Geek Out in Silicon Valley

1. Where to Stay

The Garden Court Hotel caters to luxury-seeking guests in downtown Palo Alto.Photo: Courtesy of the Garden Court Hotel

Rub elbows with venture capitalists at the Garden Court Hotel (from $309), located in downtown Palo Alto near hundreds of dot-com companies. Owned by the founder of Zara, the 62-rooms here feature refined touches like white marble bathrooms, four-layer down mattresses, and imported Spanish carpets.

Sleep up high in the Santa Cruz Mountains at the ecoresort Costanoa (from $199), where you can choose between furnished tents, lodge rooms, and fireplace cabins, the latter being the coziest and most secluded. Sign up in advance for guided naturalist hikes and kayaking, or more eclectic offerings like ukulele lessons ($35 including ukulele) or a lecture on bats ($5).

Enjoy views of San Francisco Bay from the Inn at Oyster Point (from $106), which also provides a free shuttle to and from the airport. Located on a marina ten minutes away from SFO, the hotel was transformed from a drab stucco property to a colorful boutique with in-room fireplaces in 2009.

2. Where to Eat

Donato Enoteca serves dishes incorporating local produce and seafood with imported Italian ingredients.Photo: Courtesy of Donato Enoteca

Savor the area’s best modern Indian cuisine at All Spice, opened last winter by Daniel-alum Sachin Chopra and his wife in an unassuming one-story San Mateo home. The chef marries traditional and contemporary flavors in standout dishes like lavender scallops ($14), short-rib vindaloo ($21), and goat cheese ice cream ($8).

Head to Redwood City’s Michelin-recommended Donato Enoteca, where Lake Como–born Donato Scotti serves up seasonal fare incorporating local produce and seafood like Monterey Bay calamari ($9) and paper-thin octopus carpaccio ($8). Take advantage of the 30 wines available by the glass and quarto to sample a variety from small producers in Italy, France, and California.

Pull up a wooden lounge chair near the fire pit on the seaside patio of Sam’s Chowder House, which has been repeatedly named one of the best outdoor dining spots in the Bay Area by San Francisco magazine and other publications. The East Coast–style restaurant serves an extensive menu of sustainably caught-and-farmed seafood; skip the obviously popular lobster roll ($21) for smoky oyster stew ($12.95) and Dungeness crab (market price).

3. What to Do

Mainframes, supercomputers, and robots are on display at the Computer History Museum.Photo: Courtesy of the Computer History Museum

Block out the better part of a day for exploring the Computer History Museum ($15), a massive graphics factory turned multimedia fun house. With Bill Gates, Intel, and Intuit among the principal sponsors, the new “Revolution” exhibition is a richly funded dive into everything geeky—from abacuses to mainframes, supercomputers to robots. Less enthusiastic computer users can still easily spend an afternoon meandering through the leather-lined screening rooms and playing games of Pong.

Visit the biggest tech giants in the valley, starting furthest south, in Cupertino, at the headquarters of Apple (One Infinite Loop; 408-996-1010) where you can pick up clothing and accessories bearing the iconic logo at the Company Store (closed Sat. and Sun.). Then drive about fifteen minutes to Mountain View, home to Google’s headquarters (1600 Amphitheatre Parkway; 650-253-0000), better known as the Googleplex. Members of the public can only peak inside the campus from Charleston Park, next to the main entrance; if you’re lucky enough to know an employee, snag an invite to enjoy the vibrant cafeteria and futuristic sleep pods that wake napping employees with a zap. Finish up fifteen minutes away in Palo Alto at the offices of Facebook (1601 S. California Ave.; 650-543-4800), where you can “check in” and then pose for and upload a new profile photo in the surprisingly modest lobby.

4. Insider’s Tip

Airship Ventures' zeppelin rides fly directly over famous Silicon Valley tech sites.Photo: Courtesy of Airship Ventures

It may be next to impossible to get inside the facilities of most big tech companies, but if you’re desperate for a unique look at the campuses (and breathtaking views of the natural scenery as well), splurge for a zeppelin ride (from $375) with Airship Ventures. The aerial tour, which lasts 45 or 90 minutes, passes directly over the Googleplex, Apple’s campus, and other famous tech sites.

5. Oddball Day

Filoli spans 654 acres of gardens and grounds.Photo: Courtesy of Filoli

Take a break from tech and turn your attention to other pursuits with a fervent following. Start off in San Carlos at the Hiller Aviation Museum ($11), founded by an early-twentieth-century visionary whose inventions are reputed to have predated—and inspired—the Wright brothers. On display you’ll see a steam-engine-powered plane, flimsy aircraft resembling a winged bicycle, and the snakelike, jet-black, 200-foot Condor. Grab lunch from one of the food trucks that sits outside the museum some days; popular choices include Nom Nom’s bánh mì ($7) and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese (market price) from the Shackmobile. Then drive twenty miles southwest to Woodside, where Filoli ($15) is Mecca for gardening fanatics. The 654-acre garden and grounds offer an ancient heirloom orchard, obscure flowers, and a knowledgeable volunteer troupe ready to educate visitors (next open visiting session is Nov. 25—Dec. 3). Next, head south on winding roads to arrive at Thomas Fogarty Vineyards, which excels in producing Chardonnay, though the best reason to visit is the 270-degree view of the surrounding valley. On your way back down the mountain, stop into Buck’s of Woodside, a stalwart diner helmed by a local trivia geek that has served as ground zero for many a start-up tech deal.

6. Links

The San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau is a comprehensive resource for trivia-packed tourism information.

Food Gal is the go-to food blogger for the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

Microsoft’s TechNet blogs feature writing by IT professionals, as well as this guide to exploring the Computer History Museum.

VirgoBlue collects the food and restaurant obsessions of a local blogger and NPR contributor.

Geek Out in Silicon Valley