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Palo Alto, Calif.: Weekend Getaway

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

Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage
Photo caption
History weighs in at the Museum of American Heritage's general store.

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.