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San Jose’s Culture Scene

Find a hearty mix of museums and theater in the Bay Area’s largest city.

San Jose Museum of Art, image
Photo caption
The San Jose Museum of Art is a center for modern and contemporary art in Silicon Valley.

The exhibit inside the entrance to the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles looked like brittle fabric. Alongside were headphones and a small wooden block with a tape head attached. When I put on the headphones and rubbed the block across a fabric sample, I heard distorted bits of music. The "fabric" was recycled cassette tape.

That exhibit by Alyce Santoro has moved on, but it gives a sense of the idiosyncratic treasures that a culturally curious visitor can find in downtown San Jose. Tucked below the modest skyline are museums and theaters that offer sophisticated fare in relaxed settings that let you savor what you see and hear without feeling overwhelmed.

"There’s a sense of community, not a big institutional situation," says Jane Przybysz, the textile museum’s executive director. "It’s much more intimate."

The museum sits on the 500 block of South First Street, the namesake thoroughfare for the district known as SoFA. A moniker like that suggests hopes of an artsy future. Though you won’t find hipster cafés or boutiques, two other cultural outposts flank the textile museum. There’s the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art—closed until the beginning of May while it expands the gallery space in its new building—and Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), a showplace for Latino art.

Local government and private groups have invested heavily to make the downtown a centerpiece for the city. Two blocks to the north of the textile museum stands a testimony to civic determination: the old California Theatre. It debuted in 1927 but sat shuttered for 31 years before reopening in 2004 following a $75 million restoration. The sumptuous Moorish fantasy edifice is now home to Opera San Jose and Symphony Silicon Valley. The gorgeous foyer is worth a peek even if there’s no show that night.

HOT TIP Buy a work of art off the wall at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. For some exhibits, a price list is at the front desk, and pieces might be on sale for as little as $300. 520 S. First St., (408) 971-0323,

You’ll also find rewards in the dozen or so blocks between Plaza de Cesar Chavez and City Hall. For starters, this stretch is a great place to stroll. Lacy sycamores and modest old buildings of brick and stone set the tone. The San Jose Museum of Art lies at the west end; the 1892 sandstone post office that housed the museum in early years now boasts a modern addition with three levels of galleries. The exhibits are designed to be engaging, not intimidating, with such themes as the current Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl.

Some seven blocks to the east, you reach another big-ticket bid for prominence: the new City Hall by renowned architect Richard Meier (the New Yorker who designed the Getty Center overlooking Los Angeles). Bureaucrats and elected officials are stacked in the taut 18-story tower, but the eye-catching feature is its domed rotunda, a futuristic orb that’s enthroned in an immense plaza and looks like a glassy planetarium.

PRETHEATER DINING Hawgs Seafood Bar dishes up fresh oysters, crab, shrimp, and paella (below). 150 S. Second St., (408) 287-9955,

Yet for all the effort put into the civic monuments, downtown San Jose’s most beguiling feature is its unexpected treats. And one of the best is half a block away on North Fifth Street: Le Petit Trianon. The regal pale rose structure, built as a church in 1923, has a design that mimics the Versailles palace of the same name (go figure). Now its 335-seat main hall serves as a performance space for such groups as the South Bay Guitar and the Steinway societies. And by some fluke of design, the boxlike former sanctuary is an acoustic wonder.

"I’ve performed at the Carnegie, and this hall’s acoustics are just as good," says Rose Kingsley, artistic director of the Opera Institute of California, which also calls Le Petit Trianon home.

When I peeked in she was working with 17-year-old Tara Austin, whose lone voice made the entire hall shiver with life. Austin knows how lucky she is to hone her art in such a space: "It’s easier to sound good when you don’t have to put in as much effort," she says.

Downtown San Jose abounds with this kind of serendipity—a small enclave where you can stumble on rich cultural experiences you didn’t even know existed.

Photography courtesy San Jose Museum of Art

This article was first published in January 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.