Walking Tour of Downtown Palo Alto

Image of Palo Alto Plaque

Palo Alto calls itself the "Birthplace of the Silicon Valley" and has a legitimate claim: it is the home of the garage where Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard founded the original Silicon Valley startup, HP.

But Palo Alto, with Stanford University to the south, has grown into an upscale community complete with an active downtown area that boasts high-end stores, an affluent atmosphere, and great restaurants.

This walking tour of Palo Alto (which means "tall tree" in Spanish) starts from its historical namesake and guides you through its historic University Avenue and many of the places that make up downtown Palo Alto's culture.

  1. El Palo Alto
  2. Palo Alto Southern Pacific Station
  3. Digital DNA
  4. The Stanford Theatre
  5. University Cafe
  6. Borders at the Varsity Theater
  7. Robaii (closed)
  8. The Cardinal Hotel
  9. Palo Alto Creamery

First stop: El Palo Alto. Palo Alto Ave. and Alma St.

1.  El Palo Alto

El Palo Alto, the redwood after which the city is named, is in Palo Alto Park, at Palo Alto Ave. and Alma St., before it connects with El Camino Real. The towering tree is believed to be over 1,000 years old and originally had two trunks before the second was lost in a storm back in 1885. It served as an easily recognizable meeting point for Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portola who is credited for the discovery of San Francisco Bay by Europeans.

Next stop: Palo Alto Southern Pacific Station. Walk southeast down Alma St. toward downtown Palo Alto.

Image of El Palo Alto

2.   Palo Alto Southern Pacific Station

Built as the Palo Alto Southern Pacific Station in the 1940s, this building is the current CalTrain station for downtown Palo Alto and a reminder of the dominance of the train as a means of transportation in California during the 19th and early part of the 20th century. This historic station is still a key transportation hub connecting Amtrak, CalTrain, Marguerite Shuttle, and VTA bus services.

Next stop: Digital DNA. Walk northeast down University Ave. to Pizza My Heart.

Image of Historic Train Station Palo Alto

3.   Digital DNA

The "cyber egg" was created by Brazilian artists Adriana Varela and Nilton Marx and symbolizes Palo Alto as the birthplace of the technological revolution, and a centerpiece of Silicon Valley. The egg itself has electronic components welded into its shell of steel and resin and sits in a small courtyard where local bands often play during the summer.

Next stop: The Stanford Theatre. Across University Ave. from Digital DNA.

Image of Cyber Egg Palo Alto

4.   The Stanford Theatre

The Stanford Theatre first opened in 1925 and is one of a dying breed of classically-designed movie houses. You'll find many old black-and-white favorites, beyond and including standards like Casablanca to Hitchcock, playing there. And, to add to the ambiance, you'll often hear the Mighty Wurlitzer organ during intermissions.

Next stop: University Cafe. Walk northeast down University Ave.

Image of Stanford Theatre Palo Alto

5.   University Cafe

This upscale cafe is the epitome of downtown Palo Alto. From its open-air arrangement in the summers, to their meticulously prepared dishes, to the expensive but never boring coffee selection, the University Cafe exudes high-end Northern California living with a cultured but graceful elegance. It's not so trendy that you go there to be seen, but if you're into that, it never hurts to be seen there.

Next stop: Borders at the Varsity Theater. Walk northeast down University Ave.

Image of University Cafe Palo Alto

6.   Borders at the Varsity Theater

Unlike the Stanford Theatre, the Varsity Theater is a classic movie house that didn't make it. But while the only constant is change, the Borders bookstore uniquely fits its traditional selection into the lobby and showcase of the old theater, and uses the traditional Spanish courtyard and fountain to their full effect in greeting customers coming in from University Ave.

Next stop: Robaii. Walk northeast down University Ave. Make a right on Cowper and stop at Hamilton Ave.

Image of Borders Palo Alto

7.   Robaii (closed)

Hamilton Ave. doesn't receive nearly the traffic of the main strip, University Ave. But there are a few places that make it worth the slight detour. The first is Robaii, which has the best falafels, baba ghanoush, and hummus in all Silicon Valley --- and best of all, they have a combination platter that will give you all three!

Next stop: The Cardinal Hotel. Walk southwest up Hamilton Ave.

Image of Robaii Palo Alto

8.   The Cardinal Hotel

The Cardinal Hotel was originally built in 1924 and has evolved into an "old world" boutique hotel that carries itself with great dignity and nostalgia and even retains the neon which was added during the 40's. The Cardinal Hotel is a gentle reminder that there's still a haven for old charm of Palo Alto.

Next stop: Palo Alto Creamery. Walk southwest up Hamilton Ave.

Image of Cardinal Hotel

9.   Palo Alto Creamery

The last stop on this walking tour is the sweetest, the Palo Alto Creamery. The Palo Alto Creamery makes some of the richest milkshakes in the Bay Area, from ice cream it makes a few blocks away. This diner has a traditional feel complete with red vinyl seats and stools at the counter, but you'll find interesting variations on your standard diner fare.

Image of Peninsula Creamery Palo Alto