Historic Day Trips Near Silicon Valley

A classic villa dedicated to the arts, a historic city area, a center honoring a famous author and some classic trains give visitors insight into the past.

Credit: History San Jose
Credit: History San Jose

Written by Bill Zavestoski

Sometimes history is right in our midst, but unless we were lucky enough to visit on an elementary school field trip, we might not have any idea that something significant has happened in our own backyard.

Hop in the car with the family and spend a day getting to know these historic sites within easy driving distance of Silicon Valley. The best part? You can get to all these destinations on one tank of gas (or less).

Montalvo Arts Center

15400 Montalvo Rd.



Why Go? It's the perfect way to blend arts with the outdoors. The Montalvo Arts Center offers performing arts, galleries, films, and other exhibits in several theaters, the historic villa and on the Great Lawn. There's even art along the hiking trails and in the gardens of the 175-acre complex that retains much of the charm it had in 1930 when former San Francisco mayor and U.S. Senator James D. Phelan, who had the villa built in 1912, died and willed the property to the state as a place to cultivate art.

Insider Tip: Parking is free and there's no cost to wander the grounds, but you'll want to see the villa, which has a $10 fee.

Must Do: Visit the Italianate Garden at the base of the Front Lawn. The gated entryway leads to the pathway to the Love Temple and other Italian-style sculptures. 

The Fine Print: The grounds are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday during the winter months. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and docent-led tours of the villa are offered at 10 a.m. on Sundays and Tuesdays ($10 for non-members).

History San Jose

1650 Senter Rd.

San Jose

(408) 287-2290

Why Go? If you're a history buff and are interested in timelines, artifacts and innovations from San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley, this is your one-stop mecca. Well, actually three stops: History Park within Kelley Park, a 14-acre mini-town featuring 32 original and reconstructed buildings; the Peralta Adobe-Fallon House Historic Site in San Pedro Square that has furnished period rooms; and the nearby Collection Center/Research Library & Archives.

Insider Tip: View “The Way to San Jose” at Diridon Station, an exhibit that focuses on transportation in Santa Clara Valley, from the days of the Native Americans all the way to expansion at San Jose International Airport, the BART extension and California’s future high speed rail systems.

Must Do:  The Peralta Adobe Plaza offers outdoor seating where you can enjoy coffee, lunch, or an evening concert with dinner or a cocktail.

The Fine Print: History Park is open to the public from 11-5 daily except on the first Monday of every month and most holidays, and is free year round, with select historic buildings open for viewing.  

National Steinbeck Center

One Main St.


(831) 775-4721

Why Go? Six themed galleries of artifacts, photos, film clips and interactive exhibits tell the story of author and Salinas native son John Steinbeck and how his upbringing helped shape such classics as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and Travels with Charley.

Insider Tip: Rocinante, the actual camper Steinbeck used in his travels with canine buddy Charley, is on display. “If you love Steinbeck, this will not disappoint,” one visitor noted.

Must Do: The Steinbeck House, a Victorian at 132 Central Ave. that was the birthplace and boyhood home of Steinbeck, is a short walk away. Scheduled tours are given only in the summer months, but there is a restaurant and downstairs gift shop that allow public access to much of the house and contain interesting Steinbeck family artifacts.

The Fine Print: The National Steinbeck Center is open daily (except for some holidays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $14.95 for adults ($10.95 for Monterey County residents), $8.95 for seniors (62+), students, teachers and military with ID, $7.95 for teens 13 to 17, and $5.95 for kids 6 to 12. There's no charge for preschool age children.

Roaring Camp Railroads

5401 Graham Hill Rd.


(831) 335-4484

Why Go? Soak up the great scenery on one of the oldest and most historic lines in California. The railway uses authentic 1880s steam locomotives on its narrow-gauge Redwood Forest Steam Train excursion and 1920s-era standard-gauge Beach Trains to Santa Cruz. Passengers board at Roaring Camp, a replica of an 1880s logging town high in the Santa Cruz mountains in Felton.

Insider Tip: Check the schedule, since trains run less frequently on the winter schedule and diesel engines replace the steam locomotives on weekday trips (12:30 p.m.) up to Bear Mountain.

Must Do: Make it a festive holiday season with a ride on a theme train.

The Fine Print: Tickets for the Redwood Forest Steam Train (about a 70-minute round-trip) are $26 for ages 13 and older and $19 for children 2 through 12. On the longer Santa Cruz Beach Train route (3 hours round-trip), riders pay $28 and $22 respectively. Daily parking at Roaring Camp in Felton is $8, and it's $12 at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz.


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