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San Jose

If you want to see the future, just look at San Jose. Over the past 50 years, this once low-key town has reinvented itself over and over, emerging in the 21st century as a national leader in technology, culture and diversity. San Jose in 2014 is one of California’s most important – and largest – cities, world-class in every way.

That’s right; San Jose outgrew San Francisco in 1990 and now, with over 1 million residents, trails only Los Angeles and San Diego among Golden State cities in population total. With a land area of 175 square miles, it’s also the fourth-largest incorporated city in the state, and as the undisputed center of Silicon Valley, it’s undoubtedly one the state’s most important.

The city is California’s fifth-oldest, having incorporated on March 29, 1850, but remained small in size and population until a long period of expansion in the 1950s and 60s that saw the city grow in size from 17 to 137 square miles. During that time, San Jose’s population grew from 95,000 to almost 450,000 and its economy changed from one driven by agriculture and manufacturing to the early stages of what it is now: a dynamic machine fueled by a long list of technology companies.

San Jose’s gleaming downtown is always a hub of activity, home to nationally-known theaters, museums of all kinds, like the Tech Museum of Innovation and the San Jose Museum of Art, a restaurant scene ranging from taquerias to five-star fine dining and professional sports teams. The San Jose Sharks, perennial Stanley Cup contenders, play at the SAP Center, just a few blocks from the center of downtown, as do the three-time Arena Football League champions San Jose SabreCats. Baseball fans can head to San Jose Municipal Stadium to see the single-A San Jose Giants, while college football fans can get their NCAA fix at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium. The university is also located downtown; its 31,000 students add a unique vibrancy to the area.

But as dazzling as San Jose’s downtown, with its stately hotels, historic districts and gleaming office towers may be, there is more to this city than its core. San Jose is made up of diverse neighborhoods. Some, like the Rose Garden area and Willow Glen, are known for their vintage homes and tree-lined streets; some are models of 21st-century transit-oriented development, with new townhomes located within walking distance of a light rail station. Others, like Blossom Valley, are almost rural in nature. Whatever your fancy, you’ll find it in San Jose.

San Jose has emerged from the shadow of San Francisco, its famous neighbor to the north, to become a center for culture and activity. It hosts an influential annual independent film festival, Cinequest, and the C2SV (Creative Convergence Silicon Valley) Fest, founded in 2012, has already grown to rival Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest festival as a can’t-miss date for technology, art and music enthusiasts. The city also has jazz festivals, a blues festival, heritage festivals and neighborhood street fairs, along with its own opera company and multiple off-Broadway-level live performance venues.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of San Jose’s status as a world-class city is located at a few miles north of downtown, where you’ll find Norm Mineta Airport. Once a tiny aerodrome, San Jose’s International airport is now one of the busiest in California. From here it’s a short taxi ride to the headquarters of Cisco Systems, San Jose’s second-largest employer. Adobe, eBay and Altera also have their headquarters in San Jose, joining Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, IBM and Qualcomm as tech companies that employ more than 1,000 workers in the city. They’re all hitched their wagons to San Jose, a city whose days in anyone’s shadow are long over.