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 more frequent visits have made us see 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 business-people, 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 explore on foot without the hassles of traffic and parking. There are many hotels located right on or just a few blocks away from Avenida Central.
One good option is Hotel Aranjuez. This hotel was in the ideal location for us on one of our recent visits to the city. 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 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.
Grand Hotel Costa Rica
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. Recently, the Hilton chain purchased it and underwent a full renovation. During our recent stay, we really enjoyed the modern amenities alongside the historical charm.
Safety Tip: Like any city in the world, San Jose has rough areas that you’ll want to avoid. In the areas we have visited near downtown San Jose, though, we have felt very safe walking around as there are plenty of people out and about. We don’t venture out after dark too much and recommend grabbing a cab if you feel at all uneasy. Cabs are cheap and plentiful. For more tips, read our post Safety Tips for Your Next Trip to Costa Rica.
Attractions in Downtown San Jose
The main attraction for tourists visiting San Jose are the museums. If you only have a limited amount of time, we recommend the National Museum and Pre-Columbian Gold Museum.
What we like most about the National Museum ($9) is that you learn 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 gives 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 are 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) is a nice supplement to the National Museum and only a short ten minute walk away. Inside the Gold Museum, you can 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 like about the Gold Museum is the video, which breaks up the exhibits nicely and gives 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 discussed above.
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 a guide, you will learn 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. The National Artisans Market has lots of your more typical souvenirs like T-shirts, coffee, mugs, etc., but there are also some vendors selling handmade items. This market is now in a new, more spacious location on Avenida 6 between Calle 5 and 7.
For a more authentic experience, check out Mercado Central. This sprawling Central Market has hundreds of shops, stalls, and local restaurants spread out along the many corridors. Here, you will brush shoulders with locals who come to do their shopping. Mercado Central has almost everything you could imagine, from spices and medicinal herbs to flowers to souvenirs and rich Costa Rican coffee. Located in the heart of downtown, taking up a block on Avenida 1 and Avenida Central at Calle 6.
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.
Something about San Jose that really impresses us are the selection of great restaurants. This brings us back to when we lived in Boston, where we could walk just a few blocks down the street and have our choice of food and drink from around the globe.
Whenever we have a special occasion to celebrate, we head to La Terrasse. This cozy French restaurant is tucked away in a quieter neighborhood (near Hotel Aranjuez) and has served us some of our most memorable meals, ever. The chef, Patricia Richer, is a master at her craft and her husband Gerald is a wonderful host.
For something more casual, Café de los Deseos, just down the street from La Terrasse, is a wonderful spot. 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. This is a true pub that feels like a bar. They serve their own beer and have a chalkboard full of choices from other Costa Rican brewers.
For lunch, near the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and National Theater, Café Rojo is a great spot. 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 Vietnamese-inspired food and have strong coffee served French Press-style if you’re in need of a pick-me-up.
* * *
Overall, San Jose has really surprised us over the years. 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?
Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
- Costa Rica Itineraries: Whether you’re planning a one-week or two-week trip, we’ve got you covered. Check out our One Week Itinerary and Two Week Itinerary to see the highlights of what Costa Rica has to offer.
- Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – Learn how to pack for Costa Rica’s many microclimates. Also covers rainy season and travel to remote destinations like Drake Bay and Tortuguero.
- Money Matters: Wondering where to exchange money? Read this post for information on currency, exchanging money, and tipping.