[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (2024)

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  • How to spend a day in San Jose Costa Rica
  • Reference points and pedestrian streets
  • #1. Admire San Jose’s architecture and art
  • #2. Tour the National Theater
  • #3. Explore the Jade Museum
  • #4. Explore the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
  • #5. Explore the National Museum of Costa Rica
  • #6. Explore the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design
  • #7. See the Central Market (or check out a different market)
  • #8. Eat in the heart of the city
  • #9. Take a San Jose Walking Tour
  • #10. People-watch on Central Avenue, at a public park, or at a plaza
  • #11. Stroll through a butterfly garden
  • #12. Take a chocolate tour
  • #13. Attend a service or mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral
  • #14. Watch a futbol game at the National Stadium of Costa Rica
  • #15. Attend San Jose’s Civic Festival in Zapote
  • Things to skip in San Jose Costa Rica
  • Map of San Jose Costa Rica

How to spend a day in San Jose Costa Rica

If you’re like most Costa Rica travelers who fly into and out of the Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria (Juan Santamaria International Airport; SJO), you may find yourself with time to spend the Central Valley (Costa Rica’s central region) at the start or the end of your trip. The core of the Central Valley is the bustling capital city of San Jose, or “Chepe” as Ticos (Costa Ricans) call it, and if you’re wondering whether San Jose is worth exploring, we have a quick and easy answer to that question: San Jose is worth visiting if you have a particular interest in experiencing one or more of the 15 attractions described below. If you don’t, skip the capital city altogether in favor of spending time at other destinations in Costa Rica that have attractions that better align with your interests.

Reference points and pedestrian streets

Before we get to covering the top attractions in San Jose, it’s important to understand the layout of the city, and get some reference points for context.

The center of San Jose is marked by the intersection of Avenida Central (Central Avenue; runs east-west), which sits one street north of Highway 2, and Calle Central (Central Street; runs north-south), which sits one street west of Highway 32. Note that Highway 32 splits into two one-way streets in downtown San Jose: Calle 1 (First Street; runs south) and Calle 3 (Third Street; runs north). To quickly locate the city’s center (i.e., the intersection of Avenida Central and Calle Central) on a map of San Jose, first find the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 32 (Calle 1), then look one block northwest. Most of San Jose’s top attractions can be reached on foot by walking no more than 4 blocks west, 5 blocks north, 8 blocks east, 2 blocks south of the city’s center.

Avenida Segunda (Second Avenue) is the main thoroughfare that leads vehicular traffic through downtown San Jose from the west to the east. It is a very busy street. To roam around town where you won’t be bothered by cars, stick to the city’s most popular pedestrian street, Avenida Central. The section of Avenida Central between Calle 9 (Ninth Street) and Calle 14 (Fourteenth Street) is closed to vehicular traffic. Avenida Central is one street north of Avenida Segunda.

Have a free day to spend in Alajuela (near the SJO Airport), not in downtown San Jose?

Check out our recommendations for things to do in that part of the Central Valley in our related blog post:

5 Things To Do In And Around Alajuela Costa Rica (SJO Airport)

#1. Admire San Jose’s architecture and art

With time to spend in San Jose, consider strolling around the city on foot. There’s plenty to see in the concentrated downtown, including the golden Correos de Costa Rica (Central Post Office building); the opulent Teatro Nacional (National Theater; more on that attraction below); the eye-catching, pink Edificio Metálico (Metallic Building), which serves as an elementary school (Escuela Buenaventura Corrales Bermúdez); the picturesque Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto (Ministry of Foreign Affairs building), also known as the “Casa Amarilla“; several museos (museums; see below for details of the four best museums); funky-looking establishments that house stores, galleries, restaurants, and bars; and other historical buildings, including hotels and residences that display the city’s colonial-era architecture.

Also on public display in parks and on streets around the downtown core and worth a glance are countless statues and sculptures. Most pay homage to key figures in Costa Rica’s history, but others are comical and heartwarming, like the Monumento al Zaguate (Street Dog Monument), a sweet nod to San Jose’s street dog population.

#2. Tour the National Theater

Grand opulence is on full display at the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), where you can admire beautiful architecture, marble statues, and lovely landscaping for free around the exterior of the building, or else take an inexpensive, guided tour to see the theater’s stunning interior, including its grand staircase, painted murals, velvet textiles, main performance hall, and jaw-dropping chandelier. If your time in San Jose permits, you could also attend a concert, play, or dance performance hosted by the theater. To learn more about Costa Rica’s Teatro Nacional, see our related blog post: Visiting Costa Rica’s National Theater—Photos And Brief (5-Minute Read): San Jose, Costa Rica.

#3. Explore the Jade Museum

One of our favorite museums to tour in San Jose is the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum). We first explored this museum many, many years ago at its original location (pre-2014) and it was a good attraction then, but there’s no denying that its current setup as a modern and interactive, five-story museum (built to resemble a piece of jade) is much better, not to mention impressive. Tons of pre-Columbian artifacts (including countless pieces of jade) are showcased across the museum’s many fascinating exhibits.

#4. Explore the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum

Like the Museo de Jade, we’ve also had the pleasure of touring San Jose’s Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum) before and after a massive renovation. Since its overhaul in 2018, the Museo del Oro Precolumbino has served as the best place in San Jose to see dioramas (some life-size) depicting scenes from pre-Columbian times, as well as gold pieces from the same era. In addition to gold, you’ll find stone and ceramic artifacts, as well as a robust collection of bills and coins that detail Costa Rica’s historical and modern-day currencies, at the underground museum that delves three stories below street-level under San Jose’s Plaza de La Cultura.

#5. Explore the National Museum of Costa Rica

[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (64)
[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (65)
[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (67)
[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (69)
[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (70)

In what used to serve as a fortress until the end of Costa Rica’s Civil War (you can still see the bullet holes on the walls of the fortress), you’ll find the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum of Costa Rica). Spread out over the museum’s many rooms is a hodgepodge of artifacts and displays; there are exhibits that document Costa Rica’s story across the ages (pre-Columbian periods to modern-day times), a lovely outdoor courtyard area with indigenous spheres and a sugarcane trapiche, and even an area where you can enter jail cells. Undeniably, this museum in San Jose is a not-to-miss attraction for history buffs.

#6. Explore the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design

Artists and art-appreciators should check out the small, two-story, gallery-resembling Museo del Arte Contemporano y Diseno (Museum of Contemporary Art and Design), which sits on the west side of San Jose adjacent to the massive greenspace known as Parque Metropolitano La Sabana (the La Sabana Metropolitan Park). Occupying the property that formerly served as Costa Rica’s first airport, unique pieces of contemporary Costa Rican art and photographs hang on the museum’s interior walls while a few large sculptures decorate the museum’s exterior. The museum’s top attraction (and the main reason to go) is the stunning second-floor “gold room” that depicts Costa Rica’s history in a series of bronze-colored wall etchings.

#7. See the Central Market (or check out a different market)

San Jose is home to a few markets but none are more entertaining than Mercado Central (the Central Market), established in 1880. There is, in our opinion, no better place in the downtown core to witness the local way of life than at this market, where authentic Costa Rican culture is everywhere you look.

Full disclosure: There’s a lot that visitors don’t like about this market, from its tight, people-filled corridors to its notorious smell (a blend of food, herbs, spices, perfumes, meat, and fish—lovely), but oddly, that’s all part of the market’s charm. Ticos (Costa Ricans) converge at the spot to buy all kinds of things, from groceries and food to-go to textiles, clothes, books, toys, beauty products, and party supplies, and that chaotic yet routine process is neat for any non-local with a particular interest in Costa Rican culture to see. On a short stroll through the market’s maze of tiled pathways, you can watch artisans craft souvenirs, cooks pat tortillas and cut banana leaves, shoppers enjoy savor or a milkshake, and so much more.

If you love organic food and products, check out the Feria Verde (Green Market) in San Jose’s Aranjuez District. The weekly market, usually operating on Saturdays, showcases health- and eco-conscious items that span foods, drinks, apparel, and body products. It sometimes hosts yoga classes.

#8. Eat in the heart of the city

If you’re not the touring kind but you’ve found yourself in downtown San Jose and you want to get at least a taste of the city, an easy way to do that is to dine out. Not surprisingly, the capital city has many restaurants, where Costa Rican and international food is served. Although a review of restaurants in San Jose warrants its own article, for the time being I’ll confirm that, from a culinary perspective, experiencing San Jose isn’t complete without trying chifrijo (a San Jose specialty), handmade tortillas, and a very special type of helado (ice cream), which has been in production for more than 100 years. Beyond these three top San Jose food orders, you’ll find everything from (nearly) fine-dining establishments and swanky cafes to sodas (traditional Costa Rican restaurants) and street-side food stalls.

#9. Take a San Jose Walking Tour

Quite a few passionate locals operate organized San Jose walking tours with the purpose of sharing their love for the city with visitors. Most walking tours include stops at several places of interest, including many of the attractions covered in this article. Not only are the narrated walking tours a great way to explore San Jose safely (as part of a group and under the direction of a individual who knows the city well), but also they provide the unique opportunity to see San Jose through the eyes of a local.

#10. People-watch on Central Avenue, at a public park, or at a plaza

Most San Jose residents don’t drive to work, so there are always a lot of people walking around the downtown core, especially on pedestrian boulevards. They tend to congregate in public parks and plazas to socialize, eat, read, and relax throughout the day, and you can do the same, even if only to people-watch. Good spots for people-watching in San Jose include:

  • Plaza de la Cultura (the Culture Plaza): Atop the Museo del Oro Precolumbino and next to the Teatro Nacional, this flat, concrete plaza is centrally located and receives a consistent number of visitors. During the day, it provides a small splash pad. Come nightfall, it puts on a lighted water display.
  • Plaza de la Democracia (Democracy Plaza): This tiered, concrete plaza with lots of short steps is quieter and less busy than the Plaza de la Cultura. Station yourself here and you can admire statues scattered around the plaza, as well as the large, yellow fortress that houses the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. The museum is on the east side of the plaza.
  • Parque Morazan (Morazan Park): This flat park, which is adjacent to another park (Parque España), is a well-kept green area among Costa Rica’s concrete jungle. Jardín de paz (a peace garden), formed around a tiered water fountain, is centered between the two parks. With some luck, you’ll be at Parque Morazan while hula-hoopers, slack-line artists, drum circle musicians, skateboarders, jugglers, and/or other local entertainers are practicing their skills.
  • Parque Metropolitano La Sabana (La Sabana Metropolitan Park): This park, on the west side of San Jose, is the largest and most developed park in the capital city. It’s a great place for people-watching; locals walk, run, picnic, and practice yoga in the park. You may also spot a group of Ticos (Costa Ricans) engaged in a mejenga—an informal, pick-up game, usually of futbol—on the west side of the park near the Estadio Nacional.

#11. Stroll through a butterfly garden

A complimentary experience when you visit the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica is a walk through the museum’s mariposario (butterfly garden). But even if you don’t have an interest in touring the museum, you can visit the butterfly garden only, understanding that you’ll still need to pay the museum’s entrance fee. Be forewarned, the butterfly garden is small and only has a handful of butterflies, but it’s easy to explore on your own, and if you won’t have a chance to see butterflies elsewhere during your trip, a quick visit to this garden isn’t difficult to slot into your time in San Jose.

#12. Take a chocolate tour

Truth be told, chocolate isn’t synonymous with San Jose, so it may feel strange to think about coupling a chocolate tour with time spent in the capital city. While we’d normally recommend experiencing a chocolate tour elsewhere in Costa Rica, if your travel schedule won’t allow that, you can squeeze in the educative experience in San Jose at La Casa del Cacao, a shop that specializes in artisanal chocolate, and of course, chocolate tours!

#13. Attend a service or mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral

San Jose is home to a few religious institutions, the biggest and most visited being the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral). Although grey and drab-looking on the outside, the cathedral’s colorful artwork, rich wooden pews, and lovely tile floor creates a warm and inviting interior. Provided you’re respectful in doing so, you’re welcome to visit the church and admire its architecture and design. If you’re a practicing Roman Catholic, you can also attend a service and take part in misa (mass). The misa schedule is typically posted at the front of the cathedral.

#14. Watch a futbol game at the National Stadium of Costa Rica

Embodying the Tico (Costa Rican) way is as simple as becoming a futbol (soccer) fan, even if only for an day. If your time in San Jose permits, consider catching a game played by Deportivo Saprissa, San Jose’s city team in the national league, or a game played by the Selección Nacional (nicknamed the “Sele“), Costa Rica’s national team, which plays in international competitions like the World Cup. Games take place at the spectacular architectural phenomenon that is the Estado Nacional de Costa Rica (National Stadium of Costa Rica).

The giant Estadio Nacional is tough to miss in downtown San Jose. It’s on the city’s west side, at the northwest corner of Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, where Highway 1, Highway 2, and Highway 27 meet.

To really get into the Costa Rican spirit, consider purchasing a team jersey or t-shirt. You can pick one up at any tienda de deportes (sports store) in San Jose. Several street kiosks in the downtown core also sell team apparel, although much of it is unlicensed.

#15. Attend San Jose’s Civic Festival in Zapote

Most Costa Rican cities host fiestas civicas (civil festivals) that treat attendees to carnival rides, games, and food stalls. San Jose hosts one of Costa Rica’s best fiestas civicas, called the Fiestas de Zapote, at the end of December and the beginning of January. If you’ plan to be in San Jose during this period, ‘ll be in San Jose during that time, consider blending in with Josefinos (San Jose residents) by attending the festivities. The festival is free to enter, but ride and game tickets (as well as food and drink purchases) have a cost. Although you can read a full list of Costa Rican foods that are worth trying during your trip in our related blog post Costa Rica Food Guide: 30 Things To Eat In Costa Rica And When To Eat Them, some of the food you’ll typically find at the Fiestas de Zapote, and most fiestas civicas countrywide, include pollo frito (fried chicken), comidas chinas (Chinese food), vigorones, chicharrones, chorreadas, algodones (cotton candy), pupusas, candy apples, churros, popcorn, and mango slices or curls.

Bull-riding is a traditional and popular part of most Costa Rican fiestas civicas and the Fiestas de Zapote are no exception. If you want to watch skilled Ticos (Costa Ricans) ride bulls, or watch them run around a bullring hoping to evade bulls in return for prizes, you’ll need to purchase tickets (on-site at the fiesta civica) to access the bullring. Bull-related events typically take place every day of the two-week Fiestas de Zapote.

Things to skip in San Jose Costa Rica

We understand that your time in Costa Rica is limited. Of the few people who give themselves time to explore San Jose during their trip, most have no more than one day to spend in the capital city, so they need to be selective with the things they want to do and see. If you’re part of that group, here’s what we recommend not doing with your time in San Jose.

  • Don’t use your time in San Jose to shop for souvenirs. Generally speaking, there’s a wider variety of souvenirs available outside of the capital city, in popular tourist destinations like La Fortuna and Monteverde, among others, so shop there instead. Better yet, collect souvenirs along the way as you travel (i.e., collect them from each destination you visit), not just at the end of your trip. Isn’t that what souvenirs are meant for anyway, to remind you of specific moments experienced during your trip? In our opinion, loading up on souvenirs at the start or the end of your trip in San Jose seems futile.
  • Don’t focus on experiencing San Jose’s nightlife. That’s not to suggest that you cannot or should not go out for a drink (ideally with a group of people or as part of an organized nightlife tour, to be safe—San Jose gets dangerous after dark!), but there’s a lot to experience in the city beyond its nightlife, despite “nightlife” being a quintessential draw to any capital city.
  • Don’t roam around San Jose aimlessly. Like most capital cities, San Jose has attractions that are worth seeing and areas that are best avoided, either because they provide nothing of interest to foreigners or because they’re downright unsafe to be in. For your own safety, and to save you from wasting your precious travel time, stick to the blocks referenced at the start of this article, and ideally, limit your travels to the attractions detailed above. Although off-the-beaten-path travel can be glorious in some parts of Costa Rica, it can be disappointing and lead to disaster in downtown San Jose.

Map of San Jose Costa Rica

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What’s your favorite thing to do or see in San Jose, Costa Rica?

Pura vida!

[2024] 15 Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (And 3 Things To Skip Doing) - The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog (2024)
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