San Salvador. The name alone invokes an air of unease for many, myself included prior to my first visit. And while it still has some way to go before it’s a highlight on the world travel scene, there are still many great things to do in San Salvador.
For years, San Salvador remained near the top of every “most dangerous city” list. Today, however, things in the capital are changing faster than many can follow. A newly restored city centre is bringing life to an area of town many wouldn’t visit just a few years ago. Shopping mega-centres, hip cafes and craft breweries are giving rise to the gentrification of the once-notorious city.
What to Do in San Salvador
San Salvador is a great spot to check out some fantastic monuments and really unique buildings, from early-20th-century architecture to modern shopping plazas.
Check out the Monuments
There are plenty of monuments spread throughout the city, but one of our favourites is the Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo.
The monument makes a fairly central hub in the city and is a gathering spot for many. In some ways, it is a focal point in which the rest of the city spreads and class is divided.
It’s an impressive sight, especially for sunset photos but is also a great place to watch skateboarders make use of the structure for play, or even to catch an impromptu concert or hip-hop show.
Explore the Newly-Restored City Centre
Plaza Libertad and the surrounding parts of the city centre were complete no-go areas just a few years ago. But in 2015, the mayor of San Salvador — now President Nayib Bukule — began a campaign to restore the area.
The city plaza is now bright, clean and, most importantly, safe! And while we didn’t venture out in the evenings, we’re told it’s not only safe during the evening, but becoming a popular hangout for locals, eager to celebrate their changing city.
New restaurants, cafes, and bars are opening up all around the centre these days, and the improvements are continuing to this day.
Take a Free Walking Tour of San Salvador
We’re huge fans of free walking tours, and try to do them whenever we arrive in a city for the first time. They’re a great way to orient yourself and get an idea of your surroundings. As well, if you only have a short time to explore the city, they’re perfect for visiting some of the highlights in a short window of time.
EC Tours is the ‘OG’ of walking tours in El Salvador, and we were so impressed with it during our first visit that we took the tour again just recently! And it was just as impressive as we remembered.
Edwin and his crew also do tours around the entire country, so if you’re looking to explore El Salvador with a tour, make sure to check them out!
Check Out San Salvador Street Markets
Venture through one of San Salvador’s busiest markets, like the chaotic afternoon market along Calle Ruben Dario, branching off from the city centre.
Bump through crowds of people selling everything from clothing and jewellery to pirated DVDs and live animals. The sellers do love touching and grabbing arms to bring you to their kiosk, so don’t be alarmed if it happens to you, its completely normal.
Keep in mind, however, that pickpockets love clueless tourists, especially in tight, busy places like these. So be vigilant, and keep your belongings close. Better yet, leave them at your hostel and just bring a few dollars to grab a snack or maybe a Gnucci purse or an Adidos hat.
Be Amazed by the Iglesia del Rosario San Salvador
The Iglesia del Rosario is an architectural marvel that can only be truly appreciated by witnessing first hand. Designed by Rubén Martínez, this stunning building is the epitome of the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
From the outside, this grey stone and metal structure is almost an eyesore against the newly-restored plaza. But step inside, and be transported to mystical surroundings.
The roof of the cathedral is full of coloured glass windows, that shines a brilliant rainbow throughout the building as the sun passes overhead. And from October to January, the “Eye of God” on the south-facing wall casts an even more impressive display on the pulpit.
It’s best to visit mid-day when the sun is at its brightest. And make sure you check out the modern art scene of the ’12 stages of the cross’ at the rear of the church. Even if you aren’t religious, it’s a very cool place to visit.
Shopping in San Salvador
If you’ve been travelling the region for a while or are just looking for a break, San Salvador is the perfect place to treat yourself. Even if you’re not much of a shopper, breaking travel routine with some modern familiarity can be a nice reset.
After travelling for a month in El Salvador, the modern conveniences of a mall were quite the treat.
Two of the most popular malls in San Salvador are:
Centro Commercial Gallerias, near Zona Rosa, isn’t the most impressive mall in town, but it’s a great place to start. It has a food court and quite a few handy shops to help you restock supplies. It might not have the same brands you recognize from home, but they’ll do in a pinch.
What’s really impressive about this mall, is the construction. The mall was built on the site of a stunning colonial mansion. But instead of destroying it, the architect physically incorporated it into the mall! In the centre of the ground level, you can wander through the old mansion, using it as an access point to the second floor. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Metrocentro Mall is the most modern of all, with many familiar shops and restaurants, and even a movie theatre.
Get in some Nature at Parque Bicentenario
To get out of the dusty city without really leaving, spend an afternoon at Parque Bicentenario. On the west side of the city, this nature reserve has plenty of trails, playgrounds, activities and picnic sites to wind down after a few days in the busy centre.
Try Salvadorian Craft Beer
Unleash your inner hipster and hop on board the emerging craft beer scene in El Salvador. Several businesses have opened up shop in recent years, and I imagine it’s a trend that will only grow.
If you have a little extra time, tour the brewery facilities and learn a little of how the beer is made!
Relax at a Hip Cafe and Taste Great Salvadorian Coffee
The changing San Salvador has given rise to a whole new cafe scene in the centre of town. So what better way to enjoy some of that incredible Salvadorian coffee than at a proper coffee shop.
And while you’ll find them popping up all over, we visited Fulanos Coffee, the first modern cafe to open following reconstruction. We were fortunate to visit with a friend, so we were given a decent sampling of what they have to offer. To say they know what they’re doing is an understatement.
From classic drip and pour-over to cold brew, lattes and other fancy coffees, we left both elated and extremely elevated.
Where to Eat in San Salvador
San Salvador is full of restaurants spanning the spectrum.
In Zona Rosa and Santa Tecla, for example, you’ll find everything from familiar fast-food chains and classic pub fare to modern, upscale restaurants.
For a more traditional experience, head to the city centre and pop in to one of the dozens of spots. Many offer delicious Salvadorian specialties at very affordable prices.
If you want the true Salvadorian experience, head to one of the busy markets and eat like a local!
A few of the more interesting places we’ve enjoyed during our visits to San Salvador are:
- Tipicos Margoth, great for Salvadorian classics like tamales;
- Food stalls from the wonderfully chaotic Mercado Central;
- Sopon Zacamil, north of the centre a bit, this is a great place to try iguana soup!
Where to Stay in San Salvador
Most hostels and hotels are found in the Zona Rosa, in the southwest part of the city. This is typically the hub for most expats and upper class. Here you’ll find everything from dirt-cheap dorms to the Crowne Plaza.
Although a lot of travellers are looking for a more ‘authentic’ experience, this is a great spot to be located for a couple of reasons. First, it’s safe. San Salvador still has its share of problems, especially in the north and east parts of the city. Secondly, it’s convenient. Catching buses, taxis, and Uber; as well as any self-catering needs will be much easier.
That said, things are changing rapidly in San Salvador, and the off-limits city centre is no longer so bad. There are many budget hotels and hostels you can find right in the centre of town. And staying right in the heart of the city, while it can be a little congested and noisy at times, is the best way to get a feel for the true San Salvador.
Where Not to Stay in San Salvador
As much as the city is improving, there is a lot of gang-related crime. Entire neighbourhoods are controlled by these violent groups. And while you’re incredibly unlikely to be targeted as a foreigner, it’s worth avoiding some parts of town altogether.
Illopango and Soyapango, on the east side of town, are the two most notorious. Mejicanos, in the far north, is another no-go-zone.
The only reason you should have to visit these parts of town would be to catch a bus heading up to Suchitoto or San Miguel. And it’s best to take a taxi to the terminal and not to wander off. You should have no issues if you stay close to the station.
Getting Around San Salvador
San Salvador Public Buses
Buses are everywhere in San Salvador. From the smaller blue-and-white microbuses to the full-sized models with all kinds of paint jobs. They’re by far the cheapest way to get around San Salvador, but you must know the system.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no longer a route map available online. Check with your accommodation and let them know where you’re headed, they should be able to give you the proper bus information.
Taxis in San Salvador
Taxis are one of the safest ways to get around the city, but they’re also the most expensive. Before boarding a taxi from the street, make sure you can see the driver’s official paperwork and registration, and agree on a price before leaving.
Although we’ve only had good experiences with taxis in San Salvador, there are stories of people being ripped off.
Get Around with Uber
Uber is by far the safest, cheapest and most popular way to get around San Salvador. If you’ve never used Uber, now is the time to start. The driver is registered in the system, you can track the ride, and there is no cash involved in the transaction.
In a city with sometimes questionable safety, why take the risk?
On that note…
Is San Salvador Safe?
This question will vary significantly depending on who you ask. If that person is from outside the country and has never actually visited, they’ll likely tell you it’s not safe. If you ask a Salvadorian immigrant, who fled the country during the bad years, what they have to say will likely be worse.
And it isn’t their fault. For most foreigners, their only glimpse into El Salvador is what they see on the news. And we all know that good news doesn’t sell. For Salvadorian expats, their memories are from a time when the country was either engulfed in horrific civil war or the post-war years of brutal gang violence.
Travel warnings don’t help the situation much either. True, they’re a good place to look to get a general idea of what to expect before visiting a new country — especially when that country has a tumultuous past. However, they often paint the grimmest picture imaginable of the current scene.
Take this one, from the Canadian Government website in February, 2018:
If I believed every travel warning my government gave me, I’d never have left my mother’s womb. This was issued during our first visit to El Salvador. And based on our experience, and how we felt during our time, it couldn’t have been more inaccurate.
There is a lot of gang activity in San Salvador, especially in the surrounding neighbourhoods, but the violence is almost always held within that circle. And there still are a lot of problems with the gangs and their awful extortion practices against local businesses. It isn’t the safest place to live. But the problems, as horrible as they can be, are almost never involving tourists.
So, is San Salvador safe? Yes — and no. It depends on who you are, where you go, and who you associate with. But I’m assuming that you, and most other travellers, have enough sense of what is right and wrong.
Staying Safe in San Salvador
To stay safe in San Salvador, the best thing you can do is stick to certain areas of the city. The revamped centre of town, surrounding Plaza Libertad, is one of the safest parts of San Salvador proper these days. Avoid straying too far east of the centre, and you should be fine. North, up towards the university, is also safe.
West of the centre, along Alameda Franklin Roosevelt, passed Cuscutlan Park is also good. Outside of the centre the western areas, including Zona Rosa, are the safest, and most gentrified parts of the city. This is where you’ll find most embassies, foreign chain hotels and restaurants, craft breweries, and some shopping malls.
Santa Tecla, a suburb of San Salvador is another nice area, where many of San Salvador’s upper class live. Here there are plenty of upscale restaurants, more craft beer, and plenty of shopping.
Stick to these areas, and you should encounter nothing more dangerous than the same petty crime you can find anywhere. Follow our common-sense safety tips and you shouldn’t have any issues.
You can explore San Salvador outside of these areas, but it’s best to do so only after speaking to a trustworthy local first. A recent crackdown on gangs is dispersing them from some of their long-held turfs. They’ll likely head outside of the city, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. Check with your hotel or hostel before exploring too far.
Get out and explore this lesser-visited and under-appreciated capital city. Help break the stigma that’s long held this city back.
Enjoy San Salvador and the rest of this wonderful country!