Downtown San Jose
Bernd Geh/Getty Images

Not content to live in the shadow of San Francisco, SAN JOSE balances early-California history with modern-day tech play.

I’m at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport to pick up my friend Nancy, who’s in town for a conference. With two days before she must collect her name badge, she has time for sightseeing, so she’s placed her faith in my tour-guide skills. As she gets in the car, I play the Dionne Warwick classic “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” on the stereo.

“Cute,” Nancy comments. “What are we doing in the city today?”

In the Bay Area, “the city” usually means San Francisco. Today, I inform her, it means San Jose.

NOW YOU KNOW: San Jose’s NHL team, the San Jose Sharks, began play in 1991. They have been to the playoffs in 16 of the 21 seasons they’ve played so far.
“There’s a whole day’s worth of things to do here?” she asks. “More than a day,” I reply, and we drive 10 minutes to get downtown.

The first civilian settlement in California, as well as the state’s first capital and the largest city in Northern California, San Jose is perpetually eclipsed by its Bay Area sister. But the city is far more than the combination of its agricultural roots and its reputation as the hub of high-tech Silicon Valley. From Spanish and Asian cultural influences to upscale shopping and museums for nearly every interest, San Jose is worth more than just a look as visitors drive away from the airport. And I’m determined to prove it.

We start our tour at the Luís María Peralta Adobe, the city’s oldest structure and the last remaining one from the Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, the first civilian settlement in the northern territory of what is now California. Built in 1797 by Manuel González, who accompanied the Spanish Anza Party to California the year before, the whitewashed adobe later became the home of Luís María Peralta — a sergeant with the Spanish Army and alcalde (akin to a mayor) of the pueblo.

Two-foot-thick walls enclose two rooms that are furnished simply, as if we traveled back to the time the González and Peralta families lived there. Looking out the windows, though, it’s clear we’re in the 21st century. Café furniture is scattered in the sunny plaza, where people in both business attire and T-shirts enjoy good weather with their lunch from the San Pedro Square Market.