College Visit Guide: California’s South Bay

Maximize your college visit to the Bay Area with info on campuses near San Jose and Santa Cruz.

Prospective students considering a family college visit to California’s Bay Area universities often recall one charming, vibrant city: San Francisco. (Check out our San Francisco College Visit article.) But the City by the Bay’s less glamorous, geeky sister to the south—San Jose—is phenomenal in its own right. The South Bay, which encompasses San Jose and dozens of smaller cities, is the birthplace of the high-tech revolution of the 1990s. This is where Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and Apple grew up: This is Silicon Valley.

The South Bay’s selection of universities appeals to many young techies and aspiring engineers. San Jose State University and Santa Clara University lie in the heart of the San Jose region and have nationally recognized computer engineering and technology-related business and law programs. Silicon Valley companies routinely recruit students from these schools for high-tech jobs, research positions and internships. A 40-minute drive west over coastal mountains brings you to the mellow, free-lovin’ beach town of Santa Cruz, and the redwood-shaded University of California campus that overlooks Monterey Bay.

Whether you seek high-tech or high-surf, the South Bay offers a variety of educational options and lifestyle choices.

When to Come

Northern California is temperate year-round, but often gets pummeled by a few ferocious rainstorms during the winter: November-February. And it can get chilly—for Californians. We think it’s cold at 50 degrees or below—Fahrenheit, that is. Yes, we’re wimps. Usually, though, bank on sun, a few scattered clouds and getting a nice little suntan. Best time to check out campuses: September and October. Classes have just started, and students are generally amped up about classes and willing to chat. Also, mid-March to April is a beautiful time to visit because the remaining fruit trees in the Valley—once known for its vast orchards—are in full bloom. Whenever you decide to visit, use this three-day guide to help optimize your family college trip.

Day 1: San Jose State University

Located in downtown, San Jose State has more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students and spans 154 acres. The main entrance at 4th St. and San Carlos St. is lined with palm trees and is only a couple blocks from a Light Rail rapid transit stop. On the corner of 4th St. and San Fernando St. is the brand new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library—a collaborative project between the city and the school. This is where your campus tour begins, but you must pre-register online.

After your tour, head to the town center, localized around Market St. and San Carlos St.—just two blocks west of campus. Here you’ll find a variety of great restaurants—such as Original Joe's, a throwback to classic steak houses with massive portions and male waiters in black-and-white uniforms, and Arcadia, Michael Mina’s place at the San Jose Marriott—the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, museums, and two exquisite hotels: the upscale Fairmont San Jose and the elegant, century-old Hotel Montgomery. Absolutely do not miss The Tech Museum of Innovation, which has more than 240 hands-on cutting-edge science exhibits and an IMAX theater.

In the evening, you might see a play at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, an opera at Opera San Jose, or a Sharks' hockey game at the HP Pavilion. Check out the SJSU’s excellent visitor info guide

Day 2: Santa Clara University

The state’s oldest college, Santa Clara, is a private, Jesuit Catholic university founded in 1851 on the site of one of the original 21 California missions. Indeed, the red-roofed campus buildings are reminiscent of the early adobe missions. Register for a campus tour online.

After your tour, go explore! Drive south down The Alameda to a small market area of funky used bookshops, coffee shops and restaurants; it also leads back to downtown San Jose. Nearby is the impressive Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium, which houses the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the United States. If you’re tired of museums, head to Great America to ride some wild roller coasters (the park usually opens mid-March).

Ten minutes from SCU is Valley Fair and Santana Row, an indoor and an outdoor mall, respectively. Santana Row was designed as an urban neighborhood, and comprises apartments, designer shops and exceptional restaurants. Check out Sino for chic Asian cuisine, Left Bank for fine French dining or Amber for upscale Indian delicacies. On the weekends, this place is bustling with college kids. The Hotel Valenica is Santana’s luxury hotel. See SCU’s local hotels list for the most comprehensive list of affordable hotels near the university. 

Day 3: University of California, Santa Cruz

End your trip relaxing by the beach. I recommend either starting out early from your hotel in the Valley for the 40-minute drive on Hwy. 17 to the coast, or heading over the evening of Day 2 to get a hotel in Santa Cruz to limit your driving time over the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Chaminade is a luxury hotel and resort with gorgeous views of the Monterey Bay. Affordable options near downtown include the University Inn and the Hampton Inn.

The UCSC campus opened in 1965, and at times is reminiscent of a ski resort, with its late 1960s and 1970s architecture of townhouse-style dormitories set smack dab in the center of a hilly redwood forest. Enjoy your UCSC campus tour beneath the shade of those beautiful redwoods. But keep your eyes peeled for long, bright yellow blobs slithering along the red tree-trunks: They are banana slugs and the University’s official mascot.

If you’re visiting between mid-July and August, don’t miss a performance at UCSC’s professional repertory festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The recent 2008 season included Romeo and Juliet and All’s Well That Ends Well, both performed on an outdoor stage; many attendees bring picnics! 

Be sure to explore downtown Santa Cruz around Pacific Ave. Here you’ll find surf shops, bead shops, Bookshop Santa Cruz, resale clothing stores and other crafty knick-knack shops—but many of the old, funky flavor of Santa Cruz is being taken over by chains like Gap, Borders, and upscale boutiques and restaurants. Still, it’s a fun place to people-watch.

Nearby is the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk where you can ride the Giant Dipper coaster or play indoor mini-golf. But honestly, if it’s a beautiful day, get outside! The beach itself is a bit dirty, sadly; a better choice is Seabright Beach, just south of the Boardwalk.

When it’s finally time to leave, Hwy. 17—which turns into I-880—will take you all the way to the San Jose airport.  

Destinations: San Jose, Santa Cruz

Themes: College Visits, Family Travel

Activities: Eat, Museums, Parks and Playgrounds, Shopping, Sightseeing