Touring across San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, can feel like a very peculiar travel back in time across different eras of its contemporary history. The most populous city of the country, one that is also considered to be our financial, educational and political center, has witnessed many stages of architectural achievements throughout this past century. These past glories take the form of historical landmarks, public spaces, private housing complexes, churches, and even malls and roads. Much like a contest attracting spotlight seekers, each of these places attract local and foreign tourists alike.

Take for example the design of El Salvador’s Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport. As you arrive, the airport façade, with its ornamental panels recalling the local indigenous heritage, makes a suggestive introduction to the country’s first pages of history, prior to Spanish colonization. This “cultural introduction” is complemented by a drive through Paso del Jaguar, a recently completed underpass at the entrance of San Salvador, where two giant jaguars, one on each side of the road, watch over drivers coming in and out of the city. The jaguar was once a sign of strength, confidence, and leadership for the aboriginal inhabitants of El Salvador, the Pipils. In this day and age, such values can be seen in the personality of Salvadorans.

As you continue touring the city, you will eventually come across places like the Flor Blanca suburb, a neighborhood where houses still display the glory of the neocolonial style of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Some of them are well preserved, and serve as branch offices for private local and international firms.

Heading to the city center, the National Palace displays the glory of the 19th century classical architecture. With two stories, four main rooms, red, blue, yellow and pink, and a hundred and one secondary rooms, it hosted the three branches of government from 1911 to 1980. Its blue room hosted the Legislative Assembly. The yellow room, the Executive branch. The pink room, the Supreme Court of Justice. The red room held important national emblems, and is the place where credentials were once handed to foreign ambassadors.

The magnificent view of the palace is complemented by the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador and the Civic Plaza. Other examples of this outdoor museum-like experience in the city center are the National Theatre, Morazán Plaza, and Libertad Plaza.

In some cases, due to the seismic nature of El Salvador, older landmarks have not survived, and have given way to newer, more functional edifications. For that reason, finding places like El Rosario Church, also in the city center, with its nondescript concrete exterior and an arched roof that conceals a rainbow of natural light rushing across the altar, and bouncing off the metal and rock from the inside, can make you feel like a real treasure hunter in the midst of other ordinary buildings around it.

The retail industry represents a great part of El Salvador’s economy, and proof of that is Metrocentro, one of the largest shopping centers in Central America. There is a particular preference on the part of people to spend time with family and friends at shopping malls during the weekends. Now, heading southbound from San Salvador, it is possible to find more recent developments where shopping centers display more modern and alternative architectural styles. Lifestyle Center La Gran Via introduces a more laid back, outdoor shopping concept, while Multiplaza Shopping Center proposes a “city within a city” concept that was conceived by the Mexican modernist architect Ricardo Legorreta.

Environment wise, there is still a long way to make San Salvador an eco-friendly city, but there have been some initiatives by the local government in that direction. Space such as Bicentennial Park, a project for the public that includes a bikeway stretching along the edge of the El Espino forest, walking trails, and picnic areas, have been well received by the population. Private institutions are also catching on with the “eco” trend by adorning the city with projects that bring together leisure and business, such as Plaza Futura.

Taking a break from the everyday city hustle is easy in San Salvador. Coffee shops are everywhere in the city. A cup of world-class local coffee with a pastry can get to the heart of any city adventurer. But if you manage to make your way up to the local sleeping giant, Quezaltepeque volcano, you will soon find yourself surrounded by a very different look of the capital city, and one of the most magical. Fresh, dry air, the gentle scent of the pine trees, and fog descending from the higher forests is a truly unique experience that never gets old.

San Salvador is definitely a city with many pretty, unforgettable faces.