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Discovering San Jose, Calif.

Revived, compact, walkable, this downtown is now a great place to hang out. And it's a bargain.

Dining at Left Bank brasserie, San Jose, Calif., image
Photo caption
A terrace table at the Left Bank brasserie offers a restful stop on a Santana Row ramble.


Sipping a cappuccino outside the café at the San Jose Museum of Art one recent Saturday morning, I took an inventory of the charms I had experienced overnight in this surprising downtown.

My late-night raid on the Hotel De Anza's pantry? Free. My posh and cozy room? Not free, but a considerable deal at $160, compared with $400 to $500 for a room like it during the tech boom. I was about to see exhibits of work by emerging and overlooked contemporary California artists—free. If this had been a Thursday evening, I'd have been serenaded by a concert from across the street in the palm-shaded Plaza de Cesar Chavez—free. Not that the city doesn't offer opportunities to spend money. Within four blocks of where I was sitting, you can find enough attractions and dining options to keep you flexing your plastic all day.

After years of assuming the contrary, I had to admit that San Jose was adding up to a great place to go for a weekend.

Like most people who bothered to mention it at all, I used to look down on Northern California's largest city (San Jose has 926,000 people, San Francisco 793,000) for its tangle of freeways, its featureless sprawl, its blighted downtown, and its paucity of killer restaurants. The put-down of "Sannazay" by the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen—"Nobody goes there"—seemed self-evident when he wrote it in 1985. But the place has changed. "A lot of people don't realize it," says Dan Fenton, president of the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau. "When we talk with people, we tend to hear 10- to 15-year-old perceptions. Even our own citizens don't know, for instance, that we're the safest big city in America."

It's time this sun-kissed metropolis got some respect. It is, after all, California's oldest city, home of its first publicly funded college, one of nine big cities honored in 2004 by the nonprofit Partners for Livable Communities as the nation's "most livable" (and yes, according to FBI statistics, the safest big one).

Enriched by the technology boom and bold enough to spend half a billion dollars on redevelopment over the last 20 years, San Jose has transformed its downtown. Though it sprawls at its edges, the city is compact, walkable, and attractive at its heart. Few other American cities are so earnestly user-friendly. Downtown San Jose offers acres of parking lots that are free on weekends and evenings and discounted with validation at other times, plus plenty of those green public pay toilets (25 cents) so familiar to Parisians. And it's a bargain. The bursting of the tech bubble deflated rates for rooms and other services, opening the way for an ordinary traveler to come and get good value.

My walking tour took me from the art museum across Plaza de Cesar Chavez to the Tech Museum of Innovation, where I designed my own roller coaster and performed keyhole surgery on a stolid dummy. From there, I walked up Market Street to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, a beautifully restored 1877 copper-domed architectural gem glowing with stained glass and murals. Several blocks north and a block west on Santa Clara Street, I hit San Pedro Square, one of San Jose's oldest districts, site of a Friday farmers' market during summer and an array of inexpensive restaurants where you can eat anything from Southeast Asian salads to British pub grub.

San Pedro Square has some costly destinations, too, such as A.P. Stump's, a popular expense-account spot with fresh, seasonal fare and a great wine list. Whether pricey or modest, most places on the square have outdoor dining, something Caen's fog-prone city to the north can't be counted on to provide.

A few blocks farther west on Santa Clara is the Hotel De Anza, whose history mirrors that of the downtown. Opened in 1931, the 10-story art deco lodging thrived for several decades as the most elegant stop between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. But by the late 1970s, it had become a symbol of blight. A 1981 article in the San Jose Mercury News noted that the hotel's telephone booth had graffiti in three languages. Though there were calls to demolish the place, cooler heads prevailed. After a $10 million renovation, the De Anza reopened in 1990. It is once again elegant in every detail, including the intricately painted high ceiling that helps make the Hedley Club Lounge one of the most beautiful bars in the South Bay.

Walking south on palm-lined Almaden Boulevard, I caught sight of the Children's Discovery Museum popping up from the other side of the Guadalupe River like a purple-wrapped birthday gift. Discovery Meadow, the vast lawn that fronts the museum, is a delightful place for kids to frolic (and to share with adults playing ultimate Frisbee or taking naps). I discovered a few other reminders of childhood when I walked east on San Carlos Street to reserve a table for dinner at Arcadia, chef Michael Mina's new restaurant in the San Jose Marriott. Arcadia puts a fresh spin on some American classics, building potpie around lobster and pot roast around tuna. You can taste these and Mina's signature desserts—root beer floats and s'mores—in an expansive 130-seat space with a curving, open kitchen, Mediterranean colors, and views of the civic auditorium and the convention center.

One thing downtown San Jose does lack is significant shopping opportunities. For those I drove three miles west on San Carlos to Santana Row, the wildly popular 42-acre retail, dining, and residential complex that evokes a pedestrian-friendly European village, albeit one lined with restaurants and midrange to upscale shops like Anthropologie, Escada, and Gucci. Even if you don't buy anything, the Row's median strip, with its giant and normal-size checkerboards and chessboards, flower shops, and espresso stops, is a fine place to stroll.

On weekend nights, Santana Row restaurants are jammed, as is the V Bar in the hip and fashionably dark Hotel Valencia. You'll be less pressed at Cielo, the hotel's rooftop wine terrace that looks west to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Truth is, there's more to downtown San Jose than I could cover in a weekend. I skipped the hip-hop club scene that thrives around the intersection of First and San Salvador streets in the SoFA (South of First Area) district and the Improv Comedy Club in the restored Jose Theatre. I also missed 7 Bamboo, a popular karaoke bar a few blocks north in one of only three remaining Japantowns in the contiguous United States.

But I'll be back. I had heard—and now I believe—that you have to get to 7 Bamboo early: As with many San Jose gems, a lot of people go there.

Photography by Melissa Barnes


This article was first published in September 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.