Palo Alto

On November 6, 1769, an expedition party led by early California explorer Gaspar de Portola stopped for the night at the base of a giant redwood tree on the banks of San Francisquito Creek. They stayed for almost a week before continuing on to discover San Francisco Bay.

The tree, first called “Palos Colorados,” was eventually named “El Palo Alto.” A little over a century after Portola’s discovery, it would inspire a railroad tycoon named Leland Stanford, who’d spent a few years buying up hundreds of acres of local land to establish a horse farm, which he eventually named the “Palo Alto Stock Farm.”

The rest of the story is fairly well known. In 1891, Stanford founded a university on his land and built a town up around it. The university he named after his late son. The town he called “Palo Alto.”

Today, Palo Alto is arguably the center of Silicon Valley, home to almost 65,000 residents. Stanford University is an elite institution, the “Harvard of the West,” and University Avenue, Palo Alto’s “main drag,” is the heart of one of the most charming small downtowns in the United States. Why Palo Alto real estate consistently ranks among the country’s most expensive is no mystery: Santa Clara County’s northernmost city is one of the most desirable places to live in the U.S.

Palo Alto is where the deals are done, where the world’s best and brightest minds come to follow their dreams. Google, Facebook and PayPal started in Palo Alto. Though each has moved on, the city is still home to approximately 7,000 businesses employing 98,000 workers. Among Palo Alto businesses is venerable tech giant Hewlett-Packard, whose founders, William Hewlett and David Packard, built their first audio oscillator in 1939 in a garage at 367 Addison Street, Palo Alto.

So there’s no shortage of brainpower in Palo Alto – and in the neighboring “city” of Stanford, named the “smartest in the country in 2013 by Luminosity – but there’s more to this place than smarts. Palo Alto is also a beautiful city, full of quiet, tree-lined residential streets, beautiful homes, world-class restaurants and boutiques, lush, green parks and a citizenry committed to a busy – but healthy and community-centered – way of life.

Palo Alto is large enough to support its own international film festival and its own festival of the arts. Its public schools – 12 elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools – consistently rank among California’s best for Academic Performance Index and received a 10 out of 10 score on Gunn High School, one of the city’s two secondary schools, consistently sends more students to Stanford University than all but a select few U.S. high schools.

Palo Alto has a “second downtown,” located a few miles south of University Avenue. California Avenue is a commercial street running through the center of what was once a separate town called Mayfield. Originally targeted as the site for Stanford University, Mayfield proved to be too rowdy for teetotaling Leland Stanford, who envisioned a “dry” college town. Palo Alto became that town, a place where “intoxicating liquors” were banned within a mile-and-a-half of the university campus. The alcohol ban downtown wasn’t lifted until 1971. Guests at the exclusive Four Seasons in Palo Alto might be surprised to find that their hotel is in the middle of what was once Palo Alto’s own “Whiskey Gulch,” a strip of bars located just outside the 1.5-mile limit.

Mayfield was absorbed into Palo Alto in 1925. Over the years, Palo Alto has annexed other towns, creating a diversity of neighborhoods and housing that affords a multitude of options for residents. Palo Alto is known for its stately, pre-war homes, but did you know that South Palo Alto also has one of the largest collections of mid-century Eichler homes in California? Or that residents of Palo Alto Hills enjoy a rural lifestyle akin to that of their neighbors in Los Altos Hills?

Palo Alto may not be what you think; yes, it’s the heart of Silicon Valley, and billion dollar deals go down routinely at the Coupa Café. Yes its restaurants, boutiques and hotels that rival the best of San Francisco. Spend some time there, though, and it’ll quickly become clear that there is more to this ideal American small city than meets the eye.