There are times when I'm glad that we're not traveling, when we just stay home and enjoy the place where we live for a while. Sometimes, it's fun to be a tourist in your own town, to look at everything with fresh eyes, and to remember why you call it home.
My town, Palo Alto, California, is located mid-way between San Francisco and San Jose. Palo Alto features a mild climate, a hotbed of intellectual and cultural activites, and great restaurants. When I first came to Silicon Valley on business trips in the 90's, I marveled at how it seemed to always be 70 degrees and sunny. "Just another day in paradise," a colleague told me. After weathering 110 degree heat in Texas, and sub-zero temperatures in Chicago, it did seem like the perfect climate. While it's not always 70 degrees and sunny, it seems to be that way more often than not.
Palo Alto is perhaps most famous for being the home of Stanford University and the heart of the Silicon Valley. Technically, Stanford has its own zip code and is separate entity altogether. Like many college towns, there are tensions between the university and the local community from time to time, but for the most part, it is a symbiotic relationship. We need them, and they need us, so we just have to work it out.
Around here, the local folk heroes are entrepreneurs who started out with nothing but a dream and ended up with a technology empire. Those stories, the ones involving two guys with an algorithm who go on to start a global empire, are the legends are the stories handed down from generation to generation. Forget Johnny Appleseed, did you hear the one about Bill and Dave's garage, the birthplace of Hewlett-Packard? Or the lucky building on University Avenue where Logitech and Google were both started? These might not sound significant, but to Palo Altans, it's part of what makes our town unique.
Here are some of the things we love about Palo Alto:
The Museum of American Heritage is a small museum located in the historic Williams house, near downtown Palo Alto. There are some interactive activities for kids, temporary exhibits, and the museum offers classes for older kids on how to build transistors, crystal radios, and short wave radios. If you have a budding engineer or entrepreneur in the family, this is a must-see. Surely, this is how Hewlett & Packard started out. Another great place for kids is the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo , which features interactive exhibits, an indoor playscape for small kids, and a small zoo.
Technically not in Palo Alto, but Stanford, the Cantor Arts Center houses a collection of fine art, antiquities, and often quirky temporary collections. It's a great place to spend a rainy day with kids, but on sunny days, you can sit outside and enjoy the Rodin sculture garden and let them run around on the Andy Goldsworthy piece called Stone River, outside the front door. I like to meet my friends for lunch at the Cool Cafe, where chef Jessie Cool serves up delicious, inventive twists on American cuisine with fresh, organically grown ingredients.
Caffe Riace is a great Italian restaurant that is a little off-the-beaten path. It's not on a commercial street, so you have to know where it is to find it. One of our neighbors directed us there about eight years ago, and we have been going ever since. The owners are an Italian family, and every time we go there they greet us like we're their long lost cousins who just got off the boat from Sicily. Most of the seating is outdoors, in a lovely patio with large bronze statues and colorful artwork all around. It's a great place for a romantic date, or to go let the kids run around the fountain. In eight years, we've never had a bad meal--or even a mediocre one--at Caffe Riace. Frank's favorite is the Osso Bucco, a veal stew that is so tender it barely needs chewing. Alex is crazy about the home-made gelato for dessert.
Joanie's Cafe on California Avenue is a great place for a hearty breakfast or a tasty lunch. It's a small place, so on weekends, there is almost always a wait. The owners are French, so it has a bit of a Parisian cafe meets California Diner feel, with a few outdoor tables. The friendly, amiable waitstaff, who always make you feel welcome whether they know you or not. For breakfast, the scrambles, omelettes, and waffles make for filling stick-to-your ribs fare.
Palo Alto's downtown area boasts a myriad of high-end boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and offices. You can't walk ten feet without running into a coffee shop, since this town seems to be run on caffeine. Some standouts include the University Cafe for coffee and a full menu of light meals and pastries, and Caffe del Doge, an espresso bar that serves up exotic espresso mixes in martini glasses. New on the scene is Madison and Fifth, where I had what was probably the best risotto I've ever eaten in my life.
Most people who live here live on fairly small patches of land, because real estate is at a premium. Luckily, you're never very far from one of Palo Alto's many parks. Our favorites are Juana Briones, with a new playscape that was just installed last year, including a train to climb around on, a climbing wall, and tireswings. We also like Bol Park, with its jogging trail, large open field, and close proximity to the famous Barron Park Donkeys, Perry and Niner. Perry was the model for the donkey in the Shrek movies, and you can go by and visit him and his buddy. In the summer, if you're a parent with a small child, you can't beat Mitchell Park, which boasts a creative water spray area to cool off in, and separate play areas for toddlers and big kids.
If you are interested in the performing arts, Stanford hosts an eclectic Lively Arts series that includes world-renowned musicians and dance groups, everything from Japanese taiko drums to American folk music to baroque ensembles. For theatre, we love the Peninsula Youth Theatre (though it's technically based in Mountain View). PYT features some of the most amazingly talented kids around. We usually go when we know someone in the cast, and have always marveled at the professionalism of the costumes, sets, and performances. We also like Theatreworks, which often stages performances in Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Community Center.
And finally, if you want to take a peek at life in Palo Alto, coming soon to a theatre near you is Palo Alto: The Movie.
When we first moved to Palo Alto, I always had a bag packed, ready to go back to Austin at a moment's notice. I had always planned that we would only be here temporarily. Over the years, I've learned more and experienced more about our community, and now I now can't imagine going anywhere else. Quirky, eclectic, cutting-edge, and endearing, all of these qualities make Palo Alto home.