Why are there no skyscrapers in Silicon Valley?

Google, Apple and Co: At the tech companies in Silicon Valley

Patrick Woods

If you are on vacation for a few days in San Francisco or on the west coast and have a weakness for technology, you should make a detour to Silicon Valley. Our tips on this.

The center of the US high-tech industry is about an hour's drive south of San Francisco and surrounds the southwest end of the Bay. It stretches from San Mateo to San Jose and has its original nucleus around Stanford University. As in the Ruhr area, there are city limits here rather only on paper and in the responsibilities of the individual city administrations, in fact everything seems like a single large place. Every location has at least one model company. Mountain View has its Google, Cupertino its Apple, Santa Clara its Intel and Palo Alto its Facebook.

Silicon Valley Silicon Valley surrounds the southern end of the Bay, lies between the California hills and looks like a large, quiet suburb.

© Patrick Woods to the picture gallery full view

At first glance, the valley seems almost unspectacular to visitors. Because here there are no skyscrapers that demonstrate global power, but almost exclusively lower buildings with two floors. The Valley looks like a large, quiet suburb, not like the industrial park it is at the same time. One reason for this is the traditional suburban construction method, another is that the residents of the rich places often defend themselves against dense development. And yet the "Valley" is a paradise for startups, new ideas and hype, software developers and hardware engineers from all over the world.

Planning, accommodation and transportation

Although Silicon Valley attracts large numbers of visitors, the area is not particularly touristy. There is hardly any public transport here, the Valley is one gigantic suburb and, as is typical in the US, the car is the necessary means of transport of choice here. There are bus routes and train connections, but these are few and far between. The Caltrain connects San Francisco with some places along the valley, but if you really want to see something, you need a car. Rental cars are relatively cheap in the US, especially if you reserve from home before you travel. If you don't want to or can't rent your own car (rental cars are almost always only available from the age of 25), you can also use the Caltrain from San Francisco (Mountain View would be a good stop) or use one of the bus shuttles. Especially in summer there are bus tours through the Silicon Valley from San Francisco. If you are traveling alone, Uber will help you get from place to place relatively cheaply. Classic taxis have long since ceased to exist here.

EnlargeA car is mandatory in the Valley, but currently you still have to drive it yourself.

With a car the valley shrinks to a manageable size and with a tour between the individual places and tech companies we usually only need around a quarter of an hour per point of contact. There is so much to experience here that it can be worthwhile to spend several days in the valley. Hotels are available, albeit rarely, expensive and, above all, not directly in the touristically interesting places. After all, tourism is not an important branch of the economy here. However, it is quite possible to get private accommodation via AirBnB and Co. - even if not cheap.

To go on tour

The largest and best-known companies for safari are certainly Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, AMD, Tesla, game publisher Electronic Arts, Nvidia and Netflix. B2B giants such as Oracle, Cisco and HP are also sitting here and are certainly less exciting for the end user than other brands.

Interstate 101 is the main connection through the Valley and is usually the fastest way from place to place and also from SFO or San Francisco Airport. During the day there is free travel here, only at rush hour in the morning and in the afternoon there is a lot of traffic jams. North in the morning, south in the evening. So if you're traveling from San Francisco, you've been lucky and are going against the current.

There are usually no special parking spaces for visitors at the companies. For companies understand visitors to be business partners, not tourists. Nevertheless, all of the company's parking spaces are freely accessible, and there is no need to be afraid of porters or barriers.

We don't have parking problems at any tech giant, but you need a bit of luck. The parking spaces on Facebook or Google are partially fully parked in the second row, even in the off-season. At the beginning of October we still find parking spaces everywhere, even for free. In the main season it should be wilder here. This could also mean that tolerance towards tourists is decreasing somewhat and not everyone is allowed to drive onto every site or get a parking space. At least there will be longer waiting times for free parking spaces when there is a higher rush.

Where is it worth it?

But you should always be aware that basically hardly any of the tech giants have an official offer for tourists. These are places of work, not places of pilgrimage. In practice, companies deal with the influx of visitors very differently.

Apple has an Apple Store at the entrance to the main building with its own products and souvenirs, such as mugs and shirts, which are only available there. Intel has a free visitor museum. Google also has a souvenir shop, that's basically it for official visitor offers.

On Facebook, we are kindly but firmly informed that this is private property when we ask one of the many securities about publicly accessible areas. We should like to take a photo in front of the company sign, which is popular with tourists, says the man. No café, no public park. Nobody has to go to East Palo Alto just for the hundred thousandth thumbs-up selfie in front of the like-me-thumb.

EnlargeGoogle's campus is open to everyone and has props for photos.

There is nothing for visitors to see at Tesla's headquarters either, except for an overcrowded parking lot and the company's lobby. If you want to experience Tesla better, you should go to the Tesla dealer near the company headquarters or try to get a tour of the factory in Fremont. These are officially only available to owners and pre-orderers of a Tesla car by prior arrangement. Allegedly, tourists have also been able to take part in a guided tour. In Fremont, east of the Bay, Tesla has its main factory, a former GM and Toyota factory that now builds Model S and Model X.

A more positive experience is Google. This is the only company that is relatively open to outside visitors. Everyone can stroll across the Google Plex campus, sit on one of the numerous seating areas outside, or take photos with props.

The openness is particularly evident in the G-bikes. These are colorful ladies' city bikes that are everywhere in North Mountain View, Google's area. Without a lock, without an electronic rental system. These bikes are intended for employees who commute between buildings, but visitors can also grab a bike and use it, for example, to cover just under a kilometer between the Googleplex and the souvenir shop.

Of all the tech giants we visited, Google is by far the most open and therefore the most pleasant experience. Nowhere else are you so open to visitors and so close to tourists. With fun props, Android sculptures and the like, Google encourages you to take photos and stroll around the campus. In addition, the surrounding area in Mountain View is teeming with self-driving Google cars that can be observed here in the wild.

No matter if Apple, Google and Co .: In all large companies there is only a part of the offices to be seen in one place. The campuses are the headquarters, but all companies maintain numerous other office buildings (mostly in the vicinity) to accommodate their employees. The headquarters of these global corporations seem almost small, even compared to German companies in the upper middle class.

Take souvenirs with you

Even if most companies do not show much of the actual day-to-day business, there is at least the option of taking souvenirs with you. Google, Apple, Intel, NASA or the Computer Museum have merchandise shops to buy holiday memories. Most of the time, these are classic t-shirts, mugs, pens or figures. The prices are relatively high.

Computer museum, NASA and nature: what else can you visit?

Silicon Valley is not only made up of the big corporations, but is generally a port of call for tech startups and full of well-known companies. There are Symantec, LinkedIn, AMD, and thousands of small businesses here. US companies that actually have their headquarters elsewhere also have branches in the Valley, for example Qualcomm, IBM or Microsoft. The whole area exudes high-tech charm and international flair in a sub-urban atmosphere. There are hardly any larger city centers here, but there are large shopping centers - the classic malls - and nice little main streets with often good - mainly Asian - restaurants.

EnlargeThe Computer History Museum is located in Mountain View and has an enormous collection of historical computers.

A great tip is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. This is one of the largest of its kind in the world and you can spend almost half an excursion here alone. Here there is an enormously extensive insight into computer history and rarities such as an Apple I and others can be marveled at. The visit is definitely worth it for geeks, the entrance fee for adults costs 15 dollars, but you can find out about the history of computers here for around three hours. From slide rules and mechanical equation solutions to tube calculators to modern calculators. The history of storage media such as punch cards is shown here as well as the development of semiconductor technology.

NASA also has a base in Silicon Valley, more precisely: in Mountain View. Only a large tent with only a few good exhibits and a merchandising shop is open to the public. You can only come to the actual site by invitation. A tip: if you want to go to the military museum on the property, you can go through and get at least a little closer to the hangars and launch ramps. Attention: the museum is closed on Tuesdays, the NASA exhibition on Mondays.

EnlargeThe nucleus of Silicon Valley is this garage, in which HP was founded in 1939.

Garages are part of the Silicon Valley myth. More precisely: foundation garages. Here in Los Altos we find the Jobs family's former garage, where Apple was founded. The garage in which Hewlett-Packard was founded in 1939 and which therefore bears a memorial plaque as the nucleus of the Silicon Valley can also be viewed in Palo Alto. Both are private houses, however, which do not want any disturbance of the peace. Stopping briefly and taking a photo is expressly allowed, but nothing more. Only advisable for nerd tourists with a lot of time.

Conclusion: what is worthwhile?

You shouldn't expect to see developers from Google or Apple at work by visiting Silicon Valley. There are exceptions if you know someone at the company. In most cases a visit is limited to seeing the building (from the outside) and possibly buying a few souvenirs. Nevertheless, a trip to Silicon Valley is worthwhile if you are in the area and interested in high-tech.

Those who stay in the Valley for several days will find more than enough to do. You can spend a good two days on the tech safari alone and have only visited the larger companies and museums. But the surrounding area is also worth staying a little longer in the area. Because the southern tip of the Bay offers countless parks and hiking trails in the California hills in every direction. In 20 minutes by car we are out of the high-tech world and in the middle of nature. But be careful: parks almost always have opening times and parking spaces are partly chargeable.

EnlargeThe nature in the surrounding area (here Half Moon Bay) is worth numerous excursions.

If you want to experience California and don't necessarily want to make San Francisco or LA the center of your vacation, you can also make Silicon Valley your base camp for your vacation, because many sights are easily accessible from here. The coast with beautiful places like Santa Cruz or Carmel, the endless hilly landscape and also San Francisco is only 40 minutes away by car. In addition, it is safe and there is a high quality of life with good restaurants and many leisure activities. A rental car is compulsory, but this applies to almost all areas of the USA.

Tips for a day trip:

If you can or only want to spend one day in the Valley, you should concentrate on the most interesting points. From our point of view, these would be:

Visit the Googleplex and stroll around the campus

Computer History Museum in Mountain View

Depending on your interests, stop by Apple (Cupertino) or Intel and its company museum (Santa Clara).