San José is a very small city, and that is probably the only thing that would set it apart from any major metropolis around the world. The beauty of San José lies mostly in its people. It has it all, from the interesting-looking street vendor to the fancy-dressed woman walking in very high heels to her office, to the crazy cab driver zooming around its narrow streets. But it also has plenty of interesting architecture, attractions and places to eat and drink and comfortably sit to people watch.
When you visit San José, you should consider walking across its narrowest side from west to east (close to 7km long, 4.4 miles) where you will discover most of the city’s treasures, but also because traffic can be bad enough that it can take a lot of time driving across town (like other big cities around the world).
A day or two would be enough for you to get a great feel of the pounding heart of Costa Rica, where you can learn about the history, the politics and/or the everyday nature of the urban Costa Ricans, who will be glad to answer your questions, even if they look like they are in a rush.
If you decide to spend time in San José, Costa Rica, here are some ideas on what to do and some fun facts to remember while there.
Things to do in San José, Costa Rica
Walk the City
This is something that we have already suggested, but if you want an even more concentrated feel for the city, make sure to walk the two 1Km-long (.6 miles) pedestrian roads that cross downtown: Central Avenue and the Avenue 4. They both run East-to-West. The two avenues are connected at First and Second Street, creating a perimeter around some of the principal architectural attractions in San José, like the National Theater, the Central Park and the Cathedral of San José.
If you like old beautiful houses and historic neighborhoods, make sure to take another little walk around Barrio Amón, a neighborhood on the north edge of downtown (just a few blocks from the pedestrian avenues) where you can admire neoclassic architecture from the early 1900s.
Eat & Drink
Barrio Escalante, at the north-east end of town, is where you will find incredible food and drinks. In the last few years, many young (and adventurous) chefs and entrepreneurs have opened specialty restaurants, varying from vegan food to Mediterranean cuisine, French-influenced menus, artisanal brewing, and fourth wave coffee shops. Definitely, a place to consider for an entire day’s meals.
Even though you will find great crafts at every tourist destination you visit, in San José there are several places where you can find the same great crafts from everywhere and more. Make sure to visit the Artisans Market at the east end of Central Avenue, where you can find a great selection of Costa Rican souvenirs, and also fabrics from Guatemala and South America. This market is located right next to the Plaza de la Democracia, created in 1989 to honor the abolition of the army in 1949.
There are several stores that carry products made only by Costa Rican designers, from clothing to jewelry, to shoes, etc. In downtown San José you can find Tienda eÑe, El Armario de Frida or Distrito Carmen. In Barrio Escalante there is Kiosco San José. And a little outside of San José, in Los Yoses east of Barrio Escalante, is De Aquí y de Allá.
Learn about Costa Rica’s History
Just within a few blocks in downtown San José you can find enough museums to learn all you need to know about Costa Rica, from its pre-Columbian inhabitants to its art.
Rest and “People Watch” at parks
San José has a lot of small, green, vivid parks, scattered around the city, waiting for people that want to occupy their pollos or benches and watch others pass by.
The biggest park is Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, located on the west border of the city. This 72-hectare park was originally the first international airport of Costa Rica. Today, it’s a place to practice sports and home of the National Stadium where the Costa Rican National Soccer Team plays and many concerts and events are held.
The second biggest park is Parque De La Paz, located on the south end of the city. This is a known place for families and people that like to bike.
Downtown, there are a dozen of different little parks that give the city bustle a break. Especially recommended are the Parque Nacional and Parque Morazán, two peaceful green spaces, and Parque Central and Plaza de la Cultura for their incredible people-watching opportunities.
San José, Costa Rica, attractions
Below are a list of attractions in San José that are worth considering during your Costa Rica vacation:
- The National Theater – This is probably the most emblematic and beautiful building in all of San José. This theater was built in the late 1800s with money collected from a tax imposed on coffee exports. Make sure to take a guided tour of the facilities. It is a short, hour-long tour, but packed with interesting information. The coffee shop at the theater offers delicious food in a beautiful setting.
- The Churches of San José – There are more than a dozen churches in all of downtown San José. Many of them are not even easily recognizable, tucked in between 1970s buildings and filled parking lots. The two churches you must see are La Merced, at the east end of Second Avenue, and the Cathedral of San José, where Central Street intersects Second Avenue.
- National Museum – Lodged since 1950 at the Bellavista Headquarters, the last home of the abolished Costa Rican army, the National Museum, for more than 100 years, has been documenting and showcasing Costa Rican social and natural history. This is a great place to learn about Costa Rica as a colony and as an independent country.
- Jade Museum – Recently relocated at its own four-story building, the Jade Museum holds a great exhibit about pre-Columbian cultures and their relationship to nature and the wild.
- Pre-Columbian Gold Museum – Located in the basement of the Plaza de la Cultura, right next to the National Theater, this collection of pre-Columbian art (made out of gold) showcases manufacturing, use and purpose of the objects and how it represents the communities’ relation to nature and their daily life practices.
- The Children’s Museum – The building was a prison until 1979, but today is a place to touch, play and learn, located at the north end of downtown San José. This museum is a must if you are visiting San José with children. We have more suggested attractions here, for the rest of your trip.
- Costa Rican Art Museum – The art collection at this museum counts with more than 6,000 pieces of paintings, sculptures, photographs and others made by Costa Rican and international artists, but its biggest piece is the building itself, which was once the terminal for the first Costa Rican International Airport. The museum is located at the east end of La Sabana park, and there is no admission fee.
- Contemporary Art and Design Museum – This museum opened in 1994 in what was once the National Liquor Factory (dated 1856). Its goal is to promote new tendencies in the world of contemporary art and design in Costa Rica, Central America and Latin America in general. It is located in the northwest corner of the National Park.
- Central Market of San José – The perfect setting to discover all kinds of interesting fruits, vegetables, flowers and Costa Rican traditional crafts, but also a place to sit and have a cup of traditional sorbet ice cream or a giant casado for lunch. The market, a covered one-story building on the west end of downtown, is a fun labyrinth the size of a city block worth getting “lost” in.
- Cemeteries – Two historic cemeteries are the resting place for the remains of ex-presidents and other political and social figures of Costa Rica. If you are into cemeteries, make sure to visit the Cementerio General and the Cementerio de Obreros, located one next to the other at the beginning of the Avenue 10 in the south end of the city.
Some facts about San José, Costa Rica
- The population of San José, Costa Rica, changes depending on the time of the day. Like in any big city, many people commute from neighboring towns to work. Therefore, during the day, the city is filled with passers-by, and at night it feels like a small town. Close to 300,000 people live in the county of San José, but what we consider downtown, only has 50,000 inhabitants. During the day, more than 300,000 people come to work in the small canton of San José.
- All the streets and avenues in the center of town are one way.
- The city of San José was created in 1738, but it wasn’t until 1823 that it became Costa Rica’s capital, after a very short civil war against the people of the province of Cartago, where the capital was located since colonial days.
- Every single bus line, coming from all corners of the country, close or far, have their terminal in downtown San José, and there are several lines that cross it. So there are a lot of buses in San José, and no matter where you are going, if you are taking public transportation you most likely will end up spending some time in San José.
- The city was designed in an almost perfect grid.
- Two of the government branches (the judiciary and the legislative branch) have their offices in San José. The presidential house is located in another canton of San José.
Taking a Flight to San José, Costa Rica
The San Jose, Costa Rica, airport (SJO for its location identifier) is actually not in San José… do you find that strange? Well, it turns out that when the country realized it needed to have a bigger airport in 1955 the city had no room for it. The Juan Santamaría International Airport is located in the province of Alajuela, in the north end of the Central Valley, 18Km (11.2 miles) from San José.
Weather in San José, Costa Rica
The weather in San José follows the two seasons that characterize the majority of the country. From December to April is the dry season, but December is particularly cold and windy. Mid-April to early December is the rainy season, with particularly rainy days in September and October.
Security in San José, Costa Rica
As you can see, there is plenty of things to keep you happily busy and entertained if you decide to stay a couple of days in San José during your visit. But, like when visiting any other city around the world, remember that there are always people looking for opportunities to steal or hurt others, so avoid suspicious crowds, lonely streets, late nights and dark establishments, especially if traveling in a small group, and leave valuables at your hotel room’s safe, specially your passport.
If you need help from the police or health assistance, you can dial 911 from any phone, there are still a few payphones scattered around San José.
Plan a Trip to San Jose, Costa Rica
We can help you plan a trip to San Jose and other parts of Costa Rica for the trip of a lifetime. Start by contacting us to schedule a phone call.