The smell wafts through the air, permeating even the car I’m driving. Garlic. Fresh garlic growing all over. This is Gilroy, California, and the smell greets visitors like an old friend. Warm, familiar, emotional. That is garlic for me, and a sure sign I’ve arrived in the city known as the Garlic Capitol of the World.
For many, Gilroy is just a small city about twenty minutes south of San Jose. Home to about 50,000 residents as of the 2010 census, it feels at first like simple suburban sprawl, a land of strip malls and track housing, with little in the way of culture. But dig just beneath the surface and you’ll find much more. Gilroy is full of history. And, of course, garlic.
Gilroy has actually been in existence as an incorporated city since 1870. Originally part of the huge Rancho San Ysidro, it was named after Scotsman John Gilroy, who married one of rancher Ygnacio Ortega’s daughters and received a large concession of land in his father-in-law’s will. After Gilroy passed away in 1869, the new town was named for him.
A statue of John Gilroy
For visitors wishing to view the history of the city, look no further than Old Gilroy, a section of Monterey Road going through the lovely downtown area contains a number of lovely buildings dating back to the city’s early days – in addition, of course, to some great shops and restaurants. (Gilroy is known for its “taco trail” and I hope to return soon to explore that.) My favorite? Old City Hall, now a restaurant, sitting on the corner of Monterey and 6th.
Old City Hall
Beyond history, Gilroy lures visitors in with a large outlet mall, a theme park for families called Gilroy Gardens, and more than a dozen wineries, plus trails in the hills and even an ostrich farm. Roadside fruit stands serve as fronts for family-owned farms, selling the freshest produce one can find outside picking it yourself, headlined by the enormous Casa de Fruita just east of the city. Avocados at ten for a dollar? Why yes, I think I will!
But for many, myself included, the headline of Gilroy is garlic. The last full weekend in July is reserved for the most garlicky of garlic-themed events, the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which will hopefully return in 2021 or 2022 after Covid is contained. I had the good fortune to attend the Gilroy Garlic Festival about 13 years ago, luxuriating in garlic fries, garlic dips and sauces, and of course, garlic ice cream. (Ok, it sounds odd, terrible even, but it’s actually good. I’m not saying I’d order it at Ben and Jerry’s, but to try at an event like this? Yeah, and I’d do it again.)
It’s not just coincidence or braggadocio that Gilroy styles itself the Garlic Capitol of the World. California produces 90% of the United States’ garlic, with Christopher Ranch – headquartered here in Gilroy – supplying 50% by itself. Add in smaller producers, and the nickname is truly an apt description!
But other than the July festival, how can you best experience garlic in Gilroy? Start your day downtown. A block north of Old City Hall lies the Garlic Mural. It covers the entire side of a building and is awesome! (And of course, while you’re here, pop into the Garlic City Cafe for some cream of garlic soup (after 11am) or a whole roasted garlic appetizer.)
The garlic mural
South of the city, Monterey Road merges with US Highway 101. Head south for about 3 minutes and exit at Highway 25. There, basically right off of the on-ramp to get back on the 101 north, sits the Garlic Shoppe. Browse the wonders. Buy something garlicky made here in Gilroy. My newfound favorite from this last trip? Psycho garlic hot sauce. Spicy, garlicky, and amazing. Trust me. (You can also retrace your drive about a minute to find Garlic World, another garlic super-store.)
I bought this sauce at the Garlic Shoppe (above). It’s amazing!
On your way back, make sure to take in the smell. I always drive through Gilroy with the windows down, basking in the pungent toasted aroma of the Garlic Capitol of the World, anticipating digging into my next garlicky delight!
For more information or help in planning your own Gilroy adventure, contact Visit Gilroy.
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