Palo Alto, California

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Home of Stanford University, it's stimulating, well-heeled, progressive - and surprisingly full of budget breaks for students and other wallet-watchers

Most tourists to San Francisco completely miss a wonderful addition to their trip: Palo Alto. An hour south of the larger city, in a bucolic landscape dotted with high-tech firms, is Stanford University and that adjoining graceful, leafy town. Anyone who has ever wondered where the computer revolution began would be interested to spend time in this, the cerebral cortex of Silicon Valley. (Stanford alumni include the founders of Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and Sun Microsystems, not to mention Chelsea Clinton.) With the redwood-filled Santa Cruz Mountains and empty beaches less than an hour's drive to the west, and popular tourist towns like Santa Cruz 60 miles to the south, a visit to Palo Alto makes complete an exploration of the stunning San Francisco Bay area. The sprawling, pastoral Stanford campus itself (a.k.a. "the Farm") is regarded as not just the most beautiful on the West Coast, but as home to a heady intellectual ferment that visitors can easily avail themselves of (though unlike rival Berkeley across San Francisco Bay, Stanford is more about understated elegance than in-your-face activism). And despite the gold-rush price inflation generated by the dot-com boom, the subsequent bust and softening of the economy has also softened many local prices - cheap deals abound if you know where to look.

Down on the farm

Established in 1891, Stanford now has 14,000 students who enjoy a 13-square-mile campus of grassy fields, eucalyptus groves, and rolling hills. If for nothing else, Stanford is worth visiting for its stunning Spanish-colonial-inspired sandstone architecture, with red-tiled roofs, Romanesque archways, and enclosed courtyards.

First stop: near the Main Quad, where Visitor Information Services (650/723-2560, www.stanford.edu), in Memorial Auditorium, welcomes visitors on weekdays - more than 150,000 annually. Pick up a free map for a self-guided tour or a free student-led walking tour; one departs here daily at 11 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. (a daily golf-cart tour at 1 p.m. is only $5 per person).

Browse the huge and impressive Stanford Bookstore (open daily, 800/533-2670), just a stone's throw away from the Main Quad, or head to the Humanities and Social Science collections (nearly 2 1/2 million volumes), housed primarily in the Cecil Green Library (650/725-1064); visitors are allowed seven free entries per year, but cannot check out books. Peruse the historical documents in the beautiful, high-ceilinged rooms.

Take the $2 ride up the elevator in the landmark, 285-foot Hoover Tower (open daily, 650/723-2053) for a panoramic view. The tower also houses part of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, with items of Herbert Hoover, Stanford's most celebrated graduate.

Campus culture

The magnificent - and free-Cantor Center for Visual Arts (Museum Way, off Palm Dr., 650/723-4177; Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.) should not be missed, with 27 galleries, an outdoor sculpture garden with the best Rodin collection outside of Paris (open even when the museum is closed), a twentieth-century collection including Georgia O'Keeffe, California landscape paintings, and even an Egyptian mummy.

To get the lowdown on what's happening performance- and events-wise, check the calendar of free or nominally priced events at the Stanford ticket office in Tresidder Memorial Union (650/725-2787); highlights include jazz and electronic music concerts, and special film series. Also check the calendar in the two free campus rags, the Stanford Daily and Stanford Report, or call 650/723-0336; log on at http://calendus.stanford.edu and http://livelyarts.stanford.edu.

If it's a good lecture and debate you crave, check out the Presidential Lectures and Symposia Web site at http://prelectur.stanford.edu or call 650/725-1219. These free talks by renowned scholars like Marjorie Garber and Gayatri Spivak include intellectually challenging topics like "Cosmologies and World Views."

Off-campus doings

The tree-lined suburban town of Palo Alto (pop. 61,500) is one of America's most well heeled. It's connected to Stanford via University Avenue, which is Palo Alto's main vein and the center of a European-flavored, tres chic downtown catering to the socially conscious locals. University Avenue intersects the main north-south drag of El Camino Real and Middlefield Avenue, with ultrafabulous mansions nearby.

Stanford operates the Marguerite shuttle (650/723-9362), free to all comers on weekdays all year long. Its various routes go across campus, to the Stanford Shopping Center, to Downtown Palo Alto, and to the two local Caltrain commuter rail depots, where you can catch trains going to San Francisco or San Jose. Another option is biking, the favorite mode of local travel (the area is flat with well-marked bike routes). Rent bikes at $25 to $50 a day from Palo Alto Bike Station (95 University Ave. at the Caltrain depot, 650/327-9636). Get a map of routes at the chamber of commerce (see box).

Also at the chamber of commerce, pick up a free booklet for a self-guided "Professorville Tour" of a snug nearby area of more than two dozen gracious 1890 to 1910 houses, home to Stanford's first faculty. One notable address is 367 Addison Avenue, site of the Hewlett-Packard Garage, where the computer revolution began, or take a 15-minute drive to the town of Los Altos 15 minutes to the south to Steve Jobs' Garage on 2066 Crist Drive, where Jobs and Steve Wozniak wired the first Apple computer (neither, however, is open to the public).

Another enjoyable spot is the open-air Stanford Shopping Center (www.stanfordshop.com), right on the eastern edge of campus. Very upscale, but a pleasant oasis for a cup of espresso by one of the many fountains or a quick lunch (one sure budget bet is Una M s Playa Bar & Grill, 650/323-8226, with burritos for $5).

Area digs

Beyond the $120-to-$200-per-night downtown digs, budget options abound. One of the more interesting and rock-bottom-cheap possibilities is the 34-bed Hidden Villa Hostel (26870 Moody Rd., Los Altos Hills, 650/949-8648, www.hiddenvilla.org), considered the oldest hostel in the United States. On a spectacular 1,600-acre ranch and wilderness preserve a 15-minute drive from Palo Alto, it offers 4-to-12-bed cabins for $17 per person, private cabins for two for $35 to $40.

On El Camino Real heading south out of Palo Alto is a multitude of standard-issue but comfortable motels. Best bets in the $70-a-night range for doubles are the basic (but with pool) 20-room Coronet Motel (2455 El Camino, 650/326-1081); Mayflower Garden Hotel (3981 El Camino, 650/493-4433) with 40 rooms, some with HBO, microwave, and refrigerator at no extra charge; and the 27-unit Country Inn Motel (4345 El Camino, 650/948-9154), with a pool.

One of the best deals around is a bit farther down the road, in the town of Mountain View. The 145-room Pacific Inn of Mountain View (1984 El Camino Real, 650/967-6901, www.pacifichotels.com) charges $69 for a double with a refrigerator, microwave, and CD player, and throws in buffets daily: breakfast (eggs, bacon) and dinner (lasagna, meat loaf).

Cheap student eats

On campus, take advantage of Tresidder Union's eateries (Lagunita Dr., off of Mayfield Ave.), where anyone can drop in for fare such as roast beef, spinach salad, and a soda for $5.25. Beyond that, the basement of Jordan Hall on the Main Quad is home to the Thai Cafe (weekdays till 1:30 p.m.), where tasty entrees like chicken satay, chicken noodle salad, and vegetarian curry go for about $5 each. Or get caffeinated at the CoHo - er, Coffee House - in Tresidder, by sipping a $2 hazelnut mocha.

University Avenue and environs are lined with chic cafes, some pricier than others. For a nearly free meal, slip into all-American MacArthur Park (27 University Ave., 650/321-9990) during weekday happy hour, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., and pig out on free riblets, chicken wings, homemade chips, and guacamole. Pluto's (482 University Ave., 650/853-1556) is a cafeteria-style eatery with excellent salads - and a favorite of Chelsea Clinton and her Secret Service entourage; other local celebs like former 49ers star Steve Young have been spotted here too. Treats include carved turkey ($3.75) with vegetables ($1.60) and stuffing ($1.60).

Palo Alto primer

For heaps of local info, call the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce (325 Forest Ave., 650/324-3121). Better than flying into San Francisco, try the less crowded and less fogged-in San Jose Airport, 15 miles from Palo Alto. It's also home to cut-rate Fox Rent A Car (800/225-4369), with rates from $15 to $30 a day. This being California, a car provides much more flexibility than public transport, but ground-transfer options from the San Francisco airport include the SamTrans KX Express train to Stanford Shopping Center, leaving every 30 minutes for $1.10. From the San Jose Airport, take the free airport shuttle to the Santa Clara Caltrain station for a $2 one-way trip to Palo Alto.

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