How to Spend a Day in San Jose

Often neglected by its artsy sister, San Francisco, you may be surprised to know that San Jose actually has a bigger population than the Golden Gate City. And although it may not have the underground arts culture that San Francisco has, there are a lot of fun and interesting things to do in San Jose to fill up your day.

I had one day in the city during my recent weekend in Santana Row, and these are my top recommendations for a one-day or weekend itinerary.

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Craft Beer

Always on my mind, the craft beer culture in San Jose is becoming more prevalent, as it is for the rest of the Bay Area. There are a couple of great breweries to check out in the San Jose area, and a few pubs that are ideal for trying a variety of craft beers.

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My sister and I only had the chance to stop at Original Gravity, but that was more than enough beer goodness to last us for the day. With 35 rotating taps, you can pretty much find any style and a multitude of breweries on tap from around the West Coast and beyond. I was so happy to find my favorite beer, Ballast Point Sculpin pouring on nitro. A craft beer girl’s dream come true.

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There are a couple of breweries in the San Jose area that are a must-drink as well, including Hermitage Brewing, Strike Brewing Co., Clandestine Brewing, and Faultline Brewing in Sunnyvale.

If you’re as into craft beer as I am, other bars to find a crafty pint around San Jose beside Original Gravity are ISOBeersLiquid Bread Gastropub, and Good Karma.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph

Even if you’re not religious, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph is such a pretty fixture in downtown San Jose. Regardless of my religious beliefs, I really enjoy looking at cathedral architecture and wandering inside. Cathedrals are such peaceful places and usually have a lot of thought and beauty put into their construction.

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The Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph is the cathedral for the Roman Catholic Diocese in San Jose, and it’s the oldest non-mission parish in the state of California, having been consecrated in 1877.

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We didn’t have the chance to wander inside because there was Sunday mass going on at the time, but next time I would love to see the inside of this historical cathedral, it has a beautiful enough exterior.

Santana Row

Santana Row is the place to go shopping in San Jose. It’s the ritzy upscale part of town and even if you don’t have the cash to spend it’s a great place to simply walk around, window shop, people watch, and look at nice cars. I think of it as the equivalent of what Beverly Hills is to LA or Nob Hill is to San Francisco.

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Santana-Row-San-Jose-California

In addition to the shopping, there are quite a few bars and restaurant finds on Santana Row. We went to the outdoor tequila bar, El Jardin, which was perfect on a hot summer night, but I should warn you that most bars close up by 11pm.

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Psycho Donuts

Although not as good as Blue Star Donuts in Portland, Psycho Donuts is a must-eat donut shop in San Jose, if only for their originality. They specialize in wacky and over-the-top unique donut flavors. When I was there I tried their donut with peanut butter drizzle and cereal bits on top.

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They also have flavors such as the Canadian Morning Squeal with maple icing and bacon bits, and the Dead Elvis with bananas, bacon, peanut butter, jelly, and a cream filling. Oh, yeah their donuts are really rich, so you probably only need one or you might want to share depending on what you order.

Psycho-Donuts-San-Jose-California

They also show cult films such as Psycho and The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Camera Cinemas attached to the donut shop. They even have a little Psycho photo booth, complete with a straight jacket for some great photo opportunities.

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San Pedro Square Market

San Pedro Square Market is the marketplace that just keeps on giving. There are so many decent eateries to choose from in here that you’ll have trouble deciding what to try first. This is also a great place to sample craft beer at either  Market Beer Co. or the Market Bar. Some vendors also validate parking so it’s a win-win.

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If you’re after more of a caffeine buzz, B2 Coffee comes highly recommended from me and my sister!

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The Museums

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

My sister and I visited the Egyptian Museum and were blown away by how in depth it went into history, from the beginnings of mummification to home life in ancient Egypt.

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Rosicrucian-Egyptian-Museum-San-Jose-California

Don’t be fooled by how small it looks when you walk in, we thought the same when we first got there and as we went through the exhibits we began to wonder if we could’ve read through everything if we had a whole day. There was more than enough interesting information on display.

Rosicrucian-Egyptian-Museum-San-Jose-California Rosicrucian-Egyptian-Museum-San-Jose-California

The Tech Museum of Innovation

I wish we would’ve had the chance to visit this museum while we were in the city, but alas, due to time restraints we didn’t get the chance to. I have heard great reviews about it; however, and what a fitting museum to visit in the middle of Silicon Valley.

There’s an IMAX theater inside and I hear they have a new Star Wars Exhibit that is pretty stellar.

Children’s Discovery Museum

A great place to go if you’re traveling with Children, the Children’s Discovery Museum is another highly ranked attraction in San Jose. It has been ranked in the top 10 children’s museums in the US, and highlights interactive science exhibits geared towards the younger ones.

San Jose Museum of Art

If you’re interested in the finer things in life, the San Jose Museum of Art is also a great place to go look at classic and modern artwork from local, regional, and international artists. I always enjoying visiting art museums in any city that I visit, especially if they highlight local artists.

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Where to Stay

If you’re on a budget, there are not that many inexpensive options in San Jose due to the fact that there aren’t any hostels that I know of. If you’re willing to try out couchsurfing that has always worked out well for me in the past.

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There are a multitude of mid-range hotels around the city that you can find for around $150 a night.

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If you’re looking for a decent hotel, expect to shell out at least $150 – $250 a night. My go-to and most trusted site for reading hotel reviews has always been TripAdvisor, although KAYAK is another good place to find unique hotel deals.

If you have a bit more of a cushy budget, I would highly recommend staying at one of the classy hotels on Santana Row. It’s a little outside the city but a great area in itself and a one of a kind experience.

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I had the chance to stay at Hotel Valencia Santana Row when I was in town, and I could not recommend them higher. They not only provided superb customer service, but the hotel itself is from one of my mediterranean daydreams, with a rooftop and balcony rooms that provide grand views looking out over Santana Row and beyond.

Hotel-Valencia-Santana-Row-San-Jose-California Hotel-Valencia-Santana-Row-San-Jose-California

They generously hosted me on a wine weekend getaway while I was in San Jose, but even if they hadn’t, I would still give the same glowing review. It was that awesome.

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Wine Tasting In South Bay

Before my trip to San Jose, I had never though of the South Bay as a place to seek out for wine tasting. Boy, was I wrong. With the rising pretentiousness seen in the Napa Valley these days, the South Bay is the perfect alternative to trying out some tasty local wines to the backdrop of rolling hills and forested vistas.

I was astounded at how beautiful some of the wineries are that we visited, it changed my mind completely on how I used to view the South Bay.

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California’s Great America

If rollercoasters and thrills are your thing, then California Great America is a bloody good day trip to include in your time in the city. This is an 100-acre amusement park in Santa Clara, a mere 15-20 minute drive from downtown San Jose, that has 8 rollercoasters in addition to its many other thrill rides. It’s something to experience at least once if you’re in the area!

San Jose Sharks Game 

I’m bummed I still haven’t had the chance to see the San Jose Sharks ice hockey team play at what is now called the SAP Center (I still think of it as the HP Pavilion). If you’re into ice hockey or watching sports at all, this is a great venue to see a game.

Winchester Mystery House

The odd mansion that exists right next to Santana Row is a slight tourist trap but still worth a visit, if anything, just for the weird factor. The house was built by Sarah Winchester, the spouse of William Winchester, from the family that created the popular Winchester Rifle Company.

After Sarah lost both her child and her husband, she was convinced that the spirits of all the people killed by Winchester rifles were coming back to haunt and punish her. She started building the Winchester House to confuse the spirits and continuously built and remodeled the house until her death. She kept carpenters on a rotating shift so there was always work being done on the house at any given time while she was living in it.

It’s an eccentric and interesting stop in San Jose, and worth a visit at least once if you’re in the area.

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Is there anything else you would add to a day out in San Jose? I would love any other recommendations for when I come back to the Bay Area! 

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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