Palo Alto: Downtown Discoveries

Words by Andrea Gemmet

Words by Andrea Gemmet

There’s almost always something happening on University Avenue. Downtown Palo Alto’s bustling main drag is lined with busy restaurants, tempting cafes and interesting shops. On weekends and warm evenings, the sidewalks fill with crowds of Stanford University students, wide-eyed tourists and plenty of locals, all soaking up the scene. But that’s not all there is to this city center, first established as University Park in 1889.
Instead, opt for roads slightly less traveled to get a better feel for all that this vibrant area has to offer. Veer onto the side streets, where the crowd thins, window displays beckon and the historic charm of what’s arguably the Peninsula’s best-known downtown really reveals itself.

Cover Photo and Street Photo: Annie Barnett


The 500 block of Ramona Street between University and Hamilton avenues is a great place to start. Its charming Spanish colonial and early California architecture, dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s, earned this block a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Don’t overlook the modest tile-roofed structure at 520 Ramona. Built in 1925 by Pedro de Lemos, a one-time curator at the Stanford Museum, it’s the district’s oldest building and was designed to preserve a majestic old oak tree that was on the site. These days, it houses The Wine Room, an intimate wine bar. Across the street at 533 Ramona, pass under an arched entryway between Denovo Fine Contemporary Jewelry and Marvel Cake (home of the wildly popular spiral croissants) to admire the interior courtyard and tiled staircases of de Lemos’ 1938 commercial building. On the corner of Ramona and Hamilton, elegant wrought iron softens the imposing bulk of the 1927 Medico-Dental Building, designed by notable local architect Birge Clark.

Around the block on Emerson Street, the inviting display windows of Bell’s Books will slow your steps and lure you inside. Perfect for leisurely browsing, the family-run bookstore founded in 1935 offers an impressive collection of new, used and collectible books. A few doors down, the United Nations Association Gift Shop sells an array of handmade fair trade items, with all profits going to Unicef. The colorful and eclectic offerings range from Haitian metalwork crafted from repurposed oil drums and fluffy toy alpacas from Peru to baskets from Senegal, painted pottery from Nicaragua and sterling silver jewelry from Niger.

Photo: Annie Barnett

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the gift shop doesn’t have a single paid employee, confides store manager Caroline Pease. “My friend said to me, ‘You can spare three hours. We’re really short of volunteers.’ That was 30 years ago. She promptly quit, and I’ve been here ever since,” she laughs.


Nestled behind a lush garden, the Museum of American Heritage occupies the historic Williams House at 351 Homer Avenue, across from Palo Alto’s two-acre Heritage Park. Founded in 1985 by Frank Livermore, whose collection of antique mechanical and electrical artifacts outgrew his Menlo Park home, the museum features rotating exhibitions culled from a trove of over 6,000 objects. This spring’s new exhibit, Threading the Past, explores the history of clothing technology, while another room showcases vintage navigation tools of all sizes. Afterwards, browse through curated racks of classic threads at Blue Bin Vintage on Bryant Street, or pick up an exquisite bar at Alegio Chocolate next door.

Photo:  Courtesy of Pamela Walsh Gallery / Chelsea Stewart

For those who prefer art to history, the Pamela Walsh Gallery on Ramona Street is set to host Reclamation, a group exhibition exploring the concept of the female form in contemporary art through a variety of mediums, starting on May 11. One block away, the Bryant Street Gallery’s show Black and White in Color features works by contemporary abstract artist Michael Shemchuk through May 31.

If moving pictures are more your style, take in an arthouse film at the Aquarius Theater on Emerson Street. The two-screen movie house has been showing foreign and independent films since 1969, now with leather seats and larger screens thanks to a 2015 remodel.

After the film, stretch your legs and walk a couple of blocks to Johnson Park, where you can soak up some sun as you stroll past community garden plots, joyfully shrieking children climbing the play structure and pick-up basketball games. With benches, picnic tables and a grassy expanse dotted by shade trees, it’s a great place to relax and enjoy a pastry from Mademoiselle Colette or the signature fish tacos from Sancho’s Taqueria (both on Lytton Avenue near Cowper Street).



For an old-fashioned pick-me-up, the century-old Peninsula Fountain and Grill on the corner of Hamilton and Ramona has long been a favorite destination for a slice of pie or a thick, creamy milkshake.

Photography: Courtesy of Nobu

If you’re ready for a sit-down lunch or dinner, Palo Alto’s downtown side streets have almost too many great options, from white-tablecloth Italian at Osteria and cajun classics at Mardi Gras-themed Nola to Bird Dog’s inventive cuisine. At Evvia Estiatorio, the perennially popular Greek restaurant on Emerson Street, the lemony avgolemono soup whets your appetite for its tender grilled lamb chops, whole fish roasted in a wood-fired oven or hearty moussaka. Head to Reposado on Hamilton Avenue for delicious dishes inspired by the coastal Mexican state of Nayarit along with a long list of tequilas and smoky mezcals.

For an unforgettable meal, sashimi isn’t the only thing that shines at nearby Nobu Palo Alto’s restaurant. Take your time assembling your ideal meal from a tantalizing selection of hot and cold Japanese dishes, from the signature black cod in miso to the only-in-Palo Alto offerings like scallops with jalapeño salsa. The eye-catching Zen garden dessert and this month’s seasonal cherry blossom tea menu—featuring elevated finger-food like the shokupan king crab sandwich—are inspired by spring blooms in the property’s new Japanese garden.

Photography: Courtesy of Nobu

For a real treat, turn your Palo Alto day trip into an overnight getaway by heading upstairs to one of Nobu’s tranquil, well-appointed Ryokan suites, where you can soak away the day in an oversized teak bathtub before slipping between fine Italian sheets for the night. Greet the morning on your room’s balcony, then dig into a Japanese breakfast bento to fuel another day of exploring.

walk & wander –


The Clement  All-inclusive upscale urban retreat.

Cowper Inn  B&B that hosts yoga and meditation classes in its converted hayloft.

El Prado  Stylish boutique hotel with Mediterranean charm.