As one of the most expensive cities in the US, San Jose isn’t exactly known for budget living or cheap travel. Although you can often find inexpensive flights to San Jose, hotels, eating out and that 8.75% city sales tax can cost a pretty penny.
Luckily, San Jose still has plenty to offer in terms of free attractions, especially if it involves the outdoors, art and historic sites. Enjoy the city on any budget with this list of the best free things to do in San Jose.
Spanning 172 acres, Kelley Park isn’t just an urban oasis to relax in, it houses some of the best free attractions in the city, like the Japanese Friendship Garden, as well as beautiful picnic spots and leafy walkways. Head to the southwest corner of the park to discover the interactive and admission-free History Park. This is where you can learn more about a century-old version of San Jose, complete with historic buildings, cultural museums, a trolley and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.
Located in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve and perched 3486ft above the Santa Clara Valley, the East Summit of Mount Umunhum is one of the best panoramic viewpoints in San Jose. As the fourth highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, there’s not much that competes with the impressiveness of Mount Umunhum on a clear, sunny day.
Besides the views, Mount Umunhum has a layered history as a sacred ceremonial space for Amah Mutsun people and other Native American people. It was also the location of US military operations during the Cold War. To get up to the top, you can either do a quick drive or hike 7.4 miles roundtrip from the Bald Mountain parking area.
Municipal Rose Garden
There’s no better place to smell the flowers than at the Municipal Rose Garden in San Jose. Conveniently located near downtown, this one-time prune orchard has been transformed. It was named “America’s Best Rose Garden” by All-America Rose Selections in 2010.
Its colorful grounds feature 189 varieties of roses, a reflection pool and fountain, picnic tables and plenty of photo opportunities. Flowers are in bloom from April through November, but the most impressive time to visit is May.
San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
There aren’t a ton of free museums in San Jose, but the Institute of Contemporary Art makes up for that fact with its three galleries filled with first-class modern art. With rotating exhibits that range from photography to sculptures, textiles and a mix of pop, religious, political, historical and cultural art, there’s something for even the most hard-to-please museum-goer to enjoy.
Almaden Quicksilver County Park
There are a lot of free places to hike in San Jose, but one of the most unique and historic spots is Almaden Quicksilver County Park. Once the site of the most profitable mercury, or “quicksilver,” mining operation in North America, today this 135-year-old park features 4163 acres of rolling green hills, panoramic views, wildflowers and 37 miles of hiking trails. History buffs are treated to leftover mining relics and structures from the 19th century, as well as the closed-down San Cristobal mine that can be viewed through a gate.
Cesar Chavez Memorial Walkway
An important activist and hero to the Mexican-American community, Cesar Chavez was a civil rights leader known for leading nonviolent protests to combat low wages and horrible working conditions of farmworkers in the 1950s to 1980s. The Cesar Chavez Memorial Walkway not only commemorates him and his achievements but celebrates the time he lived in San Jose in the 1950s. Although the walkway isn’t overly condensed (it covers four miles one-way), it’s a glimpse into the mark Chavez left on the San Jose community.
Stops include Plaza de Cesar Chavez, the Arch of Dignity, Equality, and Justice at San Jose State University, Mexican Heritage Plaza, Cesar Chavez Elementary School, Mayfair Community Center, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and the former home of Chavez.
Mission Santa Clara de Asis
Located 10 minutes from downtown San Jose is the historic Mission Santa Clara de Asis, the first of the 21 California missions dedicated to a female saint. Regardless of your religious affiliation, the mission provides a relaxing place to rest and learn more about California’s Spanish colonial past.
While planning your visit, remember that it’s still an active church so weekends are generally busier with services and events. After visiting and maybe doing a self-guided walking tour, take in the beautiful campus of Santa Clara University, the oldest university in California.
South First Fridays
If you prefer an outdoor art walk instead of being stuck inside a museum, you won’t want to miss South First Fridays. Happening in the SoFA district on the first Friday of every month (except July and January), South First Fridays is the most popular monthly art event in San Jose.
It not only highlights the best art galleries and museums in the neighborhood, but also features a street market, live music and food and drinks for purchase. Visit in June for the most boisterous version of this event, dubbed the SubZero festival.
Los Gatos Creek Trail
Iced coffees in hand, cute pups, green pathways and locals soaking up the sunshine while stretching their legs – this is the scene you can expect on the Los Gatos Creek Trail, an 11-mile pathway that cuts from San Jose to Los Gatos and beyond.
Snaking its way through cities, parks, reservoirs and scenic sights along the way, this is the best urban trail to explore by foot or bike in the greater San Jose area. It’s a prime place to people-watch and explore the highlights of urban South Bay nature at its finest.
For decades now, San Jose has revolved around all things tech, whether that be the latest networking events, the release of convenient new apps, or promising startups reaching their Series A. But a new side to the city has been emerging in recent years, one that’s more colorful, light, cultural and fun, in the form of public art and murals.
Juxtaposed against the usual concrete jungle of freeways and neutral-colored buildings, these pieces of street art bring new perspectives to the city and visual enjoyment for passersby. Explore the best public art in downtown, or expand your tour city-wide.
An hour outside of San Jose, you have to take a winding and slightly treacherous road to get up to the Lick Observatory at the top of Mount Hamilton. Once you see the 4209-foot view from the top though, you’ll agree that the journey was worth it.
Besides being a world-renowned research facility for the university since 1888, the Lick Observatory is a tourist attraction in its own right. One of the best ways to experience it is through a guided tour where you can take a closer look at its historic refractor and reflector telescopes. Otherwise, attend the observatory’s popular lecture and concert series during the summer, sign up for a photography night, or simply feel the wind on your face with a 360-degree view from the top.
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