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What is Walnut Creek Known For?

Walnut Creek, California is a town in the farther reaches of the East Bay. It’s East of Berkeley and Oakland, and you need to drive through the Caldecott Tunnel to get to it.

I lived in Walnut Creek for four years, from 2017 to 2020, and I still go there almost every day. I’ve explored most of the town and can share my insights on what Walnut Creek is like.

In the Bay Area, Walnut Creek is known as a shopping destination, as well as a convenient commuter suburb for people who work in San Francisco. It’s almost known for its old-school downtown and a larger number of older (and therefore more affordable) rental units.

Shopping in Walnut Creek

If you don’t live in Walnut Creek, you might still know it as a major East Bay shopping destination. That’s because the town is now anchored by the massive Broadway Plaza shopping center.

Broadway Plaza has lots of fancy shopping

Broadway Plaza is an upscale outdoor mall with big department stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s, as well as designer stores, boutiques, and fancy shopping places like a Tesla store, a Pelton store, and more. 

When I first moved to Walnut Creek, Broadway Plaza was just beginning a multi-year renovation. With that work complete, it’s now a place that people come to from all around the Bay Area in order to shop.

Locals visit Broadway Plaza, too. It’s a nice place to visit with kids. Just don’t go on a rainy day, since the entire mall is outside.

Walnut Creek’s Small Town Feel

Another thing Walnut Creek is known for is its small-town field. Walnut Creek has one of the best traditional downtowns of the East Bay, with a main street that’s lined with small stores.

Walnut Creek’s downtown has lots of local shops and eateries

The main street is a few blocks long (it’s literally called Main Street), and there are lots of nice small restaurants you can visit in addition to the local shops. One of my favorite spots on Main Street is Lottie‘s, a fantastic local creamery.

Teleferic Barcelona is also a classy place with a rooftop location and a birds-eye view of Main Street. Kaiwa Sushi has a down-to-earth, local restaurant feel and serves good sushi just off Main Street on Locust Ave.

The biggest challenge with Walnut Creek’s downtown is a lack of parking. Street parking is nearly impossible to find, and although there are large lots, they’re set back from the main street and often fill up.

Although Broadway Plaza has tons of parking, you’ll have to look harder for a spot in the more traditional downtown. I often park in the Broadway Plaza lot by Macy’s and then walk to Main Street and the downtown area.

The downtown is also hurting a bit as a result of the pandemic and also competition with Broadway Plaza’s newer. You’ll see more empty storefronts than you would’ve five years ago. That said, the downtown area appears to be staging a bit of a comeback, with stores like Barnes and Noble returning after leaving Walnut Creek in 2018.

You’ll also find more crime in Walnut Creek than in sleepier cities nearby. A lot of this is property crime focused on stores in Broadway Plaza, but it can still give Walnut Creek the feeling of a larger city.

That said, Walnut Creek‘s downtown is still a great place to visit. Especially after dark, it’s a bustling street scene filled with outdoor restaurants, live music, and lots of seasonal events. There are even things like bold murals appearing in the city.

Walnut Creek’s Commuter Suburb Feel

Walnut Creek is served by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter rail system, and it’s about a 40-minute ride into San Francisco. That makes the city an attractive destination for commuters.

Around the downtown hub, Walnut Creek has recently built a huge number of new, small apartments. Most of these are in four or five-story buildings. They cater to young professionals who want to live close to a BART station so they can easily get into the city.

These new apartment buildings are nice, but they can get pricey. Just a bit further out from downtown, Walnut Creek also has a lot of smaller duplexes and rental homes. These tend to be older, with many built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Farther out parts of Walnut Creek are more residential, with older housing units

Walnut Creek’s large number of renters, and its older housing stock can make it a more affordable place to live then other nearby towns like Danville, which mostly has larger single-family homes. When I lived there, I got an apartment near the Ruth Bancroft Garden and Heather Farm Park, which was very affordable.

By the same token, though, the large number of rental units can give Walnut Creek less of a cohesive feeling of town spirit. Like me, many people live in Walnut Creek for a few years before buying a home elsewhere.

What else is Walnut Creek known for?

Walnut Creek is also known for some excellent parks. Heather Farm is a massive park towards the east of Walnut Creek, and is one of the jewels of the East Bay park system.

Tice Valley park is located on the Lafayette side of Walnut Creek, and is small but has a nice playground. Larkey Park is much bigger and has the excellent Lindsay Wildlife Experience, a museum and wildlife hospital.

Heather Farm Park has sports fields and walking paths

The city is also known as the location for the main hospital of the John Muir medical group. The John Muir Hospital has a capable emergency room and a renowned trauma center. It handles many difficult trauma cases in the East Bay, some of which arrive via helicopter to a helipad atop the hospital.

John Muir’s main hospital is in Walnut Creek

Another gem in Walnut Creek is the Lesher Center. It’s an arts center that hosts touring plays and performances and also has its own art gallery and resident theater companies. I’ve seen several shows there, and it’s a fun venue.

One nice feature of Walnut Creek is a free shuttle bus that will take you from the BART station to downtown. Taking BART to Walnut Creek and then riding the shuttle is a great way to do your holiday shopping without having to deal with parking.

Conclusion

Although Walnut Creek has dealt with some challenges around storefront vacancies downtown and increased crime, it’s still known as a great place to live. 

That’s especially true for younger families and young professionals who want a certain amount of nightlife nearby (again, downtown is really bustling at night–see the picture at the top of the page), but need also to be able to hop on BART and be in the city in less than an hour.

Even if you’re not planning to live in Walnut Creek, you can be like me and visit for the shopping experience or to stroll down Main Street.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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