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 go for 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 in 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, part of 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.
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'd had no trouble doing this, but this time was different. The Giants were playing at home, 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 you make a reservation, but it 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 to 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 exhibition 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," running through April 17.
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 noir made from 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 building has 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.
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. Pick 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, built as a traditional Japanese village for the 1894 California Expo. Admission ($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 exhibition of 120 impressionist paintings from the Musee 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. Check 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 walk 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 foie gras-gingersnap, and Jesus Juice, a sorbet made with red wine and Coke.
Room rates at San Francisco's showpiece hotels start at about $250, but $20-$25 will buy a permission slip to roam the lobbies and climb the marble staircases of two historical monuments.
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 to 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.
United and US Airways fly nonstop to San Francisco from Philadelphia. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $450.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) connects both the San Francisco and Oakland airports to downtown. Details at www.bart.gov.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni), offers one-, three- and seven-day passport passes ($13-$26) for unlimited travel on buses, streetcars, light-rail lines, and cable cars. Buy the passes at several locations around town and at the San Francisco International Airport. Passes can't be used for BART. Details at www.sfmta.com.
Depending on your length of stay and interests, a San Francisco CityPass could be worthwhile (www.citypass.com/san-francisco). The passes are good for seven consecutive days of travel on Muni, including cable cars, and admission to several attractions.
Buy half-price tickets to theater and arts performances at www.tixbayarea.com or at the Tix half-price ticket booth downtown on Union Square. Call 415-433-7827 for recorded information.
Muni passport passes make sense for those who plan to ride the cable cars ($5 for each ride when bought separately). Otherwise, single tickets ($2) for the buses and light-rail lines might be more economical. Muni transfers dispensed from machines are good for 90 minutes. Most bus drivers allow four hours - plenty of time to travel on one $2 ticket.
For information on hotel packages and reservations, events, activities, and transportation, go to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau website, www.onlyinsanfrancisco.