Overview

San Jose, California, is more than just the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, the place where the U.S. computer industry took off and created a high-technology world. Palm trees and luxury hotels line busy boulevards in lively downtown San Jose, and the city's trendy restaurants, classy shops and lively nightspots attract both visitors and locals, including many who work in the world of technology. Despite its sudden growth during the tech boom of the 1990s, San Jose retains its small-town charm.

San Jose's cultural offerings include the comprehensive San Jose Museum of Art, a surprising Egyptian museum and one of the most innovative technology museums in the world.

Geography

San Jose is in the Santa Clara Valley, otherwise known as Silicon Valley. It is bordered by two mountain ranges, the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and the Diablo Range to the east. Two rivers, the Coyote and the Guadalupe, run through the city. San Jose is at the southern end of the valley, about 50 mi/80 km south of San Francisco and about 40 mi/64 km south of Oakland.

Several neighboring Silicon Valley cities are close enough to visit for sightseeing, shopping or dinner. (Most sit 5-15 mi/8-24 km north or northwest of downtown.) These include Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Campbell, Mountain View, Los Altos, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Woodside. Morgan Hill-Saratoga and Los Gatos (a small historic town) lie south of San Jose. You'll hear locals refer to the entire area as the South Bay, part of the sweeping metropolitan Bay Area.

History

The Ohlone people inhabited the San Jose region for thousands of years before Spanish explorers entered the valley in 1769. The Spanish quickly established settlements, and on 20 November 1777, Lt. Don Jose Moraga founded El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe. With its name later shortened to San Jose, the city became the first civil settlement in what is now the state of California. San Jose came under Mexican rule briefly in 1821, during the Spanish American War. It became part of the United States in 1846. In December 1849—the year California's statehood was established—San Jose was designated the state's first capital. (It was later replaced by Sacramento.)

As the area around San Francisco Bay grew in the 1900s, so did San Jose in the South Bay—it earned the name Valley of Heart's Delight because of its acres/hectares of beautiful orchards. However, it wasn't until computer technology took off between 1960 and 1990 that San Jose experienced the "silicon rush."

High-tech firms began cropping up along its freeways, and their workers started filling the city. Eventually, the area was nicknamed Silicon Valley, as it became home to many of the big names in the industry, including Intel, Sun Microsystems and Apple Computer. One of the major changes the high-tech boom brought to the valley was diversity. Before the 1960s, the population was primarily Anglo and Hispanic. Since then, people from mainland China, Taiwan, India, Vietnam, France, Israel and other parts of the world have settled in the area. Walk along any trail or through the malls and you can hear people speaking in a variety of languages. Local entertainment in the area has also benefited from the ethnic diversity.

The influx of tech companies and their employees hasn't been without cost, however. Housing prices there are among the highest in the U.S. As the firms expanded, they turned pastoral fields and orchards into subdivisions, strip malls and parking lots.

Sightseeing

Though it lacks a cohesive nucleus (the sprawl of San Jose brings Los Angeles to mind), many of the best sights are in the downtown area. There is enough to see and do to keep you busy for a day or so. You'll find traces of the area's history at San Pedro Square, where the city's oldest building, the Peralta Adobe, stands as a legacy of San Jose's Spanish origins. Most of the city's museums are not far away. And, if you like historical architecture, the post office on St. James Street—a WPA (Works Projects Administration) project during the Great Depression—has a beautiful interior. A must-see is The Tech Museum of Innovation. You can make a movie in its digital studio or be shaken in a simulated earthquake—just two of The Tech's more than 200 interactive exhibits.

If you'd rather feel as though you've gone back in time, consider a visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium—it's one of the few places in the U.S. where you can view real mummies. (Don't miss the museum's replica of an ancient Egyptian tomb.) The San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles exhibits hand-stitched crafts that tell the stories of their creators and other cultures.

Guadalupe River Park & Gardens, with its intoxicatingly fragrant beds of roses, will appeal to gardeners and horticulturists. Children and adults alike will enjoy a visit to the eccentric Winchester Mystery House. Under construction for nearly 40 years, the mansion of the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune was built with exquisite craftsmanship—and a rather bizarre sense of design.

Nightlife

A lively nightlife scene has developed in previously sleepy San Jose, especially in the clubs of the city's trendy SoFA (South of First Area) district downtown. A handful of microbreweries, pubs and speakeasy-type bars are located downtown as well. The mild weather makes enjoying an alfresco brew, or glass of wine from a nearby winery, easy and pleasant most nights. Closing time for most bars is 2 am.

Dining

San Jose is a remarkably diverse community with large populations of Chinese, Vietnamese, Hispanic and Indian immigrants. The city's eateries reflect its diversity, offering a wide array of options for those seeking distinctive flavors.

Choices include Asian, Californian, French, Italian, Mexican and vegetarian, as well as various fusion restaurants. (Cal-Mex restaurants are especially popular.) A number of hotel restaurants stand out, particularly La Pastaia, in the Hotel De Anza.

Dress is typically California casual. If a restaurant is more formal, you might feel comfortable in a jacket and dress slacks, but you can almost always leave the tie at home. And don't be surprised to see diners in jeans, no matter how sophisticated the restaurant.

Breakfast is usually served 7-10 am, lunch is 11 am-2:30 pm and dinner is 6-10 pm. Many restaurants in the San Jose area close between lunch and dinner, so grabbing a late lunch may not be as easy as you'd like. Reservations are suggested for popular places on Friday and Saturday night.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner without tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$20, $$ = US$20-$30, $$$ = US$31-$50, $$$$ = more than US$50.

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