For being a sleepy Bay Area suburb, Palo Alto has an incredibly outsized reputation—whether it's because the large town/small city is the home of a certain esteemed university, the namesake subject of a James Franco film (it's the actor's hometown), or because it's the heart of Silicon Valley.
And actually, there is such an abundance of activity here that even the local college kids are starting to realize that Palo Alto is kind of exciting. Yes, it's a tech hub, but PA also has culture (it's home to legit art museums and galleries), gorgeous nature (flanked by foothills and marshlands), and restaurants worthy of the big city (no seriously).
While housing prices here are Beverly Hills-esque and there are a few glamorous places to dine and drop some major bucks, Palo Alto is still a friendly, mostly glitz-free destination anchored by two main commercial thoroughfares (University Avenue in downtown and California Avenue to the south), with Stanford's must-visit campus on the perimeter.
So put down the phone, disconnect from those other devices, and go discover Palo Alto beyond the tech bubble.
Where to Eat in Palo Alto
In 2018, Palo Alto got its first true fine dining destination in the contemporary Korean restaurant, Maum.
(Courtesy of Maum)
While Palo Alto does have its share of decent chain restaurants that cater to the college crowd (and their visiting parents)—think Oren's Hummus (this is the OG location), True Food Kitchen, Sushirrito, Shake Shack, Lemonade, and Sweetgreen—it's also home to a number of delicious, independent restaurants worth a taste.
With Bird Dog's arrival in 2015, Palo Alto entered the world of the contemporary dining experience. Merging cuisines from Northern California and the Far East, chef Robbie Wilson creates playful yet comforting dishes including the signature (and Instagram favorite) wood-grilled avocado with ponzu and fresh wasabi. Meanwhile, a fried chicken thigh with green curry, egg yolk, and smoked uni puts an Asian twist on the classic Southern plate. Be sure to order a drink or two—in the craft cocktail desert that is Palo Alto, Bird Dog's superb libations stand out. // 420 Ramona St. (Palo Alto), birddogpa.com
This California Avenue lunchtime spot has been a mainstay on best falafel lists around the Bay Area for over 20 years, and for good reason: The parsley-stained falafel balls are consistently right on the mark; crunchy on the outside, soft in the center, and never dry. Homemade hummus, tender schwarma, and delightfully sticky baklava make up the equally compelling supporting cast. // 433 California Ave. (Palo Alto), mediterraneanwraps.com
At this friendly, forward-thinking neighborhood bistro, chef-owner Guillaume Bienaime perfectly ties together hearty French cooking and seasonal Californian flair. Start with smoked salmon rillettes and the signature ricotta gnocchi with a slow cooked egg and brown butter (not French or Californian, but who cares), before moving on to such headliners as short rib Bourguignon and chocolate mousse with coffee gel. // 565 Bryant St. (Palo Alto), zolapaloalto.com
Like University Avenue, downtown's main thoroughfare, Stanford Shopping Center is awash in foodie-approved chains (hi, Shake Shack and True Food Kitchen). The one exception is this standout Italian spot serving classic trattoria hits (al dente spaghetti cacio e pepe) but also mixing it up (Impossible sausage pizza). Excellent cocktails, especially the barrel-aged Negroni options, will make you forget how much cash you just dropped at the mall. // 700 Welch Rd. Suite 110 (Palo Alto), vinaenoteca.com
When you've got a chef from El Bulli and The French Laundry teamed up with that former restaurant's old master sommelier, expectations are bound to be be sky high. Fortunately for Peninsula gourmands, this pair of fine dining protégés, Anthony Secviar and Dennis Kelly respectively, strikes all the right notes at their split concept restaurant. The dining room showcases Secviar's riveting cooking via a tasting menu; the lounge, meanwhile, serves equally intricate offerings (sablefish, geoduck, squid ink cavatelli) à la carte. On both sides, guests can count on knockout brown butter Parker House rolls and Kelly's epic wine program. // 250 California Ave. (Palo Alto), protegepaloalto.com
It sounds like the answer to a trick question, but it's true: The Bay Area's most notable 2018 opening on the fancy-tasting-menu front resides on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Plan accordingly because Maum does only one seating (7pm) three nights a week (Thursdays through Saturdays). Husband-and-wife chefs Michael and Meichih Kim worked in elite Bay Area kitchens before taking on this project with deep-pocketed Korean VC-owner Brian Koo. Guests will enjoy a series of pre-dinner bites while milling about an elegant, minimalist space anchored by an open kitchen, and then gather at a long communal table à la Lazy Bear. The procession of 10 courses that follows is a formidable representation of Korean cuisine given a luxurious, contemporary treatment; it reaches a blockbuster climax when the table is set with Korean barbecue-style spread of housemade banchan, Wagyu galbi beef, and bowls of clam truffle rice. // Tasting menu is $175/person; $100 wine pairings; 322 University Ave. Palo Alto), maumpaloalto.com
By day, Terún is a power lunch spot (minus the suits and ties) for panini, salads, and branzino al forno enjoyed on the spacious back patio. At night, the pace slows, the lights dim, and professors and young couples alike file in for eggplant polpette, lasagna Bolognese, and wood-fired 'nduja-zucchini pizza. While the pasta is generally quite good here, it's the textbook Neapolitan-style pizza (with about a dozen toppings variations) that shines. Dolce vita vibes are further evident in the strong Italian wine list and frequent set of local Italian chefs stopping in for espresso hits at the bar. // 448 California Ave. (Palo Alto), terunpizza.com
The blue door and whitewashed exterior are just the first hint that this newcomer is prepared to whisk you off for a little getaway to the Greek Islands—and the warm hospitality, terrific taramosalata (cod roe spread), and tender-as-can-be octopus paired with quince almond relish do not disappoint. The transporting experience. comes courtesy of a pair of front-of-house alums from Evvia, Palo Alto's overhyped and overpriced sibling to San Francisco's Kokkari, and an ex-Michael Mina chef, William Roberts. With compelling and soulful cooking—don't think twice about ordering the custard baklava-like bougatsa for dessert)—and Greek wine flowing with gusto, it feels like a celebratory vacation in the cozy space each night. // 800 Emerson St. (Palo Alto), tavernarestaurant.squarespace.com
Sundance the Steakhouse
They just don't make 'em like Sundance anymore. This candlelit, dark-wood-paneled legend across from Stanford screams "elegant steakhouse" and has been the place for celebratory dinners in town since a little before John Elway was Stanford's quarterback. The real decisions at Sundance are whether it's a prime rib or filet mignon kind of night, and which California cab to pair with the beef. // 1921 El Camino Real (Palo Alto), sundancethesteakhouse.com
Sun of Wolf
The name is bizarre (it's a play on the owners' last names) and the contemporary Mexican, slightly globe-trotting menu is just as quirky—but in and exciting way. Opened in 2018, Sun of Wolf is as hip as it gets in Palo Alto, dishing standout duck confit tacos on handmade huitlacoche tortillas; sautéed shrimp in a chile negro butter; beet tartare; and super cocktails. It all receives howls of approval. // 406 California Ave. (Palo Alto), sunofwolfpa.com
Palo Alto Creamery Fountain & Grill
The retro diner setting feels straight out of American Graffiti, as does the Americana menu of patty melts, turkey dinners, and bowls of chili. Don't overthink it at the Creamery, as locals refer to it. This is the place for a California burger (jack cheese, avocado, and bacon), outstanding soda jerk-made shakes, and giant slices of freshly baked pie. // 566 Emerson St. (Palo Alto), paloaltocreamery.com
Palo Alto's Best Coffee Shops, Ice Cream + Snacks
The Mission-style architecture of the old Varsity Movie Theatre makes the Palo Alto location of Blue Bottle Coffee one of the Bay Area brand's most dramatic spots for sipping lattes.
Part running store, part coffee shop-slash-roaster, Zombie Runner is a California Avenue institution for getting you ready for the SF Marathon while also keeping you awake at the office. While the walls are covered with the latest and greatest jogging shoes, you're really here to browse the extensive collection of healthyish chocolates and licorice to compliment excellent nitro cold brew or the house favorite Turkish cappuccino (a dirty chai done to perfection). // 429 S California Ave. (Palo Alto), zombierunner.com
Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels
Yeah, yeah, we've heard what our New York friends say about West Coast bagels, but there is no complaining in Palo Alto about the bagel scene because of this longtime California favorite for spot-on bagels slathered with schmear. The kosher bakery also has knishes, babka, deli salads, and a whole lot more to go with its iconic bagels. // 477 California Ave. (Palo Alto), izzysbrooklynbagels.com
Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream
Palo Alto has a strong ice cream and gelato scene, but it's worth trekking to a quiet shopping plaza at the Mountain View border for the uber-smooth creative and classic flavors of this cheery locals' favorite for a cup or an overflowing cone of homemade ice cream. Good luck choosing from almost 50 flavors—we'll steer you towards dreamy Industrial Chocolate and the lovely Saffron-Pistachio. // 3946 Middlefield Rd. (Palo Alto), ricksicecream.com
In a town full of adorably quirky concepts, this entirely outdoor California Avenue café/roaster (with lots of covered seating) might take the cake for its backyard location hidden off an alleyway leading to fantastic coffee, tea, sandwiches and tacos on homemade corn tortillas. There are always dogs begging for a bite of the steak tacos, Stanford grad students focused on their laptops, and smooth jazz as the soundtrack for the sunshine-filled al fresco scene. It's feel-good, chill Palo Alto in a nutshell. // 444 California Ave. (Palo Alto), aoccoffee.com
The all-day University Avenue café really does seem like it was directly transported from Milan. A tidy selection of small sandwiches, pastries, and chocolates await at the espresso bar, best enjoyed on the sidewalk at prime people-watching tables. Yes, it's ok to order a cappuccino after noon here. And no, nobody will frown upon a glass of wine ordered at 11am or an espresso at 9pm. Free snacks are set out on Fridays at aperitivo hour for guests who purchase a glass of wine, just like Venice's cicchetti bars would do. // 419 University Ave. (Palo Alto), cafevenetia.com
Timothy Adams Chocolates
Bring your sweet tooth to Palo Alto's Wonka-ish chocolate destination for exquisite bonbons, caramels, and luscious sipping chocolate. The boutique also functions as a small café with a selection of bubbles and sweet wines to pair with rose or coffee walnut praline bonbons. // 539 Bryant St. (Palo Alto), timothyadamschocolates.com
Blue Bottle Coffee
Set in the old Varsity Movie Theatre (then later a Borders bookstore) and opened in cooperation with the coworking hub HanaHaus, this just might be Blue Bottle's most spectacular location courtesy of the gorgeous patio with a beautiful fountain and Mission-style architecture. In addition to their signature coffees, the cafe also offers breakfast and lunch dishes. // 456 University Ave. (Palo Alto), bluebottlecoffee.com
Town & Country Village
Just a short drive from downtown Palo Alto, Town & Country Village is an elevated version of your standard suburban mall. Move over Auntie Anne's Pretzels—here you'll find Tin Pot Creamery's superb ice cream; Mayfield Cafe & Bakery's terrific breads and pastries; and local legend Kirk's Steakburgers. Bay Area food circle favorites like Biondivino wine ship, Belcampo Meats, and Gott's Roadside also have outposts here. // 855 El Camino Real (Palo Alto), tandcvillage.comtea-time.com
Where to Drink in Palo Alto
Pull up a couch at The Wine Room for a glass of chenin blanc and a smoked salmon carpaccio on date in Palo Alto.
(Courtesy of The Wine Room)
Palo Alto Brewing Company
Simply known as the Tap Room, the city's only craft brewery, owned by Palo Alto native Kasim Syed, showcases its own beers on tap, including the popular Hoppy Tart Deco sour and the powerful Barley Legal coconut porter, along with some guests beers in the rotation. The communal table invites you to join in for a beer, order some bar food, and make new friends. // 233 University Ave. (Palo Alto), paloaltobrewing.com
Antonio's Nut House
Don't go to the Nut House for expertly curated Napa wines or clever craft cocktails. This is Palo Alto's beloved dive bar, home to pitchers of beer, fun conversation, and a gorilla guarding free peanuts in a cage. Don't believe us? Check it out for yourself. // 321 California Ave. (Palo Alto), facebook.com
Vin Vino Wine
It's hard to navigate through the maze of wine-filled boxes on the shelves and on the floor at this California Avenue wine bar/shop. However, it's worth checking out the retail and bar options as this is the Palo Alto wine nerds' paradise. You name it—Barolo, Burgundy, Rioja—they've got the world's great regions covered in impressive depth. The wine bar is really more of a tasting room, where various themes like "Vosne-Romanée 2010 vintage" are poured as flights for guests standing at the bar or sitting at one of the cramped tables. // 437 California Ave. (Palo Alto), vinvinowine.com
Calave Wine Bar
Who knew that California Avenue is a wine lover's marquee destination? Calave, just a few steps from the Caltrain station, is the street's most chic wine bar of the handful of choices—and its best for date night. The by-the-glass list is probably Palo Alto's most extensive, and the various themed flights are thoughtfully put together. The peanut-butter-onion-cheese sandwich is the must-try snack—no, seriously. // 299 California Ave. #115 (Palo Alto), calave.com
Rose & Crown
With an entrance off a downtown parking lot, you might be surprised at Rose & Crown's interior atmo—with wood paneling and no shortage of English and Irish ale signs, it's all English country pub in here. Sure, you can grab a pour of Old Speckled Hen, but since this is also Palo Alto's definitive craft beer destination, you can get your fix of the likes of Pliny the Elder on tap. On Tuesday trivia nights, it can feel like half the Stanford student body is in the pub. // 547 Emerson St. (Palo Alto), facebook.com
This cozy hot spot mixes Mediterranean and Moroccan styles with plush couches in the back room, but the wine menu features bottles from all over the globe. By-the-glass options aren't just the castoffs either, with great choices like Foxen's Chenin Blanc from the Santa Maria Valley or Tucker Wines' Carneros Merlot. A small snack menu includes a cheese plate and smoked salmon carpaccio. // 520 Ramona St. (Palo Alto), thepawineroom.com
Palo Alto's Best Shopping
Not just the home of Silicon Valley's low-pro watch of choice, Palo Alto's Shinola story stocks all kinds of leathery ways to carry your various gadgets in style.
(Courtesy of @shinola)
At the former you'll find the usual big box suspects as well as a few smaller labels (think SF-based sustainable fashion brands Cuyana and Amour Vert, and beloved local candle brand Glassybaby). Town & Country is your place for athleisure—with Prana, Sweaty Betty, Athleta, and Marine Layer stores—as well as beauty (Space NK and LaBelle Day Spa).
Here's where else to shop in downtown Palo Alto.
It's always a balm for the soul to treat yourself at the Palo Alto outpost of the Detroit-based company, if not with a handcrafted watch, then at least with one of their beautifully crafted leather journals, made in Ann Arbor, Michigan by the family-owned Edwards Brothers Malloy, exclusively for Shinola. // 261 Hamilton Ave. (Palo Alto), shinola.com
Stocked with the same international designers as it's Fillmore Street sister store in San Francisco, Cielo is Palo Alto-s go-to for chic, high-end women's clothes from such designers such as Dries Van Noten, Sacai, Marsell, and Marni. // 477 University Ave. (Palo Alto), cieloboutique.com
Given that a handwritten note is the most sincere form of communication, Letter Perfect has been supplying the beautiful essentials for loving missives, from hand-painted watercolor birthday cards to customized wedding stationery, since 1982. // 384 University Ave. (Palo Alto), letterperfect.com
Before you pull the trigger and splurge on your next Robodog, Skybuds (wireless headphones), or electric skateboard, go to B8ta, a test-and-try tech gadgets store. It's a great place to explore what the techies are working on. // 516 Bryant St. (Palo Alto), b8ta.com
Things to Do in Palo Alto: Art, Hikes + Hot Tubs
The strength of Pace Gallery's Palo Alto location is tech-driven art installations, like this one from Japan's cutting-edge TeamLab. Check the gallery's website for current exhibitions.
(Courtesy of TeamLab)
For a city known for its tech innovation, it's fascinating how Palo Alto's cultural crown jewel is a classic movie palace complete with a Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Built in the 1920s, this example of neo-classical Persian and Moorish architecture screens a wide range of early to mid 20th century films. Seeing a Hitchcock favorite or Casablanca from the balcony is as essential a Palo Alto experience as it gets. // 221 University Ave. (Palo Alto), stanfordtheatre.org
Rodin Garden and the Collection at Cantor Arts Center
The Rodin Garden and Stanford's adjacent flagship art museum, the Cantor Arts Center, have the third largest collection of the French sculptor's work in the world. Beyond Rodin, Cantor has intriguing exhibitions regularly, plus a terrific permanent collection of modern works, ancient art, and everything in between. Admission is always free, and they offer docent-led tours (also free). // 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way (Stanford), museum.stanford.edu
The Anderson Collection
No Stanford visit is complete without admiring the outstanding Anderson Collection, next door to the Cantor. The stunning modern structure boasts one of the world's largest private collections comprising 20th century American art from the likes of Mark Rothko, Peter Alexander, and Frank Lobdell. The gallery displays permanent pieces such as Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park #60 and features rotating exhibits as well. // 314 Lomita Dr. (Stanford), anderson.stanford.edu
The West Coast outpost of the global set of contemporary art galleries known as Pace represents a host of envelope-pushing 20th and 21st century artists. Admission is free and exhibitions change regularly, but the art's creative nature always invites lingering in the compact space. Look for immersive experiences from the like's of TeamLab and French photographer JR, whose Chronicles of San Francisco—Sketches is on view through March 24, 2019 in anticipation of the larger exhibition coming to SFMOMA in the summer. // 229 Hamilton Ave. (Palo Alto), pacegallery.com
Baylands Nature Preserve
Almost 2,000 acres of bayfront marshland await walkers, joggers, and birdwatchers at one of Palo Alto's favorite places to stretch its legs. The various trails give a great opportunity to get up close with the Bay and explore its distinct mixture of tidal and fresh water habitats. The Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center is a good starting point to help understand the plants and animals who call the Baylands home. // 2775 Embarcadero Rd. (Palo Alto), cityofpaloalto.org
Some of the most rewarding views and breathtaking trails on the Peninsula can be found here in the Palo Alto and Los Altos foothills, right next to the Palo Alto residents-only Foothills Park. The Preserve boasts gorgeous rolling hills covered by poppies in spring and lush green or golden grass all year long that seems right out of a "Welcome to California" postcard. Meanwhile, the views from several trails provide the rare vantage point for hikers to see the skyscrapers of San Francisco, Mount Diablo in the East Bay, and San Jose's sprawl all in one spot. It's almost guaranteed that there will be some deer or a coyote near your hiking trail, too. // 1530 Arastradero Rd. (Palo Alto), cityofpaloalto.org
Up in the Stanford foothills, there is a can't-miss, 150-foot-diameter radio telescope called the Dish. It's in use, but you can safely hike around it. Most of the Stanford-owned land is off limits to the public, but the 3.9-mile trail is accessible for everyone, and as far as its level of difficulty, we think it's a walk in the park. Caution: The back-in only parking situation on Stanford Avenue is an absolute nightmare at peak times.
Watercourse Way Spa
This downtown Palo Alto wellness center has massages, mud wraps, and skin care services, plus the opportunity to book an individual tub room with sauna and steam. Check out their website for unique monthly specials. // 165 Channing Ave. (Palo Alto), watercourseway.com
Where to Stay in Palo Alto
A premiere suite at Palo Alto's Nobu Epiphany Hotel.
(Courtesy of the hotel)
Nobu Epiphany Hotel
Previously a residence for the disabled and elderly, Downtown Palo Alto's swankiest place to spend a night has transitioned in recent years from owner Larry Ellison to global mega chef Nobu Matsuhisa's hospitality group. The beautiful design of the public and guest spaces perfectly blends themes of zen tranquility, the savvy Silicon Valley tech world, and California's sun-filled natural habitats. For now, guests can enjoy private balconies and plush Italian bed linens in all rooms, plus 24-hour room service available from Nobu restaurant. Tech gadgets include a G-link docking station and Revo Radio for tuning into internet radio stations. All can enjoy Nobu's signature pricey Japanese-Peruvian creations on the ground floor restaurant, but only men can check out the "famous" Cal urinal in the restaurant's bathroom. // 180 Hamilton Ave (Palo Alto), nobuhotels.com/palo-alto
The Clement Hotel
As the headliner on El Camino's hotel row, just across the street from campus, The Clement Hotel is an elevated boutique stay with just 23 one-bedroom suites tricked out with Frette linens, Nespresso machines, divinely deep soaking tubs, and plenty of high-tech amenities. The Clement is all-inclusive, so feel free to pop down to the kitchen any time, day or night, to grab a snack or a meal; or order your breakfast to be sent up to the rooftop pool. The rate also includes high-speed WiFi, valet parking, laundry, and even a nightly shoeshine service. This level of service comes with a price tag, but for traveling tech elite and proud Stanford parents with coin, this is home away from home. // 711 El Camino Real (Palo Alto), theclementpaloalto.com