Walnut Creek is Cooler Than You Think - 2 Dads with Baggage
Mt Diablo and Rolling Grassy Hills of Contra Costa County, California.

Walnut Creek is Cooler Than You Think

With a name like Walnut Creek, you’d think this East Bay Area town would be a slow-paced, backwoods kind of cul-de-sac. Maybe it conjures in your mind a sleepy little community like Mayberry RFD, or the place you imagine the Partridge Family would have lived. And it kind of was, decades ago when I was growing up nearby. But Walnut Creek has come a long way in recent years. This little town is now a social magnet for the entire area. There are plenty of fun things to do in Walnut Creek and the surrounding area, and it’s worth considering if you plan to visit the East San Francisco Bay Area.

There is quite a lot to see and do in Walnut Creek, as we had the chance to discover on a visit here recently. With good weather most of the time, outdoor activities keep locals and visitors busy. Hiking, bicycling, skating and other sports like world-class shopping and eating keep people plenty busy here. Paired with old growth California oak trees, grassy fields and lots of clean air, Walnut Creek has maintained its wholesome roots. All the while it has been keeping up with the times.

A view of Mount Diablo and the China Wall during a cloudy spring day in Walnut Creek, California
The rolling hills of Walnut Creek continue right up to Mt Diablo. (photo: Chris LaBasco)

We had the chance to explore my old stomping grounds for a bit recently. Our youngest daughter moved nearby to begin her first year at college, and we’ve been up to visit. What we discovered left a great impression of things to do in Walnut Creek. We’re ready to go back for more. For sure, Walnut Creek is cooler than we thought.

Where is Walnut Creek?

The suburb of Walnut Creek is located in Northern California, east of San Francisco about 25 miles. Just a few minutes drive from Berkeley through the Caldecott Tunnel, Walnut Creek sits at the base of Mt. Diablo and the  connection points for several freeways. (Although not terribly tall at about 3,800 feet, Mt. Diablo just happens to boast one of the most far-reaching viewlines of any mountain in the US.) Nearby, the towns of Concord, Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, Orinda (where I grew up) and Moraga all comprise parts of this area known as Contra Costa County.

Walnut Creek is arguably the most sophisticated of these East Bay burgs. It offers a collection of retailers like Banana Republic, Free People, Sephora, Nordstrom, Sur La Table, Brandy Melville, Lulu Lemon, Madewell, Apple, and more. What’s more, there is a prized collection of highly regarded restaurants and purveyors that foodies swoon over.

Walnut Creek, California, United States - August 06, 2018: Cars parked near retail stores on Main Street in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Walnut Creek, California, August 6, 2018
Tree-lined streets of downtown Walnut Creek (photo: tomsmith585)

Even when I was little, Walnut Creek had a certain draw. My mom and godmother would take me to the Capwell’s Department Store lunch counter for a snack. I would eat sliced pickles while they chatted amongst their shopping bags.

The streets we cruised as daredevil high schoolers are now lined with boutiques, galleries and a fine collection of restaurants. Yep, Walnut Creek has grown up – and the whole area is better for it.

Things To Do in Walnut Creek

There’s more to Walnut Creek that meets the eye. There are plenty of things to do in Walnut Creek, whether you like sports, outdoor adventures, shopping or fine dining. The area offers all this and more.

The Great Outdoors

Mt Diablo State Park – Drive, bike or hike to the peak, or explore the trails throughout some 20,000 acres of terrain with incredible, unobstructed views in all directions.

Hiking the trails around Mount Diablo State Park in California.
Mount Diablo State Park is green and beautiful in the Spring. (photo: Chris LaBasco)

Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area – Scenic canyons and hiking through oak groves and sandstone structures. Sports facilities, ball fields, swimming pool and playground are also situated here.

Shell Ridge Open Space – Horseback riding and a sweet picnic area are located here, where ancient fossil shells can still be found. There’s even a working cattle ranch onsite.

Shell Ridge Walnut Creek
Sunset at Shell Ridge gives golden hour its meaning. (photo: Anita Sagastegui)

Miles of Bike Trails – For those who seek a tamer experience, paved bike trails wind through the flats of the city and on to other neighboring areas for a smooth, even ride.

Walnut Creek, California, United States - October 19, 2016: A man wearing a helmet secures a mountain bike to a bicycle rack in Walnut Creek, California, October 19, 2016
Cycling is huge throughout the trails and paths in Walnut Creek. (photo: tomsmith585)
Shopping for Days

Even when I was a little kid, we went to downtown Walnut Creek to shop. When Nordstrom opened, we knew the area had officially “arrived”. It’s been moving in the right direction ever since, with national and international brand names opening stores along the tree-lined streets.

Walnut Creek, California, United States - September 27, 2019: Cars, shops and Main Street are visible in downtown Walnut Creek, California, September 27, 2019
Downtown Walnut Creek is very walkable. (photo: tomsmith585)

Refreshingly, there is no big mall here. All the shops are collected in open air spaces central to downtown and in Broadway Plaza Shopping Center. It’s fun to stroll the streets and pop into stores, and all the downtown Walnut Creek areas are safe and clean with ample parking structures. (They are even free for the first hour+). You can find clothing, eyewear, luggage, furnishings, kitchen supplies, hardware, jewelry, shoes – you name it.

For more information on shopping in Walnut Creek, check out:

Broadway Plaza

Walnut Creek Downtown

Walnut Creek, California, United States - July 29, 2019: Wide angle view of Nordstrom department store and other stores at Broadway Plaza shopping mall in Walnut Creek, California, July 29, 2019
Broadway Plaza shopping center offers world class shopping in Walnut Creek. (photo: tomsmith585)
Food Scene

There are a couple of branded restaurants we are suckers for, and they are both in downtown Walnut Creek. Il Fornaio is one of the better Italian restaurants we’ve found that has consistently high quality food. Coming from an Italian family, this has been our go-to spot when we wanted something that tasted like home. The other is PF Chang’s, and we love this Asian-inspired restaurant for its consistently delicious flavors. In addition to these, there are other popular favorites here like California Pizza Kitchen, Boudin, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, True Food and many more.

We keep going back to Broderick Roadhouse for the food and friendly atmosphere.

Now, that is not to say there are no fantastic local restaurants in Walnut Creek – because there are plenty. We absolutely love Torsap Thai Kitchen and literally go there every time we are in town. The food here is out of this world, and the presentation is lovely. If you are not in the mood for Thai, there are dozens of other local choices of high acclaim. Check out LITA for Latin Caribbean cuisine. Or perhaps Va de Vi Bistro for a European feel in menu and wine list. If you’re hungry for a loaded burger with all the fixings and a killer shake, hit up Broderick Roadhouse. Afterwards you can head over to Tiki Tom’s for a fun tiki cocktail in the traditional island vibe.

The pad thai at Torsap restaurant in Walnut Creek was delicious and beautifully presented.

Breakfast here is also good. One Sunday morning we enjoyed a delicious brunch at Katy’s Kreek Restaurant, where we gobbled down Swedish pancakes, huevos rancheros and other delicious breakfast treats. Then we wandered through the local Farmer’s Market along Main Street. It was filled with fresh produce, interesting gifts, art, jewelry and more. The live music was an added plus, so we hung out for a bit to enjoy the scene.

For more information on what to see and do in Walnut Creek, this Visit Walnut Creek website has some good information.

Walnut Creek, California, United States - January 01, 2019: Photograph of Broderick Roadhouse, a restaurant in Walnut Creek, California, United States
Great burgers and shakes (and full car!) at Broderick Roadhouse.

Where to Stay in the Walnut Creek Area

Embassy Suites Walnut Creek

There are a bunch of great places to stay in Walnut Creek, and we’ve gravitated towards the Embassy Suites Walnut Creek the last couple of visits. We like the central location of this hotel towards the north side of town. It’s within a walkable area of restaurants and services. The hotel itself has been recently refurbished and is shiny-new and impressive. It’s one of the original Embassy Suites designs where the interior architecture openly soars to the highest floor. The hotel even sports those famous glass elevators every kid (and most adults) adores.

The famous glass elevators and atrium space at Embassy Suites Walnut Creek.

The suites and rooms here are spacious, clean and newly remodeled. We were very comfortable with the bed and furnishings, as well as the spacious bathroom and seating areas. The design has a modern zen theme, with punches of accent colors that provide visual interest. One of our biggest measures of success for any hotel is the Wi-Fi connection and speed, and it’s great here. (A perk of being a Hilton Honors member is free Wi-Fi!)

Our suite at Embassy Suites Walnut Creek was huuuuuuge!

Of course, the legendary free breakfast and nightly happy hours are Embassy Suites signatures here too. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and breadth of options. They even offered freshly cooked omelettes made to order with your choice of ingredients.

The spacious atrium lobby at Embassy Suites Walnut Creek.
Other Hotel Options

Other hotels to consider in Walnut Creek include the Marriott Walnut Creek and Residence Inn by Marriott. We’ve not stayed at either, but hear they are ok too.

If You Visit Walnut Creek

Walnut Creek is conveniently accessible to many parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s an easy drive along Highway 680, right near the intersection with Highway 24. The Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill BART stations are  located close by, so taking a train from Oakland or San Francisco airports is very doable.

A BART train pulls into a station in the east bay
BART makes it easy to get around in the Bay Area. (photo: halbergman)

We drove up from Southern California, a drive we have made many, many times. My parents continued to live in this area until they passed, and it was fun to come back for a visit. You know how your old hometown changes so much yet never changes at the same time?  Yeah, that feeling keeps happening to me.

I do love it here, and there is a lot to explore and discover. Even for this former resident, the area still surprises. We will definitely be spending more time here with a daughter in college nearby. Can’t wait to see what we discover next! There are definitely plenty of fun things to do in Walnut Creek now.

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