Few places are as beautiful as California. The state has some of the best beaches, cities, and hikes in the entire United States. Located in Northern California just one hour south of San Francisco, San Jose is one of the best cities on the west coast.
San Jose is a tourist hot spot. There are many things to do in San Jose, from heritage attractions to natural scenery and hiking trails. It is also known for its cutting-edge tech movement and educational opportunities. It is home to San Jose State University, Santa Clara University, and even Silicon Valley, the home of the tech industry.
Top things to do in San Jose, California
Visiting San Jose is definitely one of those things that you should consider if you are road tripping through this part of the United States. The city is fast-paced and always keeping up with the latest trends and developments. However, it also has a strong sense of history and heritage. Get ready because these are the twenty-five best things to do in San Jose, California.
You’ll find fun activities all over this cool city. Whatever you choose, we have no doubt that you will have a great time. But make sure to check out our suggestions of things to do in San Jose to get you started.
A great way to get around California is by car. This makes doing day trips to places like Monterey, Silicon Valley, and wineries much easier to explore. Check car rental prices for San Jose here.
1. Shop on Santana Row
San Jose’s Silicon Valley is pretty darn famous. It’s known for the largest collection of tech companies and is always involved in the latest and greatest projects. But, if you want to pick up a new gadget as a souvenir, shopping on Santana Row is one of the best things to do in San Jose.
Santana Row is where you can pick the fruits of Silicon Valley labor. It is a commercial district, booming with life and flooded with restaurants, shops, and plazas. Shopping lovers and tech enthusiasts alike will enjoy strolling the streets.
There is enough to see (and buy) on Santana Row to keep you occupied for at least half a day. However, if you include a trip to the Santana Row cinema, allow a full day to appreciate the district.
2. San Jose Improv
Fancy a laugh? San Jose Improv has been a reliable venue for a giggle since it opened in 2002. The venue hosts celebrity comedians and newcomers, acting as a ladder for up-and-coming west coast artists and a venue for in-demand performers.
The NYC-born chain opened in the 60s and branched out to San Jose at the turn of the century. Catching a comedy show is a fun way to spend an evening. We recommend checking the schedule for events that coincide with your visit to San Jose.
The San Jose Improv theater is lavishly decorated, with comfortable seats and every seat in the house offers good views of the stage. Don’t worry too much about last-minute tickets having inadequate seating – after all, sitting further back just means you are less likely to get called upon when you don’t want to be.
3. Institute of Contemporary Art
If you are an art lover then you will want to spend some time in Downtown San Jose at one of the many art galleries. The Institute of Contemporary Art is the perfect spot for browsing and admiring and is split into three different gallery spaces. Some pieces are permanent, but most are temporary, meaning the San Jose Institute is always fresh and exciting.
The Institute has a massive proportion of local and lesser-known artists. We’d recommend a visit to anyone who wants a thought-provoking and fresh outlook on art, San Jose, and society. Some pieces are more abstract than others; the Institute has even presented video games and LED lights exhibitions.
Just to completely seal the deal, the Institute of Contemporary Art is also free to enter. Interesting, budget-friendly, and suitable to enjoy in all weather, the Institute is definitely an attraction for your itinerary.
4. California Theatre
The California Theatre is another venue for your evening itineraries. The 1920s-built picture house is stunning and hosts plays, concerts, and live events. It has that elegant and intimate feel, with seats curved around a stage you feel that you could almost touch if you tried.
For a classic theatre experience, a night at this venue ticks all the boxes. You can check the upcoming schedule to see what events align with your visit dates. The theatre has hosted the West Side Story play, Die Fledermaus opera, and even lectures by physicists and other industry experts.
There are events most nights, so there is a high likelihood that you will find something of interest. For an extra treat, you can purchase food and drink at the venue before or after the show.
5. Almaden Quicksilver County Park
Sometimes you want to escape to nature without having to ‘escape’ too far. Almaden Quicksilver County Park in San Jose’s best answer to this conundrum.
The Mockingbird Hill Entrance to the country park is just a twenty-minute drive south of San Jose City Center. You can be transported from San Jose’s streets to a beautiful, hilly landscape in less than half an hour. Almaden Quicksilver County Park is great for hiking to scenic viewpoints and has lots of mining history. You can incorporate visiting old mining infrastructure into your walks. The park is best for those who want hills and history.
Almaden Quicksilver County Park has nearly forty miles of hiking trails and thirty miles of bridleways. You can explore the country park on foot or organize a trail ride with local stables. Either way, the park is easily a full-day activity. You should allow at least a morning to appreciate the flora and relaxing, natural environment.
6. Lexington Reservoir County Park
Speaking of spaces of natural beauty, Lexington Reservoir County Park is another excellent place to visit just outside the San Jose center.
The 950-acre park gets its namesake from the massive artificial lake in its center. While swimming is prohibited, you can enjoy a walk around the reservoir – stopping at picnic areas and fishing spots. The reservoir itself is 338 acres and fully stocked with trout and black bass, amongst other fish.
This county park is a great place to spend a day by the water. Fishing lovers and families will particularly appreciate the lake access. It is also well combined with a visit to Testarossa Winery, located just ten minutes up the road.
7. Tech Interactive
You can’t visit the home of Silicon Valley without visiting the Tech Interactive Museum. Tech is an integral part of San Jose’s history and future, so where better to learn more about this modern world we live in.
Tech Interactive is set in the midst of all the Downtown San Jose action. The museum has everything from experimental labs to design challenge experiences – planned to make you think and discover for yourself, rather than feeding secondhand information through dull exhibitions.
Tech Interactive is family-friendly but by no means excludes adults without children. Guests of all ages will enjoy the museum, so mark it down as a strong option when visiting San Jose.
Where to Stay in San Jose
Recommended hotels to get you started. If you are wondering where to stay in San Jose, first-timers will enjoy making a base downtown.
8. Cathedral Basilica of St Joseph
The Cathedral Basilica of St Joseph is undoubtedly one of the prettiest buildings in San Jose. The Catholic cathedral is full of all that characteristic extravagance, covered from floor to ceiling in stunning architectural features and religious significance.
The Odell Organ is particularly impressive and was built in 1886 – not that you’d guess that from its excellently maintained condition. The ceiling is gold-plated and features elaborate domes and decoration. Between the stained glass windows, religious statues, and calming atmosphere, the cathedral is enough to impress you regardless of your religious beliefs.
A tour is the best way to experience the beauty of the Cathedral Basilica of St Joseph. Tours run on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays between 1 pm and 3 pm.
9. Guadalupe River Park
Guadalupe River Park is slightly different from the parks we’ve covered. Guadalupe is an inner-city park located smack bang in the middle of Downtown San Jose. Behind the treetops, you can still see the city’s skyscrapers, and the park has a natural solace in a city feel, rather than feeling completely cut off from civilization.
Guadalupe has 2.6 miles of hiking and biking trails, which is perfect for those wanting a stretch of their legs. It is common to see morning joggers or professionals taking lunch breaks in the park. But, as a tourist, it is nice to join them.
This park is a great place to experience the urban community and appreciate inner city greenspace. Thanks to its downtown location, it is easily added to even the most packed itineraries.
10. Happy Hollow Park and Zoo
Happy Hollow Park and Zoo wears many belts. The park is an amusement park, petting zoo, and exotic zoo all in one.
Happy Hollow Park is located in Kelley Park, a 250-acre green space near the city center. While the zoo is relatively small, it houses over 150 animals – many of whom are rescued or endangered members of a conservation breeding program.
Visitors can get involved with handling animals, come face-to-face with exotic animals, or let loose on the amusement park rides. You can also attend special workshops, with educational and practical opportunities to deepen your knowledge of the animal kingdom.
11. Plaza de Cesar Chavez
Did we mention how amazing Downtown San Jose is? Just to reiterate, Downtown San Jose is one of the best places to explore in the city. And, if you want a specific spot to appreciate this area of San Jose, Plaza de Cesar Chavez is our top recommendation.
Plaza de Cesar Chavez is one of the most popular outdoor spaces in the city. In the center is a statue of the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl and an area of water jets that spurt up from ground level in a pretty display.
Plaza de Cesar Chavez is a must-visit if you visit San Jose in summer or near Christmas. In summer, the water fountains and greenspace make the park a lovely, cool space to relax outdoors. Near Christmas, the whole area is decked out with festive pop-up buildings and activities. Watch out for the ice skating rink, a highlight attraction of the year.
12. Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is incredible; there is no denying that. The museum is dedicated to ancient Egypt, displaying the largest collection on ancient Egyptian artifacts in Western North America. It includes exhibitions on burial processes and other notable traditions.
Some of the most valuable artifacts are mummies, including a mummy from Usermontu’s coffin. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum isn’t one for the squeamish or death averse, as it dives straight into all the gory, practical details about burials.
The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is a fascinating activity if you like ancient history. However, it is an engaging enough museum to keep the average visitor interested as well. Even Rosicrucian Park, where the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is set, is decorated in Egyptian style, with Egyptian buildings and palm trees to set the scene.
13. San Jose Museum of Art
Are contemporary artwork displays not your thing? Or do you just prefer a larger venue than that of San Jose’s Institute? The San Jose Museum of Art is an ideal place to indulge further in your love of art.
The San Jose Museum of Art has everything, from contemporary to modern art. It has over 2,500 pieces in its permanent collection and additional temporary exhibitions that are constantly shifting and changing. It is well-worth allowing at least a few hours to see it all, plus longer if you want to take it in as an enthusiast or professional.
The San Jose Museum of Art is a great rainy day activity or just a place to broaden your artistic awareness and knowledge. It has one of the largest collections of art in the city, and it is one of our top recommendations on things to do in San Jose.
14. Japanese Friendship Garden
The Japanese Friendship Garden is a small, walled, six-acre garden in Kelley Park. If you haven’t visited a traditional Japanese garden before, you really should. The Japanese Friendship Garden in Kelley Park is a perfect example, with streams, bridges, and ponds interconnected in a meticulous garden.
The garden is designed to symbolize peace and friendship, and it has a definite atmosphere of serenity. The little bridges are good to walk in company or alone, deep in thought. The Japanese Friendship Garden is a great option if you want a relaxing thing to do in San Jose.
San Jose’s Japanese Friendship Garden is so beautiful that it is often used for outdoor wedding ceremonies. Take a walk through and appreciate it yourself – you only need a spare hour.
15. A day trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains
A day in the mountains is hard to resist. The Santa Cruz Mountains split Santa Clara Valley from San Francisco Bay and are only an hour’s drive from San Jose Center.
The mountain range is coastal, and many of its hiking trails have ocean views overlooking San Francisco Bay. The Santa Cruz Mountains are also famous for their redwood trees – the tallest tree species on the planet. While Santa Cruz doesn’t have any redwoods of record-breaking height, they are still imposing.
You could hike the tallest mountain, Loma Prieta. You could go mountain biking through steep forest trails. Or, you could relax and spend an afternoon wine tasting in one of the region’s many wineries – just make sure you’ve got a safe ride back to the city.
This South Bay Wineries Tour takes you on a VIP journey to 4 wineries from San Francisco including in the foothills of the San Cruz Mountains including Cupertino and Saratoga. Learn about wine making process and sample the best wines in the San Francisco Bay area. It includes a picnic lunch. Details here.
16. Japanese American Museum
The Japanese Friendship Gardens are pretty. But the Japanese American Museum is an excellent place to learn more about Japanese American culture and history.
The museum follows the story of Japanese immigration – from the most popular early roles taken in American society to the impact of World War Two on the community. The Japanese American Museum tackles heavy topics like discrimination while questioning the essence of the American identity.
Add this museum to your itinerary for a thought-provoking and insightful thing to do in San Jose.
17. Alum Rock Park
Alum Rock Park is an oldie but goldie. The public park is the oldest municipal park in California and a popular afternoon trip from San Jose.
The park sits on the foothills of the Diablo Mountains and is approximately 720 acres in size. There are hiking, biking, horseback riding trails, and mineral springs to bathe in. The park is long established as a natural health spa getaway and a great spot to go wild swimming.
In short, this park is fantastic. You can spot wildlife like red-tailed hawks and green herons. You can get active on foot or on a bike. Or you can just relax and cool off in natural mineral water – which is always refreshing in Californian summers.
18. Yosemite National Park
A holiday in San Jose doesn’t mean restricting yourself to spending the whole time in the San Jose area. The city is ideally located to explore California’s national parks – so why not spend the day further afield? You can easily rent a car in San Jose or purchase a guided tour like this on GetYourGuide.
Tunnel View, Olmsted Point, Washburn Point, and Vernal Falls are viewpoints you should prioritize on a flying visit to the national park. If you spend more than a few hours in Yosemite, you could also tackle one of the shorter trails like Cook Meadow’s Loop, Sentinel Dome, or Mirror Lake.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous parks in the United States, never mind just California. The park is a four-hour drive away, so you’ll need to set off early in the morning and may prefer to have multiple drivers to make driving the distance in one day feasible. Alternatively, just stay in Yosemite overnight and add on the trip as a detour from San Jose.
You can book day tours from San Jose to Yosemite National Park. This highly rated tour
19. SAP Center
The SAP Center is a huge arena in the center of San Jose. The arena frequently hosts international artists and is known for its larger-than-life events. It has a capacity of over 17,000 people and, on a good day, you can bet that it fills it. When visiting you should definitely keep an eye out for San Jose Shark games at the SAP Center.
The San Jose Sharks are the city’s ice hockey team, and the SAP Center is their revered home ground. The SAP center even has the nickname ‘the shark tank’. You’ll be rewarded with an electric atmosphere and a brilliant arena experience if you can catch a home game. The excitement is infectious even if you haven’t watched ice hockey before.
You can check the schedule on the San Jose Shark’s and SAP Center’s websites. It’s best to book tickets in advance to avoid disappointment, as loyal fans quickly snatch up available tickets.
20. Vasona Lake County Park
Vasona Lake Country Park is the cherry on the top of San Jose’s country parks. The park is located in the residential area of Los Gatos. It spans a scenic 45 acres of trails, picnic areas, and green space.
In the center of the park, much like Lexington Park, there is a large reservoir that is suitable and stocked for fishing. The reservoir is recognizable by many distinctive features, including Goose Island (a tiny natural island on the lake) and the Vasona Lake Dam. Walking the lake perimeter is a beautiful way to appreciate the park and the great outdoors.
While Vasona Lake Country Park is much smaller than Lexington Country Park, it is the best choice if you want a short lakeside experience. A visit to Vasona easily fits into half a day, and you could see the best parts in just a couple of hours. If you are short on time, it is a fantastic option to enjoy suburban nature.
21. Winchester Mystery House
Visiting Winchester Mystery House is one of the most bizarre and creepy things in San Jose. And if that isn’t enough to tempt you in for a visit, listen to this. Book this Winchester Mystery Tour
Winchester Mansion belonged to Sarah Winchester, a wealthy heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms. With her fortune, Sarah commissioned the construction of Winchester Mansion. However, the process was plagued by supernatural incidents. It soon became apparent that Winchester rifle victims were haunting the house.
The construction process took a grand total of 38 years. Even for a 160-room mansion, you’d be right to think that this timescale was on the excessively long side. Your visit will make it more understandable though, as Sarah commissioned many bizarre features to deter the hauntings. The mansion is like a real-life maze – with color-coded rooms and deceptive routes like staircases leading nowhere.
We recommend booking a tour as, while a little expensive, you’ll get the most informative experience this way. Winchester Mystery House is partly a San Jose heritage attraction and somewhat a supernatural experience. Either way, though, it is one of the best things to do in the city.
22. San Jose Flea Market
San Jose Flea Market is as much a cultural spot as it is a market. Yes, you’ll find all the stalls with a diverse range of goods to buy. But you’ll also find free dance lessons, trivia events, and a beer garden.
The city’s flea market has been in full swing since it opened its doors in the 1960s. You’ll find over 800 sellers attending every weekend. However, there are also designated weekday market days, so don’t fret if you are visiting San Jose during the week.
San Jose Flea Market has everything – even live music. The market has a stage that local performers can choose to perform to shoppers on, and, more often than not, this stage attracts a little gathering. Visiting the market is a fun thing to do in San Jose, whether you want to shop or just enjoy the atmosphere.
23. San Pedro Square Market
San Pedro Square market has a slightly different vibe. This market specializes in food and looks like an informal food court.
You could be sampling a banh mi from On A Roll, a craft beer from Market Beer Co., or tucking into hand-rolled sushi at Hyland House of Sushi. San Pedro Square Market has the best multi-cultural cuisine in all of San Jose, which is saying something, as San Jose has a lot of delicious food.
We recommend visiting San Pedro Market for lunch. A lot of the food is quite snack-like rather than sit-down meal dishes. Plus, you can always come back for dinner if you can’t decide between two options.
24. Los Gatos Creek Trail
Do you love a fitness challenge? You should consider walking Los Gatos Creek Trail. The 11.2-mile trail starts in Downtown San Jose and ends just past Lexington Reservoir. You’ll pass Los Gatos County Park and Vasona Lake County Park – combining visiting multiple parks in one day.
After hiking in remote, natural areas, it is nice to mix things up and take a suburban walk. The trailhead is also remarkably easy to access, which is helpful if you are short on time or not hiring a car in San Jose.
As you may have guessed, Los Gatos Creek Trail follows Los Gatos Creek, a small river running south of San Jose. The trail itself is tarmacked and bike-friendly, so you can always cycle it if you want to complete the route quicker. Otherwise, allow up to five hours to complete Los Gatos Creek Trail on foot.
25. Children’s Discovery Museum
If you are traveling with young companions, the Children’s Discovery Museum is a fantastic, age-appropriate thing to do in San Jose.
The Children’s Discovery Museum aims to provide just that, with Montessori-style learning opportunities and specialized educational areas. The museum is designed so parents can take the backseat and let their children direct the family around the exhibitions. There are interactive theater performances, a water play zone, and a mammoth discovery exhibit.
How to Get to San Jose
The easiest way to get to San Jose is to fly. San Jose Airport is just 3 miles from Downtown San Jose, so it is quick and convenient to transfer from the airport to the city center.
Of course, if you are road tripping the west coast or another popular American road trip route, you may wish to drive to San Jose. Driving to San Jose is a good option if you want to stop at destinations en route, as the city is surrounded by attractions and natural scenery. Make sure that your accommodation offers parking; otherwise, parking can be problematic in the city.
San Jose is extremely well-connected by the VTA Light Rail and Bus system. While there isn’t a subway system, you don’t notice it and most definitely aren’t inconvenienced without one. The light rail or bus is the best option for a low-cost way to get around San Jose.
If you stay centrally, you’ll be able to explore many popular attractions on foot. In Downtown San Jose, there are tourist attractions practically on your hotel’s doorstep.
Driving is good for day trips and reaching attractions on the city outskirts. Avoid driving in the city center though, as traffic is awful and sometimes walking can be quicker than driving.
Best Time to Visit
In short, spring or fall are the best times to visit San Jose. Summer is warm but far too busy, and in winter, you miss out on enjoying the outdoor activities. Spring and fall are the best of both worlds – not too busy but still well-suited to being outdoors.
To narrow it down further, May and October are the shoulder seasons and cheapest months to visit San Jose. Overall, May is a little warmer, so we recommend visiting then if you can.
San Jose is full of incredible things to do and see. The city is one of the best destinations in Northern California. It is an excellent alternative to the well-trodden streets of San Francisco.
You’ll be overwhelmed with entertainment options from the moment you leave San Jose Airport – which, we think, is the most exciting position to be in.
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