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Sitting at the base of a volcano in central El Salvador, the capital city of San Salvador is the country’s cultural and economic hub while also boasting easy access to the ocean, mountains, and rainforest. With the city still recovering from a civil war in the 1980s that tore much of it apart, it’s the leafy suburbs that remained largely untouched during this conflict that have become the heart of the capital’s tourism. Here, find bustling boulevards lined with vibrant markets, trendy cafes, national museums, and locally owned galleries. Thanks to a recent surge in residents—San Salvador is home to more than one-third of the nation’s population—the city has seen an influx of modern homes and commercial towers that share the streets with historic mansions and pre-war churches. Today, San Salvador is an interesting mix of old and new, offering a more cosmopolitan environment than many of the other capitals in Central America.
Still attempting to mend itself, San Salvador is divided into regions that haven’t yet recovered from the effects of war and those that have seen a rebirth. If visiting, it’s best to stay in the central and western parts of the city, as the north and east are generally unsafe for tourists. It’s important to note that, like much of the country, the city has an especially high crime rate. When touring San Salvador, avoid crossing through districts that are known criminal strongholds, join reputable tour companies if traveling out of town, and use taxis instead of public transportation. Here are the neighborhoods you need to know for having fun in San Salvador while still staying safe.
Colonia San Benito — As the center of San Salvador’s tourism, San Benito, on the western edge of the city, is where you’ll find the highest number of hotels and cultural attractions, including the El Salvador Museum of Art, the National Museum of Anthropology, and the President Theatre. The district is also known as Zona Rosa, a name given to neighborhoods that buzz with the activity of restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.
Colonia Escalon — Directly to the north of San Benito, Escalon is a wealthy district known for shopping and dining, with Plaza Futura featuring fashion chains, specialty stores, and international eateries. Amid luxury hotels and high-rise towers, there’s a cool cafe and bar scene along with galleries featuring work by both up-and-coming and well-known artists.
Colonia Flor Blanca — A walk east along Paseo General Escalon will bring you to Colonia Flor Blanca, a middle-class district in the center of the city. Along the way, pass by Art Deco and Salvadoran architecture that serve as an ode to the city before the civil war. See the imposing Monument to the Divine Savior of the World and the stunning neocolonial Venturoso Castle. You can also enjoy cultural attractions like the rotating displays at the National Exhibition Hall, or take in a sporting event at Jorge Gonzalez Stadium.
Centro Historico — The oldest part of the city, Centro Historico has fallen into decay due to earthquakes and civil war. Outside of abandoned buildings, the streets have become congested with makeshift vendors that have imbued the area with a frenzied feel. All that said, the neighborhood is still home to some spectacular landmarks that you won’t want to miss. Come here to marvel at the neoclassical National Palace and the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral. Many parts of the neighborhood are currently controlled by gangs, so if you want to tour the area, it’s best to do so with a guide.
Antiguo Cuscatlán — Sitting directly to the southwest of San Salvador, the city of Antiguo is a manicured town renowned for upscale shopping at centers like the Multiplaza, Plaza Madero, and La Gran Via. The city’s biggest draw, however, is the Laguna Botanical Garden, a park within a volcanic crater featuring tree-lined lawns, wooded pathways, and a duck pond.
El Boquerón National Park — Just over a 30-minute drive northwest of the city, El Boquerón National Park is a site that sits directly on the San Salvador Volcano. Hiking trails can lead you through a forest of tropical plants to the height of 4,265 feet (1,300 m) above sea level. Upon reaching the top, you’re met by an awe-inspiring crater that measures 4,920 feet (1,500 m) wide and 1,640 feet (500 m) deep.
See San Salvador from a new perspective at Los Planes de Renderos, a rural spot roughly 20 minutes to the south of the city. From a hill that sits more than 3,000 feet (1,000 m) above sea level, gaze out upon panoramic views of San Salvador and the volcano in the distance. Once you’ve scoped out the sights, head further south to Puerta del Diablo—Devil’s Door—to explore the otherworldly rock formation and learn of the myths and legends that date back almost 300 years.
Perhaps the greatest thing about San Salvador is its proximity to lush forests, archaeological wonders, and natural landmarks. Once you’ve explored the city to your heart’s content, head out of town to uncover 3 of the most fascinating Maya sites in El Salvador. Traveling toward Cerro Verde National Park, first visit Joya de Cerén, a site known as the “Pompeii of the Americas” due to an eruption that left the pre-Columbian village preserved in volcanic ash. Next, journey to San Andrés, an important political and religious center dating as far back as 900 BC. Your excursion culminates at the Tazumal Archaeological Site, where you can witness the largest pyramid in all of El Salvador.
Also within the park is a complex of volcanoes with a network of rugged hiking trails. Join a private guide for a climb up the steep slopes of the Izalco Volcano, which was given the nickname “The Lighthouse of the Pacific” for its far-reaching views to the ocean. At the nearby Santa Ana Volcano—the tallest volcano in the country—you can hike to the rim to admire the turquoise pool that sits in the center of the crater.
For even more adventure, travel to the verdant village of Apaneca, where heart-pounding fun awaits in its densely forested landscape. On a thrilling buggy, you can fly over the rocky roads between the region’s sparkling lagoons. Later, bask in El Salvador’s unique beauty on an unforgettable zipline course. Soar among jagged mountains and overgrown coffee plantations, coasting on cables suspended at heights of up to 500 feet (152 m).