Many visitors flock to Costa Rica for its laid-back beach towns and supreme natural beauty.  This makes the capital city of San Jose less of a destination in-and-of-itself, and more of a roadblock stopping them from getting where they want to go. Most foreign visitors enter the country through the Juan Santamaría International Airport, and spend a single night in a nearby hotel before picking up and getting out of town first thing in the morning. This is a true shame as there are so many fun and fascinating things to do in San Jose for visitors willing to undertake a slightly different brand of Costa Rican exploration.

Beautiful day in downtown San Jose.
Beautiful day in downtown San Jose.

Founded in 1738, San Jose initially grew slowly and lacked a city government until 1812. Things picked up quickly though, and by the 1820s Costa Rica was independent from Spain, with San José as its capital. In the 1840s San Jose began exporting coffee to Europe, and relative prosperity ensued. Some of the city’s most magnificent buildings, including its famed Teatro Nacional (National Theater), date back to this coffee-powered era. The city has gone through its ups and downs since then, but it’s always emerged successfully from even its darkest periods.

San Jose today is an urban jungle in the truest sense of the word.  It’s hectic, it’s dirty, and you have to stay aware of your surroundings at all times. But that said, those willing to take the plunge will discover the city offers its history on full display.  All surrounded by the breathtaking silhouettes of jagged mountain ranges.

So what do you say? Are you ready to brave the streets of the affectionately nicknamed Chepe, and discover all the gems.  Some hidden, some waiting in plain view that the city has to offer?

1. Enjoy a Show–or Just a Coffee–at the Teatro Nacional

The Teatro Nacional (National Theater of Costa Rica) is without contest the most famous

The most historic landmark of San Jose.
The most historic landmark of San Jose.

building in all of San Jose. Located just off the Plaza de la Cultura, smack in the geographical center of the city. This handsome neo-classical structure emanates elegance, like Palace of Versailles-type elegance, albeit on a smaller scale.

It looks nice from the street, but check out the inside as

And just as stunning on the inside!
And just as stunning on the inside!

well:

Construction on the building began in 1891 (when the entire city’s population still hovered under 20,000), and it was funded entirely by a tax on coffee. It opened in 1897 with a performance of Goethe’s Faust, and it has continued to host works of drama, music, and dance of the highest caliber ever since.

The Teatro Nacional hosts events nearly every day.  Or simply stop in at the theater’s café for a light meal, a dessert, and of course–what else–a delicious Costa Rican coffee.

2. EXPLORE THE MUSEO DEL ORO PRECOLOMBINO

If nothing else, the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum) will remind you of why exactly the Spaniards were so set on conquering Latin America in the first place.

Magnificent examples of pre-columbian metalwork.
Magnificent examples of pre-columbian metalwork.

Though Costa Rica was never home to mighty empires like those of the Incas, the Mayans, or the Aztecs.  But the indigenous people were very technically skilled in a number of field, metalworking certainly among them. San José’s Pre-Columbian Gold Museum features some 1,600 individual pieces of gold work dated approximately from 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.

If you’ve already checked out the Teatro Nacional, the museum is just a hop, skip, and a jump away.  In fact, it’s actually located below the Plaza de la Cultura, directly next to the theater. The entrance can be tricky to find – it looks like this:

This is the entrance you are looking for.
This is the entrance you are looking for.

Additionally, entry to the Museo del Oro Precolombino includes a visit to the neighboring Museo de Numismática (Coin Museum), as both are administered by the Banco Central de Costa Rica (Central Bank of Costa Rica).

3. TRY A FROZEN TREAT FROM COSTA RICA’S FAVORITE LOCAL CHAIN, POPS

The sign to watch for fabulous ice cream treats.
The sign to find for fabulous ice cream treats.

Eating ice cream at one of the POPS locations is one of the real treats of summer.   It is a Costa Rican chain of ice cream shops with a presence throughout Central America, including over 40 locations in San José alone. The heat of a Costa Rican summer afternoon should be enough to get you through the doors.  But if not, listen to this – POPS offers many uniquely Costa Rican flavors like banana, coconutdulce de leche (sweet milk)guanábana (soursop), and cas (Costa Rican guava). All of this, of course, in addition to the more standard ice cream options. Not all flavors are available at all locations however, so if you needed an excuse to check out multiple POPS during your trip, there you go.

4. GET YOURSELF EDUCATED AT THE MUSEO NACIONAL DE COSTA RICA

The Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum of Costa Rica) tackles as ambitiously wide a scope as the name would suggest, and manages to do so quite successfully.

Learn more about Costa Rica's history.
Learn more about Costa Rica’s history.

To begin with, even the setting is something special. The walls of the historic Bellavista fortress, the ex-military barracks now home to the museum, are still pockmarked with bullet holes from Costa Rica’s 1948 civil war. It was here that, in 1949, President José Figueres Ferrer announced the abolishment of Costa Rica’s military.  As such the building had to be repurposed. The museum moved to this spot in 1950, and now displays the very pen that signed the constitution putting all of these events into motion.

For a quick primer on Costa Rican history, this is the place! The galleries start with exhibits of pre-Columbian artifacts, move on to the colonial era, and finally reach the early days of Costa Rican independence. A visit to the Museo Nacional is certain to be both enlightening and entertaining.  For that reason it’s one of the most highly recommended things to do in San José.

5. STAY OUT WAY TOO LATE ON THE CALLE DE LA AMARGURA

It might not look like much in the image below, but that’s because the photo was snapped during the early-morning hours. In reality, the oddly-named Calle de la Amargura (Street of Bitterness) has the highest concentration of bars found anywhere in San José, spread out over a range of about four blocks. It’s so famous throughout the city that most residents simply know it as La Calle.

Where to go for a good time.
Where to go for a good time.

A quick disclaimer–if you’re over the age of, let’s say 30, you might not feel totally comfortable fitting in among the crowd here. The Calle de la Amargura is located directly across from the main campus of the University of Costa Rica, and the college crowd undeniably reigns supreme.

There’s something for most every taste here. Terra U and Xcape tend to attract the younger crowd, and the Costa Rican version of the “bro,” while Caccio’s bills itself as a “rock” bar with the music always turned up to ten. Another favorite spot is actually about a block west of La Calle itself.  Bar Fito’s is a slightly more low-key affair with an awesome open-air courtyard and occasional live music, while Buffalo’s has a great kitchen and a pretty stacked jukebox to choose songs from.

Some travel guides warn visitors that La Calle is a dangerous spot at night, so just keep that in mind. Yes there are drunks, and some hippie might try to sell you weed, but for the most part it’s all pretty benign. There’s certainly a seedy element, but 90% of the street’s denizens are college students or otherwise productive, well-adjusted members of society. Just keep your wits about you (at least somewhat), and you should be fine.

6. SHOP LIKE A LOCAL AT THE MERCADO CENTRAL

If you’re looking for a taste (or the sights, or the smells…) of the “authentic” San José, look no further than the city’s Mercado Central (Central Market). This massive indoor marketplace sells everything from tourist souvenirs near the entrances to fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, flowers, clothes, accessories, spices, toys, and toiletries towards the center.  Basically everything you could ever want, and then some.

The Central Market has something for everyone
The Central Market has something for everyone

This is far and away San José’s largest market, occupying an entire city block on the Avenida Central about 250 meters northwest of the Parque Central. To help you identify the place, here’s a photo of the outside:

Thousands of people come here to do their shopping daily.  Though the vast majority are locals, you probably won’t be the only obviously-foreign person wandering around inside. Be wary of the fact that the market’s crowded, narrow aisles are an ideal habitat for thieves and pickpockets, but don’t worry too much–just keep your wallet in your front pocket, your eyes on your bag, and you shouldn’t have any problems.

7. SHOP LIKE A TOURIST AT THE MERCADO NACIONAL DE ARTESANÍAS

Just across the Plaza de la Democracia from the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica sits two long rows of market stalls. If you’re looking for the ultimate tourist/souvenir marketplace in Costa Rica, this is it – San José’s Mercado Nacional de Artesanías (National Handicraft Market).

Let’s be clear – most of the items found here are not exclusive to this specific marketplace. That said, there are a number of artisan merchants who do hand-make their own wares! However, the things that really make this market the place to visit are the convenience of being able to knock out your souvenir shopping all at once and–of course–the prices.

costa rica market
Where to find souvenirs for everyone back home.

If you’ve never shopped a Latin American market before, prepare for the bargaining adventure of a lifetime. Though not quite as cutthroat as many other markets in the region, haggling at the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías is more than accepted–it’s expected. Try your best to negotiate and drive a hard bargain, but don’t go over the top and act like a jerk. Remember that the merchants do need to make a living, after all.

Finally, if you’re not much of a haggler yourself, here’s a quick pro-tip – the age-old technique of bargaining, feigning disinterest, and beginning to walk away still works like a charm.

8. SPLURGE ON ONE OF SAN JOSÉ’S SURPRISINGLY GREAT RESTAURANTS AND CRAFT BEER

Long a well-kept secret, the proliferation of websites like TripAdvisor are slowly making it known that San José is home to a bafflingly large range of truly world-class restaurants.

outdoor restaurant

Even if you’re not usually the type to blow hard-earned cash on a fancy meal, spending a night at one of the city’s fantastic restaurants is truly one of the most highly-recommended things to do in San José. You won’t regret it!

9. JOIN A SPORTS GAME, RENT A PADDLE BOAT, OR JUST TAKE A WALK IN THE PARQUE METROPOLITANO LA SABANA

The Parque Metropolitano La Sabana (La Sabana Metropolitan Park), known simply as La Sabana to locals, is the largest urban park in Costa Rica – think Central Park, San José style. Often referred to as “the lungs of San José,” this is where many Chepe residents gather for picnics, to play pick-up sports, or just to take a leisurely afternoon stroll.

things-to-do-1

Located just a bit west of the city center, La Sabana is home to two important San Jose institutions beyond its water features and its green space. First of all, it’s where you’ll find Costa Rica’s national stadium, frequently hosting athletic and musical events. Second, it’s also home to the fine Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art), located in the main building of what was long ago an airport!

Also, if you happen to be in town during the springtime, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to catch part or all of the famed Festival Internacional de las Artes (International Arts Festival). Though the events are spread out all over the city, La Sabana is the festival’s home base.  It features the biggest stages, as well as art installations, food vendors, entertainment for kids, and much more. The FIA welcomes artists from up to 30 countries, as well as some of the biggest musical acts in Latin America.  If scheduling permits, checking it out is truly one of the coolest things to do in San José.

10. GET OUT OF TOWN ON A SHORT HALF-DAY TRIP!

Suggesting that one of the top things to do in San Jose is to leave San Jose may seem contradictory.  But the point is that you don’t need to spend a week traveling Costa Rica to see incredible natural sites! If you’re in town, perhaps for business and have a spare afternoon, you can visit a volcano, tour a coffee plantation, go ziplining… Really, the choice is yours.

volcano
Just a quick trip outside of town, but out of this world.

The photo above shows the Volcán Irazú, the tallest active volcano in Costa Rica. It’s reachable by car or bus less than an hour east from central San José. On nice days the views are incredible.  But if you’ve got clouds, be warned that you probably won’t even be able to see the crater! If the weather’s not cooperating but you still want to visit a nearby active volcano, try the Volcán Poás on the western side of San José.

One of the most popular coffee plantation tours in the Central Valley is the Doka Estate, not far in fact from the Volcán Poás. And as far as ziplining goes, there are too many options to list… Just ask your hotel/hostel/Costa Rican buddy for a suggestion.

So that’s it for the list of the top ten things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica!  

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