A century ago, what's now Silicon Valley, Calif., was called the Valley of Heart's Delight because of the region's mineral-rich soil and temperate climate (San Jose gets 300 days of sunshine a year). By the time I left for college in 1997, however, most of the cherry orchards had been gobbled up by office complexes. San Jose was in the hopeful early stages of the Internet boom, and although I didn't have an e-mail account yet, the technological advances that would change the world were already making their mark on my hometown.
The city has actually attracted techies for decades; my parents moved to the area for my dad's aerospace job in the 1970s. But with the rise of the dot-coms came something new: money—and lots of it. Suddenly, San Jose wanted to be recognized for more than its proximity to San Francisco. (We're an hour south, for the record.) Today, the city is teeming with evidence of civic success: sleek glass buildings, luxury condos, and light-rail trains.
Fashionistas with tech-stock options have plenty of places to find designer duds at Santana Row, a high-end shopping center. But I prefer browsing Willow Glen, a neighborhood of bungalows and boutiques that was incorporated into San Jose in 1936. My first stop is usually Monsieur Beans, a café with mismatched couches and an arcade-style Ms. Pac-Man machine. "We mostly get locals," says manager Chris Mendez. "I know everyone's first name and their drink of choice."
Directly across Lincoln Avenue is Willow Glen Books, which is pretty much the last independent bookstore in the area. The shop stocks local-interest books written by San Jose natives and holds regular poetry readings. Owner Cathy Adkins feels the pinch from online competitors, but she insists, "This is how I want to spend my time—this is what I love." She makes it a point to support authors from the region, such as April Halberstadt, "a historian who knows everything about San Jose." Another shop worth checking out is Park Place Vintage, which is packed with mid-century furniture and collectibles. Last time I was there, I seriously considered carting a 1950s TV back home with me.
I love eating almost as much as shopping, and San Jose's ethnic diversity means there's an array of cuisines to choose from. Jalisco Taqueria, on the Hispanic east side of town, used to be a dive, but it now caters to a clientele that's always in a hurry. In other words, what I remember as a trailer now looks suspiciously like a Taco Bell and has a drive-through. The burritos, however, are still fat, fresh, and loaded with zesty pinto beans. For dessert, the nearby Pink Elephant Bakery sells sweet Mexican breads and doughy concha cakes.
Downtown San Jose is where many of the new Asian restaurants have opened, including 19 Market, a chic Vietnamese bistro that pairs inventive dishes—the spicy pulled pork is served in molded lettuce cups—with saketinis. For a quick bite, San Jose Tofu Company has pillow-soft, creamy tofu cakes. Husband-and-wife team Chester and Amy Nozaki scoop the tofu out of giant vats behind the shop's counter.
I've come to appreciate other novel additions to my hometown. Right by the HP Pavilion stadium, where the San Jose Sharks play hockey, is the tasting room for J. Lohr Vineyards. The cabernets and chardonnays are bottled on-site, and the daily tastings are free. If you're more of a beer drinker, the Tied House Café and Brewery also makes its microbrews in house, including the popular Cascade Amber.
To burn off some of those calories, I stroll around the world's largest outdoor Monopoly board in Guadalupe River Park. My other favorite place to unwind is Alum Rock Park. The mineral springs are believed to have medicinal benefits, but the real draw is the network of trails that wind up from the canyon floor into the hills above San Jose.
You couldn't miss the Tech Museum of Innovation if you tried—the building is bright orange. There are exhibits on everything from the virtual-reality game Second Life to green power. Luddites like me scoff at the overbearing behemoth, but underneath it all, we feel pride in what our humble city has become.
1383 Lincoln Ave., 408/297-9077
401 S. King Rd., 408/923-3610, burrito $4
Pink Elephant Bakery
415 S. King Rd., 408/923-3436, concha 50¢
19 N. Market St., 408/280-6111, pulled pork $10
San Jose Tofu Company
175 Jackson St., 408/292-7026, tofu cake $2
Tied House Café and Brewery
65 N. San Pedro St., 408/295-2739
J. Lohr Vineyards
1000 Lenzen Ave., 408/918-2160, jlohr.com
Guadalupe River Park
W. San Carlos St., monopolyinthepark.com
Alum Rock Park
15350 Penitencia Creek Rd., $6
Tech Museum of Innovation
201 S. Market St., 408/294-8324, thetech.org, $8
Willow Glen Books
1330 Lincoln Ave., 408/298-8141
Park Place Vintage
1318 Lincoln Ave., 408/294-9893