A popular California tourist destination early in the 20th century, San Jose and the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, then known as Valley of Hearts Delight, fell out of favor as the trees disappeared under the glass and concrete of Silicon Valley. The economic boom that emerged from the combination of entrepreneurial and technological innovation has sparked a new kind of tourism.
Heads of state hoping to replicate the economic miracle back home, business people eager to make a deal, and newly minted graduates from Bangalore and Beijing to Boston and Berlin are joined by high-tech history pilgrims eager to see where it all began.
And if an accompanying spouse or partner tires of tech history, the Monterey Peninsula, San Francisco, and the Napa and Sonoma wine country are just a day trip away.
In 1971, when the name first appeared in print, Silicon Valley comprised a handful of former farming communities straddling the border of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties on the southern San Francisco Peninsula.
As the silicon computer chip industry that bestowed the nickname grew and expanded into internet, mobile, and other high-tech endeavors, it encompassed more than 30 fast growing cities spread around the shoreline of San Francisco Bay.
With a population of about 2 million, one million of Silicon Valley’s residents reside in its self-proclaimed capital, San Jose — the tenth largest city in the U.S. and third largest in California.
A visitor’s first impression of Silicon Valley is of sprawling suburban housing, business parks, congested highways and strip malls squeezed into a narrow shoreline between San Francisco Bay and the mountains.
A closer look reveals an extraordinary range of opportunities to live, work, and play in an epicenter of technological creativity in a region of outstanding natural beauty blessed with a sunny Mediterranean climate. An archway at the entrance to Redwood City claims “Climate best by Government Test.”
The Silicon Valley High-tech Heritage itinerary is for those who do not have invitations to the cloistered board rooms of Apple, Facebook, Google, HP, or Oracle but who wish to learn about its people, products and places. With few grandiose buildings, ancient battlefields or world heritage sites, there is little to visually differentiate one community from another. However there is still plenty to keep the curious traveler occupied for days.
Click on the red POI (point of interest) links below for more information on each location.
With its displays of artifacts and public programs the Computer History Museum tells the scientific and social stories of the digital revolution while the Tech Museum of Innovation offers hands-on experience for the young of all ages.
Most high-tech offices discourage casual tourists, but you can visit the Intel Museum, purchase souvenirs and admire the architecture at the new Apple Park Visitor Center, and snap selfies with the Google Android lawn statues. Take a peek into some of the most recent developments in space technology at the NASA Ames Exploration Center in Mountain View.
A San Francisco Chronicle article describes where to try out some of Silicon Valley’s consumer tech wares.
If you enjoy the mix of intellectual stimulation, sports, and youthful enthusiasm of a college campus, the universities of Stanford, Santa Clara, and San Jose State each project their own unique personalities and attractions.
The mansions of modern tycoons being off limits, Filoli, Montalvo, and the Winchester Mystery House offer peeks into the lifestyles and eccentricities of early pioneering barons. Several have fine gardens listed on the Silicon Valley Gardens itinerary. They also host a variety of art, music and community activities.
Popular cultural venues include the San Jose Museum of Art, Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center and the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara.
Spanish and Mexican colonial history is preserved with restored adobe buildings and churches at Mission Santa Clara and Mission San Jose.
Silicon Valley’s love affair with wine is evident in the numerous vineyards that cling to the steep slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and south to the Salinas Valley. Tasting rooms with panoramic views across the south bay include Ridge, the Mountain Winery, and Thomas Fogarty.
Numerous community parks and recreational areas serve sporting and fitness enthusiasts, while 60,000 acres of mountain and shoreline preserves of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District offer solitude and escape from the intense pace of technological progress.
Professional sports are enjoyed at Levi’s (49ers American football) and Avaya (Earthquakes European football/soccer) stadiums and the SAP Center (Sharks ice hockey). The legendary links of Pebble Beach and the 15 other golf courses of the Monterey Peninsula are just over an hour away.
Stanford Shopping Center is home to more than 100 prestigious stores. Santana Row’s boutiques and restaurants are set in a European-inspired mixed retail and residential setting. Ethnic and fine dining restaurants along traditional main streets in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Gatos, San Carlos and San Mateo attract hungry evening crowds year round.
Where to Stop and Smell the Roses in Silicon Valley … The best gardens open to the public from San Jose to San Mateo
Silicon Valley: Day Tripping to a State of Mind and Fabled Garages … People, products and places in Silicon Valley that changed the world
Any time of the year is the best time to visit Silicon Valley. Business and many outdoor activities continue without interruption throughout the year. Winter is cool and can be wet, but seldom freezing. Summer is warm and dry but with low humidity and seldom sweltering. Even then cooling winds typically keep evenings cool enough that in most areas a jacket is recommended for comfort.
Until Diane Warwick popularized the lyrics to “Do you know the way to San Jose?” in 1968, few people outside of the Santa Clara Valley had heard of San Francisco’s bigger, sunnier, and more verdant sister 50 miles to the south, let alone saw it as a tourist destination. Today Silicon Valley, of which San Jose claims to be the capital, is known worldwide and attracts visitors year round to this epicenter of technological creativity and entrepreneurial fervor.
Two or three days will probably be sufficient time for the casual visitor to enjoy the local sights. Tech enthusiasts could spend a week exploring the wide range of specialty interests. Many find the central location a useful base from which to explore other regions of Northern California.
A temperate Mediterranean climate insures that Silicon Valley is open year round for business and tourism. As with most of the urban USA, traffic congestion is challenging during commute hours but getting around in a private vehicle is slightly easier during the summer school vacation months (typically June – August).
Winter weather is cool but seldom drops below freezing temperature. Outside of drought periods it typically rains between 15” to 25” inches in the November to June period with virtually no rainfall in the summer. Average January temperatures are fairly consistent throughout the San Francisco Bay area with lows of 40°F and highs near 60°F.
Summer temperatures vary depending on distance from the cool, often marine-fog shrouded coast. On the same day in August it can be 55°F in San Francisco, 75°F in Palo Alto, 95°F in San Jose and 105°F just 20 miles south in Gilroy or beyond the East Bay hills in Walnut Creek, Pleasanton and Livermore. Even then cooling winds typically keep evenings cool enough that in most areas a light jacket is recommended for comfort. And NEVER visit San Francisco without a warm jacket! As Mark Twain is reputed to have said “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer day in San Francisco.”
The area observes most traditional American holidays including New Years Day (January 1), Memorial Day (May), Independence Day (July 4), Labor Day (September), Thanksgiving (November), and Christmas (December 25) although many stores and entertainment venues remain open. There are additional federal holidays when government services are closed. Many local ethnic groups celebrate their own holidays with parades and festivals, including Chinese (New Year, February), Vietnamese (Tet, February), Irish (St Patrick’s Day, March), Mexican (Cinco de Mayo, May), and Italian (Columbus Day, October).
Pacific Standard Time (PST) is 8 hours behind GMT and 3 hours behind New York and the East Coast. When it is midday GMT in London, it is 4 AM in California. Pacific Daylight Savings Time (PDT) is observed from early spring to late autumn.
Clothing wear is typically casual for tourists but resort-style short shorts and flip-flops or torn jeans are seldom appropriate other than around a pool. Few restaurants demand jackets for men, but many diners choose to wear one. Business visitors should appear in whatever they would feel comfortable to wear in their own country. Do not wear tank tops or hats in restaurants.
Pack rain gear for the winter months. In summer, as noted above, temperatures vary significantly depending on distance from the cool, often marine-fog shrouded coast. In August it can be 55°F in San Francisco, 75°F in Palo Alto, 95°F in San Jose and 105°F just 20 miles south in Gilroy all on the same day so travel with layers of clothing that you can adjust to the local microclimate.
Currency is US dollars. No businesses will accept payment in foreign notes and few banks away from airport facilities will change them into dollars. Large hotels still take Traveler’s Checks but retail establishments do not. Mastercard and Visa credit and debit cards are accepted universally. American Express is not widely used. Chip-and-pin cards were introduced relatively recently and many small stores have yet to make the transition from magnetic stripe cards.
ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines) are found outside most bank branches and in some large supermarkets, restaurants and bars. Fees charged will depend on the relationship (if any) between the ATM owner and the issuer of your personal card. A Bitcoin ATM opened in Mountain View in 2014. Merchants from Walmart to the corner store are entering the era of mobile payment systems that enable consumers to pay with a tap and swipe of their smartphone at the retailer’s sales terminal.
Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula is one of the most expensive places to live and visit in the US. Hotel rooms especially are subject to wild swings in pricing. A room that costs $150 one night can increase to over $500 the next if it coincides with a sporting event or conference. However with hundreds of traditional hotels plus online short-term rental opportunities it should be possible for most travelers, from economy to luxury budgets, to find somewhere to stay. As of late 2016, Airbnb rooms ranged from $40 to $400 with an average rate of $158.
National and local auto rental companies online sites offer low-end economy vehicles from the mid-$20s per day and up to $50 per day for a full-size model. Large SUVs and premium automobiles begin at about $70. Typically about 50% of this sum is fees and taxes. Insurance is extra.
Taxi cab fare from San Francisco Airport (SFO) to Mountain View, a distance of about 25 miles, is roughly $65. The driver will expect a tip of about 15%, especially if you have several large bags. From San Jose Airport (SJC) to the same location is about 10 miles and the charge about $32 without the tip. Check with Uber or Lyft for comparative ride-share fares.
Tips are widely expected in service industries such as restaurants, hotels and taxi services where they contribute an important portion of the income for hourly workers. 15% is the norm in a restaurant. Many diners will give 20% for good service. For large groups, many establishments will automatically add 20% to the bill. This will usually be stated on the menu.
Major emergency medical treatment is extremely expensive. Be sure to check with your insurance company to determine coverage in California. So called urgent care centers, such as the Valley Medical Center’s Walk-In Clinics, do not require appointments and are a lower cost and faster alternative to hospital emergency rooms for minor aches and pains.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Most travelers to Silicon Valley from outside California will arrive at one of three airports, San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC) or Oakland (OAK). SFO is by far the busiest and has the largest number of international connections.
SJC, the full name is Mineta San Jose International Airport, is the most convenient hub in terms of distance from most business interests and usually offers faster exit through customs and baggage claim areas. SJC is home to more than a dozen airlines and several international carriers. A private jet center caters to the nabobs of industry. OAK sometimes offers the best bargains and, while distant from the heart of Silicon Valley, is preferred by visitors to East Bay destinations.
Taxi cabs, including ubiquitous Yellow Cabs, are usually plentiful outside airport arrival areas. Many large hotels offer courtesy van service on request. Regular shuttle bus operations connect visitors to more distant destinations such as the Monterey Peninsula or Santa Cruz. Due to their popularity, it is advisable to make reservations for these services. Ride share operators serve all three airports.
Amtrak Capitol Corridor and Coast Starlight rail services arrive in downtown San Jose at the Diridon Transit Center. Connections to the Caltrain suburban rail line provide service through the heart of Silicon Valley to Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and San Francisco. One-way tickets start at $2.50 and go up to $7.75 for the full journey to San Francisco. Tickets are purchased from automatic vending machines at each station.
Greyhound bus services offer connections between 3,800 destinations nationwide with prices as low as $33 from Los Angles to San Jose. Some routes offer free WiFi and individual power outlets.
The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) oversees a network of buses and light rail systems throughout San Jose, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale. VTA’s Airport Flyer connects SJC to the Santa Clara Caltrain station. SamTrans buses cover San Mateo County from Palo Alto to San Francisco and stop at 12 Catrain stations. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains cover the short distance from SFO to the Millbrae Caltrain station but do not serve Silicon Valley directly.
Although the area is served by this plethora of transit alternatives, the dispersed suburban topography of Silicon Valley means that many places cannot be reached conveniently using only public transportation. If you decide to rent a vehicle, in addition to online services most national auto rental companies have desks at or near the three major airports. Many local rental outfits provide free van rides to offsite offices were prices may be lower.
The region has some of the worst urban traffic in the USA so timing of your journey can make huge difference in travel time. The drive from San Francisco to San Jose is about 50 miles and in light traffic will lake about an hour. Weekday commute period congestion (7 – 10 AM and 3 – 7 PM) at can easily double this time. Getting around in a private vehicle is easiest on weekends and on some highways during the summer school vacation months (typically June – August). Try to avoid the Highway 85/101 interchange in Mountain View if a concert is scheduled at the Shoreline Amphitheater.
Silicon Valley is the nickname for the Santa Clara Valley suburban communities where scientists and engineers learned how to turn sand (silicon) into gold (computer chips). The silicon microelectronic integrated circuit (IC) chips they created are the building blocks of the Information Age. In its 250 year transition from bountiful Ohlone tribal territory at the foot of San Francisco Bay to world-renowned technology powerhouse, Silicon Valley has become a place of legend and hyperbole.
Promoters laud its combination of technology and egalitarian entrepreneurial culture as a progressive force for global change. Critics decry its destruction of fertile farmland and worship of dollars over happiness. For most of its nearly two million residents, from the numerous Nobel Prize winners to newly arrived immigrants, Silicon Valley is simply an exciting and challenging place to live and work, set in spectacular surroundings with an unbeatable climate tempered by endless traffic jams and a high cost of living.
ANCIENT AND SPANISH ERAS
Until Spanish explorers arrived in 1769, plentiful salmon, shellfish, deer, birds, and acorns supported 30 to 40 villages of Native American Ohlone people in one of the the densest concentrations of humanity on the continent. European diseases and conscription into missions Santa Clara and San Jose decimated the population. Dissolution of the missions and confiscation of their lands to create vast cattle ranchos under Mexican rule in the 1830s destroyed most remaining vestiges of their culture. Apart from bedrock mortars, arrow heads, petroglyphs, and place names (Mount Umunhum means “resting place of the hummingbird”) few tangible reminders of the Ohlone remain.
EARLY AMERICAN ERA
American adventurers in turn ousted most of the Mexican settlers after the 1847 “Battle of the Mustard Stalks” in Santa Clara. The area’s Spanish-Mexican heritage is most evident in the basic north-south road pattern, including El Camino Real (The King’s Highway) and the names of numerous landscape features and communities. Prospectors from around the world poured into California after the 1848 discovery of gold. Santa Clara Valley played an important role in supplying the miners with food and the mercury used to dissolve gold from its ore from cinnabar mines at New Almaden.
After the Gold Rush many prospectors discovered a more lasting treasure in the valley’s fertile soil and abundant water. Spanish missionaries planted the first European fruit trees, but Louis Pellier’s introduction of the French prune in 1856 established Santa Clara Valley’s most important crop. Local farmers developed techniques for drying fruit in the predictable summer sunshine and by the end of the century millions of apricot, cherry, plum, prune, and peach trees filled the valley floor.
Even in those days technology played an important role in the economic success of the area. Innovations in orchard management, fruit processing, canning, and railcar refrigeration opened markets across the continent. Small agricultural villages blossomed into wealthy towns with San Jose emerging as the dominant city. Elaborate public buildings and ornate Victorian homes sprouted among the trees and the Chamber of Commerce coined the slogan “Valley of Heart’s Delight” to promote the area as an idyllic place to live and to visit. Springtime blossom tours attracted visitors from around the world.
Agriculture and fruit processing prospered until the 1950s when defense-related technology firms established during the war burgeoned into the orchards. Housing tracts, highways, and shopping centers followed. Like islands in an ocean of concrete and asphalt, a handful of “heritage orchard” plots are maintained as reminders of that bucolic era. The transition from producing most of the world’s prunes to most of the world’s microchips took less than a generation.
Engineering talent from Stanford University together with the entrepreneurial climate fostered by the success of local pioneering radio communications and defense electronics manufacturers encouraged William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor at Bell telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, to move to California start a company to produce semiconductors in Mountain View. His difficult management style resulted in the spin-out of Fairchild Semiconductor, where the founders built the first practical integrated circuit (IC) in 1960.
SILICON VALLEY IS BORN
Demand for these computer chips grew rapidly and dozens of new companies started by employees of Fairchild changed the face of the valley. By 1971, when a trade newspaper dubbed the string of suburban towns from Palo Alto to Santa Clara “Silicon Valley USA,” the microelectronics era was well under way.
For the next 50 years, Gordon Moore’s “Law,” the observation by a Fairchild co-founder that the number of transistors on a chip was doubling every 2 years, ruled as a technology roadmap for the industry. The marriage of silicon chips with software code in the 1980s led to the personal computer and to the information, communications, and entertainment technologies that have revolutionized business and society.
Silicon Valley’s ability to create jobs through technology is recognized and envied worldwide. But the rapid growth and extraordinary wealth generated by this success has its dark side. Housing shortages, nightmare traffic, environmental pollution, destruction of farmland and open space, and the family and social strains caused by an industry that is rocked by volatile business cycles make the region less than paradise.
In spite of these drawbacks, hopeful entrepreneurs from around the world continue to arrive to add their own contributions to what “the Boswell of Silicon Valley” journalist Michael Malone hails as “one of the greatest technological and social transformations in history.” Venture capitalist John Doerr has described the corresponding growth in prosperity as “the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in history.”
Etiquette is informal but most people are polite and friendly. Many foreign visitors are surprised that strangers will smile and wish them a good day when walking along the street. Other than in fast-food establishments, if you wish to avoid scornful looks from the natives do not wear tank tops or baseball caps (especially backwards) in sit-down restaurants.
Eclectic! Everything from comfort, burger and other and fast food outlets to local organic and fine dining. I doubt if there is an ethnic cuisine that is not available somewhere in the area. Perhaps the most significant omissions are limited vegetarian and vegan options, except in some Indian and Pakistani restaurants.
Geek Silicon Valley: The Inside Guide To Palo Alto, Stanford, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, San Jose, San Francisco (2007) Ashlee Vance (Author)
Newcomer’s Handbook for Moving to and Living in the San Francisco Bay Area: Including San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, and Palo Alto (2009) Scott van Velsor (Author)
Silicon Valley: Exploring the Communities Behind the Digital Revolution (2003) David A. Laws (Author)
Silicon Valley: Including San Jose, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, and South Valley (2002) Martin Cheek (Author)
Silicon Valley: The History in Pictures (2014) Mary Wadden (Author)
100 Things to Do in San Jose Before You Die (2015) Susannah Greenwood (Author)
Tech Biographies, History & Fiction
Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Make Their Millions and Still can’t Get a Date (1996) Robert X. Cringely (Author)
Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American (2007) Richard Tedlow (Author)
Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company (2007) Michael S. Malone (Author)
Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age (2006) Joel N. Shurkin
Electronics in the West: The First Fifty Years (1967) Jane Morgan (Author)
Inside Intel: Andy Grove and the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Chip Company (1997) Tim Jackson (Author)
Microserfs (1996) Douglas Coupland (Author)
Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary (2015) Arnold Thackray, David Brock, Rachel Jones (Authors)
Steve Jobs (2011) Walter Isaacson (Author)
The Big Score (1985) Michael S. Malone (Author)
The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution (1984) T. R. Reid (Author)
The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest: A Silicon Valley Novel (1997) Po Bronson (Author)
The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley (2005) Leslie Berlin (Author)
The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story (1999) Michael Lewis (Author)
The Silicon Boys: And Their Valley of Dreams (1999) David A. Kaplan (Author)
What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (2005) John Markoff (Author)
Following is a selection of big screen and made for TV bio-pics, documentary, and fictional movies featuring Silicon Valley people and companies. Numerous other films have used the area as a backdrop from early Charlie Chaplin shorts made at Essanay Studios in Niles (1915) to Harold and Maude (1971).
Modern Marvels: ‘80s Tech (2006)
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
Silicon Valley: American Experience (PBS WGBH 2013)
Silicon Valley (HBO TV comedy series 2014, 2015, 2016)
Something Ventured (2011)
Steve Jobs (2015)
The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (2002)
The Internship (2013)
The Making Of Silicon Valley: A One Hundred Year Renaissance (1997)
The Real Revolutionaries (2009)
The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996)
General Travel Information
Computer History Museum The world’s largest institution devoted to telling the stories of the Information Age.
History San Jose Silicon Valley’s largest historical organization and park.
Palo Alto Historical Association
Silicon Valley History Online Vintage photographs.
The Tech Museum of Innovation A family-friendly interactive science and technology center located in downtown San Jose.