If there were no San Francisco, San Mateo would do just fine. Though it functions as a suburb of the flashy city to the north, San Mateo is built to stand on its own. Population-wise, it’s the second-largest city on the Peninsula.
Stroll through downtown and prepare to be dazzled by all of the restaurant choices, enough to make the long drive or train ride north unnecessary. 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 to generations of families and children.
So has the Century 12 movie theater complex, 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, while December brings the annual “Christmas on B Street” celebration, with a tree lighting, crafts, music and, of course, Santa Claus.
But the city’s biggest draw comes every summer when the San Mateo County Fair fills the fairgrounds with rides, food and entertainment. There’s plenty to do in San Mateo, but the County Fair is an annual draw for families near and far.
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, and waterfront homes. Hillsdale is 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 also 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 transit-oriented development has transformed the former grounds of the horse racing track. The new Bay Meadows neighborhood boasts 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 making its own way as a notably self-sufficient city, providing a lively, vibrant lifestyle for 100,000 satisfied residents.