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Located in the very heart of Costa Rica, the bustling and vibrant capital city San Jose opens up like a surprise gift, if you know where to look! The warm climate, bustling activities, friendly locals, rich culture and spectacular Victorian mansions make San Jose a popular tourist attraction to visit on a tour in Costa Rica. If you ever plan on visiting this melting pot of culture and urbanization, read our brilliant list of things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, listed here in no particular order.
Bubbling with a rich cultural history and heritage, the Mercado Central, or Central Market of San Jose, is one of the top attractions in San Jose. With over 200 shops selling fresh fruits, flowers and souvenirs, Mercado Central is also one of the best places in San Jose to try freshly brewed coffee made by the locals. Apart from drinking coffee, visit Mercado Central to try ice cream sold by vendors or eat popular Costa Rican dishes like the casado at local sodas.
- Best time to visit: Mornings to afternoons, the market is also open on most Sundays although not as many shops put up their stalls.
- Tip: If you are planning to try the traditional Costa Rican cuisine, go to Soda Tapia. This restaurant is over 100 years old!
What better way to get a crash course on culture and art in San Jose than to take a historic trip through the iconic Teatro Nacional (The National Theater). Not only is the National Theater one of the most exquisite buildings in San Jose, but it is also a place to learn and appreciate the cultural significance and elegance of neoclassical theatre. The stunning marble and artwork used in the theatre were all made and shipped from craftsmen in Italy. This is a great place for a historic tour but you can also catch dress rehearsals, concerts and plays being performed live in the theatre.
- Best time to visit: The theatre is open from 9 am to 4 pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
- Tip: To get the best of the theatre's history, join in one of the theatre’s own guided tours.
Barrio Escalante is San Jose's eatery hub with over dozens of pubs and restaurants that serve over ten different varieties of beer, snacks and souvenirs. A recent wave of culinary revolution has turned this part of San Jose into a gastronomic delight, with dishes ranging from traditional Costa Rican delicacies to international gourmet fare, making it one of the ultimate things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica. Apart from enjoying local beer, you also get to learn a bit about the bubbling brews and food culture in the very heart of San Jose.
- Best time to visit: Mid-morning to late afternoon, to enjoy lunch for late afternoon to evenings for dinner.
- Tip: Weekends tend to bring large crowds of restaurant goers in the area.
This a great tourist attraction to stop in when visiting Costa Rica with kids, as the gold museum has interactive displays that will keep the little ones entertained. Apart from its stunning architecture, the gold museum also has a rich cultural heritage collection of gold, art, pottery (dating back to 500 AD) and interesting Costa Rican coins.
- Best time to visit: Early morning, as the museum gets crowded by the afternoon. Open all year round from 9 am to 5 pm.
- Tip: Make sure to keep your schedule fairly free for the day when touring the museum as there are over 1600 individual artifacts being displayed.
Although not technically in the city, San Gerardo de Dota is a great place to go on a day trip from San Jose. Located about 85 km southeast of the city, this is the closest national park to San Jose. With over 200 species of birds, insects, wildlife and aquatic animals found in the cloud forest, this region is definitely worth a visit. San Gerardo de Dota is home to the striking quetzal bird, and other birds found here include the hummingbird, woodpecker, tanger and peccary.
- Best time to visit: December to April, during the dry season, although if you’re looking to spot the quetzal, they can be found all year round.
- Tip: Carry binoculars while hiking here. Quetzals are frequently spotted during their breeding season, which is April to May.
El Pueblo is a world in its own —a mall decorated like an old villa that booms up with music, dancing, clubs, bars and pubs when the souvenir shops close for the day. El Pueblo is a great way to experience San Jose at night and is great for partying with friends. The drinks are reasonably priced and there are many varieties of bars to pick from.
- Best time to visit: Sundays and nighttime after 6 pm when the shops close.
- Tip: Be mindful of your environment during night time. We advise travelling to El Pueblo in groups.
Located in the center of San Jose, the Metropolitan Cathedral is a stunning building with religious art, stained glass, Doric columns and sculptures. This is also a local church that is busy most times of the day making it a perfect place to witness the religious activities of some of the faithful.
- Best time to visit: The church is open almost all days, anytime from morning till evening.
- Tip: You can engage in some of the processions going on at the church but remember to seek permission first.
Central Park is another city spot bursting with popular landmarks and is always packed with tourists and locals. It's proximity to most tourist attractions makes it a perfect place for people-watching. There are also several other activities on offer in Central Park including music, street food and local souvenirs to buy.
- Best time to visit: Anytime of the day from morning to evening, the crowd and the vibe changes with the flow of the people around it.
- Tip: Start or end a tour of San Jose from Central Park as it makes for a good meeting point. You can also make Central Park your pitstop while touring San Jose to catch some shade and take a rest.
San Jose has a lot of museums and historical buildings to visit, and the Jade Museum happens to be one of the best ones. The museum has over 7000 items on display such as artifacts made from jade, stone tables, ceramics and other decorative items dating from the pre-Colombian era between 500 BC and 300 BC. The building itself is a work of art which is designed to look like a block of raw jade stone. The museum is spread over five exhibits spanning five floors and includes interactive elements as well. The Jade Museum is located in the Central Avenue and can be conveniently included as on a day tour of things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.
- Best time to visit: Visit anytime between 8 am to 4:30 pm.
- Tip: If you are visiting with children, plan on spending half a day as the museum offers many fun and interactive exhibitions focused on children.
Situated within a fortress built in the early twentieth century, Costa Rica’s National Museum is the premier site for anyone interested in the country’s long and intriguing history. Curated thematically, its impressive collection stretches from the tribes of the pre-Columbian period and through the colonial era to more modern times – its exterior walls remain pock-marked by gunshots fired during the civil war of the late forties.
- Best time to visit: To explore the museum fully, you’ll need to set aside half a day, so don’t leave it until too late in the afternoon!
- Tip: Make sure to pause in the museum courtyard, which offers spectacular views across San Jose.
Right at the heart of the action, opposite the El-Pueblo shopping centre and just five minutes from San Jose’s main hotels, the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden provides a tempting spot to stop and relax amid a colourful mass of tropical butterflies. By visiting, you’re not only helping maintain one of the city’s last natural habitats for these beautiful creatures but also providing jobs for farming families in remote villages growing plants the butterflies feed on.
- Best time to visit: Open every day until early afternoon, the butterfly garden is most tranquil during the working week.
- Tip: While in the area, make a visit to the Bolivar Zoological Park next door. It houses orphaned and injured animals of all species for eventual release.
San Jose’s Children’s Museum (Museo de los Niños) is an interactive museum dedicated to educating children on all manner of important topics as diverse as human biology and astronomy. The castle-like exterior (the museum was once the central prison) houses 39 different rooms full of child-friendly interactive displays that offer a new adventure for kids big and small.
- Best time to visit: With kids in tow, you’ll want to set aside the entire day. The museum becomes busier as the day progresses.
- Tip: The museum holds daily activities and regular events well worth exploring before time via the museum’s website.
There’s no better way to absorb the ambience of the Costa Rican capital than to mingle with the locals and explore the art and music scenes of the street by heading out on a city walking tour. Go on a guided tour and you’ll discover all manner of interesting facts about the city before tucking in to some incredible street food.
- Best time to visit: The city is best for walking during the cooler morning hours.
- Tip: Take a bottle of water, and an umbrella to keep the sun off your back!
While most travelers only believe San Jose to be a gateway to reaching Costa Rica’s best destinations, this capital is quickly turning into a tourist destination in itself. Booming in Costa Rican culture and history, you can enjoy the Pura Vida lifestyle while in San Jose. This list of things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica is sure to make your trip a memorable one. Don't forget to stop over at El Pueblo!
Editor’s note: This travel article was originally published on 26 Febuary, 2018, but has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.