What is there to see in San Jose, Costa Rica? A question often asked by our clients.
San José is probably not on top of your list to visit in this beautiful country. Most travelers arrive in the capital, spend the night and depart in the morning to discover the lush jungle and its wildlife.
Therefore by writing this blog I am trying to change your mind! San José offers some great must-see sights and is definitely worth some of your time! The capital of Costa Rica is probably not the most attractive you’ll ever visit, but has certainly its charms. If you know where to go, you might be in for a few nice surprises!
In a former blog I wrote about the various reasons to still spend a few nights in the capital. Not only to recover from your jetlag, but certainly to discover what to see in San José, Costa Rica!
The Edventure Travel team lives and works in the capital. In this blog I therefore like to share our tips and favorite locations to experience San José and its local city culture to the fullest.
Text by: Renee Snijders
The city is very easy to explore by foot. So just outside the actual city center you’ll find a few nice little parks where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city, such as Parque Nacional, Parque España and Parque Morazan.
Near Morazan park you cannot miss the beautiful pink historic building. However, I am not gonna tell you the name of it just yet! So knock on its wall and you’ll find out! This building is one of the not many restored historic buildings. After that leave the park and walk towards the center via Calle 5, you’ll pass a few more nice examples; an old colonial cinema and a building that looks more like a castle.
Finally, you’ll end up in the center of the city and Plaza Cultural. Here you find the National Theater, a beautiful building and a must-visit if you want to enjoy a nice cup of Costa Rican coffee away in a more quiet surrounding.
The National Theater is close to Avenida Central, an avenue only accessible to pedestrians. When you follow this street you will walk to the Mercado Central. Halfway you’ll pass the impressive colonial post office, a must see in Costa Rica´s capital San José. Further in this blog I’ll tell you more about the Mercado Central. First, if you want to go back towards the Theater again, you can walk down Calle 2 towards Parque Central where you find the city’s cathedral. From there it’s a short walk back to the National Theater. After that you should really pass the Theater and continue to the Plaza Democracia. Around this square you’ll find a few beautiful buildings and you’ll end up at an intersection with a cobblestone road. This leads you back to the Parque Nacional. Along this small street you’ll come across colorful graffiti and nice outdoor art objects.
Of course you can explore the city on your own, but if you want to get in touch with locals, you can also participate in a (free) walking tour. This tour departs on Monday to Saturday at 10.00 am from the National Theater. The guides take you along the city’s nicest highlights all morning!
There’s also a different way to get to know the city and that is by booking a tour via Chepecletas. They want to change people’s view on San Jose by showing how they see the capital of Costa Rica. Chepecletas offers urban tours (public or private) by foot or by bike and during the day or evening, exploring different neighborhoods in San Jose. In addition, their tours are often linked to a special theme like the city’s history or local gastronomy.
Each Saturday morning, the so-called Feria Verde, a charming local market offering organic, handmade food and non-food items, is organized in Barrio Aranjuez. You can visit the market already from 6 am onwards and it’s a great place to enjoy a traditional Costa Rican breakfast or to try some of the other yummy stuff they sell. At the Feria Verde there’s always live music, but also weekly workshops for kids and you can join the morning yoga class as well.
Once you’re done with shopping at the Feria Verde and when you could use a cup of Costa Rican coffee, do visit Cafe Del Barista. It’s a great place to enjoy your coffee or buy coffee to take home as a souvenir. I buy my own coffee here as well and reckon it’s the best in town!
Authentic local markets
Certainly you must visit the indoor market Mercado Central (check video!). This is the oldest market in the city and you can literally buy almost everything here. It’s one of my favorite destinations in the city center and a fantastic place to get an authentic taste of Costa Rican gastronomy and culture. Be sure to check out (and taste!) the many exotic fruits and vegetables. Once you have had enough of the hustle and bustle of the market, find a seat for example at the famous La Sobertería de Lola Mora and try one of their delicious juices or sorbets.
If on the other hand you’re on the hunt for Costa Rican souvenirs, check out the Mercado Municipal de Artesanías. In addition, the nearby shop Puerta 23 sells beautiful local design.
Talking about shopping…San Jose does offer a increasingly variety of nice shops and boutiques. Therefore go across the street from Parque España to Tienda Ñ, that only sells fashion and other products made in Costa Rica. A bit further down the road you find Restaurant and Bar 1330, a nice spot for a drink or lunch and you can find nice jewellery, clothing and decoration in their little store.
Arteria close to Restaurant 1330, sells great clothes with typical Costa Rican expressions, a nice souvenir to take home!
In the up and coming neighborhoods Barrio Ecalante en Barrio Dent you’ll find various cute shops like Hola Lola (check video and our former blog), Buena Nena and the concept store Kalu. In addition, Kalu is also a great lunch or dinner destination and has a great in-house coffee shop as well. So after a day of exploring San Jose and some local shopping, Barrio Escalante is the perfect spot to end your day and to find a nice restaurant to have dinner. A personal favorite is the Italian restaurant Casa Piemonte, I can recommend their mouthwatering pasta carbonara!
With regards to art and culture there’s certainly a lot going on and to see in the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. Check out Barrio Amon (close to Barrio Escalante), certainly the cultural hot spot in town and also my favorite neighborhood in the center. It is a quiet area with beautiful colonial buildings and a long history.
Cafe Miel is a good starting point to explore this area. Besides, do visit TEOR/éTica (art+thought) and also Galeria Talentum, two of my favorite spots in this barrio. Galeria Talentum is located in a striking building. You can drink and eat here something as well and enjoy art at the same time. Make sure you walk by Castillo de Moro, another remarkable building. Once it’s time for lunch, I can recommend for example the menu of Acá or try Latin American specialities at Alma de Amon.
Musea in San Jose
In San Jose there’s also plenty musea. Some offer you more insight in the country’s (and Central America’s) history, like the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (also check out their botanical garden at the entrance!). This also goes for the Museo de Jade and Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática (Gold Museum). Check out the musea websites for more information on current exhibitions.
If modern art is more your thing, go visit the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, located in the former national liqueur factory. In addicion one of the many galleries like Galeria Namu, Galeria Talentum, Galeria 1887 or Galeria Nacional may have you interest.
Museo de Los Niños or the Children’s Museum is a nice destination for kids to visit on a rainy afternoon. There’s a lot to see and do here and more importantly, it’s a great place to play. It’s a perfect spot to go to with younger kids (up to the age of 10).
Also six times a year the so-called Art City Tour is organized in San Jose’s city center. During these events you can visit all musea, galleries and other interesting buildings for free in the evening as well as the many additional activities that are being organized. You can hop on a (free) shuttle bus that drives you around the city from one museum to the other. It’s definitely worth your while to check if there’s an Art City Tour taking place when you’re visiting San José!
Did you know that Costa Rica’s capital is also the country’s musical epicenter? Dance and music are very important in the Latin American culture. You notice that straightaway when visiting countries like Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic or Argentina. In Costa Rica the latin roots are a little less visible in daily life, but when you are up for a night out in town, you might be pleasantly surprised!
‘Salones’ or dance halls
Some 20 years ago there were many ‘salones’ or dance halls in San Jose. On Friday and Saturday nights whole families went out dancing there to enjoy the live music of an (often famous) house band. Now there’s only a few ‘salones’ left. In the city, in Barrio Desemparados, Rancho Garibaldi is the most renowned and the oldest. For more than 40 years already young and old goes out dancing here and it is a great place for an authentic night out.
Salsa dance club Pepper’s aims to attract the younger generation and often organizes ‘salsa tributes’ and other theme nights. The stage is often taken by ‘Son de Tikizia’, without a doubt the best live salsa band in Costa Rica. Band member and -manager Walter Flores is multiple Grammy winner and the band has become rather wellknown outside of Costa Rica as well. They remain proud Costa Ricans in the end, check out their tribute to Costa Rica or Tikizia in the video below.
Going out salsa dancing does not have to be expensive. For 5 USD you pay an entrance ticket for Rancho Garibaldi and a concert of Son de Tikizia in Pepper’s costs some 15 USD.
National musical heritage
Son de Tikizia is definitely part of Costa Rica’s musical heritage. Once you dive in the country’s musical roots you will certainly encounter the band
‘Malpais’, a unique group with a unique sound. Malpais blends folk with jazz, calypso and other latin rhythms and thus creates an unique sound. Nice detail: two band members, Manuel Obregon and Ivan Rodriguez, were, besides being active musicians, also minister and vice minister of Culture between 2010 and 2014. Listen to one of their most famous hits here.
Finally, if you’re in San Jose on a Friday or Saturday night and you don’t really want to go out dancing, but would like to see a nice life performance (varying from rock to jazz or singer songwriter), check out the agenda of the Jazz Cafe in Escazu.
Check for more activities and events the online guide on GAM CULTURAL and who knows, there might just be a great event going on in town when you are in San Jose!
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