A French Escape on a California Staycation Budget

I get it. You spend many evenings planning a fabulous French vacation. You want to visit the castles, the art museums, the stately cathedrals with their lofty spires and ancient stained glass windows. You want to experience world renowned food and wine and while away the time at a French café. You want to experience the awesome art galleries and architecture. You scrimp and save, looking forward to a trip that might be taken only once in a lifetime. After you get home and you examine your zillion photos and try to make sense of how many euros you actually spent according to your credit card statement, you wonder if you could ever duplicate your outstanding experience again. And the truth is you can! Read on and find out how many of these same wonderful experiences can be had here in our own state, or at least in our own time zone!

French countryside / Yountville

Let’s begin our trip with a visit to the French countryside, right in the middle of Napa. Yountville is home to some of the top French restaurants in California with The French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, and Bistro Jeanty. Wonderful French and California wines can be had at JCB French Style Tasting Room, and don’t miss Le Paris Bakery in downtown Napa.

Paris / San Francisco

A quick ferry ride will deliver us to San Francisco, also known as Paris of the Pacific. The French came to San Francisco during the gold rush and made their mark on the new rough and tumble city. The French influence can be seen in architecture and food. Perhaps most famous is the invention of sourdough bread by Frenchman Isidor Boudin. 

Let’s begin our Parisian tour in authentic French fashion, with a croissant at Le Marais – a city favorite. Order a fresh croissant, espresso and a filling croque for the perfect leisurely morning. For a quick, and possibly hair-raising, tour of Paris in SF, rent a scooter. Head to Union Square to see the four-story rotunda topped by a dome of stained glass that showcased the symbol and motto of the city of Paris in what once was The City of Paris department store, and is now Neiman Marcus. 

Next, let’s hop on our scooter and go to the heart of the French community, Notre Dame Des Victoires church on Bush Street, which was built in 1864. This area includes three French schools, the Alliance Française, the French-American Chamber of Commerce, and many French cultural associations. 

Next, lunch! There are many French Cafes to choose from.

Our favorites are Café de la Presse, Café Bastille SF and Côte Ouest Bistro where you can enjoy a true Paris experience. After lunch we will go to perhaps the most distinctive French building in the city, The Legion of Honor, modeled after the headquarters of the Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The museum covers 4,000 years of art history with a focus on European works. Heavy-hitters include a large collection of more than 90 Rodin sculptures, including a bronze casting of The Thinker, and works by Picasso; more than 800 European paintings, including pieces by Monet and Rembrandt;. It’s the closest San Francisco gets to the great art museums of Europe. 

Time for apéro hour.

Of the traditions that the French uphold with near-religious obsession, carving time in their schedules for a late afternoon/early evening drink at happy hour is perhaps the most important. Unwind from your day at one of these hot spots. Absinthe is a swanky brasserie that is relaxed, vintage-chic, and replete with all of the classic French libations. Amelie is another gorgeous option for a beautifully affordable happy hour with tapas in an atmosphere bathed in sultry red and filled with live jazz. 

We’ll finish our day in “Paris” at one of the city’s best French restaurants that turn out classic and contemporary Gallic fare utilizing California’s bountiful cheeses and seasonal produce. These restaurants are the crème de la crème of SF French restaurants; Atelier Crenn, Monsieur Benjamin and O’ by Claude Le Tohic. Your tour of Paris/SF cannot be complete without a joyful nightcap at the trendy and intimate Le Petit Paris 1975. Bonne soirée!

Versailles/Hearst Castle

A trip to France wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Versailles. Versailles sits adjacent to the city of Paris and is well-known for the magnificent Palace of Versailles and gardens, built by King Louis XIII in 1661, and expanded by King Louis XIV. Built in the Rococo style, whimsy adorns the decadent halls, as do fabulous works of art. Napoleon used the Palace as a summer residence from 1810-1814, and in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was signed in the famous Hall of Mirrors.

For California’s take on the Palace of Versailles, let’s visit Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

Also known as La Cuesta Encantada or “The Enchanted Hill,” Hearst Castle was built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst from 1920-1947, with a six-year break for World War II from 1939-1945.  Renowned architect, Julia Morgan (California’s first licensed woman architect!) spent years with Hearst, collaborating on his dream of a fabulous castle built in a mix of mediterranean architectural styles.  Hearst filled the castle with art, antiques, ancient sarcophagi, centuries-old sculptures, silverware, tapestries, and more to entertain his celebrity guests. We’ll visit the 165 rooms, 123 acres of gardens, terraces, opulent pools, and walkways by booking a tour, or four. Let’s see if we can spot the decendants of the zebras, aoudads, and Sambar deer from Hearst’s private zoo collection in the San Simeon hills! 

Musee d’Orsay/ Getty Center

Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986 in a former train station and houses Impressionist art from the Jeu de Paume Museum and the Louvre Museum, as well as other museums.  It rivals the Louvre in popularity with Paris tourists and boasts collections of Renoir, Monet, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Seurat , Sisley, Gauguin and van Gogh.  The former train station, an impressive Beaux Arts building, is well situated on the Left Bank of the Seine and affords visitors an opportunity to see Paris landmarks from the upper floor windows.  Tickets to the d’Orsay start at 12 to 16 euros but the “skip the line” tickets start at 35 euros. 

California’s Musee d’Orsay is eccentric business mogul J.Paul Getty’s, Getty Center, located on a hilltop in the Brentwood neighborhood of West Los Angeles. Commanding views that span downtown to the ocean, impressive architecture that houses a rotating collection of thousands of art pieces, a central garden with fountains and lawns for picnics and relaxing, and over 400 notable paintings created before the 20th century, the Getty Center has plenty to see. Although it doesn’t boast the long history of other world class museums, the Getty Center does have world famous impressionist works, like van Gogh’s Irises (1889), Degas’ After the Bath (1895), Renoir’s Promenade (1870), Monet’s Wheatstacks (1891), and Sunrise (1872), among others. Tickets are free, but you must reserve an entry time to visit online.  Parking is $20.00 per car, although you can take a public bus or private taxi and be dropped off, if you choose.