"Uncle Andy, what kind of car is that?" asked my 12-year-old niece Dayna, pointing at a Maserati. It was one of a multitude of fancy cars we saw during our weekend in downtown Palo Alto, the Silicon Valley's hub of business and conspicuous consumption. I was here on uncle duty with Dayna and her 14-year-old brother, Matthew, while my sister and brother-in-law, visiting from New England, attended a wedding. Amid the high-tech frenzy, we found old-fashioned fun and only-in-Silicon Valley escapes. The tab: $319 for two nights at the Stanford Park Hotel, $50 for dinner for two at Rangoon Ruby, and $62 for dinner for three at the Palo Alto Creamery.
My sister and her family stayed at the glitzy Epiphany (180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto;  224-6000, www.lat.ms/1YxJzbh), which opened in March 2014 a block from Palo Alto's busy, pedestrian-friendly downtown. To add industry cred, billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison acquired the hotel in September for what the Silicon Valley Business Journal pegged at $71.6 million (a record-setting $832,500 per room, but who's counting?). The exterior features a six-story mural of El Palo Alto, the local redwood the city is named for. The room was up to date with pillow-top mattresses, futuristic-cool design, Malin & Goetz bath products, an Italian espresso maker and a mini-bar loaded with fun snacks, though I thought the room size was better suited for a couple than a family of four. Meanwhile, I stayed about a 12-minute walk away at the Stanford Park Hotel (100 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, Calif.;  241-2431, www.stanfordparkhotel.com), just across the city line and more Old World and cozy, with cedar shake siding and a spacious courtyard with fire pits. I was glad my room faced away from the busy street and train tracks.
Downtown Palo Alto has about 80 restaurants, from national chains to inventive one-offs, within a four- by eight-block rectangle. Before the kids arrived, I met a friend for dinner at Rangoon Ruby (445 Emerson St.;  323-6543, www.rangoonruby.com), where we snagged a sidewalk table and dived head first into a delectable Burmese salad of stewed tea leaves tossed with fried minced garlic, dried yellow beans, dried shrimp, peanuts, sesame seeds, shredded lettuce, diced tomato and jalapeños. Matthew and Dayna had eyed the Palo Alto Creamery (566 Emerson St.;  323-3131, www.paloaltocreamery.com), a circa 1923 diner across the street from the Epiphany. The look was classic (red leatherette counter stools and booths) with food to match: famous milkshakes, a dozen-plus burgers and breakfast served all day (the hash brown pie looked amazing). On the opposite corner was Fraiche Yogurt (200 Hamilton Ave.;  838-9819, fraiche.strikingly.com), beloved by locals for coffee, breakfast pastries and organic frozen yogurt (plus vegan options) with toppings such as dark chocolate and mochi.
The kids and I were hoping to tour the Google campus to see its large collection of public sculptures — I had detailed directions from the Epiphany's concierge — but the campus was closed that day because of a concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre across the street. Instead, we chose another only-in-Silicon Valley attraction, hiking the four-mile Dish Trail among the rolling hills encircling the radiotelescope dish at nearby Stanford University. We loved the majestic views across the campus, and through crystal-clear skies we could make out the San Francisco skyline 35 miles north. Parking for the trail was a mystery, but friendly campus guards helped us find free street parking. Later, as we drove through Stanford's mammoth, meandering campus, the kids quizzed me about the differences between colleges and universities, bachelor's and master's degrees. To their parents: You're welcome.
The lesson learned
My previous visit to Palo Alto was about 20 years ago, and since then the downtown has gone from sleepy to slick, more like Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Old Pasadena, with fashion boutiques, eco- and ethno-conscious gift shops and fitness stores. One big difference: You can get to Palo Alto by train from San Francisco International Airport. For that kind of connection in L.A., you'll have to wait at least seven years.
MORE FROM TRAVEL