A resilient capital rich in history, scars, and hope
Duration: at least one week
Stay: Hotel Villa Florencia Centro Histórico
San Salvador, El Salvador’s resilient heart. The capital bears deep scars. Many of them are still visible at Centro Histórico and tangible in the hearts and memories of its inhabitants. Its heartache was omnipresent. Yet the city’s fierce determination for a better future and aspirations are infectious, making San Salvador our favorite capital in Central America.
A capital between volcanos and beaches The pulsing capital is surrounded by stunning volcanos, frolicking with many day trip opportunities. If these weren’t enough reasons to visit, you could also reach some of the most lively beaches within a short bus (about one hour) if you feel like getting out of the city. San Salvador mesmerized us and stole our hearts. We can only recommend visiting and getting to know its fabulous people.
- Sight Seeing 85% 85%
- Culture 95% 95%
- Activities 100% 100%
- Nightlife 70% 70%
San Salvador is exciting, its energy infectious. The city, with its many museums, churches, and
murals, offers visitors the opportunity to learn and understand El Salvador’s history. Colorful
paintings often grace San Salvador’s walls. Pay attention when passing them. They often tell the
stories of recent history and aim to raise awareness of social issues.
San Salvador’s historic center is a window to the past. Until recent years, most middle-class people did not dare to visit their Centró Histórico after the civil war ended in 1992. Then, step by step, the San Salvadorians took back their center as the wounds slowly started to heal. Restoration is taking place between the bullet-scarred walls and crumbling buildings, and several bargain shops, food vendors, and visitors have sprung up. There are various second-hand stores, and we indulged in a shopping spring. We have gotten to know the El Salvadorians as fierce and optimistic, and the historic center represents precisely this to us.
We visited the National Library, where the peace bibliography is exhibited. Shortly after Valentine’s day, we found a wall created by visitors expressing their love for their country, peace, and literature.
It sits right next to the Catedral Metropolitana. The impressive Palacio National, the republic’s first building, was constructed in 1870. Today the Palacio Nacional is home to the national archives and sometimes features art exhibitions.
San Salvador’s Teatro Nacional might be the oldest theater in Central America. It is the most important for arts and culture in El Salvador.
Iglesia El Rosario – A must-visit church
Our favorite building, and the fascinating one, is Iglesia El Rosario. While the building is rather unimposed from the outside, you’ll find a kaleidoscope of colors once you enter. Thousands of colored glass pieces set in the half-moon-shaped ceiling create and fantastic play of colors as the light shines into the building. The atmosphere is sheer beautiful. Designed by the young Ruben Martinez, the church aims to be the first statement against the elitism of the Latin mass. A symbol of equality and solidarity with the working class and the poor.
The cathedral is perhaps the most impressive building on the central plaza. The original building, constructed in wood, burnt down in 1956. The church also played an essential role in the civil war when anti-government protestors overtook the cathedral on several occasions. Tragically, 24 people were killed on the cathedral steps in 1979. When one year later, tragedy
struck again. While human rights champion and archbishop Monsenor Oscar Romero’s funeral took place, security forces opened fire, killing another 44 people. The late archbishop’s thumb is located in the cathedral’s basement and can be visited during opening hours.
Party the night away in Zona Rosa
No Latin American capital is complete without its Zona Rosa. This elegant and affluent part of the city stands in contrast to San Salvador’s Centro histórico. Hip cafés, lively nightspots, and many fancy restaurants make up Zona Rosa.
Hike Parque National El Boquerón
Known as the “big mouth” because of its steep-walled crater, we reached El Boqueron within a 30 minutes drive from San Salvador. The national park consists of two significant peaks making up Volcan San Salvador. It also goes by the name Quezaltepe. There are various hikes you can do within the national park. Some of them lead to lookout points with views over San Salvador. Walking around the crater is possible. With a guide, you can challenge yourself by hiking down the crater’s walls. You’ll find some (pricey) but delicious restaurants on the road to the park. It is the perfect spot to spend a relaxed evening amongst San Salvador’s hip crowd. The views over the city by night are stunning! We loved “Pupuseria Loka.” The Llorc con queso pupusas are our favorite!
Live the surfer's life at Costa de Balsamico
Live El Salvador’s surfer life at La Costa de Balsamico. The distinct places lay 2 hours outside of the city. The two black sand beaches offer fantastic surfing opportunities and buzzing nightlife on the weekends.
Our favorite beaches around San Salvador
Even though we really wanted to visit the well-known El Tunco beach, we almostcouldn’t get ourselves to leave San Salvador. Take this as a token of how mesmerizing the city truly is. Yet, we made it for at least a long weekend! Let us tell you: El Tunco parties hard on the weekends but is super relaxed during the week.
Best places to stay around in El Tunco
Layback Surf Hotel
- Mandala Eco Villas
El Zonte Beach
Playa El Zonte, on the other hand, is supposedly much quieter. The waves make it the perfect spot to learn how to surf.
Best place to stay around El Zonte
- Hammock Plantation
Santa Tecla – the place to spend the weekend
Because of San Salvador’s complicated past, many locals were afraid to go out and enjoy their city. “Nueva San Salvador” sprung up 15 km outside of San Salvador. Santa Tecla, a pedestrian-only strip, turns into a lively weekend market. At night bars and nightclubs are open to entertaining Santa Tecla’s visitors.
Get ready to travel El Salvador
How to get to San Salvador by bus
Depending on where you are coming from, you’ll arrive at:
Terminal de Occidente:
San Salvador’s bus terminal handles all arrivals and departures from Western El Salvador, e.g., Santa Ana (bus 201, $1.35, 1,5 hours), Ruta de las Flores/ Ahuachapan (bus 202, $1,5, 2,5 hours), or La Libertad (bus 102, $0.60, 1 hour).
Terminal de Oriente:
The bus terminal handling Eastern El Salvador, e.g., San Miguel (bus 301,$4, about 3-4
hours), Suchitoto (Bus 129, $0.70, 2 hours), La Union (buses 304&446, $3.50, 4 hours)
Terminal del Sur:
This bus terminal serves all Southern destinations, including Costa del Sol (bus 495, $1.25, 25 hours) and Puerto el Triunfo (bus 185, $1.60, 2 hours)
Public Transport in San Salvador
You can easily explore the city and its surroundings by bus. Unfortunately, the buses might sometimes take a slightly different route depending on traffic. But, don’t worry, many El
Salvadorians have lived or had family in the US, making it easy to find someone who speaks English and helps you out.
Places to stay in San Salvador
Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalón are two of the best neighborhoods to stay in. Naturally, the prices are a bit higher. Alternatively, check out Antiguo Cuscatlan. The young community close to the university is a lot budget-friendlier.
Best time to travel to San Salvador
Our friends recommend us to come back in August for the “Fiestas Agostinas” in San Salvador and “Las Bolas de Fuego” in nearby Nejapa. The “Fiestas de Agostinas” celebrate San Salvador’s patron saint with parades and fireworks. “Las Bolas de Fuego” is a spectacle that follows a long-standing tradition of throwing fireballs at each other.
Safety in San Salvador
There is no denying it. San Salvador is a Central American capital, and certain precautions must be taken. Don’t flash your big camera around and take taxis at night. Yet, San Salvador felt a lot safer than one would have expected. We felt comfortably secure and welcomed. You have to note that until today, El Salvador is ruled by fear and brutal memories. Therefore, many locals take extreme precautions and will advise you against many things. As a visitor, you must be
aware of that and know that you are NOT the target.
San Salvador's civil war – Who was Archbishop Oscar Romero?
El Salvador’s past was brutal and dark. Thousands of people were tortured, disappeared, or murdered during the civil war. Yet, Oscar Romero stood with his people and demanded justice. The remarkable bishop even stopped the reconstruction of the famous Catedral Metropolitana to help the poor instead. In 1977, when he became archbishop, the police shot down 24 people. Tragically, Romero himself
was killed only three years later. Even at his funeral, the killings continued. Yet, until today, Oscar Romero is widely beloved and remembered. His life and memory of him are unintendingly tied to San Salvador’s dark past.
Do not drink tap water in El Salvador; bring your Lifestraw instead! While water from the national water company (ANDA) is generally safe, you never know the water source the restaurant, hotels, and so on may use.
Biggest challenge for the responsible traveler
Trash: As anywhere in Latin America, a lot of street food is served in plastic or one-way containers. Make sure to bring your foldable food container with you. Don’t forget to bring your Lifestraw, too.
Sunscreen: Protect El Salvador’s marine life and bring riff-friendly sunscreen.
Packing List Central America
Central America is super diverse and offers plenty of things to do. Check out our packing list, get ready for an incredible adventure!
Places to visit in El Salvador
Do not skip El Salvador! It’s one of the most amazing countries to visit in Central America!
We traveled to Central America a couple of times and had the chance to see several Maya sites along the way. Each impressive in its own way. Contrary to other Maya ruins across Central America. You’ll often have Copan to yourself. The mysterious archaeological site boasts remarkable hieroglyphics and sculptures. On top of that, the town of Copan itself is drop-dead charming.
Excited for the last volcano for this journey was awaiting us tomorrow. Volcano Santa Ana’s incredibly impressive crater marks the highlight for many travelers coming to El Salvador for a good reason. We were left speechless (and breathless) when we first set our eyes on the turquoise crater lake.
El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores is a real gem. The 40 km winding road is seamed by the picturesque villages with excellent food markets. Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of things to do from discovering coffee plantations to volcano hikes and swims under stunning waterfalls.