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Introducing San Jose

Although it’s a larger city and it anchors Silicon Valley, San Jose (lazily pronounced ‘sanno-zay’ by most of the locals) has always been in San Francisco’s shadow. It’s an old city that has only recently prospered and its downtown is small for a city of its size. Industrial parks, high-tech computer firms and look-alike housing developments have, in the past few decades, come to dominate the city’s landscape, taking over where farms, ranches and open spaces once spread between the bay and the surrounding hills. It sprawls over a frame of freeways and feels more like LA or Phoenix than its near neighbor to the north.

But San Jose is a culturally diverse city that’s packed full of historic buildings, excellent museums and an impressive number of fine restaurants and funky old bars. The city seems to shrug its shoulders at comparisons to San Francisco, and has taken a refreshingly modest approach to establishing its own cultural niche within the greater Bay Area. San Jose’s fun nightlife district is called SOFA (South of First Area), which clearly plays on SF’s SoMa and gets the upper hand in terms of wit. It’s on a stretch of 1st St south of San Carlos St and includes numerous nightclubs, restaurants, galleries and the historic 1927 California Theatre.

Other neighborhoods to explore include the burgeoning business district along the Alameda, home to restaurants and cafés, and Santana Row, a contemporary development that attempts to re-create the traditional Main St formula of residences, shops and restaurants. These sorts of developments are popping up around California. The wave of the future, possibly? You might want to check it out.

Founded in 1777 as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, San Jose is California’s oldest Spanish civilian settlement. Surviving remnants of that era include Plaza de Cesar Chavez and the Peralta Adobe. Between 1849 and 1851 the state’s first capital was in San Jose, where the governing body became known as the ‘Legislature of a Thousand Drinks.’ ‘Let’s have a drink, let’s have a thousand drinks, ’ was the alleged rallying cry at the end of the day. The capital shifted places several more times before settling in Sacramento in 1854.

Speaking of tomfoolery, at History Park stands a replica of the 1881 Electric Light Tower, a harebrained scheme to light all of downtown. And elements of the Old West are still tucked away in the city’s corners, from the Almaden Feed & Fuel, a one-time stagecoach stop south of town near the former New Almaden quicksilver mine, to Waves Smokehouse & Saloon downtown on a street formerly known as El Dorado and which was once home to the city’s red-light district.

If you see a jet flying close overhead, don’t be alarmed. Those are just planes approaching a runway at San Jose International Airport, immediately north of downtown.