Earth : North America : Central America : El Salvador : San Salvador
San Salvador is the capital city of El Salvador, approximately in the center of the country in a valley near the base of the San Salvador volcano. The city has a long history, with origins dating back to the Spanish conquest of the Pipil tribes.
San Salvador lies in the "Valle de las Hamacas" (literally "Valley of the hammocks", as it was named by the colonizing Spaniards, due to its intense earthquake activity) at the foot of the San Salvador volcano. It covers an area of 600 square km and is home to nearly 2 million people. It is home to one-third of El Salvador's population and one-half of the country's wealth.
The people of San Salvador are generally friendly, though as in any large city, less inclined to engage in conversations with strangers on the street as opposed to other parts of the country. The established suburbs of Colonia San Benito, Colonia Escalon, Colonia San Francisco and Colonia Maquilishuat were traditionally the enclaves of the country's elite, with large estates and beautiful tree-lined avenues. These areas and their surrounds were largely untouched during the civil war that ravaged the country, but became the epicenter of the 'Final Offensive' in 1989 when anti-government forces launched a surprise attack on the capital, a move that signaled the beginning of the end of the brutal war. Due to rapid population growth, these areas have become high-density in parts, where older houses have given way to modern residential and commercial towers. While many older mansions remain residential, others have been turned into boutique cafes, small bars, restaurants and foreign embassies. Most tourists choose to stay in these areas as they remain the more pleasant, leafy and safer parts of the city. Museums, Art Galleries and Theaters are located here.
The areas of Santa Elena (where the US Embassy is located), Nuevo Cuscatlan, Ciudad Merliot and their surrounds are newer, where the country's modern and more luxurious shopping malls can be found (conveniently within walking distance to each other) and a steadily increasing number of gated communities and residential towers popular with expats, along with international hotel chains. Informal settlements ('communidades') have sprung up alongside creeks and blocks of land in many suburbs, some larger than others, squeezed in between gated communities and larger estates. For security reasons, it is advisable not to enter these areas.
There are middle class areas close to the wealthier neighborhoods, such as Colonia Flor Blanca, which showcase stunning examples of art deco and architectural oddities (like the Castillo Venturoso building), an ode to the city's golden era prior to the civil war. Poorer areas are located in the northern and eastern districts, along with an abundance of shanty towns sprawling along the city's eastern fringes, which are best avoided due to gang activity.
San Salvador's climate is tropical, although the weather can vary; the nights may be cool (especially in December), however, most of the time it is sunny and warm. Wearing t-shirts, jeans, and possibly a light rain jacket is usually sufficient.
Whilst not on most tourists' "to do" list in El Salvador, the capital provides a good base for exploring the rest of the country as it's a transportation hub, with most major roads running through it due to its central location. Spending a few days exploring this cosmopolitan and internationally-conscious city can be a rewarding experience. Whilst parts can seem like a maze of confusion, rich vs poor, modern vs dilapidated, cars vs pedestrians, the city has played a major role in defining and shaping the rest of this small yet intriguing country, once at the forefront of the Cold War. To understand this polarized country, it is essential to understand its political, cultural and social headquarters.
San Salvador International Airport (IATA: SAL) (ICAO: MSLP) is in Comalapa which is located 50km (30mi) south of San Salvador serving the city of San Salvador and for the country as a whole. It is also the largest airport in Central America. National and international airlines serving this airport include:
Given the small size of the country there are no national domestic flights offered.
The airport is located near the coast, and close to popular beaches. For budget travelers the local bus (#138) can take you from the airport into downtown San Salvador for US$0.70 . It is slower than the shuttles and can take up to an hour to get into town as the bus makes multiple stops to pick up and drop off people en-route. To reach the local buses; cross the big parking lot in front of the airport terminal. Then go through an open building at the opposite side of the parking (behind trees) to reach the road. There is a bus-stop at the other side of the building by the road. The next best thing is a limited number of collective shuttle offered by Taxi Acacya  going from the arrivals zone of the airport to their office at 3° Calle Poniente y 19° Av. Norte N° 1107; Esquina Opuesta a Puerto Bus in Central San Salvador for fixed price. Otherwise it's a taxi ride for $25+ from the airport to wherever you want to go in San Salvador.
If driving to San Salvador from Comalapa, exercise extreme caution. There are many people who walk along the road.
If coming from Honduras, there are daily first-class buses from San Pedro Sula direct to San Salvador. Likewise, from Guatemala there are direct first class services from Guatemala City as well as Puerto Barrios. Shuttles run from Antigua Guatemala, Copan Ruinas, Honduras and Léon, Nicaragua and cost about $40 each.
You can also take local transportation within the neighbouring countries and take buses from the Salvadorian side of the border to the capital (much cheaper than shuttles and direct first class buses). From the border at El Poy (near Ocotepeque in Honduras - the crossing you would use when coming from Copán Ruinas or San Pedro Sula), a bus to San Salvador costs between $2 and $3.50 for the 3hour journey, depending on the standard of the bus - for $3.50 you will have an extremely comfortable airconditioned bus, the same style as a first-class Hedman Alas, but a few years older. The last bus departs around 4:30pm though, so be sure to make it in time.
You may arrive at a number of terminals in San Salvador, most likely at Fenadesal in the east of the city. Buses to El Tunco leave from outside the Occidental (west) terminal. Bus 52 ($0.20) will take you from Fenadesal to within walking distance of the Occidental terminal, get off before Monumento Salvador del Mundo (15minutes walking from here, ask a local or download the map for your phone).
The following bus companies offer comfortable, safe and air conditioned travel with meals included, between San Salvador and other Central American cities & Mexico:
By far the cheapest option to get around is the public bus system. Generally speaking, bus fares run about $.60 per hour, making transportation to almost any tourist destination in the country less than $5 per person. Despite tourists' complaints, there are schedules to the buses; they run pretty regularly and reach any destination you wish to go.
Major car companies in El Salvador have a habit of being unreliable and for charging for damages that renters did not do. Safeguard yourself by thoroughly checking the car and taking good photos of it before leaving. Alamo has a particularly bad reputation for service and quality. National Rental Car has a fair reputation. The others fall in between. Private parties often rent their vehicles and are more honest than dealing with chains. Just make sure that the car comes with insurance as you will be responsible for damages in an accident or end up in jail until things can be sorted out!
Taxis also provide good ways of getting around. Negotiating the cost of your taxi before you step in is common practice and expected. Expect to pay around $25-35 between the airport and San Salvador or the airport and Playa El Tunco. Carry small denominations of money and have exact change for your taxi fare. It is not common to tip taxi drivers, although they may try to convince you to leave some spare change!
Distances between sights make walking an unpopular option for those in a hurry as does the street layout in the city; San Salvador is not a square city but has long avenues that are straight and streets that are not. That said, in some areas walking is a great option, such as the short, 15 minute walk between Zona Rosa and Las Terrazas (Sheraton hotel) which are close together and within sight of one another. If you are interested in Art Deco and Salvadoran architecture, walking is a perfect option to get around the city. One favorite stroll is along Paseo General Escalon (Colonia Escalon) to Central San Salvador - a 45 minute walk that takes you past many historical sites and interesting photo ops. Another great walking option is through Parque Bicentenario, a large green space in Antiguo Cuscatlan with paths and playgrounds, perfect for families.
San Salvador has wide avenues and boulevards, including the two widest boulevards in Central America: Boulevard de los Proceres and Boulevard de los Heroes. Other important boulevards include Alameda Roosevelt, Paseo General Escalon, Av. Jerusalem, Boulevard Constitucion and Av. Juan Pablo Segundo.
San Salvador has many beautiful monuments, some of them dating back to the early 20th century, while others are more modern. Some of the most important monuments include the National Palace, Plaza Gerardo Barrios, Plaza La Libertad, Plaza Morazan, Water Clock, Monument to the Sea, Atlacatl Monument and the Proceres Monuments (it has 10 busts of famous Salvadorans that line the street).
One of the most recognizable monuments in El Salvador is the Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo, or "Monument to the Saviour of The World". The Saviour is San Salvador's Patron Saint and is celebrated with massive festivities during the first full week of August every year.
Historic Center (Centro Historico)
Earthquakes and a civil war did no favors for the historic center of the city, which has fallen into decay since the 1980s. Office buildings have long been abandoned, and streets are congested with thousands of street vendors and makeshift stalls, where shopping is at its most frenetic and the informal market buzzes at a fast and loud pace. Efforts are currently underway to restore many of the majestic historical buildings that date back to the 1800s, and to relocate the vendors to a new central market just outside the center. If you do visit, it is important to remember that gangs currently control different sectors. While you are unlikely to witness or be the victim of violence, it is recommended to visit as part of a tour, which can be organized at most hotels or hostels.
The Iglesia Rosario, a church built by sculptor Ruben Martinez in the 1970's, is arguably one of the most radically beautiful buildings in Central America. Resembling an airplane hangar from the outside, it is visually awe-inspiring from the inside, where a rainbow of colors rush across the floor and across the altar, as the natural night bounces off the metal and rock with the changing position of the sun.
The Metropolitan Cathedral nearby was built in 1956, replacing the previous Cathedral that was destroyed by an Earthquake in the 1800s. A steady stream of local and international tourists visit daily to see the tomb of Oscar Romero.
An open plan plaza at the base of a modern business tower, this is a popular expat hangout full of restaurants, cafe's and bars. Prices here are generally higher, however it offers some great views of the city. A pedestrian bridge connects Plaza Futura with the Crowne Plaza Hotel across the road.
San Salvador has a large urban park, the Parque Bicentenario, popular with families, joggers, dog walkers and nature lovers, providing a welcome respite to residents. Popular with locals, the beautiful botanical gardens of La Laguna located at the bottom of a volcanic crater showcase much native fauna. Zoologico Nacional (The National Zoo), and Parque Saburo Hirao (with a collection of native plants) are in the SE part of the city by the old Presidential House.
Visit El Boquerón to get up close to San Salvador's iconic volcano that last erupted in 1917 - there is a beautiful and well maintained walk along the rim, where you can peer into the crater 1,831 feet deep. The cooler temperatures at this altitude make for a pleasant walk with vastly different vegetation (Pine trees) and is popular with local and international tourists, especially on weekends. There is a small fee to enter the park and a small, but interesting information center. Tours can be arranged from most hotels. There are plenty of eateries surrounding El Boquerón, however there are restaurants along the main road offering some of the most spectacular views of the city such as Las Brumas and La Pampa El Volcán.
If you don't get a chance to visit smaller towns and villages outside the capital, a must see destination is Los Planes De Renderos. 1000 Meters above sea level, and it offers a spectacular view of San Salvador. This is a popular oasis for locals from the hectic city life. Check out the restaurants, and near-by parque Balboa, (Balboa Park) with lots of trees and green lawns, ideal for picnics. Indulge yourself eating the tasty salvadorean treat known as pupusas! Puerto del Diablo is another interesting place near Los Planes, a natural rock formation that holds a morbid place in El Salvador's historical civil war. Rock climbing is abundant near here and you can find climbing activities with the Federacion Salvadorena de Montanismo Escalada. Visit the nearby colonial town of Panchimalco, one of the few towns in the country with a large indigenous population.
San Salvador has many museums, the two most important are "Museo David J Guzman" and "Museo de Arte MARTE". David J Guzman National Museum of Anthropology contains a variety of Mayan and Pipil artifacts, while Museo de Arte MARTE displays an extensive collection of international art. Both are located in the Zona Rosa district. There is also a children's museum, the Tin-Marin  museum, where kids can experience the world in a fun way. The old national palace is being restored to house the "National Archives," and the "National Museum." Also a new display of early mammal fossils, including a giant sloth, mastodon and more than twenty other species is being set up in the "Museo de Historia Natural," or "Natural History Museum" situated in the SE section of Saburo Hirao park by the National Zoo. Close to the zoo is the "Museo Militar," or Military Museum which is housed in the old castle-like "El Zapote" barracks built in 1895. In the military museum you can find weapons and army uniforms from the 17th, 18th, and early 20th centuries, which were historically used by the Salvadoran army. Other highlights of this museum include the original copies of the 1992 peace accords and the Pope Mobile used when Pope John Paul II visited the country. Entrance is free and a guide service is provided at no charge.
San Salvador has numerous theatres, including the beautiful Teatro Presidente (located near Zona Rosa), where the symphony orchestra and El Salvador Ballet Company regularly perform. A list of performances and events can be found here. The Teatro Nacional in the historic center of the city has recently been restored to its full splendor, where you can step back and experience the grandeur once reserved for the city's elite in the early 1900s.
San Salvador has several entertainment venues. You can go to restaurants, bars, clubs, casinos, or if you are traveling with kids you can go to the cinemas, bowling, bingo, arcades etc. Cinemas in San Salvador include
You can also play video games at World Games and El Mundo Feliz. Families may also want to visit Central America's largest toy store:
The bars, restaurants and clubs at Multiplaza Mall is the entertainment epicenter of the city and popular with young revelers on weekends. A few bars and restaurants can be found within walking distance to each other in the Zona Rosa. Smalls bars are always opening up around Escalon and San Benito, popular with the well-heeled youth of the city.
One of the best Spanish Language Schools is:
Started by the former guerillas and a network of foreign aid, CIS strives to better the lives of the Salvadoran people. Their popular language school offers private and group classes, and often hosts lectures by former combatants and other notable people from El Salvador's recent history.
Top international schools (K-12) are:
Some of the shopping malls include: Loma Linda, Multiplaza , Las Fuentes, Galerias , Metrocentro, , El Paseo, Plazamundo , Plaza Merliot , La Gran Via  (a lifestyle center / "city walk"), Las Cascadas, Basilea , Plaza San Benito and Villas Españolas. These malls have luxury boutiques, international fashion chains, specialty stores and large food courts.
For local arts and crafts, visit the Ilopango markets east of the city. Test your bargaining skills and take home some unique, handmade goods. For cheap souvenirs such as hammocks and other local crafts try the Mercado Cuartel. A good hammock can be yours for under $15 US, depending on bargaining skills. For Fair trade crafts from all over the country you can shop at the NGO Centro de Intercabio y Solidaridad. They have a store with diverse products and they support many small artisans.
There are many gas stations - the most notable being Texaco, Puma and Uno throughout the city. Many offer full-service for a higher price, so be sure to check if you are at the full service or the self-service pumps. Gasoline fluctuates between $4-$5 a gallon, averaging about $4.50 for Premium gas. Regular gas is often mixed with kerosene and other cheap liquids, which will eventually ruin your engine. It's advised to buy the premium at all gas stations, unless you want to deal with blown head gaskets!
All gas stations will raise their prices as much as $.50 per gallon for 2-3 weeks before any major holiday - first week of August, Easter and Christmas being the biggest ones in the country.
San Salvador and some Mexican cities are the only cities in Latin America with Sanborns (restaurant and store chain) and Dorians (or Sears). Other department stores include Siman , Carrion and Almacenes Europa.
Supermarkets and Other Retail Stores
The restaurant scene in San Salvador is influenced by many different cultures. Food options include Italian , Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, Chilean, American, Peruvian, Mexican, Spanish, Middle Eastern, German, Chinese, Argentinian and others. Local food options include Tipicos Margot where one can purchase the famous Salvadoran Pupusas. Perhaps the biggest indictment against the quality of the San Salvador restaurant scene however is the sheer number of chain restaurants referenced in this article.
When you are in El Salvador you won't have to worry about finding a place to eat, there is food everywhere you go.
If you need to buy something, there are a lot of supermarkets in this city. Some are international, which come from Guatemala, the USA and other countries that are interested in bringing supermarkets to San Salvador. The supermarkets contain products such as food, clothing, candies, tools, shampoos, toys, cosmetics, soaps, etc.
San Salvador is well-known for its nightlife. Clubs and bars can be found in the Zona Rosa, Basilea Mall, Las Terrazas (Multiplaza Mall), Boulevard de Los Heroes, Temptation Plaza, and the bars and restaurants area in La Gran Via (Mall and night lifestyle center). .
Bars and Clubs
For the latest information on gigs, raves,dance parties, international acts and concerts in San Salvador check here: (Spanish). Larger events and conventions are generally held in the Feria Internacional .
Owned by expat, Malcolm Collins who married a Salvadoran and has a passion for exploring his new home, Hostal Cumbres del Volcan is the quintessential bed and breakfast experience. Malcolm and his staff make visitors feel at home and can answer any questions you have about San Salvador. Ask Malcolm to see his photo collection of San Salvador dating back to before 1900 - he can point out the exact places in the city where the old buildings still are or were! Walking distance to many great bars, malls and all the amenities you might need. Dorms - $8 (tax included), Private rooms start at $25 (breakfast and tax included).
The staff of all the hotels speak English and Spanish, but there are also others who speak other languages. All the hotels include room service.
Visit the hotel websites for specials.
San Salvador has had a history of violence. San Salvador was considered the most dangerous city in the world in 1992 due to the 13-year civil war that was just ending. Since then, San Salvador has seen a significant reduction in crime rates; however, until recently, it experienced some of the highest homicide rates in the world, next to Honduras and Guatemala. All three countries have been battling high amounts of gang activity although, in El Salvador, it was rarely directed towards foreign tourists. Within the last year, the Catholic Church has brokered a deal with gang members to reduce violence in exchange for job training programs, special amenities for leaders in prison and other requests made by the leaders of the MS 13 and 18th Street gangs. Since the beginning of this gang "truce" homicide rates have dropped by more than half.  This was not the case; in 2015, the gang truce had failed, and murder rates have since spiked at dangerously high levels.
Some advice to staying safe:
Salvadorans consider malls, major stores and museums to be the safest places to spend time in the city. Often, wealthy Salvadorans will not go anywhere not surrounded by a high wall, barbed wire and an armed security guard. Foreign tourists are afforded a little more safety as the gang members do not know their private history, family name and how much money they have, and therefore should be relatively safe when using common sense while walking around the city and talking to people.
Some areas considered safest by Salvadoran elite and middle class: Colonia Escalon, Colonia San Benito, Zona Rosa, Santa Tecla and Antiguo Cuscatlan.
Areas considered more dangerous are: Soyapango, Mejicanos and Apopa, although with common sense and daylight hours, there are many interesting areas to explore in these parts of the city as well.
San Salvador is a city full of pharmacies. Hospital services are also very good and facilities include Hospital de Diagnostico in Villavicencio Plaza.
Finding a bank is not a problem within the city. Banks include Davivienda (formerly HSBC), Citibank, Banco Agricola, Banco Centromericano, Scotiabank, Procredit and others.
You can get out of Comalapa International Airport or rent a plane for a moderate fee in Ilopango Airport to give you a ride to other of the countries important cities. The rent a plane service is available to go to Santa Ana, San Miguel and La Union (on Tamarindo, near the Gulf of Fonseca where you can board a ferry to take you to the other Islands)
If you are looking for an excursion out of the city, check the classified section of the newspaper El Diario de Hoy ("Asesores de Viaje y Excursiones" heading) for any reasonably priced tours that may be departing soon.