Planning a solo trip to Silicon Valley, California? Here’s everything you need to know for your visit:
- Located in the southern part of the Bay Area in Northern California, the area known as Silicon Valley stretches out over 2000 sq. miles and has a population of ~2.5 million people.
- The center for U.S. (and global) high-tech innovation, Silicon Valley is home to many of the big names (e.g. Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook) and thousands of tech startups.
- Stretching out over such a large area, Silicon Valley is really a massive urban sprawl with no defined center – it is not easy to differentiate between individual small cities.
- Nicknames: South Bay, The Valley (the locals tend not to call it “Silicon Valley”).
- Currency: US Dollar (USD)
- Spoken languages: English. Silicon Valley is a diverse area, with many nationalities and languages represented. Other languages common in the area include: Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, Hindi, and Chinese (Mandarin).
- Best time to visit: all year round! (warm mediterranean climate, with temperatures rarely dropping below 13 C, or 55 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Arriving via airport: the two major parts serving the area are SFO (San Francisco) and SJC (San Jose). If you need to take public transport to your eventual destination, it is better to fly into SFO.
1.) From SFO: take the BART (subway) to Millbrae station (about $4.05, see official fare calculator). Then, take the Caltrain to your desired destination in The Valley. Caltrain fares are based on a zone system (see fare chart). For example, a one-way ticket between Millbrae and Mountain View will cost $5.00 (traveling across two zones).
2.) From SJC: the Airport Flyer runs from 5 AM – 11:30 PM between the Metro Light Rail Station and Santa Clara Caltrain Station.
- Instead of bothering with taxis, get a quote first from Uber and/or Lyft.
WHERE TO STAY
- There are over 200 hotels in Silicon Valley. Regular hotels start around $100/night, and upscale hotels average around $275/night. Typical prices: $100-$120/night (Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, San Jose, San Mateo), $120-$135 (Redwood City, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Cupertino).
- If you don’t have a particular destination in mind, San Jose could be an easy choice (largest by population). With Stanford University right in town, Palo Alto can be an interesting location too (one of the nation’s highest-income cities).
- The Valley Transit Authority is responsible for the public transit in Silicon Valley, and runs a system of buses and lightrail. Fares are $2 for a single ride; $6 for a day pass, and $70 for a monthly pass. VTA goes as far north as Palo Alto. San Mateo County public transit operates in San Mateo and Redwood City. Fares are $2 for a single ride; $6 for a day pass, and $64 for a monthly pass.
- The Caltrain runs between most cities in The Valley, and fares depend on zones traveled in (see fare chart).
- There are various taxi companies servicing the area (map), and fares vary significantly. Most locals prefer Uber and/or Lyft ride-sharing apps over taxis.
- Car rental: Look for big chains (e.g. National, Budget, Thrifty) at the airport. Alternatively, you can try ZipCar – pickup stations are everywhere in Silicon Valley. Warning: avoid driving during rush hour (6 AM to 10 AM, and 3:30 PM to 7:30 PM), as it takes twice as long to get anywhere (traffic on the 101 comes to a complete standstill).
SILICON VALLEY NIGHTLIFE
- Drinking age is 21, and last call for alcohol is at 1:30 AM (though bars sometimes remain open until 3 AM). Top spots by city:
- Your best bet for proper nightlife is still San Francisco (link to our guide). Failing that, give Mountain View a shot!
- Great bars to start your night: Nola (Palo Alto), The Patio (Palo Alto sports bar), Fred’s Place (Mountain View), Mervyn’s (Mountain View).
- San Jose’s Santana Row (or 1st St. for the hipster scene) is a solid bet on Friday/Saturday nights.
- Palo Alto nightlife: University Avenue.
- Santa Clara nightlife: El Camino Real.
- Cupertino nightlife: Stevens Creek Blvd.
- Menlo Park nightlife: El Camino Real.
- Sunnyvale nightlife: Murphy Avenue.
- San Mateo nightlife: South B Street.
- Redwood City nightlife: Broadway.
UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT
- The NASA Ames Research Center is one of the only NASA installations in the country. While you cannot go into the research center itself, you can enjoy the Exploration Center and the Moffett Field Museum. Hangar One is on the NASA Ames property and is one of the largest free-standing structures in the world, taking up more than eight acres.
- The Almaden Research Center in San Jose is where the hard drive was invented. Opened in 1986 to perform research in computer science, it contains over 500 offices and 150 labs.
- The Intel Museum at Intel’s Headquarters offers a unique learning experience – come see how microprocessors work. If you are interested in the history of computers and data processing, the Computer History Museum is one of its kind and a must-see.
- For something less geeky, check out the Cantor Art Center at Stanford, home to a collection of over 200 Rodin pieces (including the first large-scale bronze casting of “The Thinker”).
- The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is a 160-room mansion that was under construction for 38 years. The house was owned by the heiress to the Winchester Gun Company fortune.
- The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is home to one of largest collections of Egyptian artifacts.
- Built in 1803, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph is a historical state landmark.
- Note: Silicon Valley is a sprawl, and walking between landmarks and cities is usually not feasible due to the distances involved. The area does, however, contain some of the top biking trails of the nation.
- Bair Island in Redwood City is a group of marshy islands taking up 3,000 acres. Restoration projects are underway. Walking through the islands, you can see all of Redwood City and further up the Peninsula to San Francisco.
- The New Almaden Quicksilver Mine in San Jose is a national landmark, and is the oldest quicksilver mine in the United States. Go walking through the 4,000 acres, and enjoy the museum.
- The Googleplex in Mountain View is the headquarters for Google. However, you are free to walk or bike around the 26-acre complex. Enjoy the fountains, shallow pools, and giant dinosaur statue. Note: if you don’t know any employees, you won’t be able to get in.
- In spite of how populated Silicon Valley is, it shuts down early. Late night food options are often restricted to fast food.
- Silicon Valley has over 300 sunny days a year. Locals love outdoor activities, and fitness is a top concern for locals.
- San Jose is home to a vibrant performing arts community including: Ballet San Jose, and San Jose Improv. Sunnyvale is home to the famous Blues Jam every Monday (on Murphy Avenue, at Murphy’s Law).
- Beloved local sports teams include: San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, San Jose Sharks, Oakland Raiders, and San Jose Earthquakes. It is wise to avoid the neighborhood around HP Pavilion during San Jose Sharks games, as the streets get blocked off.
- Where to find good cheap eats: 1st Street in San Jose is replete with cheap food, as is Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose, and Cupertino. Murphy’s Avenue in Sunnyvale has reasonably priced food, as does Castro Street in Mountain View. For up to date restaurants and reviews, check the listings on Yelp. You can find almost any type of cuisine in Silicon Valley.
- Tip: Farmers’ Markets are everywhere, and you can find fresh local produce almost every day of the week.
- Dangerous areas:
– San Jose: At night, do not walk alone in Willow Glen, downtown, or East San Jose.
– Avoid East Palo Alto.
– Sunnyvale has a lot of burglaries, and Mountain View a lot of car theft.
– San Mateo is not very friendly at night, and it would be wise to walk with friends.
– Otherwise, Silicon Valley is generally very safe.
Recommended trip duration: 3-4 days