Easy Escapes

An Affordable Day Trip to Palo Alto from San Francisco

by  Christina Valhouli | Jun 18, 2019
The Blue Trees art installation at Palo Alto City Hall
The Blue Trees art installation at Palo Alto City Hall / Photo courtesy of Palto Alto Tourism / Konstantin Dimopoulos

Palo Alto is notorious for being one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. – which is only fitting, since it’s home to some of the largest venture capital funds in America. However, you don’t need the budget of a newly IPO’d tech entrepreneur to enjoy a trip here.

In fact, Palo Alto makes for an easy and surprisingly budget-friendly day trip from San Francisco, especially because some of the biggest attractions here are free. It’s also packed with coffee shops and restaurants that are designed for the lean wallets of local Stanford University students. 

Getting There

If you don’t have a rental car, the easiest and most environmentally friendly option is to take a one-hour ride on Caltrain from San Francisco ($8.25 one-way, $16.50 for a day pass). Otherwise, you can use a ride-sharing app like Uber or Lyft, which will take about 40 minutes depending on traffic (anywhere from $60 to $100, depending on time of day).

What to See and Do

Make the HP Garage (367 Addison Avenue) your first stop. This is where college friends Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded Hewlett-Packard. The garage served as the company’s research lab, and it’s where the two men built early products such as the Model 200A audio oscillator. Unfortunately, the HP Garage is a private museum and is closed to the public, but it’s worth the visit (and the photo op). Just look for the National Register of Historic Places sign, which marks the location. The HP Garage is listed as a California Historic Landmark, and is lauded as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.

Palo Alto and Silicon Valley champion entrepreneurship and innovation, which makes it a fitting locale for the Museum of American Heritage. Located on a quiet residential street, this free museum highlights American inventions and technology spanning from 1750 to 1950. The exhibits cover everything from the 20th-century kitchen to vintage building toys. There's even a replica of a 1920s-era general store. Before you leave, you'll want to head out back to catch a glimpse of an old printing press from the 1930s. 

Stanford University’s sprawling campus offers plenty of free activities for art, nature, and science lovers. The  gardens are legendary and range from the beautiful Terman Courtyard to the breathtaking Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, where you'll find intricate wood and stone carvings. The university also offers a free guided walking tour of the garden on the third Sunday of each month (rain or shine). For a free guided tour around campus, download the university's Science Art-Nature podcast. 

Afterwards, visit the Cantor Arts Center, which is home to one of the largest collections of Auguste Rodin sculptures outside of Paris (the university offers free walking tours of the garden on the first Sunday of each month, rain or shine). The center also features a large permanent collection that includes modern European and American art, as well as artifacts from ancient Greece and Asia. Be sure to ask for a free art pack: a tote bag filled with paper, colored pencils, and themed activities to help spark creativity.

Art enthusiasts should head downtown to City Hall, where artist Konstantin Dimopoulos has turned the magnolia trees a beautiful hue of cobalt-blue with a biologically-safe watercolor. The public art installation, known as "The Blue Trees," highlights global deforestation (and, it’s free).

Where to Eat

Palo Alto Creamery is a must-visit when in town. This vintage-looking diner serves up comfort food classics like  bacon cheeseburgers ($15.95) and Greek salads ($14.95). We recommend saving room for dessert, since you won't want to miss out on the homemade ice cream.

Oren's Hummus serves up classic Israeli food at budget-friendly prices. A hummus bowl is $8.95 while a traditional shakshouka will set you back $14. Also, you can’t skip town without a trip to Tacolicious, a local favorite. The décor here is colorful and stylish, and the food is delicious. If you can, time your visit for Taco Tuesday, which is when you can score six tacos for $15 and a margarita pitcher for $29. Other menu offerings include fried avocado with grapefruit mayonnaise and Baja style Pacific cod served with Mexican crema. Pizzeria Delfina serves up classic Italian staples with a California twist (we love the lamb and dandelion pizza). Tip: Get here early to score a seat on the patio (entrées from $13).

If you’re in need of a caffeine fix, head to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is located in a former movie theater. Order a New Orleans-style iced coffee (coffee that's cold-brewed for 12 hours with roasted chicory and sweetened with organic cane sugar) or a Hayes Valley espresso (a smooth and dark espresso). Both drinks are best enjoyed in the outside courtyard.

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