If you're a visiting dignitary whose country has a Gross National Product equal to or greater than the State of California, your visit to Silicon Valley consists of a lunch/dinner with some combination of the founders of Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter and several brand name venture capitalists. If you have time, the President of Stanford will throw in a tour, and then you can drive by Intel or some Clean Tech firm for a photo op standing in front of an impressive looking piece of equipment.
The "official dignitary" tour of Silicon Valley is like taking the jungle cruise at Disneyland and saying you've been to Africa.
Because you and your entourage don't know the difference between large innovative companies who once were startups (Google, Facebook, et. al) and a real startup, you never really get to see what makes the valley tick.
If you didn't come in your own 747, here's a guide to what to see in the valley (which for the sake of this post, extends from Santa Clara to San Francisco.) This post offers things to see/do for two types of visitors: I'm just visiting and want a "tourist experience" (i.e. a drive by the Facebook / Google / Zynga / Apple building) or "I want to work in the valley" visitor who wants to understand what's going on inside those buildings.
I'm leaving out all the traditional stops that you can get from the guidebooks.
Silicon Valley is more of a state of mind than a physical location. It has no large monuments, magnificent buildings or ancient heritage. There are no tours of companies or venture capital firms. From Santa Clara to South San Francisco it's 45 miles of one bedroom community after another. Yet what's been occurring for the last 50 years within this tight cluster of suburban towns is nothing short of an "entrepreneurial explosion" on par with classic Athens, renaissance Florence or 1920's Paris.
Palo Alto: The Beating Heart 1
Start your tour in Palo Alto. Stand on the corner of Emerson and Channing Street in front of the plaque where the triode vacuum tube was developed. Walk to 367 Addison Avenue, and take a look at the HP Garage. Extra credit if you can explain the significance of both of these spots and why the HP PR machine won the rewrite of Valley history.
Walk to downtown Palo Alto at lunchtime, and see the excited engineers ranting to one another on their way to lunch. Cram into Coupa Café full of startup founders going through team formation and fundraising discussions. (Noise and cramped quarters basically force you to listen in on conversations) or University Café or the Peninsula Creamery to see engineers working on a startup or have breakfast in Il Fornaio to see the VC's/Recruiters at work.
Stanford: The Brains
Drive down University Avenue into Stanford University as it turns into Palm Drive. Park on the circle and take a walking tour of the campus and then head to the science and engineering quad. Notice the names of the buildings; Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, Clark, Plattner, Yang, Huang, etc. Extra points if you know who they all are and how they started their companies. You too can name a building after your IPO (and $30 million.) Walk by the Terman Engineering building to stand next to ground zero of technology entrepreneurship. See if you can find a class being taught by Tom Byers, Kathy Eisenhardt, Tina Seelig or one of the other entrepreneurship faculty in engineering.
Attend one of the free Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Lectures in the Engineering School. Check the Stanford Entrepreneurship Network calendar or the BASES calendar for free events. Stop by the Stanford Student Startup Lab and check out the events at the Computer Forum. If you have time, head to the back of campus and hike up to the Stanford Dish and thank the CIA for its funding.
Mountain View: The Beating Heart 2
Head to Mountain View and drive down Amphitheater Parkway behind Google, admiring all the buildings and realize that they were built by an extinct company, Silicon Graphics, once one of the hottest companies in the valley (Shelley's poem Ozymandias should be the ode to the cycle of creative destruction in the valley.) Next stop down the block is the Computer History Museum. Small but important, this museum is the real deal with almost every artifact of the computing and pre-computing age (make sure you check out their events calendar.) On leaving you're close enough to Moffett Field to take a Zeppelin ride over the valley. If it's a clear day and you have the money after a liquidity event, it's a mind-blowing trip.
Next to Moffett Field is Lockheed Missiles and Space, the center of the dark side of the Valley. Lockheed came to the valley in 1956 and grew from 0 to 20,000 engineers in four years. They built three generations of submarine launched ballistic missiles and spy satellites for the CIA, NSA and NRO on assembly lines in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. (They don't give tours.)
While in Mountain View drive by the site of Shockley Semiconductor and realize that from this one failed company, founded the same year Lockheed set up shop, came every other chip company in Silicon Valley.
Lunch time on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View is another slice of startup Silicon Valley. Hang out at the Red Rock Café at night to watch the coders at work trying to stay caffeinated. If you're still into museums and semiconductors, drive down to Santa Clara and visit the Intel Museum.
Sand Hill Road: Adventure Capital
While we celebrate Silicon Valley as a center of technology innovation, that's only half of the story. Startups and innovation have exploded here because of the rise of venture capital. Think of VC's as the other equally crazy half of the startup ecosystem.
You can see VC's at work over breakfast at Bucks in Woodside, listen to them complain about deals over lunch at Village Pub or see them rattle their silverware at Madera. Or you can eat in the heart of old "VC central" in the Sundeck at 3000 Sand Hill Road.
While you're there, walk around 3000 Sand Hill looking at all the names of the VC's on the building directories and be disappointed how incredibly boring the outside of these buildings look. (Some VC's have left the Sand Hill Road womb and have opened offices in downtown Palo Alto and San Francisco to be closer to the action.) For extra credit, stand outside one of the 3000 Sand Hill Road buildings wearing a sandwich-board saying "Will work for equity" and hand out copies of your executive summary and PowerPoint presentations.
Drive by the Palo Alto house where Facebook started (yes, just like the movie) and the house in Menlo Park that was Google's first home. Drive down to Cupertino and circle Apple's campus. No tours but they do have an Apple company store which doesn't sell computers but is the only Apple store that sells logo'd T-shirts and hats.
San Francisco: Startups with a Lifestyle
Drive an hour up to San Francisco and park next to South Park in the South of Market area. South of Market (SoMa) is the home address and the epicenter of Web 2.0 startups. If you're single, living in San Francisco and walking/biking to work to your startup definitely has some advantages/tradeoffs over the rest of the valley. Café Centro is South Park's version of Coupa Café. Or eat at the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. (You're just a few blocks from the S.F. Giants ballpark. If it's baseball season take in a game in a beautiful stadium on the bay.) And four blocks north is Moscone Center, the main San Francisco convention center. Go to a trade show even if it's not in your industry.
The Valley is about the Interactions Not the Buildings
Like the great centers of innovation, Silicon Valley is about the people and their interactions. It's something you really can't get a feel of from inside your car or even walking down the street. You need to get inside of those building and deeper inside those conversations. Here's a few suggestions of how to do so.
If you want the ultimate startup experience, see if you can talk yourself into carrying someone's bags as they give a pitch to a VC. Be a fly on the wall and soak it in.
If you're trying to get a real feel of the culture, apply and interview for jobs in three Silicon Valley companies even if you don't want any of them. The interview will teach your more about Silicon Valley company culture and the valley than any tour.
Go to at least three tech-oriented Meetups or Plancast events in the Valley or San Francisco (Meetup is a deep list. Search for "startup" meetup's in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Santa Clara.) Check out the meetups from iOS Developers, Hackers and Founders, 106Miles and Ideakick. Catch a monthly hackathon. Subscribe to StartupDigest Silicon Valley edition before you visit.
Find a real 3-10 person startup, working from a small crammed co-working space and sit with them for an afternoon. Offer to code for free. San Francisco has many co-working spaces (shared offices for startups). They're great to get a feel of what it's like to start when there's just a few founders and you don't have your own garage. Visit Founders Den, Sandbox Suites, Citizenspace, pariSoma Innovation, the Hub, NextSpace, RocketSpace, and DogPatch Labs.
If you're visiting to raise money or to get to know "angels" use AngelList to get connected to seed investors before you arrive. Use your entrepreneurial skill and get yourself into a Y-Combinator dinner or demo day, a 500 Startups or Harrsion Metal event. Go to a Techcrunch event. And of course go to a Lean Startup Meetup. Talk yourself into a job. Never leave.