What is it like to live in Silicon Valley?

Campbell Water TowerIf California living beckons, you may be wondering what is it like to live in Silicon Valley. This area is part of the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area and it includes all kinds of terrain and varying levels of density.

Silicon Valley is very diverse but there are many common threads.  There is a true appreciation of an value placed on innovation, entrepreneurship and hard work in terms of industry & labor. Recreation counts, too, though: enjoyment of the outdoors, the arts, the San Jose Sharks (our ice hockey team), local history, wine making, volunteerism, school involvement, and dining out all rank as important, too.  In many areas, schools and school excellence are an extreme priority.

If you arrived into Silicon Valley via Highway 101, driving south from San Francisco, you might believe that the Santa Clara Valley, the San Jose area and Silicon Valley as a whole has got to seem to be the ugliest place on earth. Although heavily traveled, that is not the “scenic route”.

So, too, if you are looking for a place to live and are groping to find a place that is reasonably priced, fairly safe and not a terrible commute distance. You might not even have “is nice looking” on your wish list. You might not think it’s possible if all you ever see are the ugly concrete tilt-up buildings in north San Jose, Santa Clara, Alviso, or anywhere along the 237 corridor.  That area is an architectural wasteland.

Let me assure you: there are a lot of beautiful places in Silicon Valley where you can rent or buy a home. But how do you find them? It helps a lot to have a local give you a few pointers.  I’ll give you some tips today on finding a scenic place to live.  Some of them are in the high rise condo buildings in downtown San Jose!

Downtown San Jose California

Hills – An easy way to find a scenic location to make your home is to settle near the hills, especially those in the west valley (the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Coastal Range) as they are green year-round. Communities at the base of the west valley foothills include, in Santa Clara County, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Los Gatos, and the Almaden Valley area of San Jose. All of these areas are adjacent to the hills or mountains and offer far better than average schools (many of them qualify as great – compare costs between these areas).

Silicon Valley and downtown San Jose as seen from the top of Harwood Road in Los GatosOf course, if you go into the hills instead of just being near the base of them, there will be valley views as well.  If you go to the summit area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, you could really luck out and get a 360 degree view of the Monterey Bay on one side and the valley and San Francisco Bay on the other.  (But that would not likely be a short commute to most of Silicon Valley.)

In San Mateo County, there’s Menlo Park, Redwood City, Belmont, Hillsborough…most of these communities are more scenic as you go closer into the hills. Some even offer a view of the San Francisco Bay.

In the east foothills of San Jose, there are many lovely areas too. Among my favorite are the old section of Alum Rock (with beautiful Spanish style houses up near the country club), some of the rural areas of the Berryessa district in San Jose and the southern part of Evergreen (near Silver Creek and the Villages).

Other hills and knolls – the coastal range and east foothills aren’t the only areas with a higher elevation and views.  Think of the Santa Teresa Foothills Blossom Valley, Santa Teresa areas), Communication Hill (Blossom Valley, Willow Glen), or the occasional small little hill such as Lone Hill in the Cambrian district of San Jose.  You don’t have to get very high up to have a great view.  Look at the terrain maps for small elevations and check those areas out!

Waterways – In addition to the mountains, there are many scenic spots in Silicon Valley alongside rivers, creeks and streams.  When I was a newlywed (back in 1985), my husband and I lived alongside Stevens Creek – that is, the waterway, not the major road – in Sunnyvale.  The apartment complex had a number of units overlooking the creek and there were tons of trees providing a great, green view.  You can check out that apartment complex online – it’s called Brookside Oaks.

Alviso: San Jose’s Bayfront

Salt Pond Restoration Project

Newcomers may not know that the San Francisco Bay doesn’t have many great waterfront areas in the south bay; they wonder why I don’t suggest purchasing a bayfront home since part of San Jose touches the far southern end of the bay.Alviso, once its own town but now part of San Jose, was a shipping port in the 1800s and had a busy marina back before railroads found their way to the region.  (Good, concise article on the history of Alviso on Wikipedia.)Eventually the tidal, marshy waters gave way to salt ponds (see images of salt ponds from the sky) in both Alviso and neighboring Milpitas, so the Alviso marina now guides boaters to the bay through a long, winding slough.  It’s not terribly scenic.
There is salt pond restoration project underway, I’m happy to report.  Just recently some of the freshwater from the Guadalupe River was allowed into one of the salt ponds in Alviso.  They are going to very slowly reclaim the marsh for its natural habitat, exercising caution to make sure  the ecosystem does well with the transition.


So far, so good. Please see the SFGate article: Salt pond restoration tests for hidden danger “The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project recently kicked off its 50-year plan to convert 15,000 acres of shoreline into natural marsh, providing habitat for birds, fish and other critters, including people, who’ve been banned from the area for decades.”


Back to the bayfront housing:  you can get waterfront homes in Redwood Shores and Foster City, which are on the north end of “Silicon Valley” on the Peninsula.  Many of those areas are on landfill, and although well compacted, that fill is sitting on old bay mud.  Some structures in those areas have had problem with an undue amount of movement.  Others have had salt water get to their foundations, which can cause the re-bar inside to rust (making the foundation far less strong).  Both communities are super clean and attractive (I have sold homes in both).

Not quite Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz does offer many really lovely places in which to live too – great views from many spots.  Adjacent to Neary’s Lagoon there are apartments, townhouses (some of which are for rent) and low income housing too.  It’s a very scenic part of Santa Cruz and just about a mile from the beach on foot.  A few high rise buildings, such as the condo complex on Broadway, feature views of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the Monterey Bay.

Flatlands – not to worry if you strike out with the hills and waterways.  There are still many lovely areas in Silicon Valley that are not included in those areas.  One is the beautiful San Jose neighborhood known as The Rosegarden. It is centrally located, with a great wide open space at the park, and loads of lovely older homes with tons of character.

If you enjoy classic architecture, you might check out a few areas closer to downtown San Jose: Naglee Park, Vendome neighborhood and Japantown.

Outside of San Jose, there are scenic urban living or downtown areas in the Willow Glen part of San Jose, downtown Campbell, downtown Saratoga, downtown Los Gatos, downtown Mountain View, downtown Menlo Park, downtown San Mateo, downtown Los Altos and of course the great magnet of them all, downtown Palo Alto.

In some of these places, the downtown area is also right up against the hills – and that is truly beautiful!  (Think Los Gatos, Saratoga, Los Altos, Menlo Park.)  One nice townhome community in Saratoga has both green views within the complex, is right next to the coastal foothills and is just steps away from downtown Saratoga.  The area has top rated schools too.  If interested, check out Saratoga Oaks.) And don’t miss either Japantown or Santana Row for urban living!

Silicon Valley has a number of neighborhoods with great ambiance despite the absence of either hills or a quaint downtown.  Santa Clara’s “old quad” neighborhood (located near Santa Clara University) is just such a spot.

And, of course, there are spots in Santa Clara County with stunning golf courses, parks or heavily wooded or open areas that may not belong to the public but which create lovely vistas nonetheless.  A few orchards still dot Sunnyvale, San Jose, Saratoga and other parts of the valley. (New townhouses on Bersano Lane in Los Gatos are on a hill overlooking Lake Vasona. Beautiful views!)

For scenic senior housing, a retirement home or residential care facility for the elderly (which can mean independent living, assisted living, nursing or other), quite a few spots enjoy scenic views also:  Belmont Village in San Jose looks out over Santana Row on one side and the Winchester House on another; the Atrium in San Jose’s Blossom Valley has views of Mt. Umunhum; Saratoga Retirement Community enjoys a lovely campus but also is in among gently rolling hills and has a view of the Santa Cruz Mountains; the Villages in San Jose’s eastside community of Evergreen sits among lovely rolling hills and a golf course in the middle.

Many people relocating to the San Francisco Peninsula or the South Bay come from areas where homes cost half as much and seem to be twice as big, where there may not be so much congestion and where there is more open space.  We do have places like that, but it’s important to let whoever’s helping you know that this is important.    Whether you’re here to rent an apartment or purchase a townhouse or condo, it can be in a scenic place.  You just need to find them!