San Salvador is an interesting mix of history and modernism. The downtown center is in the process of being beautifully restored to its former glory. The Teatro Nacional (National Theater) recently opened its doors and is a great excuse to go see the symphony, a ballet, or a show from the local theater groups. The Catedral Metropolitano (Metropolitan Cathedral) and the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) are impressive sights, and the Iglesia Rosario (Rosario Church) is not to be missed. In other parts of the city you’ll find some of the best shopping, restaurants, food, arts and entertainment in the country. And all of this is nestled among several volcanoes in the Valley of Hammocks.
In San Salvador proper:
Centro – In Central San Salvador, you can find both the elegance and the destruction of the city’s past. The Catedral, the Teatro Nacional and the Palacio Nacional have been subjected to earthquakes, storms, and fires and now have been beautifully restored. Find your way through the chaotic markets to the Rosario Church, which, despite looking like an airplane hangar, actually houses beautiful stained glass in the ceiling and sculptures by Salvadoran artist, Rubén Martínez.
San Benito – An area known for its nightlife, San Benito’s Zona Rosa offers tourists five-star hotels, bars, nightclubs, cafes and restaurants. It is also the home of the MUNA (or Museum of Anthropology), the MARTE (Museum of Arts), Teatro Presidente (Presidential Theater) and the Feria Internacional (a convention center and concert venue). This is also the best place to get off the Tica Bus or King Quality if you want to access the beaches to the south and west, or any part of Western El Salvador. You’ll be sorely disappointed if you wait until the last stop, San Carlos, which is located in a shady part of town and farther away from terminals leading to any of the above areas.
Zona Rosa – Hopping every weekend with the energy of vibrant clubs and bars, Zona Rosa is where the night owls dress up and go out for a night of salsa, pumping music, happy hours and disco.
Boulevard Los Héroes & San Luis – Here you will find Metrocentro, the biggest mall in the Central American region; the nearby neighborhood of San Luis offers some of the city's best dive bars, discos, a thriving arts scene and some of the city’s cheapest backpacking hostels.
Paseo Escalón – A wide boulevard that is home to various restaurants and two malls, Paseo and Galerías, that offer many opportunities for shopping. Galerias is particularly interesting as it houses a 1950’s mansion that used to be a landmark in San Salvador. Apparently, the owners refused to sell unless Galerías kept their house intact, so…they built the mall around it.
Plan de La Laguna – A strange mix of industrial factories and natural beauty, Plan de La Laguna is home to a lovely botanical garden situated at the bottom of a volcanic crater. Here you will find a wide selection of the flora and fauna native to El Salvador. There is also an exotic plant nursery, a schedule of gardening classes and a Mayan monolith of great interest to scholars and eco-tourists alike.
Parque Bicentenario – Covering 129 manzanas (roughly 300 acres), the recently inaugurated Parque Bicentenario is a beautiful natural oasis in the midst of concrete jungle that is San Salvador. Its name refers to the 200th anniversary of the call for independence, celebrated in 2011. It has cycling and walking paths throughout and harbors an abundance of plant and animal life.
Antiguo Cuscatlan – A bustling university area, Antiguo Cuscatlan holds an important piece of Salvadoran history alongside cute café’s and comedores (stalls) selling typical food. On the shady green campus of the University of Central America (UCA – “oo-kah”) is the museum of the martyrs, where six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered. The museum recounts the history of that day and how it affected the Civil War, artifacts from the priests, the rooms and gardens in which they were killed, and, if you have the stomach for it, photos of the actual murders. On a lighter note, just outside of Anitguo is Estadio Cuscatlan, where Salvadoran National Football team holds its matches. The stadium is one of the largest in Central America, so if you get a chance to go to a game, don’t pass it up. For an authentically “Salvadoran” experience, get tickets in the Vietnam section. A word of caution, however - if you can’t guess why it’s called Vietnam, you probably aren’t prepared to sit there.
Around San Salvador:
El Boquerón-A scenic drive will take you up the side of the San Salvador volcano, passing coffee fincas and ranches that are taking advantage of the rich volcanic soil and finally arriving at El Boquerón National Park. Along the way, you’ll also see vendors selling wild blackberries and strawberries, a rare sight in the tropics. The National Park includes a trail that leads through beautiful gardens of plants and trees native to El Salvador to the rim of the crater. At the top, hikers can view the inside of the crater and Boqueróncito, a smaller crater situated at the bottom of the larger one.
Los Planes de Renderos – Known simply as “Los Planes”, this area is located just outside of San Salvador and offers beautiful views (especially at night) of the city, and the scenic viewpoint at Puerta del Diablo, which is also a great spot for rock climbing. Los Planes is known for some amazing takes on the traditional pupusa along with more typical food. La Casa del Escritor (The Writer’s House) is also in Los Planes, located in the former home of famed Salvadoran artist “Salarrué”. It was founded by writer and journalist Rafael Menjivar Ochoa Salvador in order to teach the skills of writing and has now transformed into a place to learn a variety of art forms including painting and dance.
Nueva San Salvador (Santa Tecla) – Located just west of San Salvador, Santa Tecla has gone through a revival in the past few years and now offers some of the best dining and nightlife in the city. Cafés with wrought-iron tables and chairs line the Paseo del Carmen (a short street) that becomes a walkway of local arts and crafts, live music, and tasty local food every weekend.