SAN FRANCISCO – Crystal chandeliers hanging from a glass dome ceiling evoke an era when kings, queens and heads of state dined in the Palace Hotel’s Garden Court restaurant.
The tab for lunch can easily reach $40 a person, likely more for those who splurge on scallops or steak.
How was it then that two of us ate here for $19.09 each, including a 90-minute tour through hallways, rooms and bars decorated with marble and brass?
Four-star San Francisco on a two-star budget was my mission. The Palace’s “Historic Lunch and Tour” special offered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, in conjunction with an extended celebration of the hotel’s 100th anniversary, was part of the plan.
World-class museums, oysters by the bay, ethnic neighborhoods – San Francisco has it all. A weekend escape will surely steal your heart, but it doesn’t have to empty your wallet.
Affordable luxuries await those skilled in the art of penny-pinching without the pain.
Sleeping in style
Arrive on a slow weekend and it’s possible to land a room in a four-star hotel for $100 by bidding on Priceline.com.
I’ve had no trouble doing this in the past, but this time was different: The Giants were in town, and more than 700,000 were expected for a music festival in Golden Gate Park.
After several failed Priceline bids, I found a $100 room, but not in a hotel, and not on Priceline.
How: I booked with Airbnb (www.airbnb.com), a global network of rooms, apartments and sublets offered by locals. After plugging in my dates, narrowing my criteria to a room with a private bathroom and choosing a neighborhood, I found a comfortable room for two in the lower Nob Hill condo of Xiaoyang, a Beijing-born medical physicist.
What to expect: Airbnb’s listings include photos, maps and reviews by other travelers, so there are no surprises. Airbnb bills your credit card when reservations are made but doesn’t pay the owner until the day after you arrive.
Xiaoyang arranged to leave work early to meet my husband, Tom, and me in the early afternoon. Heavy wooden doors with stained-glass windows led to her upstairs unit.
We took off our shoes, so as not to scuff the pecan wood floors, and settled into the guest room overlooking a leafy courtyard. The room was quiet, the bathroom sparkling.
Our hostess was friendly and helpful but not intrusive. Because of our busy schedule, we didn’t see each other again until two mornings later when we sat in her kitchen and traded travel stories over tea, yogurt and fruit.
Snag discounts on drinks, dinner, museums, even wines from some of the Napa Valley’s premier wineries.
How: Get here on a Thursday, San Francisco’s new Friday for budget-minded locals.
Plan A: Take one of the vintage streetcars that run along Market Street to the Ferry Building, a historic terminal on San Francisco Bay renovated a few years ago as a gourmet marketplace.
Join the line at the Hog Island Oyster Co. (www.hogislandoysters.com) for happy hour Mondays and Thursdays from 5-7 p.m. Oysters are $1.40 and pints are $3.50. Ask for a seat at the bar and watch the cooks shuck and plate, or snag a table outside with views of the Bay Bridge at sunset.
Walk off dinner with a stroll to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the Yerba Buena Arts District (www.sfmoma.org). Admission is half-price on Thursdays from 6-8:45 p.m. ($9 for adults, $4 for seniors).
“75 Years of Looking Forward,” an exhibit dedicated to the museum’s first founders, artists and patrons, includes a gilded ceramic of Michael Jackson and the chimp, Bubbles. Anyone who’s ever been tempted to buy wine by the label will be interested in a show titled “How Wine Became Modern Design,” starting Saturday.
A trip to the Napa Valley may not be in the budget, but no worries. The Press Club (www.pressclubsf.com) is around the corner.
Six Napa wineries rotate Thursday happy-hour specials in an underground living room-style bar furnished with sofas and low tables. Mount Eden Vineyards recently served free pork sliders and $4 glasses of a smoky, $40-a-bottle Pinot made with grapes grown in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Plan B: Spend the evening under the stars at the California Academy of Sciences, the natural-history museum in Golden Gate Park. The talker here is a “living roof” carpeted with native plants.
One of the best deals is the museum’s Thursday “NightLife,” an adults-only evening (6-10 p.m.) with music and entertainment. Admission is $12, versus $29.95 at other times (details at www.calacademy.org/nightlife).
Around the world on Muni
Can’t make it to China, Japan, France, Italy or Mexico this year? Explore San Francisco’s ethnic neighborhoods and attractions, and circle the globe without leaving town.
How: Get around with a Muni passport pass (www.sfmuni.com), good for a day, three days or a week ($13-$26) on buses, cable cars, light-rail lines and the historic streetcars.
Choose from among dozens of free, daily neighborhood walking tours hosted by volunteers for the nonprofit San Francisco City Guides (www.sfcityguides.org).
Sample itinerary: Start the morning at Golden Gate Park in the Japanese Tea Garden, originally built as a traditional Japanese village for the 1894 California Expo. Admission (usually $7) is free on Monday, Wednesday and Friday before 10 a.m.
Join fifth-generation San Franciscan Charles Eckberg, a City Guide volunteer, for a free walking tour (Fridays at 9:30 a.m.), followed by a brisk walk to Strawberry Hill, above Snow Lake, for views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Plan ahead and order advance tickets to see the de Young museum’s exhibit of 120 Impressionist paintings from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Otherwise, drop in (show a Muni ticket or transfer and get $2 off the $10 general admission price) and browse the permanent collection of American and African art (see http://deyoung.famsf.org).
Dim Sum in Chinatown? Panini in Italian North Beach? Both are tempting, but we settled on the Mission District for an afternoon of street art, tacos and ice cream.
Murals painted by professional artists, community activists, even children appear on bank buildings, schools, homes, fences and garages all over the Mission. The most impressive concentration is on Balmy Alley, a block-long street with 30 works.
City Guides offers free walking tours, but it’s easy to put together a self-guided stroll using maps available at Precita Eyes Mural Arts (www.precitaeyes.org).
At Taqueria Vallarta, construction workers and mothers pushing strollers line up for the dozen types of miniature tacos ($1.50) grilled near the doorway.
Across the street at Humphry Slocombe (www.humphryslocombe.com), owner Jake Godby plays with food flavors to create ice cream treats such as fois gras-ginger snap and Jesus Juice, a sorbet made with red wine and Coke.
Room rates at San Francisco’s showpiece hotels start in the $250 range, but $20-$25 will buy a permission slip to roam the lobbies and climb the marble staircases of two historical monuments.
How: The Palace (www.sfpalace.com) and the Fairmont San Francisco (www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco) atop Nob Hill welcome travelers with special deals.
City Guides lead free tours through the Palace several times a week, followed by the $19.09 lunch. Tax and tip will bring the bill closer to $25 without drinks.
The Tonga Room at the Fairmont is as kitschy as the Garden Court is elegant. Fake thatch roofs and palm trees decorate a tiki bar next to a basement swimming pool converted into a “lagoon.”
Happy hour on Thursdays and Fridays from 5-7 p.m. includes an all-you-can-eat Asian buffet for $9.50 with a one-drink minimum – total of about $20 with tax and tip.
The food should be better than it is, but it’s a San Francisco tradition to ride a cable car to the Fairmont, then sip a Tonga Tart as the sprinklers come on and thunder and lightning shake the darkened room.