You might not be familiar with San Jose, California, but you’ve almost certainly heard of Silicon Valley. Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, PayPal, Ebay, Twitter, and a slew of other tech companies are all headquartered here. San Jose is the Valley’s largest city and on par with Zurich and Oslo financially. But San Jose has more to offer than office space and million-dollar homes.
From the sprawling campus of Stanford University to hillside vineyards taking full advantage of the Mediterranean-like climate, there’s a surprising array of sights and activities to enjoy. Whether you are in town for a business meeting or simply taking advantage of cheaper flights into SJC airport, give yourself some extra time to explore all the area has to offer. Here’s my itinerary for spending two days in San Jose California.
Santa Clara Mission
Like many cities in California, San Jose began as a Spanish mission. Franciscan priests founded Mission Santa Clara de Asis in 1777 as part of their effort to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. After California became a U.S. state in 1850, Jesuits took over the mission and turned it into Santa Clara University. The current chapel dates to the 1920s and serves as a place of worship for university students and faculty.
The gardens surrounding the former mission are just as impressive as the chapel’s ornate interior. Both are open to the public.
Winchester Mystery House
One of the most unique things to do in San Jose is to take a guided tour of the Winchester Mystery House. When her husband died in 1881, Sarah Winchester inherited a significant chunk of change – around US$550 million in today’s terms – and part ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Sadly, that money did not buy her any happiness. Wracked with grief at the loss of her husband and infant daughter a few years earlier, Sarah decided to move West to start anew. She bought a modest, eight-room farmhouse and set about restoring it. Work continued for two decades and the place grew to an astonishing 24,000 square feet spread over 161 rooms.
This resulted in one of the quirkiest houses ever built. Staircases zigzag their way up or lead directly to the ceiling with no exit. Doors open onto brick walls, sideways into cupboards, or to nothing but a 20 foot drop. Windows open onto hallways or other rooms. Spider webs and the number 13 are common design elements.
Sarah’s reasons are unknown, but popular legend holds that she was trying to confuse the spirits chasing her. She supposedly believed that the ghosts of all those killed with Winchester rifles were out to get her and used an octagonal room at the back of the house for seances. Whether you believe the house is haunted or not, it is an attraction not to be missed.
San Jose Municipal Rose Garden
This hidden gem is a stunner. The garden opened in 1927 as a collaboration between San Jose and the Santa Clara Rose Society. Today its 5.5 acres are overflowing with over 3,500 rose bushes of 189 varieties. Since there are so many different kinds of plantings, you can expect to find flowers from April to November. But the best time to visit the San Jose Rose Garden is between May and June when the blooms are at their peak. The garden is free to enter and closes one hour after sunset.
Luna Mexican Kitchen
For dinner, head to Luna Mexican Kitchen located on the Alameda, a historic tree-lined street in the middle of San Jose. Luna prides itself on adhering to Mexican traditions and ancient cooking techniques. Everything is made fresh daily, from the stocks and sauces to the hand-pressed tortillas and chips. I’m a fan of the flavorful elote, salmon tacos, and zesty mango habanero margarita.
Begin the day with a moment of Zen at Hakone Estate and Gardens. This tranquil park dates to the 1910s and is an ode to Japan from its creator, Isabel Stein. The San Francisco socialite was so enchanted by the Japanese Pavilion of the 1915 World Expo that she wanted a garden of her very own. Isabel took two trips to Japan and hired expert Japanese landscape designers to help her realize her dream.
Colorful koi swim in a pond crisscrossed with arched stone bridges. Paths wind through bamboo groves and rock gardens. The affect is so complete that you’ll think you’ve been transported to a temple garden in Kyoto. Hakone Gardens opened to the public in 1966 and is considered one of the best of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
Stanford University Memorial Church and Rodin Sculpture Garden
Stanford University, with its spirit of exploration and entrepreneurship, is where Silicon Valley began, and no visit to San Jose would be complete without a stroll around its historic campus. The Stanford Memorial Church takes pride of place on the main quad. It is dedicated to Leland Stanford, the university’s founder and former US senator. Leland’s widow, Jane, commissioned a Venetian artist to create the beautiful mosaic that adorns the façade.
The campus is also home to the Cantor Arts Center which boasts the largest collection of Rodin bronze sculptures outside of Paris. Highlights include the Burghers of Calais, a group of six statues on the main quad, and the Gates of Hell framing one of the entrances to the museum.
Wine Tasting at Thomas Fogarty
While Napa and Sonoma are California’s best know wine regions, the mountains surrounding the Santa Clara Valley are packed with vineyards. One not to miss is Thomas Fogarty Winery. In addition to earthy wines, you’ll be treated to stunning views over the entire valley. Tastings cost $35 and include generous pours of five wines. Just be sure to designate a driver to get you safely back down the mountain. The hairpin turns are treacherous!
The City Fish
End your two days in San Jose at The City Fish in Cupertino. This casual eatery has been a local favorite since it opened in 2013. You can get a heaping plate of fish and chips for under ten dollars, though I recommend leveling up with the prawn and fish combo platter.
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Looking for even more things to do in and around San Jose? Consider adding on a weekend in Santa Cruz or a day exploring the houseboats of Sausalito.
Impressive blog as usual. Fantastic pictures. Would have loved the gardens. So glad you get to see so much of the world.