Palo Alto, Calif.: Weekend Getaway

Silicon Valley's birthplace delivers gardens, art, and architecture.

Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage

History weighs in at the Museum of American Heritage's general store.


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So many communities lose their roots—and their charm—to progress. Not Palo Alto, Calif. As the birthplace of Silicon Valley, it is proud to be a magnet for high-tech whiz kids, savvy Stanford professors, and flush entrepreneurs. But this peninsula city also treasures the trappings of its more distant past—and not just as museum pieces. Take the old gas station on the corner of Alma and Homer. Built in 1929 in Spanish colonial revival style, it still services automobiles: BMWs, of course.

The leafy, compact downtown embodies the dynamic interplay of old and new. Taking the main thoroughfare, University Avenue, west from Highway 101, you pass elegant century-old homes and arrive at a cornucopia of shops, galleries, restaurants, and cafés.

Palo Alto is a pedestrian's paradise. You can begin with an early morning start at the 82-year-old Palo Alto Creamery on Emerson Street (look for the old peninsula fountain sign), one block south of University. A local favorite for its milk shakes, it also serves up breakfasts such as hash-brown pie. Work off the calories with a walk to Professorville a few blocks south, where you'll see fine examples of shingle, colonial revival, and craftsman style architecture.

Cruise a dozen galleries and cafés during the Palo Alto Art Walk, the first Friday of each month from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Enjoy art, free entertainment, music, nibbles, and drinks. Call the Pacific Art League at (650) 321-3891 or visit

Nearby is the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden, 2½ acres surrounding an elegant 1902 colonial revival house. Meander through the wisteria garden or check out the herbs before heading back toward University Avenue to the Museum of American Heritage.

The museum preserves 19th- and early 20th-century electrical and mechanical inventions. Once the home of a local physician, it includes a 1920s kitchen and a former lab that houses medical and pharmaceutical artifacts. Stop by the gift shop to pick up an old-fashioned windup animal made of tin-plate or books of paper dolls.

Palo Alto grew up alongside its neighbor, Stanford University. Indeed, in 1890, founder Leland Stanford established the town as an alcohol-free enclave when rowdy nearby communities like Mayfield refused to close their taverns. Dry no more, Palo Alto treasures the founding father's other legacy: the big, parklike campus at its doorstep.

The Stanford Theatre, built in 1925, offers double bills from Hollywood's golden age. 221 University Ave., (650) 324-3700,

Stanford University covers 8,000 acres and during the school year, it becomes a sea of bicycles. If you prefer four-wheel vehicles, note that on weekends public parking lots and street parking are free on campus. For a view of the area, take an elevator to the top of 285-foot Hoover Tower. From the tower it's a short walk to the university's art museum, Cantor Arts Center, where the outdoor collection of 20 Rodin bronze sculptures is second in size only to the one found at the artist's home in Paris.

Lesser-known spots on campus elude most tourists and even many locals. In a trench across the street from Cantor, 128 tons of sandstone blocks that tumbled from local buildings in last century's earthquakes find a new function in British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy's snakelike Stone River.The 320-foot piece is almost camouflaged by the earth around it. Close by is the Arizona Garden, planted in the 1880s and recently restored, its colorful cacti and other succulents arranged in 58 moon- and star-shaped beds. And across campus, you can wander through an unusual sculpture garden carved on-site in 1994 by 10 Papua New Guinea artists using woods shipped from their native land.

Back in town, catch classic films at the Stanford Theatre. One double bill might offer two Brando efforts, another, a film noir pairing. Between shows, an organist entertains with a medley of movie music on a Mighty Wurlitzer. The audience's sheer delight offers more proof that the past is never out of style.

Photography by Terrence McCarthy

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Area code is 650 unless noted. Pick up Northern California & Nevada TourBook and AAA's Palo Alto–Mountain View map. Or contact the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce at 324-3121. For maps and information about Stanford University, visit

Arizona Garden Off Quarry Road between Campus Drive and Arboretum Road. California Garden Native plants. Roth Way and Lomita Drive. Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden 1431 Waverley St., 329-1356, Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden Corner of Lomita Drive and Santa Teresa Street.

Birthplace of Silicon Valley The garage where Hewlett-Packard began. 367 Addison Ave. Hanna House Frank Lloyd Wright's 1930s masterwork. Frenchman's Road off Mayfield Avenue, 725-8352. Museum of American Heritage Walking tour maps available. Open Fri.–Sun. 11 a.m.–4 p.m. 351 Homer Ave., 321-1004, Professorville Homes of varying architectural styles. 299-8878,

Stanford Lively Arts October–May. Stanford Ticket Office, Tresidder Memorial Union, Stanford, 725-2787,

Bell's Books Some 130,000 rare, used, and new volumes. 536 Emerson St., 323-7822. Gallery House Glasswork and jewelry. 320 California Ave., 326-1668, Meadowlark Gallery American crafts by more than 500 artists. 516 University Ave., 330-1490. United Nations Association Gift Shop International items. 552 Emerson St., 326-3170.

Cool Café Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Dr., Stanford, 725-4758. St. Michael's Alley 806 Emerson St., 326-2530.

Palo Alto Creamery (Peninsula Fountain) 566 Emerson St., 323-3131. Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store 900 High St., 323-3175. Rick's Ice Cream 3946 Middlefield Rd., 493-6553.

Gyros Gyros 498 University Ave., 327-0107. Patxi's Chicago Pizza 441 Emerson St., 473-9999.

Restaurant Zibibbo Sumptuous Mediterranean dishes in a comfortable garden/patio setting. Home-made breads. 430 Kipling St., 328-6722. Tamarine Vietnamese cuisine. 546 University Ave., 325-8500.

Garden Court Hotel 520 Cowper St., (800) 824-9028, Hotel California Bed-and-breakfast with 20 rooms. 2431 Ash St., 322-7666, Stanford Terrace Inn Across the street from the university. 531 Stanford Ave., (800) 729-0332,

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