By Matt Villano, on November 17, 2015

5 reasons to love San Jose

San Jose is full of surprises. Yes, it’s the heart of Silicon Valley. And, yes, it’s home to one of the most popular international airports in the world. But it also boasts some of the largest and most vibrant ethnic neighborhoods in North America. And it has incredible museums. And it’s the third-largest city in California (and tenth-largest in the United States).

Throw in the fact that San Jose will co-star with San Francisco in February 2016 for the “Big Game” up the road in Santa Clara, and the South Bay city definitely becomes a place worth visiting. Here are five reasons to learn the way to San Jose.

The museums

You could spend an entire week in San Jose and never go to the same museum twice. My personal fave: The Tech Museum of Innovation. I’ve always thought it was fitting to have this museum in the heart of Silicon Valley, considering how much technological innovation has taken place here over the years. Visiting offers an interactive peek into how technology works.

The museum has six galleries in all, including one that spotlights wearables, one that focuses on Internet safety, and one where visitors can build their own robots. There’s also a Tech Studio where kids (and grown-ups) can make their own circuit boards and other stuff.

(As an aside, the Computer History Museum, up the road in Mountain View, California, also offers a really neat perspective on technology through the years.)

Because I have young kids, I also love the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. This facility has a place where kids can play with bubbles, and there’s a water play area that is sure to get ‘em soaked. There’s also a place where kids can dig for replicas of mammoth bones; my wife is an archaeologist (with paleontologist friends), so naturally this is one of the spots she likes best.

The culture

As a metropolitan area, San Jose is one of the most diverse regions in all of California, making it a great destination for a dose of culture and exposure to a variety of different ethnicities.

History Park, located inside Kelley Park, is an excellent spot to learn about these cultures. The Chinese American Historical Museum is a reconstruction of the original Ng Shing Gung (“Temple of Five Gods”) that served as a community center for Chinese Americans in the late 1800s. There’s also the Viet Museum, which pays homage to Vietnamese Americans and their overwater journey from Vietnam to the United States.

Viewfinder Tip: Acoustics and architecture at the circa-1927 California Theatre are second to none. Local groups play concerts there regularly; check its website for schedules.

Speaking of Vietnamese culture, perhaps the most vibrant area in the entire city is a neighborhood many refer to as Little Saigon; as the name suggests, this region has the highest concentration of Vietnamese-owned and Vietnamese-oriented businesses and restaurants. Some say this neighborhood even has the world’s largest population of Vietnamese-born people outside of Vietnam. Many of the restaurants serve pho, the iconic Vietnamese soup. One, Bun Bo Hue An Nam, is famous for Bun Bo Hue, a noodle soup. If you’re feeling particularly adventuresome, you can order yours with ox genitals (seriously).

San Jose also has one of the three remaining Japantowns in North America (the other two are in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C.). The Japantown in San Jose is home to a group of famous Taiko drummers, and the annual Obon Festival, a summertime festival that stems from the Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of ancestors.

The sports scene

Outside of football, two regional sports franchises have stolen most of the Bay Area headlines in recent years: the Warriors, who play in Oakland and won the championship in 2015, and the Giants, who play in San Francisco and were series champs in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Still, San Jose has some pretty stellar teams of its own.

The oldest of the bunch is the San Jose Sharks ice-hockey team, which plays at the SAP Center and currently features, in my opinion, one of the best centers in the league.

Another local team, the San Jose Earthquakes, is a professional soccer team. The “Quakes,” as they’re known locally, play in the brand-new Avaya Stadium, which opened in March 2015. They won cup titles in 2001 and 2003.

Arena football is popular in San Jose, too, and the SaberCats won an arena championship in 2015 (and in 2007, 2004, and 2002).

Finally, San Jose is home to the San Jose Giants, a minor-league affiliate of the San Francisco team with the same name. These Giants play their games at San Jose Municipal Stadium, a great old ballpark on the edge of Kelley Park downtown. The place only seats 4,200, which makes it a great spot to get up close and personal with the players (especially when pro-team stars are rehabbing injuries).


The gambling

As a regular cash-game poker player (and former gambling columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle), I also love San Jose for its gambling scene. Two casinos in particular are worth noting: Bay 101 Casino and Casino M8trix, which sit within a few blocks of each other.

Bay 101 is a regular spot on the World Poker Tour circuit; it’s the scene of a number of satellite tournaments that attract poker pros such as Daniel Negreanu, Vanessa Selbst, and others. It’s also a favorite spot for poker pros who have ties to the Bay Area, such as Phil Hellmuth Jr. and Antonio Esfandiari. (Just remember: In order to play with these folks, you’ve got to buy in for big bucks.)

Casino M8trix is much flashier. The place was designed to recreate the look and feel of a Las Vegas casino. That means upscale décor, crystal chandeliers, soft lighting, and a swanky bar and restaurant.

In addition to poker, both casinos offer a variety of games, including blackjack, baccarat, and more.

The airport

No article about the best of San Jose is complete without at least a nod to the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, regarded by many business travelers as the best airport in the West.

Yes, the airport has hundreds of flights to other West Coast cities every day. And, yes, it is easily accessible to all major Bay Area freeways. But perhaps the best thing about SJC is its public art: Through a program dubbed “Art+Technology,” the airport constantly displays dozens of original works of art that incorporate technology, were inspired by technology, or were developed with technology in one way or another.

My personal favorite, Space Observer, is a giant, white, metal sculpture on the mezzanine of Terminal B. Depending on the angle, it looks like an alien or a spaceship. It also incorporates cameras to reveal live images. Definitely something unexpected, like San Jose itself.

What are some of the best-kept secrets in your favorite cities?