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Palo Alto for free. A guide.

Reviews by Loren Stein (July 24, 2003)

LIFE ON THE PENINSULA never had it so good, and Palo Alto pretty much epitomizes all that is right with the Bay Area, boom or bust. Situated halfway between the South Bay and San Francisco, the city manages to balance a flourishing business district with charming neighborhoods, high-tech interests with environmental concerns and a fairly progressive political agenda with the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University. It hasn't been without a ruckus (the city council recently tried to outlaw frowning at meetings), and the price of living there is off the charts, but the city whose name means "tall stick" somehow manages to measure up.

1. See 'The Thinker'

Cantor Arts Center and Rodin Sculpture Garden
328 Lomita Dr., Stanford University, Palo Alto; 650.723.4177; www.stanford.edu/dept/ccva/
Now is a great time to take a free self-guided foot tour of the Iris B. and Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, which showcases collections of stunning European, American and Asian art that are regularly rotated. Another great show is outside the building in the elaborately staged courtyard that houses one of the world's largest and most complete collections of bronze sculpture by French master Auguste Rodin, including his evocative and massive Gates of Hell. The courtyard is a pleasant setting for an afternoon picnic in addition to providing an in-your-face exposure to some of the world's most expensive cultural gems. Rodin's equally famous sculpture The Thinker is also on display, offering up a silent reminder, perhaps, of what is supposed to be happening elsewhere on campus.

2. Listen Up

Brown Bag Concert Series
Cogswell Plaza, Lytton and Ramona streets, Palo Alto; Thu noon-1pm, through Aug 12; www.cityofpaloalto.org/artsculture/brownbag.html
Twilight Concert Series
Various Palo Alto Parks; Tue 6:30-8pm, through Aug 14;
www.cityofpaloalto.org/artsculture/twilightconcerts.html
Alas, unless private donations come to the rescue, after 22 years the city of Palo Alto is calling it quits for these free, culturally diverse musical offerings (they're calling this year's series the "Farewell Concerts"). Jazz, blues, rock, folk, country, opera, a capella vocals, reggae and salsa in a relaxed outdoor setting. Enjoy the free music before these staples of Palo Alto cultural life are relegated to "back in the day."

3. Feed Your Head

Stanford University Free Lectures and Events
For info, visit events.stanford.edu
With current annual tuition hovering around $25,000 a year, you won't get into classes free at this acclaimed university, but there are quite a number of events and lectures open to the public each month. Upcoming free events range from scholarly talks about the Middle East peace (or war) process to an Afro-Peruvian dance and music fest to a concert by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Parking can be hard to come by close to the venues of events, but the university runs a free shuttle bus, called the Marguerite, that picks up passengers at several locations including the Palo Alto California Avenue Caltrain station and deposits them within easy walking distance of most event sites. The online schedule of lectures and events is updated frequently and usually lists at least five to seven upcoming free happenings.

4. Linear Reasoning

Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
650.926.2204, www.slac.stanford.edu
You probably won't get to see any tau neutrinos, muons or other subatomic particles, but you will get to see Silicon Valley's longest public cylinder if you time your visit to coincide with one of the irregular free public tours of the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), one of the world's best-known experimental particle accelerators. The facility's high-intensity X-ray beams attract physicists from around the world who like to smash tiny bits of matter together and then record the results. The linear accelerator is managed by Stanford University for the Department of Energy, with the primary goal of understanding the origins of the universe. They might not have all that figured out when you tour the facility, but at the very least you'll get to see the giant ditch into which several hundred million dollars of your tax money has gone.

5. Get Open

Arastradero Preserve
Parking lot on Arastradero Road, .4 mile north of Page Mill Road; 8am-sunset; 650.329.2423
In the foothills above Stanford and Palo Alto, hikers can enjoy 10.25 miles of trails through rolling savanna grassland, oak woodland and broadleaf evergreen forest. Take the trail through meadows (only a 20-minute walk) to Arastradero Lake, where fishing is allowed. So are horses, bicycles and leashed dogs on this city-owned preserve. It's not uncommon to see deer, bobcats, coyotes and many varieties of birds.

6. A Duck Walks into a Park

Palo Alto Baylands and Duck Pond
East end of Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto; 650.329.2506
Bounded by Mountain View and East Palo Alto, the 1,940-acre Baylands Preserve is the largest tract of undisturbed marshland remaining in the San Francisco Bay. With 15 miles of multiuse trails running through a mixture of tidal and freshwater habitats, this area is considered one of the best bird-watching spots on the West Coast, with clapper rails, black rails and other rare birds winging high above. Also boasts a duck pond.

7. Do the Dish!

The Dish Walk
Stanford foothills, Junipero Serra Boulevard and Stanford Avenue (be careful where you park, there's lots of restricted parking nearby)
Often called the Dish Walk (because of a satellite receiving dish crowning the mountain), this network of paths and trails around the Stanford foothills west of Junipero Serra Blvd. offers numerous hillside trail runs and hikes. With sweeping views of Skyline Ridge as well as Palo Alto all the way down to the bay, this park is a favorite among locals.

8. A Sure Bet

Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden
1431 Waverly St., Palo Alto; dawn-dusk; 650.329.1356, www.gamblegarden.org
Built in 1902 for Edwin and Lila Gamble (Edwin was the grandson of the co-founder of Proctor and Gamble), this historic property was willed by their daughter Elizabeth to the city in 1981. Now this 2.5-acre estate features formal (rose garden, wisteria garden, a weeping cherry allée and grotto) woodland (hydrangeas, camellias and Japanese maples) and demonstration gardens, including cutting beds (exhibit herbs, salvias, iris and perennials) and is a nonprofit community horticultural resource to boot. For consultations about gardening woes, the free plant clinic is open the second Saturday of each month from 9am to 11am.

9. Harold and Maude's Haunts

St. Thomas Aquinas Church
751 Waverly St., Palo Alto
The oldest church in Palo Alto (built in 1902), this Gothic Revival building was used as a set location for the classic cult film Harold and Maude. Intimate and beautiful, with ornate wood ceiling crossbeams and gorgeous stained-glass panels, the sanctuary is the perfect place to step out of the modern world and take a moment for peaceful solitude and reflection.

10. Gardens of Eatin'

Palo Alto Community Gardens
Main Garden, 1313 Newell Rd. (located behind the Main Library)
Edith Johnson Garden, 200 Waverly St., in Johnson Park
Eleanor Pardee Garden, 1201 Channing Ave., in Pardee Park
Palo Alto Garden, 1154 Palo Alto Ave.
Feel like strolling through lovingly tended organic gardens and admiring the gardening skills of ordinary folk? Scattered throughout Palo Alto are plots of land owned by the city that are dedicated to providing city dwellers with a place to dig their hands into the soil and plant vegetables, flowers and herbs. Enjoy the calendula blossoms, corn stalks, pumpkin vines, sunflowers and more, as well as a wide variety of birds and butterflies. The Main Garden encompasses 60,000 square feet, bordered by fruit trees and flower beds.

11. Great America

Museum of American Heritage
351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto; Fri-Sun 11am-4pm; 650.321.1004, www.moah.org
Located in the 1907 Williams House, the museum operates programs to collect, preserve and present objects that illustrate the evolution of 19th- and 20th-century innovation and technology. The summer exhibit explores the evolution of the bicycle, showcasing classic bikes of years past, with a look at bicycle racing. The holiday exhibit features vintage board games and puzzles. Permanent exhibits include a 1920s print shop with a 3,000-pound linotype press, vintage tools, shop smith and lathe drill, and the only working, original 1950s Xerox machine. The historic garden beckons out back. And there is no admission charge.

12. The People's Art

Palo Alto Art Center
1313 Newell Rd., Palo Alto; 650.329.2366, www.cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter
The Palo Alto Art Center is a nationally recognized visual arts center that offers a variety of exhibitions, classes, workshops and art education programs. Exhibitions include the best of contemporary fine art, craft, design and new art forms, with a particular emphasis on the art of the San Francisco Bay Area.

13. A Zoo, Too

Junior Museum and Zoo
1451 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto; Tue-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-4pm, closed Mon and holidays; 650.329.2111
Designed for children up to third grade, the small museum offers free, educational hands-on exhibits and is a great place for kids to think, create and play (the current exhibit explores patterns found in nature). The zoo (not a petting zoo) features a new bat exhibit with African straw-colored fruit bats and Egyptian fruit bats. Also living at the zoo: two bobcats, an African hedgehog, ferrets, ducks, geese, bunnies, a raccoon, a boa constrictor, a ball python, a blue tongued skink, a great horned owl, a Western screech owl, guinea fowl, red-eared slider turtles, and an African gray parrot.

14. Ivy League Dreams

Stanford Campus Tour
Ever wonder how the elite get their dose of higher education? Free campus walking tours take place twice a day, seven days a week, at 11am and 3:15pm. The tours last an hour and are led by student docents. Tours start at the Visitor Information Services building, in Memorial Auditorium, 650.723.2560 or stanfordevents.stanford.edu/who_we_are/visitor_info/tours.html

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