Kids do hands-on experiments at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. (Renee Sklarew/Special to The Washington Post)

Like my college-age daughters, I am in love with my iPhone. And my ardor increased while I was researching a guidebook. With my cellphone, I narrated each hike into the Notes app, used Google Maps when I got lost and the Camera app to capture scenery. As I worked, I wondered how we got from room-size mainframes to this portable computer-in-my-hand.

So when Southwest Airlines started offering daily nonstops from Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport to San Jose, I booked a trip with my husband, Eric. After an affordable transcontinental flight, we landed at Mineta San Jose International Airport, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Without a personal invitation from an employee, you can’t enter the offices of Apple, Facebook or Google, but you can visit each campus on your own. We like taking tours, so we reserved with a company that provides personalized ones and explains how Silicon Valley came to be.

Marveling at San Jose’s Mediterranean climate, we waited outside the Fairmont Hotel for our tour guide Sharon Traeger to pick us up. Driving through morning traffic, she described key events in Silicon Valley’s history.

An example of the Apple II computer that gave the company its first major market breakthrough is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. (Renee Sklarew/Special to The Washington Post)

“In the early 20th century, this valley was full of blooming fruit orchards with cherry, plum and apricot trees. It was called the Valley of Heart’s Delight.” Traeger went on: “Back then, electronics were manufactured on the East Coast, until an electrical engineer named William Shockley and his team at Bell Labs developed the transistor.” After winning the Nobel Prize in 1956, Shockley decided to attach his transistors to wafers made of silicon, an abundant element and primary component of sand. The development of silicon chips allowed manufacturers to miniaturize electronics — radios and televisions first, and eventually computers and cellphones.

“Silicon has the possibility to conduct or not conduct, so that’s the importance,” Traeger explained. “All of a sudden, you can make gates for electrons and control electrons. This is how we became Silicon Valley.”

Shockley returned to his home town of Palo Alto and hired eight engineers to operate his company. The group built integrated circuits on chips, but soon Shockley’s hires became disgruntled with his management style and left to build their own semiconductors, naming their company Fairchild Semiconductor.

“Fairchild becomes a powerhouse,” Traeger continued. “Not just for making money, but because it spins off lots of start-ups. These start-ups grew exponentially, and with steady customers like the U.S. space program, scientists moved in droves to San Jose.”

Like a second California Gold Rush, engineers with big ideas partnered with academicians and venture capitalists. Then in 1977, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs debuted the Apple II, a groundbreaking personal computer. About 20 years later, two Stanford University students developed a querying tool for the World Wide Web called Google.

We chose to visit the GooglePlex campus. Here, we snapped some selfies with plastic Android figures named after desserts, rode the colorful Google Bikes and bought Google merchandise. Self-driving robotic cars zipped by, and one of the Google Street View cars was on display. We didn’t make it to Facebook or lunch at the Samsung cafeteria, but we did stop by Jobs’s childhood home. Apple — as well as Hewlett-Packard and Google — began in a local garage.

Traeger recommended that we visit two museums celebrating the digital age.

Seasoned tech users will marvel over the world’s largest collection of computer-related artifacts, including the IBM 1401 Demo Lab and the historic Apple-1 signed by “Woz,” both on display at the Computer History Museum.

We also toured the family-friendly Tech Museum, where visitors interact with 3-D printers, build robots and learn something about cybersecurity. My surgeon husband was fascinated with the 3-D interactive operating table.

But the biggest draw is sure to be Apple Park, nicknamed the Spaceship, which will be open to visitors later this year.

The 2.8 million-square-foot circular building, covered in panels of curved glass, will house 12,000 workers.

“Apple is into design, and they want everything to be perfect. Inside and out, backwards and forwards,” Traeger noted. Jobs envisioned this 21st-century workspace to operate entirely on renewable energy. Tourists will be able to enter the stand-alone visitor center, Apple store and cafe. The best views are said to be from its rooftop terrace.

That night we scored a table at Adega, the popular Michelin-starred Portuguese restaurant. Pastry chef Jessica Carreira longed to return to Little Portugal, her neighborhood in San Jose, and convinced her Portuguese fiance David Costa to open a restaurant. After one year, Adega has earned accolades for its California twist on traditional Portuguese dishes such as the Arroz de Pato, a heavenly combination of duck, chorizo and rice.

San Jose is a true melting pot. Mayor Sam Liccardo says nearly 40 percent of its residents were born in another country, “so we’re treated to an incredibly diverse selection of cuisine in many unique neighborhoods.”

That’s evident as you wander through San Pedro Square Market, Spanish California’s oldest settlement, now a collection of 20 multicultural eateries. Last year, the Japantown neighborhood celebrated its 125th anniversary, and San Jose has the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam.

The Great Refractor telescope looms above at the University of California’s Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton. (Renee Sklarew/Special to The Washington Post)

For our last technology stop, we drove up Mount Hamilton to inspect the University of California’s Lick Observatory. Not for the faint of heart, the winding one-hour drive offers panoramic views of Silicon Valley stretching across the South Bay. Lick was built in 1888, and is still home to 100 astronomers searching the cosmos. Free talks describe the observatory’s achievements, like verifying Einstein’s geometric theory of gravitation. You’ll see the Great Refractor, the first giant telescope and dome built on a mountaintop. At night, you won’t need a telescope to behold celestial bodies of the Milky Way.

Back at the airport, three robots directed passengers, and I thought about Traeger’s musings: “Silicon Valley started with an electronics movement, but now it’s mobile devices and self-driving cars. These people are idealistic. They think, what’s stopping me from solving the energy problem or health care? How can we prolong life or get to Mars? They’re not content with discovering little things.”

It’s hard to imagine what inventions will next emerge on those sprawling campuses.

Sklarew is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @DCWriterMom.

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If you go
Where to stay

Fairmont San Jose

170 S. Market St., San Jose


With its rooftop pool and luxurious rooms, the Fairmont San Jose combines Northern California sophistication with a strategic downtown location. Rooms from $159.

Where to eat


1614 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose


The Michelin-starred restaurant takes a modern approach to classical Portuguese cooking and stocks a large collection of fine Portuguese wines. Entrees start at $29.

San Pedro Square Market

87 N. Pedro St., San Jose

The historic market in the heart of San Jose includes 20 eateries, shops and live music.

Mount Hamilton Grandview Restaurant & Farm

15005 Mount Hamilton Rd.,
Mount Hamilton


On the road to Lick Observatory, this retro-chic Italian restaurant’s menu features ingredients from their adjacent farm and panoramic vistas of Silicon Valley. Entrees start at $24.

What to do

Computer History Museum

1401 N. Shoreline Blvd.,
Mountain View


Tech enthusiasts will find a range of computing artifacts and exhibits explaining the impact of changing technology on business and culture. Admission costs $17.50 for adults; $13.50 for students, seniors and military personnel.

Tech Museum of Innovation

201 South Market St., San Jose


The family-friendly museum explores recent inventions in science with hands-on and immersive activities. Admission costs $24 for adults; $19 for students and children ages 3 to 17; free for younger children.

Traegar Silicon Valley Tours


Half or full-day custom tours with transportation; does not include admission to museums or meals. $300, or $630 with transportation for four people. $50 per hour (minimum of four) if you drive.

Lick Observatory

7281 Mount Hamilton Rd.,
Mount Hamilton


This astronomical observatory operated by the University of California offers daily tours and evening events (weather dependent). Free admission. Access requires a car; no public transportation is available.

Apple Park

19111 Pruneridge Ave., Cupertino


Apple’s new 175-acre campus houses more than 12,000 employees and will open a Visitor Center, with a store and cafe, later this year.

Googleplex Building 43

1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy., Mountain View


The corporate headquarters complex of Google has Android Park and a store featuring Google merchandise.


1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park


Acclaimed architect Frank Gehry designed Facebook’s headquarters located on a 22-acre campus. No public access except Facebook sign at this time.

Steve Jobs’ house

2066 Crist Dr., Los Altos

The boyhood home of Apple founder Steve Jobs, where he, along with Steve Wozniak, assembled the first Apple computers in the garage. Do not trespass; maintain a respectful distance.

Samsung Semiconductor

3655 N. First St., San Jose


Samsung’s 1.1-million-square-foot campus allows non-employees to enter outdoor spaces and retail shops on the ground level. Visitors are welcome to patronize Peet’s, Honeyberry and the Samsung cafeteria.