If there were no San Francisco, San Mateo would do just fine. Though it functions as a suburb of San Francisco, San Mateo is built to stand on its own. Population-wise, it’s the second-largest city on the Peninsula, and it’s the one with the biggest downtown.
Stroll through downtown and prepare to be dazzled by all of the restaurant choices, enough to make unnecessary the long drive or train ride north. There is plenty – from taquerias and Indian street food to steakhouses, ristorantes and cafes – to satisfy any palate.
What sets San Mateo’s downtown apart from other Peninsula hubs, though, is its urban atmosphere. By day its coffee shops fill up with commuters and local workers; after sundown its restaurants and nightspots overflow with revelers. Day and night its sidewalks teem with pedestrians.
Some people come downtown for the food and the nightlight; others come just to shop at Talbot’s Toyland, one of the biggest – and last – family-owned toy stores in the Bay Area. Talbot’s opened for business in 1953. Since then it’s become a local landmark.
So has the Century 12 movie theater complex in the short time it’s been downtown, and the full slate of community fairs and festivals the city holds each year. Downtown buzzes with activities, whatever the season; summer brings Summerfest and the late-season Downtown Wine Walk, fall comes with the Halloween Fun Fest; December brings with it the annual “Christmas on B Street” celebration, with a tree lighting, crafts, music and, of course, Santa Claus.
With all of these events you might think it’d be difficult to choose the biggest one, but it’s not. Every summer, the San Mateo County Fair takes that title, filling the fairgrounds with rides, food and entertainment. There’s plenty to do in San Mateo, but the County Fair is a destination.
San Mateo is large enough for three farmer’s markets: one downtown, one at the College of San Mateo and one on 25th Avenue. It’s also large enough for all sorts of neighborhoods, from entry-level to ultra-high end. San Mateo Park, which borders Hillsborough and Burlingame and is one of San Mateo’s oldest neighborhoods, has some of the most beautiful and largest homes in the area. So does Baywood, which has the added allure of being close to Baywood Elementary, San Mateo’s most popular school.
There are neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, hillside homes with views, neat subdivisions built before and after World War II, waterfront homes and Hillsdale, a huge post-war neighborhood that grew up around the Hillsdale Shopping Center, one of the country’s first open air malls when it opened, in 1954. There is 225-acre Laurelwood Park and the Peninsula Country Club, downtown’s Central Park and even a Thai restaurant on Peninsula Avenue that used to be a Hollywood studio during the silent movie era.
Right now San Mateo is undergoing its biggest period of growth since the 1950s. A planned, transit-oriented development is underway on the former grounds of the Bay Meadows horseracing track. When it is complete, the new Bay Meadows neighborhood will have over 1,000 townhouses, condos and single-family homes, four parks, a new high school and its own downtown, a pedestrian-friendly core of retail, restaurants and offices, all a short walk from a Caltrain station.
So stop yourself if you’re thinking of San Mateo as “just” a suburb of San Francisco or a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. It’s a “real” city, providing a lively, vibrant lifestyle for 100,000 satisfied residents.