Perhaps Silicon Valley’s strangest and yet most enduring attraction is Winchester Mystery House, a 160-room Victorian mansion that was owned and built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester fortune. Construction began on the house in 1884 and continued, almost nonstop, until 1922—racking up a bill of $5.5 million. Why the unending, breakneck pace? Because Sarah had been convinced by a medium that all the spirits of the people killed by Winchester firearms had placed a curse on her family and would haunt her forever unless she moved West and built a house to match their specifications, as revealed to her in séances.
Whether spirits gave her pointers or not, Sarah designed one heck of an oddball house. Guided tours let you ponder the heiress’s unusual designs, including doors that open onto blank walls and a stairway that leads straight into a ceiling. Other weird facts: the mansion has 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 3 elevators, 2 basements, and 13 bathrooms but just one shower.
The first hit of this city’s unmistakable techy-ness starts right off the bat—if you get here by plane. Meet Space Observer, a 26-foot/7.9-metre-high white-and-chrome robot that welcomes you to Terminal B at ultra-modern Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport. But even if you don’t get the meet-and-greet from the big guy at the airport, you’ll find plenty of other ways to experience the dramatic rebirth of California’s third largest city as the Silicon Valley’s urban hub. Downtown is packed with worthy destinations, like ultra-hands-on The Tech Museum, and light and airy San Jose Museum of Art. De Anza Hotel is an Art Deco gem, while the SAP Center, which draws headline entertainers and is home to the San Jose Sharks NHL franchise, is a glassy modern palace.
And of course, there was life before silicon chips. Learn about San José’s rich agricultural and impressive ethnic roots at the expansive campus of History San José, on the southeast side of town.
Think of this extraordinary complex, at Kelley Park, as the Santa Clara Valley’s memory book in real life. It’s a chance to imagine what the region was like before computer chips, gigabytes, and tech startups became the heartbeat of the region. First, there are expansive displays and historical buildings (imported to the park campus) that showcase the region’s amazing agricultural roots, including historical images, machinery, and other mementos. Other buildings shed light on various early trades and businesses, such as a recreated print shop, where costumed volunteers let kids try out an early printing press. For a fascinating look at the broad range of immigrants who have settled in the region, tour the collection of preserved buildings—from early banks to a former stable—that make up History Park. This cultural campus provides a place for 19 partner programs to tell their history, like the harrowing journeys made by Vietnamese boat people, and share their traditions at lively festivals, like the annual Dia de Portugal.
So much of the magic of the modern era happens invisibly and at nano scale, but The Tech Museum of Innovation—or simply “The Tech”—does a great job of creating a fun laboratory and learning experience for curious people of all ages. Dive into interactive exhibits showing the power of technologies ranging from robots to gene-splicing to alternative energy. Let virtual butterflies alight on your arm, and let the kids play with the ultimate video games—you’ll probably want to play too. Another highlight is the Silicon Valley Innovation Gallery, showcasing the machines that revolutionize human thought, creativity, and communication. Man does not live by bits and bytes alone—so relax in the café, the peruse tech-and-science-y items in the gift shop (especially great for holidays and birthdays).
For the city’s most luxurious shopping experience, visit this snazzy outdoor mall, a mix between California’s relaxed stylishness and a swanky European village on market day. This walkable, nook-and-cranny-filled complex has benches for relaxing under leafy oaks, large sculptures by French artists André Dumonnet and Christine Foulché, antique fountains, live musicians, and open-air seating outside quality restaurants. It’s the kind of place where you can easily while away the hours, sitting on a bench perusing your purchases while nibbling fresh croissants from Cocola. If your shopping tastes run more toward Main Street than Paris boutique, there are familiar chains including Orvis and H&M. And, in the ultimate Silicon Valley indulgence, why not custom-design your own luxury all-electric car at Santana Row’s Tesla store.
After decades in a foggy, chilly wind tunnel known as Candlestick Park, the San Francisco 49ers football team has moved south to one of the snazziest stadiums around. Players now huddle, punt, and play in 68,500-seat Levi’s Stadium, a high-tech marvel northwest of downtown San José. The stadium, slated to host Super Bowl 50 in 2016, also boasts eco-friendly features like a living roof, solar panels, and field irrigation that uses recycled water. If you’re lucky enough to settle into a luxury suite, check out the woodwork: it’s made of sustainable bamboo.
Befitting a stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley, Levi’s Stadium is also high-tech to the max, with fan-friendly touches like Wi-Fi access in every seat, so you can tweet, post, and chat about the game, not to mention order food without missing a play. If you do venture out to eat, it’s not all lukewarm hot dogs and soggy fries. Celebrity chef Michael Mina overseas the stadium’s high-end steak house, which offers inside-the-park tailgate parties throughout the season.
Beyond football, the venue is slated to host college football games, domestic and international soccer matches, motocross events, concerts, wrestling, and more. Public tours of Levi’s Stadium and its new 49ers Museum let you check out all this fabulousness, even if you’re not going to a game or event. The stadium also makes it easy to use public transit, with close-by access to local light rail, bus, and Caltrain.
In a city where tech is king, it makes sense that artists here get influenced by edgy new techniques and sounds. Check out the results at June’s SubZERO Festival, with artists, musicians, and other artisans showing their stuff. Young techies flock to September’s C2SV (Creative Convergence Silicon Valley), a showcase for indie bands.
The region’s rich ethnic mix fuels high-energy festivals such as Viva Fest: Mexican Heritage & Mariachi Festival (events held July through October), and July’s Obon Festival in Japantown. Some events just aim to make people smile, like the seasonal favourite, Christmas in the Park, celebrated downtown at Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Wander through a winter wonderland of lights, snowmen, trains, and other holiday themes. The highlight is an enchanted forest of trees decorated by local schools, community groups, and businesses.
This downtown museum prides itself on its origins: In 1969, the beautiful 19th century building that then housed a library was threatened with demolition, and a group of citizens banded together to save it and open an art gallery. That local effort grew, creating this remarkable downtown facility, including a light-filled wing added in the 1990s. Permanent exhibits present an outstanding and varied collection, including contemporary abstracts, photography, figurative painting, sculpture, and works in new media by Bay Area artists. If you’ve got kids, check the schedule for family-friendly, hands-on activities to help children get excited about art.
Culture hounds have plenty to do in California’s third largest city. Downtown, the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts hosts Broadway travelling productions, as well as a full calendar of international artists. Ballet San Jose also graces the stage here. Big names are often the draw at the handsome City National Civic; The Who kicked off their first headlining U.S. tour here in 1968, and other big stars, including Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones, and Frank Sinatra have all performed in this beautiful space, which debuted a multi-million dollar renovation in 2012.
The 1927 California Theatre, originally a grand movie palace, creates a lavish backdrop for performances by Symphony Silicon Valley and Opera San Jose, presenting classical works and chorale events. Even if you don’t step inside the beautiful theatre, take special notice of the marquee out front. It’s decorated with a motif of California poppies, based on historic drawings and photographs, and meticulously recreates the look, size, and detail of the theatre’s original sign.
For plays and musicals performed by local companies, check the schedule at the1936 Montgomery Theater, an intimate and elegant venue.
When it comes to food, San José goes global. Enjoy a kaleidoscope of ethnic restaurants, including Ethiopian fare at Zeni (try to sit at one of the round tables in the back). American-style meat and potatoes get matched with rotating craft beers at local favourite Harry’s Hofbrau.
Star chefs have staked a claim in San José too; Michelin-star-nabbing Michael Mina oversees the kitchen at Arcadia, a steakhouse that’s a popular spot before or after shows at the nearby San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
Downtown has a lively, open-late food hall, San Pedro Square Market, a great place for a quality grab-and-go meal. How about a “fusion” hot dog from Calidog? A glass of wine from local vintners at Vino Vino? Check out Treatbot, the ice cream trike from the future, serving up karaoke and local ice cream flavours like the “408” (caramel ice cream, fudge, and Oreos). No sense goes un-served in the public market’s three halls: keep your nose peeled for the aroma of roasted coffee beans and wood-fired pizza. Also enjoy live entertainment and local artwork.
On sunny days (which are the norm here), take your food out to a table or bench in the adjacent plaza, bordered by the 1797 Peralta Adobe (the city’s oldest building; guided tours are offered throughout the year).