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Top Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica

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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 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 in no particular order.

1. Try the coffee and local tasties at Mercado Central

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 some ice cream sold by vendors or eat some popular Costa Rican dishes like the casado at local sodas within the Mercado Central.

  • Location: Barrio Le Mercede
  • 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: Shops usually close by late afternoon so we advise getting there in the morning.

Take a day tour through Mercado Central and discover San Jose's food and drink culture. 

2. Soak up the culture and history in the Teatro Nacional

Teatro Nacional a historical building in San Jose, Costa Rica
The Teatro Nacional is a colonial mansion that is considered a cultural asset of the country for its neoclassical architecture.

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 in San Jose, but it is also a place to learn and appreciate the cultural significance and elegance of neoclassical theater. The stunning marble and artwork used in the theatre were all made and shipped from craftsmen in Italy. This is great place for a historic tour but you can also catch dress rehearsals, concerts and plays being performed live in the theatre.

  • Location: Second Avenue and Fifth Street
  • Best time to visit: The theatre is open everyday and can be visited from 9 am to 7 pm.
  • Tip: To get the best of the theatre's history, join the theatre’s guided tours.

3. Enjoy culinary delights at Barrio Escalante

Local brews in Barrio Escalante, San Jose.
Barrio Escalante has dozens of pubs to enjoy local beer.

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 the traditional Costa Rican dishes to gourmet. 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.

  • Location: Central Market
  • 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.

4. Tour the pre-Columbian Gold Museum

This a great tourist attraction for sightseeing 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 of gold, art, pottery which dates back to 500 AD and interesting artifacts on Costa Rican coins. Enjoy the sight of gold, sculptured lime stone artifacts and exquisite pottery.

  • Location: Between Central and 2nd Avenue
  • Best time to visit: Early morning, the museum gets crowded with visitors 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.

5. Bird watching at San Gerardo de Dota

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is where you will find the Quetzal.
The resplendent quetzal is an iconic bird to the Costa Ricans.

Although not technically in the city, but located about 85 km southeast, is San Gerardo de Dota, 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.

  • Location: Talamanca Mountain Range
  • 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.

6. Experience San Jose’s nightlife at El Pueblo

El Pueblo is a world in its own, a mall decorated like an old villa 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.

  • Location: Pavas
  • 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.

7. Religious tour at Metropolitan Church

Located in the center of San Jose, the Metropolitan Church 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.

  • Location: Besides Avenues 1 and 2
  • 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.

8. People watch at Central Park

Central Park is another tourist centre with popular landmarks that is always packed with tourists and locals. It's proximity to most tourist attractions makes it a perfect place for people watching. There are lots of activities in Central Park including music, street food and local souvenirs to buy.

  • Location: Beside Avenue 2
  • 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: Make Central Park your pitstop while touring San Jose.

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!

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