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Sprawling, intense, and colorful, San Salvador is a city of multiple, often conflicting identities. Though ravaged by earthquakes and a bloody civil war, it has refused to quit moving, and the kindness and helpfulness of its people deserve at least as much attention as the gang violence that continues to plague the city. In the bustling centro, locals hawk wares at mercados while tourists explore the sights of the old city. The city’s young elite flock to the Zona Rosa, where modern, upscale restaurants, bars, and clubs belie the frantic pace of life elsewhere. In the avant-garde area around C. San Antonio Abad, local artists mingle with expats and backpackers, while the Blvd. de los Héroes offers every variety of fast food imaginable in an often uncanny display of the city’s quickly growing consumer culture. Though San Salvador is in many ways a newly growing city, its history is long and rich. The sprawling shantytowns that have developed on the outskirts of the city are a constant reminder of the country’s more troubled past. While the conflict between this history and the bustle of modern business can sometimes seem painfully obvious, it is also a testament to the tenacity of San Salvador’s people. No matter what confronts them, they keep moving along, always willing to trade jokes or lend a helping hand.
Though El Salvador is a tiny country, San Salvador has the second-largest population of any Central American city. The sheer number of people living here is evident in the sprawling, often confusing mass of neighborhoods that make up the city. Like other cities in Central America, San Salvador operates on a grid system; avenidas run north to south while calles go east to west. At the center is the Catedral Metropolitana. From here, avenidas to the west have odd numbers, while those to the east have even ones. Calles increase in odd numbers as you go north from the Catedral and increase even numbers to the south. Avenidas are divided by Calle Arce and Calle Delgado. Avenidas are labeled norte (north) or sur (south) depending on their location north or south of this main street. Likewise, calles are divided by Avenida Espana and Avenida Cuscatlan, those going west labeled O (from Oriente) and P (Poniente) for those moving East.
The city center is located in the eastern section of San Salvador, and is generally safe during the day but best visited by taxi at night. Northwest of the center is the university district, bounded by Calle San Antonio Abad and Boulevard de los Héroes. Popular with students and backpackers, this area is generally one of the city’s safest, though the abundance of malls and American fast-food chains may not feel particularly authentic. To the southwest is the upscale Zona Rosa and Colonia Las Palmas, where San Salvador’s young and stylish elite hang in swanky restaurants and bars. Most visitors to San Salvador will spend most, if not all of their time, in these areas, which are usually safe during the day. As a rule, it is best to always take a taxi when out in San Salvador after dusk; though crime in the city is usually not targeted at tourists, taxis are cheap and can prevent mugging and pickpocketing, especially around the city center.
The center of San Salvador’s grid system, the Catedral Metropolitana boasts a blue and yellow dome of the Cathedral that is visible throughout El Centro. The tomb of famous Archbishop Romero, perhaps El Salvador’s most widely known theologian and war hero, is buried underneath the Cathedral. San Salvador’s most famous museum, the Museo Nacional de Antropología David Guzmán, complete with multiple galleries, a sculpture garden, and landscaped pathways displays artifacts from El Salvador’s pre-colonial and postcolonial history. Lastly, if you prefer flora over buildings, the Botanical Gardens provide a relaxing retreat where you can walk trails lined with thousands of indigenous and foreign plant species.
San Salvador is filled with incredible opportunities to see and explore. Click the links to explore and book tours and local guides.
San Salvador provides culinary options for almost everyone; pupuserias sell the local beans-and-cheese fried specialty, while the ubiquitous sight of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and other American fast food chains blend in with Salvadoran versions like Mister Donut and the amusingly named Biggest. Those sick of burgers and beans can explore international options on Blvd. de los Héroes and in the Zona Rosa, where upscale restaurants offer the latest in foreign cuisine. Vegetarians have a surprising number of options in San Salvador, though local vegetarian cuisine is heavy on beans and not much else. Still, there are several vegetarian-friendly options around the University and Blvd. de los Héroes. The truly desperate or homesick can always find something to eat at one of the city’s many mega-malls, which have food courts and restaurants serving everything from Argentinian to Chinese to Mexican and local cuisine.
The first rule of dining in El Salvador is to embrace corn. Expect corn tortillas with every meal, breakfast included, but don’t mistake the cuisine for boring because of it. With menu specialties like sopa de pata, a soup made from corn, plantains, cow’s feet, and tripe, the less adventurous among us will find comfort in those tortillas. But do not fret—there is still an amazing and palatable variety to be had.
The influence of corn extends even to drinks. Atol is a thick, corn based, warm beverage, flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sometimes chocolate or fruit. Sweetened juices made from tropical fruits of the region are also quite popular, as well as Kolashampan, a sugar cane flavored soda. On a night out, beer is the beverage of choice among Salvadorans.
San Salvador’s nightlife is one of the most attractive points of the city. Students, hipsters, leftists, art-lovers, and broke travelers alike head to Calle San Antonio Abad, where live music, beer, or coffee can be found almost any day of the week. Zona Rosa is home to the city’s more upscale clubbing scene, where visitors can expect to pay a cover of US$5-10 to join the crowds of well-dressed Salvadorans mingling and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. For those who can’t get their fix at these hotspots, San Salvador’s massive mega-malls are becoming the new nightlife favorite; though most of these clubs are relatively similar, they have the convenience of being stuffed together in one building, making transport a bit easier. All nightlife in San Salvador is best reached by taxi or car. Remember to get a taxi instead of walking home.
When greeting a Salvadoran, a handshake is customary, but it is not an opportunity for a display of superhuman strength: here, handshakes are typically less firm and longer lasting than their American counterparts. When a man and a woman meet, it is proper for the woman to extend her hand first. Once you’ve moved beyond introductions and onto small talk, try to avoid controversial topics such as local politics and religion; you could find yourself digging up uncomfortable tensions between Catholics and born-again evangelical Protestants. If you are a guest in someone’s home, remember to bring a gift for your host, but steer clear of lilies and marigolds, as these flowers are commonly associated with funerals. There is a formality to Salvadoran culture: refrain from addressing new acquaintances by their first names until invited to and be careful not to offend the dignity or honor of any local with whom you interact.