsCrawl!
I won’t give away the itinerary for the Palo Alto SweetsCrawl, but a few of my favorite sweet stops are The Chocolate Garage for their unique selection of bean-to-bar chocolates, Chantal Guillon for authentic French macarons, and my favorite recent discovery, Monique’s Chocolates for their custom hot cocoa blends. You pick from one of several chocolates, as well as the milk (whole, half and half, skim, soy, almond, hazenut), and then blend up a rich and perfect cup of drinking chocolate. Go there soon, the store is closing June 15 when the owners move to Paris!
5. Wholesome Food:
Two weekly farmers markets, one operates year round. Local grocery store Country Sun Natural Foods and national chains The Fresh Market and Whole Foods (neighborhood sized store right downtown) make finding healthy groceries convenient wherever you are.
Local restaurants always have something vegetarian on the menu and try to use local and organic ingredients. LYFE Kitchen is one of my favorite restaurants for fast delicious and healthy meals. They offer menus labeled to suit any preference — “I eat everything”, “vegan/vegetarian”, “gluten-free”, and “seasonal”.
Vintage mural on the side of Country Sun Natural Foods