The phrase “college town” often encompasses a wide range of contrasting connotations, from that of a sleepy hamlet that shuts down at 6 p.m. to a free-for-all party atmosphere that runs 24/7. Thankfully, Palo Alto doesn’t fit either extreme—instead, it strikes a nice balance as a sanely quiet town that still knows how to have fun.
The Peninsula’s oldest city enjoys its status as the home of Stanford University, one of the country’s most elite private universities, but it also leads a double life as an influential hub of the high-technology economy. After all, it’s home to such mega-companies as Facebook and Hewlett-Packard. It’s this juncture between academia and new-age tech that makes this city so dynamic, with its diverse population of students and professors, retirees, out-of-towners and young professionals.
Translated literally, Palo Alto means “tall stick” in Spanish. The name honors a historic redwood tree dubbed El Palo Alto by early Spanish explorers. The city’s heart, however, is University Avenue. At first glance, this picturesque, tree-shaded thoroughfare looks as if it might have been plucked straight from a 1950s postcard. Stanford Theater, a restored movie revival house, along with several Americana-style diners and the classic Varsity Theater-turned-bookstore all add to the area’s retro feel.
But a closer look at the shops, galleries and restaurants populating the avenue and its side streets reveals an anachronistic blend of contemporary businesses. These include everything from trendy boutiques with up-to-the-minute fashions to restaurants featuring the latest enticing permutations of the world’s cuisines.
After whiling away a sunny afternoon browsing the stores, take time out for an espresso break and some people-watching at one of the many sidewalk cafes and consider sticking around to enjoy downtown Palo Alto at night.
There’s palpable energy in the air when the sun sets, especially on weekends. Moviegoers line up at the Stanford Theater to relive the gilded glamour of Old Hollywood, and college students head to wine bars, sports bars and restaurants, some with dance floors, strobe lights and DJs spinning music.
Downtown Palo Alto isn’t the only scene when it comes to shopping, dining and entertainment. Just south of University Avenue, at the corner of El Camino Real and Embarcadero Road, Town and Country Village houses a cluster of unique specialty stores and quality restaurants. With its Spanish hacienda-style architecture and covered walkways, this is a place where you can enjoy a leisurely conversation with a store owner or a restaurant proprietor while you shop and dine. A bit farther south on El Camino Real, California Avenue offers a range of independent retailers, restaurants and bars.
If shopping’s at the top of your priority list, then be sure to save time for a trip to Stanford Shopping Center, located on El Camino just north of University Avenue and the Stanford campus. One of the few large-scale, open-air malls in the nation, this top visitor attraction is the spot to go for national-brand stores, anchored by such venerable names as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
Last but not least, your trip to Palo Alto wouldn’t be complete without a stroll through Stanford University’s impressive campus. Recommended stops include the Cantor Arts Center, distinguished for housing one of the largest collections of Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculptures outside of Paris; the gorgeous Memorial Church; and the iconic Hoover Tower, whose observation deck offers breathtaking views of the campus and the Bay Area.