It had been safely hidden for years, but on a recent trip to San Jose, California, with my son, there it was for all the world to see: my inner geek.
I blame the city. In San Jose and throughout the Silicon Valley, computers, technology and the brilliant minds behind the latest innovations rule. It is where the tech geeks have always gathered long before they began to run the planet. Here, more than anywhere, geek is chic.
Don’t believe me? Ask your kids.
Games like Minecraft have spawned a whole new generation of computer whiz kids who want to know how to code, learn to design video games, and build their own computers. If you had wanted to do that in the eighties you’d have kept it to yourself or been relegated to a corner of the cafeteria. But no longer. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs ushered in a movement that can’t be undone.
So while you can still win cool parent points by taking your kids to theme parks or outdoor adventures, it turns out you can also wow them at museums that have the gadgets you grew up with behind Plexiglas and the games you loved listed under “nostalgic items.”
Ready to let your nerd flag fly? Here are some of the best spots to do it in the Silicon Valley.
Computer History Museum: Home to more than 1,100 artifacts including some of the very first computers, this is a great first stop to understanding the long history of computers in the United States. A video upon entry sets the tone with mentions of names you’ll recognize, and the fantastic gift shop offers memorabilia you’ll find hard to leave behind. (Robot tea diffuser, anyone?) As we walked by computers that once took up entire floors of buildings and the “historic” Palm Pilot that sits behind a glass case, I enjoyed watching my son realize how far we’ve come to get to the smartphone in his pocket. My favorite moment: Beating the tween in a game of Pong on a giant screen. Adults $15, students (12+) $12, under 12 free; Super Geek and Total Geek packages offer mementos along with admission.
The Intel Museum: This museum is small but mighty with lots to touch and tap and a few Instagram-worthy photo ops (our favorite was the head-to-toe bunny suit made famous in Intel commercials). But there are also some really educational opportunities available here. Concepts like bandwidth, Moore’s Law, and microchip creation are explained through interactive exhibits that kids will understand. A guide led a captivated school group (tours are available at no cost but reservations are strongly recommended), and my son got a kick out of learning about binary code and integrated circuits. Free admission.
The Tech Museum of Innovation: This spot will demand the better part of your day if you can spare it, but any amount of time spent here is worthwhile. Start with a visit to the “Body Metrics” exhibit, where you’ll be outfitted with a brain monitor that measures your mood and activity while also snapping photos of what you’re seeing throughout the museum. At the end of the day, return for a fascinating report that shows what excited you, where you were distracted, and more. Other exhibits we got a kick out of included the simulated roller-coaster ride, face-swapping technology, and Tech Studio, where hands-on STEM programs provide kids with the space and tools to innovate and create. Adults $24, kids (3+) $19.
Lick Observatory: You won’t be able to wander freely among the giant telescopes at the Lick Observatory and tickets aren’t easy to come by for its various events, but make the trip anyway because it's worth it. Getting to the observatory, set atop Mount Hamilton, is a ride of its own and the views (particularly the sunset from behind giant, bubble-like domes) are breathtaking. Budding astronomers will like that the observatory boasts the world’s first permanently occupied mountaintop telescope. The observatory recently partnered with renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, among others, on a hundred-million-dollar initiative to search for intelligent life. Kids still not impressed? Mention the fact that the body of James Lick, the self-made California millionaire who funded the building project but died the year construction started, is entombed underneath the Great Lick Refractor Telescope, once the largest of its kind. Free admission to the visitors center’s exhibits, gift shop, and regularly scheduled tours.
Steve Jobs’s Garage: You’ll recognize what may be the world’s most famous garage immediately, and then snap a photo of it on the iPhone that got its humble beginnings here. Signs on the property that Steve Jobs once called home limit how close you can get to the place where history was made with Steve Wozniak, but if your kids have any i-interest, a snap here is Snapchat gold. 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos
The HP Garage: This is where David Packard and William Hewlett first began their work. Their inventions would spur a student movement in the area connected to the creation of technology-based businesses leading to the term Silicon Valley. You can’t go into the property, but photos are permitted and a sign out front identifies it as a California Historical Landmark. 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto
Apple: There’s nothing particularly exciting about Apple headquarters, but the store does boast a few items you won’t find anywhere else in the world. 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino
Google: You’ll spot the multicolored Google bikes you’ve probably seen in movies around the Silicon Valley. Pop over to the headquarters to see them on their home turf. Volleyball courts, lounge chairs, and Android figurines—all in the bright Google colors—make for great shots. Traveling with little kids? Head over to the Android statues garden where you’ll find a small playground and the Google store. 1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy, Mountain View
Facebook: Take a photo next to the giant thumbs-up “like” sign out front. There are plenty of tourists to pull in to grab the iconic photo. 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park