Here’s a quick question to find out if you’re really a savvy Calfornia traveler: True or false, the three largest cities in California are Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco? No cheating, now – we all know it’s awfully easy to look this stuff up on the Internet.
Time’s up. If you answered true, we’re sorry to tell you that you just don’t know your state as well as you thought you did. The third largest city in California is San Jose – which is, in fact, the 10th largest city in the country. According to the 2010 Census, San Jose has 945,942 residents compared to San Francisco’s 805,235.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there is a lot to see and do in a city that size. While most people don’t automatically think of San Jose as a weekend getaway, it has the shopping, the culture, the hotels, the restaurants and the tourist attractions to make it worth anyone’s time to visit.
Of course most people think of “Silicon Valley” when they think of San Jose, and it’s true: the area’s 6,600 technology companies have set the agenda for the local community. The area is more educated – 40 percent of the work force have a Bachelor’s degree, compared with 25 percent nationally – and cultural projects like the restoration of the California Theater as a performing arts complex have greatly enhanced the quality of life for those living and working in the city.
In fact, the local high-tech companies have become tourist attractions in their own right, as visitors look for corporate signs like E-Bay and Apple just like they look for stars in Hollywood.
Frankly, San Jose had been a little lower on our priority list as we made our way through the many better-known getaways of the Golden State. But when we finally got around to it, our visit to San Jose was a pleasant surprise, both in the level of activities and the overall feel of the community.
It occurred to us that, since San Jose is a busy airline hub, residents of Northern California would do well to tack on a day at the beginning or the end of their flyaway vacation and check out the sights in San Jose. The city also works well as a first-stop for visitors flying in to visit San Francisco and other bay-area cities. It also would be a great hub for daytrips to San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Monterey.
Here are a few of the reasons why we think San Jose is worth a visit:
The historic downtown area around Plaza de Cesar Chavez is an excellent place to enjoy an afternoon exploring the shops and museums and just soaking up the big-city culture. Not as bustling as San Francisco, San Jose’s downtown area is much easier to navigate by car and you quickly find what you’re looking for. The plaza, shops, hotels and restaurants create a fun place to just park the car and look around.
There are many notable museums in the area including the Tech Museum of Innovation with its many hands-on exhibits, the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, the San Jose Museum of Art and the Children’s Discovery Museum. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is the place to view 3,000-year-old mummies and one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts on the West Coast.
It’s also interesting to observe the downtown architecture in San Jose, with buildings like the St. Joseph Cathedral providing a distinctive view of San Jose’s history. Historical attractions are nearby including the San Jose History Museum and the 14-acre History Park where you can view landmarks that highlight the history of the Santa Clara Valley.
Winchester Mystery House
A major tourist attraction in San Jose – one that lures even San Francisco’s visitors to make the side trip – is the Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, of the Winchester Rifle family, built this 160-room Victorian mansion over a period of 38 years dating from 1884 until her death in 1922. Unlike most homes of that era, the house had modern heating and sewer systems as well as button-operated gas lights, three elevators and 47 fireplaces.
The home is full of style including hand inlaid parquet floors, gold and silver chandeliers, and Tiffany art glass windows. Craftsmen continued to work on the home all the time that Sarah lived in the house and the result was some astonishing statistics: 1,257 windows, 467 doorways, 17 chimneys, 40 bedrooms, 5 or 6 kitchens, 40 staircases with 367 total stair steps and 52 skylights.
San Jose is home to Paramount’s Great America theme park, a 100-acre facility open March through October. The city’s Raging Waters is Northern California’s largest water park. Families will also enjoy Bonfante Gardens, which includes over 40 rides, gardens and exhibits. The Happy Hollow Park and Zoo has an animal petting area, rides and puppet shows.
There are several classy hotels in the downtown area, some pricier than others but, for our family-oriented trip, we stayed at the Clarion San Jose Airport. Operated by the same family for many years, this motor inn has been upgraded to offer attractive, landscaped grounds as well as brightly decorated, well-furnished rooms.
What is surprising about the Clarion San Jose Airport is that it offers resort-style and family amenities, even though we’re sure the bulk of its visitors are business people visiting the Silicon Valley. The Clarion offers a huge outdoor pool for families, a business center and free high-speed internet for business travelers. Such extras as a fitness center, guest laundry, and free hot breakfast buffet make this location a good choice whether you’re staying in San Jose a few days or catching a morning flight out of the city.
It was just one more pleasant surprise in a city full of them. No question, more weekend and vacation travelers are going to be asking “Do you know the way to San Jose?”