high tech tourism, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, California

Silicon Valley High Tech Tourism: Selfies and Swag

Story by David A. Laws.

Personal digital devices and online social platforms are enabling a new kind of Silicon Valley tourism. Previously only of interest to heads of state hoping to replicate the economic miracle back home, business people pursuing a deal, and a trickle of history buffs exploring where it all began, today the high-tech mecca is increasingly crowded with denizens of the always-connected world. Selfie-stick wielding pilgrims hustle to score swag and Instagram winning moments at the temples of Apple, Facebook, Google, and more. Silicon Valley high tech tourism abounds.

In 1971, when the name first appeared in print, Silicon Valley comprised a handful of suburban communities from San Carlos to Santa Clara on the southern San Francisco Peninsula. As the silicon computer chip business that bestowed the nickname exploded into internet, mobile and other high-tech endeavors, its tentacles spread around the southern end of the Bay. Devout social media-acolytes hoping to connect spiritually to their electronic deities now scout business parks scattered across more than 30 cities seeking budding unicorns basking in their 15 minutes of fame.

Selfie Spots

Deceased former icons of Silicon Valley
Yahoo iconic sign – soon disappearing
Silicon Valley Icons now deceased.
Deceased former icon AMPEX

Most companies discourage casual visitors but there are many places where fans can pose for selfies in front of plaques, logos, and business signage. Beware that these locations are not designed to accommodate tourists, so parking is typically minimal or non-existent and traffic can be busy and dangerous. But don’t delay, even the most significant corporate signs are removed as memories of their contributions fade. The last reminder of video tape recorder pioneer Ampex was removed in 2018 when Stanford Health purchased the site overlooking Highway 101 in Redwood City. The Yahoo logo is disappearing as we speak.

The current hot spot for high tech tourism is the thumbs-up “Like” sign at the entrance to the huge Facebook campus at One Hacker Way, off Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park. For years, the rear of the sign continued to carry the logo of an icon from the dotcom era, Sun Microsystems – the original tenant. A 9-acre rooftop garden on top of the Frank Gehry-designed Facebook building at nearby One Facebook Way would provide a more scenic backdrop but, alas, is accessible only to employees.

Popular selfie site at Facebook HQ. Photo: Kirstina Sangsahachart/Daily News
Popular selfie site at Facebook HQ. (Photo: Kirstina Sangsahachart/Daily News)

Menlo Park also offers fertile hunting ground along its venture capital ghetto. Powerful start-up funders such as Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia Capital and nearly 50 more are discreetly hidden behind neatly clipped landscaping along Sand Hill Road. Palo Alto’s Stanford Research Park has hosted numberless tech pioneers over the years. Logos and signs of grizzled veterans Hewlett Packard and Xerox PARC are flanked by more recent high-flyers, Nest and Tesla.

During the dot-com boom, Yahoo acquired a vast commercial real-estate portfolio in the area south of the bay and north of San Jose, known as the Golden Triangle. The sign at the 701 First Avenue, Sunnyvale headquarters building appeared in countless selfies over the years. As Google purchased the property in June of this year, it will probably have been removed by the time you get there. However, there are still plenty of other iconic names, including Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Cisco Systems, Intel, and PayPal, scattered throughout these sprawling industrial parks.

Where to score swag:   Several established companies have opened showrooms to sell swag and promote their products. They offer a rare opportunity for the public to peer inside the corporate veil, even if only for a fleeting glimpse. Several tour companies offer day trips to these and other high tech tourism sites of interest eliminating the hassle of driving Silicon Valley’s congested highways.

Newest, and most obviously created as a showpiece, is the Apple Park Visitor Center at 10600 North Tantau Avenue, Cupertino. An architectural extension of the Norman Foster-designed glass and steel donut-shaped headquarters building behind the high-security fence, the center offers a place to explore, shop in an Apple store, and gaze into the private campus from an elevated viewing platform.

The Apple Park Visitor Center. Photo: Apple Inc.
The Apple Park Visitor Center. (Photo: Apple Inc.)

A Customer Welcome Center, on the campus of HP’s corporate headquarters at 1501 Page Mill Road, Palo Alto, displays innovative computer products and future ideas that continue to emerge from one of the valley’s most fabled com­panies­­. As the Center is open only to visitors accompanied by a company employee, others have to settle for a virtual tour that includes a peek into the offices of founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard preserved in sleek mid-century modern, oak-paneled 1950s décor.

Hewlett-Packard founder’s office. Photo: HP Inc.
Hewlett-Packard founder’s office. (Photo: HP Inc.)

More high tech tourism sites: Dog friendly offices, massage chairs, gyms, gourmet cafes, and other delights of the main Googleplex campus at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View are reserved for employees. Visitors are encouraged to snap selfies with the Android lawn statues and buy swag at the nearby Google Merchandise Store, 1981 Landings Dr, Mountain View.

Android figures outside the Google Merchandise Store
Android figures outside the Google Merchandise Store

In addition to souvenirs such as apparel, patches and pins, the NASA Gift Shop, outside the gates of Ames Research Center on Moffett Field, houses displays of Pioneer and other satellite models, a Mercury Redstone capsule, images of Mars and its family of rovers.

Adjacent to the lobby of the Robert Noyce headquarters building at 2200 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara, the Intel Museum presents a primer on chip making, microprocessor operation and company history. Docent-led tours, educational programs and more than 30 interactive exhibits offer information, entertainment and souvenirs for all generations.

Inside the Intel Museum. Photo: Intel Corporation
Inside the Intel Museum. (Photo: Intel Corporation)

A coffee and snack bar in the visitor lobby of the Main Street building on eBay’s South Campus at 2025 Hamilton Avenue, San Jose also sells t-shirts, caps, mugs, and more.

Visitor entrance to eBay Main Street building, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, California
Visitor entrance to eBay Main Street building

But if you have time for only one stop on your Silicon Valley high tech tourism odyssey, the Computer History Museum at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View can take care of both your intellectual and shopping needs. The museum is the world’s largest institution devoted to preserving the history of the information revolution. Serving interests from the curious public to die-hard nerds with permanent and changing exhibits, Silicon Valley-related displays include the first commercial disk drive, monolithic integrated circuit (IC), and successful microprocessor chip, an Apple 1 computer, Atari’s prototype Pong video game, and Google’s original production server. You can view these artifacts and hear stories from many important local pioneers in a landmark building that once housed the international operations of Silicon Graphics Inc. SGI is remembered for enabling special effects in Hollywood movies, such as the shape changing liquid-metal robot in Terminator 2.

The Computer History Museum Store. Photo: CHM
The Computer History Museum Store. (Photo: CHM )

The CHM gift store is expertly curated to carry unique computer-themed apparel, souvenirs, games, and books. Shop from a wide selection of items inspired by the latest tech gadgets – like the Silicon Valley Napkin, perfect for capturing your latest venture; cuddly stuffed Emojis, the ideal comfort item right before a looming deadline; colorful telephone wire baskets for all your office knickknacks; and retro typewriter jewelry. All proceeds support CHM programs, exhibitions, and collections.

IF YOU GO: 

Facebook: campus at One Hacker Way, off Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park; Frank Gehry-designed Facebook building at nearby One Facebook Way; Yahoo: 701 First Avenue, Sunnyvale headquarters building; Apple: Apple Park Visitor Center: 10600 North Tantau Avenue, Cupertino; HP: Customer Welcome Center, on the campus of corporate headquarters at 1501 Page Mill Road, Palo; Google: Googleplex campus at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View;  Google Merchandise Store, 1981 Landings Dr, Mountain View; NASA: NASA Gift Shop, outside the gates of Ames Research Center on Moffett Field; Intel: Robert Noyce headquarters building at 2200 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara; eBay: Company Store in the Community Building on eBay’s Whitman campus at 2145 Hamilton Avenue, San Jose; CHM: Computer History Museum: 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View.

3 thoughts on “Silicon Valley High Tech Tourism: Selfies and Swag

  1. David,
    Great piece. Something doesn’t look right about that HP founders’ office. I don’t remember the coffee table (where the coins are, right?) having a glass top and I sure don’t remember a glass wall with a door opening to an outdoor patio. Is that my bad memory, or did HP recreate the office somewhere on the campus?

  2. I visited the Customer Welcome Center just last week. As far as I can tell they are the original offices with the boardroom on one side and the shared bathroom in between.

  3. David: A very in-depth resource for those of us who find the universe of high-tech so fascinating. An ongoing evolution in
    creativity and entrepreneurship. Thanks for capturing some of the magic for us.

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