San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, is filled with rich history and culture. Not only that, but it has a hip urban vibe and an array of restaurants and bars that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. Despite all that this buzzing metropolis has to offer, it is often overlooked by travelers because it can seem hectic and intimidating. Most arriving at the international airport pass in and out as quickly as possible, en route to the country’s beautiful beaches and tropical rainforests. We too used to be overwhelmed by the congested streets and sprawling city blocks, but a recent visit has us seeing the city in a new light. In this post, we share some of San Jose’s best attractions, restaurants, and hotels to make your one or two days memorable.
San Jose appears to stretch in every direction with its colorful rooftops, scattered high rises, and green patches of parks. But like most cities, there are certain spots that have a concentration of attractions. In San Jose, one of those places is Avenida Central (Central Avenue). This is one of the most accessible areas of the city where it is easy to walk between the plethora of museums, parks, outdoor plazas, shops, and restaurants. Along the busy sidewalks of the barrios (neighborhoods) surrounding Avenida Central, you’ll find a diverse urban culture similar to what you’d find in any city in the world: a mix of businesspeople, hipsters, young professionals, artists, and students.
Tip: When exploring downtown San Jose’s vibrant streets, be sure to bring a light jacket or sweater for early mornings and evenings. Because of San Jose’s elevation (about 3,800 feet) and the winds that blow through the valley, temperatures can feel a bit cool for the tropics (65-75˚F).
Hotels in Downtown San Jose
Finding a hotel within walking distance to Avenida Central will make visiting the city’s attractions a lot more enjoyable. This way, you can leave the car behind and just explore on foot without the hassles of traffic and parking. There are many hotel options located right on or just a few blocks away from Avenida Central.
During our visit we stayed at Hotel Aranjuez. This hotel was in the ideal location for us. It’s slightly outside the center of town, far enough out to be nice and quiet, but only a 10-15 minute walk to the sights. The hotel is located in a historic building with high ceilings, original wood finishes, and authentic, Costa Rican decor. In addition to the quiet location, other things that we liked were the availability of parking and the huge breakfast buffet, which totally lived up to expectations. Interestingly, Hotel Aranjuez is actually named after the barrio that it is in. This neighborhood once hosted the country’s first electric power plant, which gave San Jose the distinction of being the first city in Latin America, and just the third city in the world, to have electricity.
Another hotel that might appeal to history enthusiasts is the Gran Hotel Costa Rica. The Gran Hotel is an important building, dating back to the 1930s. Its construction was ordered by the Costa Rican Congress to fill the need for a first class hotel in the city. The hotel sits right across from the National Theater along the busy Plaza de la Cultura and has hosted diplomats and celebrities over the years. In 1963, John F. Kennedy stayed here during his visit to Costa Rica. Although the hotel isn’t as luxurious as it was in its heyday, you can still get a nice sense of the building’s architecture and enjoy the many historic photos that are hung along its walls.
Safety Tip: Like any city in the world, San Jose has rough areas that you’ll definitely want to avoid. In the areas we visited, though, we felt very safe walking around as there were plenty of people out and about. We didn’t venture out after dark too much and recommend grabbing a cab if you feel at all uneasy. Cabs are cheap and plentiful.
Attractions in Downtown San Jose
The main attraction for tourists visiting San Jose are the museums. With only a limited amount of time ourselves, we decided (after some research) that the National Museum and the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum were our priorities.
What we liked most about the National Museum ($8) was that we learned a little about a broad range of topics related to Costa Rica’s history. San Jose has several museums that go into great detail about very specific topics, but the National Museum gave us a good taste of Costa Rica’s overall history. Displays of pre-Columbian artifacts like stone spheres, carved sculptures, pottery remnants, jewelry made from gold and jade, and even a butterfly garden were part of the experience. For those interested in Costa Rica’s famed abolishment of the military in 1949, this museum is housed in the historic Bellavista fort and there are exhibits explaining the fort’s significance.
The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum ($11) was a nice supplement to the National Museum and just a short ten minute walk away. Inside the Gold Museum, you stroll through several floors of gold artifacts created by indigenous people that date back to AD 0. Like the National Museum, displays and models of historical reenactments are set up in chronological order so it’s easy to learn about how indigenous cultures changed over time. One thing that we really liked about the Gold Museum was the video, which broke up the exhibits nicely and gave a great overview of the history.
Two other museums nearby are the Jade Museum, which has a massive collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. Both are within walking distance to the two museums we visited.
The National Theater
The National Theater ($10) is another historical site that you won’t want to miss. The opulent building was constructed between 1891 and 1897, but the beautifully decorated rooms and stage are still used for performances today (if you can, try to attend a show for the full experience). The architecture and decor of the theater is a mishmash of European influences and includes marble sculptures as well as wall and ceiling murals from both French and Italian artists. You can tour the theater on your own but we recommend going on the hourly guided tour (free with admission). With the help of our guide, we learned some cool secrets and insights about the building that we wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on. One example is the ballroom’s mechanical floor that can be raised or lowered for events.
Markets and Shops
Downtown San Jose is also a great place to go shopping, especially for souvenirs. Right between the National Museum and the Jade Museum is the National Artisans Market. This long, covered alley has lots of your more typical souvenirs like T-shirts, coffee, mugs, etc., but there are also some vendors selling handmade items.
For one-of-a-kind souvenirs, head to Galeria Namu. This shop has an impressive assortment of fair trade handicrafts from different indigenous groups throughout Costa Rica and the rest of Latin America. We saw woven baskets from groups we had visited in Panama, painted masks from Costa Rica’s Boruca, and much more. The store is located four blocks north of the pre-Columbian Gold Museum on Avenida 7.
One of the things in San Jose that really impressed us were the selection of great restaurants and pubs. This reminded us of when we lived in Boston, where we could just walk a few blocks down the street and have our choice of food and drink from around the globe.
Since we were celebrating Jenn’s birthday, we decided to have a special dinner at La Terrasse. This cozy French restaurant is tucked away in a quieter neighborhood (near Hotel Aranjuez) and was one of our most memorable meals, ever. The chef, Patricia Richer, is a master at her craft and her husband Gerald is a wonderful host. Our only regret is that after rich appetizers and large meals, we didn’t have room for dessert.
Most of the other restaurants we visited were much more casual but the food was still great. Café de los Deseos was a place we just stumbled upon before our dinner at La Terrasse. This living-room-style pub had a chill atmosphere and several choices for local craft beer (rare in Costa Rica). Watching the younger professionals grab burgers, pizza, and small plates after work made us jealous enough to come back the next night for dinner. Stiefel Pub is another highly recommended place to find craft beer in San Jose, but they weren’t open when we strolled by. Guess we have an excuse for another visit!
For lunch, near the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and the National Theater, we chose Café Rojo. This cute restaurant is inside a typical Barrio Amon wooden house down the street from Galeria Namu (on Ave. 7 near Calle 3 and Hostel Pangea). They serve up sandwiches, salads, Vietnamese bowls, and a special plate of the day. They also have strong coffee served French Press style if you’re in need of a pick-me-up.
Another lunch option, this one closer to the National Museum, Artisans Market, and Jade Museum, is La Cantinaccia. This uber authentic Italian restaurant is located on the pedestrian walkway on the backside of the National Museum, one block south. Don’t be put off by the eclectic decor; the food and hospitality make it all worthwhile. We shared a delicious pizza with prosciutto and enjoyed the homemade coconut macaroons so much that we even took some to go.
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Overall, San Jose really surprised us. Although intimidating at first, the downtown is a destination in itself and shouldn’t be overlooked. From the modern museums and gourmet restaurants to the parks and outdoor spaces, San Jose offers a glimpse into urban life in Costa Rica. Most Ticos, in fact, live in the San Jose metro area so if you’re looking to explore the local culture, it’s a must. Of course, San Jose isn’t the tropical rainforest or misty cloud forest, which draws all the crowds, but if you have a day or two to explore, it’s definitely worth your time.
Have you visited San Jose? What did you think?