Art you can see, touch, and . . . taste? Day trip to San Jose’s thriving SOFA creative district.

Take an artsy outing to Silicon Valley’s ever-emerging cultural hub

Scenes from SOFA. (Photo by Johanna Hickle)

Looking for evidence that San Jose is evolving in its cultural offerings? We direct your attention to Exhibit A: South First Arts (SoFA) District. Located in downtown and cultivated since the early 2000’s, South First Street has emerged as Silicon Valley’s creative district. It exists today as a thriving center of art, culture and entertainment.

Containing a mind-blowing collection of galleries, art museums, theaters and various other creative goings-on (all within walking distance), it will make you think twice before you discount San Jose as an industrial, sterile city brimming with nothing but Big Tech and startups.

In light of this, we’ve curated a creativity crawl of imaginative experiences that best showcases this neighborhood’s bohemian flair and endless originality. If you don’t mind braving the crowds, show up for the once-a-month street party known as South First Fridays, an art walk allowing the public to meander in and out of open-door galleries and museums. But if you’d rather have the area to yourself, swing by any weekend. Ready to get stARTed?

Sculptures with prickly personalities, and much more at SJMA. (Images via Yelp)

San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA)

Our first stop overlooks the Circle of Palms Plaza (you may know it as the place ice skaters take lazy loops around palm trees in December). San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA) offers traditional paintings alongside new‑media installations — and everything in between. Initially called the San Jose Fine Arts Gallery Association, it opened in 1969 (the same year as Woodstock and the Apollo moon landing). Today, it hosts over 2,600 pieces in its permanent collection, including glass wizard Chihuly, naturalist sculptor Andy Goldsworthy and some guy called Pablo Picasso who also apparently made art.

“Contemporary art tells you that you are now,” shares Dr. Letha Chi’en art history professor at Sonoma State University and longtime SJMA member. “It tells you where you are in history. It is about our concerns, what we’re thinking about, what we’re trying to figure out.”

San Jose Museum of Art // 110 S Market St, San Jose; 408.271.6840

MACLA shows the world in all its beautiful shades of color. (Images via Yelp)

MACLA

If there’s one museum that best embodies the personality of the street, it’s this one. MACLA, a Latino arts organization, reflects the area’s flourishing Hispanic community as well as its identity as an art hub. With both a gallery and a black box theater, they offer visual and performing arts. Meaning? You might step inside and be surprised by a poetry slam or capoeira dance fighting. Or you might encounter photographs and paintings that speak of minority rights and struggles. The possibilities are endless and the admission is free.

After your visit, we recommend you continue on in the spirit of the museum by stopping for a lunch of fajitas or enchiladas from one the neighborhoods many authentic Mexican taquerias.

MACLA// 510 South 1st St, San Jose; 408.998.2783

The adventurous world of contemporary art at ICA. (Images via Yelp)

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)

Motion detectors and LEDs, cathode ray tubes and… coffee filters — all these elements and more have been incorporated into pieces at the sleek, minimalist space of our next location. At San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), exhibits constantly rotate through galleries, ensuring new, unusual experiences every time you visit. The curating team at ICA seeks under-recognized, high-quality artists — even visiting studios in their search for excellence. And like MACLA, admission is free!

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art// 560 South First Street,
San Jose; 408.283.8155

For those of you who associate pottery lessons with the movie Ghost… Stop it. (Images via )

Higher Fire Clay Space & Gallery

In the age of digital, there’s something incredibly refreshing about tactile experiences. So take up Higher Fire Clay Space & Gallery’s personal invitation to “Come play in the mud!” Classes teach both functional & decorative pottery on the wheel and aid in the creation of anything from classic bowls and plates to game sets and coffee pour-overs.

We recommend their “Just Try It” classes for hands-on practice with basic throwing, trimming, attaching and glazing. Also make sure to stop by their gallery to admire (and buy) the creations of ceramic superstars (both nationally-known and Bay Area-based).

Higher Fire Clay Space & Gallery// 499 S Market St, San Jose; 408.295.5765

SOFA murals offer up their own free, open-air museum. (Images by Johanna Hickle)

Murals

To pace yourself on galleries, take to the streets. The concentration of murals in this corner of downtown basically equates to a free, open-air museum. More than a dozen of these painted masterpieces reside in rivers of color — washing walls, surging across sides of buildings, flowing down side streets. They reflect the culture of the area, make for clever, cheap dates and offer fabulous photo shoot backdrops.

Hint: make sure to circle around buildings, to “catch them all.” And if you want to make an urban hike out of it, give this mapped out route of the murals a try.

Anno Domini is the heart of South First Fridays. (Images via Yelp)

Anno Domini Gallery

An empty Camera One movie theater turned contemporary gallery has replaced the old popcorn counter with a retail section, the silver screen with an indoor mural the movie posters with paintings. Edgier than your Thomas Kinkade niceties, Anno Domini represents urban contemporary art and culture. They regularly offer inclusive, free events the owners say attract both the skateboard kids and the suits and ties.

Fun fact: though they don’t go out of their way to broadcast it, co-founders Cherri Lakey and Brian Eder are also the creators of South First Fridays!

Anno Domini Gallery// 366 S 1st St, San Jose; 408.271.5155

Quilts… not just for grannies. (Images via Yelp)

San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

If you’d prefer to replace the straightforward art museum with something a little more unusual, check out the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. It’s the first museum dedicated entirely to this niche, and curators have seen textiles touch lives (literally and figuratively).

“One common misconception I always like to debunk is that idea that we are just your grandmother’s quilts,” shared Director Nancy Bavor in a video celebrating the museum’s recent 40th anniversary. Instead, they take “quilt” and “contemporary” and use them in tandem, exploring current topics like urban neighborhoods… and even memes! Exhibits not only feature quilts, but other textiles. These include clothing exhibitions, sculptural fiber art and installation art.

San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles// 520 S 1st St, San Jose; 408.971.0323

Get old-school classy at the California Theatre. (Images via Yelp)

California Theatre

We’ve discovered that, more often than not, when a theatre gets the old-fashioned spelling, it’s also got a history, a gorgeous gilded interior and a Wurlitzer organ that rises from the floorboards. If you’d like to throw performing arts and architectural excellence into the creative mix, this gem is not to be missed. The old-school marquee sign out front, the cast plaster details and the elaborately stenciled ceiling immerse visitors in the glamour of a past age. Initially a 1927 motion picture house called Fox Theatre, the building was restored and converted into a performing arts venue. With live performances on its stage and cinematography masterpieces on its screen, there’s always something intriguing going on within.

Visit for productions by Opera San Jose or Symphony Silicon Valley or drop in for a Cinequest Film Festival screening.

California Theatre// 345 S 1st St, San Jose; 408.792.4542

Let the show begin….at San Jose Stage Company. (Images via Yelp)

San Jose Stage Company

On the topic of performing arts, here’s another destination for those who adore all things thespian. With the furthest seat no more than 15 feet from its three-quarter thrust stage, there’s an intimacy about this place that invites the audience into the world of the story. Whether you’re into the classics (like Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) or musicals (like Mama Mia and Chicago), the Stage’s local directors and actors bring their engaging perspectives and styles to make each play uniquely theirs. In fact, over 500 performance groups from San Jose Jazz to Notre Dame High School have showcased their talent here.

One more note: although it’s on Second rather than First Street, also check out performances at City Light Theater Company.

San Jose Stage Company// 490 S 1st St, San Jose; 408.283.7142

Frascati really allows creatives to flex their fingertips. (Images via Yelp and Caffe Frascati Facebook page)

Caffe Frascati

Rather than simply stare at art, sip on it with a foam design in your latte. A patron of creatives, Caffe Frascati hosts an eclectic offering of events throughout the week. Depending on the night, you’ll encounter poetry readings, comedy open mics, Brazilian dancing, or Celtic music. On First Fridays, you’ll find singers belting mezzo-soprano for opera night.

We know you’ll be glued to the performances, but take the time to peruse the wall of autographed photos. There’s a number of well-known singers and even an Olympian in the mix.

Caffe Frascati// 315 S 1st St, San Jose; 408.287.0400

All the cool cats come to Cafe Stritch. (Image via Johanna Hickle and Yelp)

Cafe Stritch

Practically across the street, you’ll spot Cafe Stritch, a swanky haunt with exposed brick walls where quartets and bands gather almost every evening. These jam sessions include folk, blues and rock — but it’s most renowned for its jazz.

Music starts at 8:30 (we suggest getting there a little early to claim a prime seat either at floor-level or on the balcony).The lowkey, low-lit scene of Stritch is absolutely the perfect way to relax at the end of a busy day. So sit back, relax and let the soulful strains of the saxophonist and the velvety croon of the singer sweep over you.

Cafe Stritch// 374 S 1st St, San Jose; 408.280.6161

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Johanna Hickle Profile Photo

Johanna Hickle

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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