San Jose Costa Rica – What to Know Before Visiting

Pack those bags and get ready to explore Costa Rica because it promises to be a haven for outdoor adventure. From hiking by breathtaking waterfalls, to ziplining through a thick dense forest, to petting some of the most exotic wildlife on earth, this place promises to be the idyllic dream destination to help visitors relax, unwind, and de-stress from the usual buzz and doldrums of daily life. Be tempted by the call of the capital of Costa Rica. San Jose is a place to enjoy drinking delicious coffee with the locals or sip delicious cocktails by the pool in a in a historical hotel living the pura vida life to the hilt.

Captivating Pura Vida

The moment someone lands in Costa Rica, they’ll be hearing and seeing this phrase mentioned everywhere. Pura Vida literally translates to pure life. Leaving Juan Santamaria International Airport, people get the chance to explore this exotic country and meet its smiling locals. The realization that this pura vida is indeed true and applicable to almost anything sets in. The ambience, the attitude of the people, and the general vibe of the place exudes this freshness and zeal that can only come from living a good, happy, and contented life. And indeed, pura vida really is the way of life in this charming city with its vibrant streets, packed with interesting attractions, and warm, kind hearted people.

Sprawling City

San Jose is the city capital of Costa Rica. It is also the largest city in this country located in the Central Valley. It is filled with rich history because the seat of the national government can be found in this bustling town. San Jose serves as the center of both political and economic activities in Central America. The San Jose population amounts to around 400,000 people making it a bustling metropolis with sprawling city blocks. Most tourists bypass it in their mad rush to get to the pristine beaches and the interesting tropical rainforests.

The congested city streets may be overwhelming because of the dense San Jose population, but the town’s hip urban vibe cannot be ignored. This bustling metropolis, with its bevy of restaurants and numerous trendy bars that anyone would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the rest of the country, just beckons people to stay and explore for a day or two. Businesses in San Jose abound so it makes total sense to explore what it has to offer, too.

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Avenida Central

Most cities around the world have certain areas where the attractions and highlights are concentrated. In San Jose, this place happens to be in Avenida Central, which translates to Central Avenue. This portion is one of the most accessible and dynamic areas in the city. Tourists can easily walk between various museums and parks. On top of that, businesses in San Jose are focused on this area with outdoor plazas, restaurants, and boutiques littered across the interesting sidewalk.

San Jose is a dynamic city filled with colorful rooftops, patches of green parks, and its skyline is dotted with scattered high rises. There is a diverse urban culture that manages to intersperse well together in this bustling town. The mix of business people, yuppies (young professionals), artistic hipsters, and students make for an interesting town with a lot to offer. But just like any city around the globe, this town, too, has rough areas that tourists may want to avoid and steer clear off. Sticking to this Avenida, with people out and about at all times of the day, is generally safe so venturing out even at night to see and feel the city pulse is a welcome adventure.

The Museums

The main attraction for tourists in San Jose is exploring the town’s beautiful museums, which really reinforce its rich culture and heritage. The National Museum and the Pre-columbian Gold Museums are the most popular ones that tourists flock to explore. There are also other smaller museums nearby, but these two are the must see ones that cannot be missed, especially if people are pressed for time.

That National Museum with its very affordable entrance of around $9 will give people an overview about a broad range of topics related to the history of the country. Typically, museums have very specific themes, but the National Museum provides a good glimpse of the general history of Costa Rica. There are numerous displays such as: pottery remains, rustic sculptures, ancient jewelry carved from gold and jade, and stone artifacts. One of its interesting features is a butterfly garden, which the young ones and the young once upon a time will surely enjoy.

The National Museum finds its home in one of the areas of the Bellavista Fortress, which in itself is a a gem. This fortress contains vast exhibits that explain the importance of this location. The famous abolition of the military forces in 1948 by Jose Pepe Figueres Ferrer was staged in this fortress. Visible bullet marks still line the turrets of this city landmark that forever changed the political climate of this town. This iconic building is a must-see because it promotes the thrust of leading a country through educators with books instead of soldiers with guns.

The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum with its $11 entrance is a pleasant short ten minute walk from the Bellavista Fortress area. There are several floors of golden artifacts created by the town’s people that date as far back as 500AD. The historical displays are presented in chronological order, making it easy to understand how the country’s culture was changed and shaped over the course of time. This museum is located in a subterranean building in the Plaza dela Cultura, with a rough translation of Place of Culture. Literally on top of this is the Museo Numismatico (Museum of Coins). This is located in the same building, this time at the ground floor level. This traces the history of minting money in Costa Rica.

Two other museums nearby are the Jade Museum, with its massive collection of jade pieces, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, which showcases different design and artistic installations. Both are all within walking distance, which should make the walking city tour of San Jose interesting.

The National Theater

Another historical site that is the town’s most visited attraction is the National Theater with its opulent façade. Built between 1891 and 1897, this beautiful structures still stands tall and proud, with its intricately decorated rooms and stage still in use for the performances of this modern era. To experience its full glory, try to catch a show, but if pressed for time, then taking in the vibe of this beautiful building is more than enough.

The architecture and decoration speak of its strong European influence. Marble sculptures and ceiling murals with influences from the French and Italian masters give the theater an air of grandiose elegance. Tourists can opt to tour the theater on their own, but there is also a guided hourly tour that’s free with the $10 admission. One fascinating tidbit is the ballroom’s floor that can be mechanically raised for events and lowered when not needed.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

This is the main church in San Jose, Costa Rica, housing the seat of Catholic faith. This massive structure with its neoclassical posture stand proudly as it overlooks Central Park and the busy avenues. This cathedral has a rich history, having been built in 1878. The massive dome, columns, and bell towers lead the eye up and catch the attention. Within its walls there is a crypt, a huge pipe organ, a crypt, and forty-two beautiful stained glass windows that add a certain air of elegance and beauty to the church.

Green Parks

There are four major parks in the city proper that give a refreshing shade of green in the busy capital town. The National Park by the National Monument has been around since 1892. Stroll around this area after taking pictures with the National Monument, which is a statue that celebrates the freedom of Central America from the clutches of William Walker.

People watch on one of the benches in the ceremonial center that is Central Park. This sits in the heart of the city and has been serving the town since 1885. A place for social gatherings and casual strolls, this tree line park with its many green lawns does a great job in gathering the locals. There is a center band stand that has been there since 1944.

There is generous tree shade lining the La Sabana Metropolitan Park. It has been serving the West of San Jose since 1830. At one short period of time, it became the main international airport of Costa Rica. With 72 hectares, this park is home to the National Gymnasium, the National Stadium and the Art Museum. The park provides an avenue for its citizens to engage in sports with their soccer fields, softball and baseball diamonds, basketball courts, tennis courts, futsal court, roller skating rink, track oval, and Olympic pool. It also features picnic areas, playgrounds, sculptures, trails, lakes, and gardens.

There is also a quaint little park that features statues and effigies of former Presidents. On top of that, they also showcase iconic Latin American heroes. Morazan Park has beautiful gardens and abundant trees that pay homage to the beauty of nature.

Things to Do in San Jose

There’s plenty to do in San Jose Costa Rica, but this is what I would recommend for first time visitors.

Markets and Shops

The downtown district of San Jose is perfect for shopping and there are many things to do in the area. If visitors are thinking of buying souvenirs, there is a wide array in the National Artisans Market. This venue contains the typical shirts, key chains, mugs, and the like. There are also interesting stalls that sell handmade items. This is located in Avenida 6 between Calle 5 and 7.

For a more bustling experience, then head off to the Mercado Central, translated to Central Market. This has a more authentic vibe to it with sprawling compound housing many shops and food stalls spread along its busy corridors. Locals do their shopping here, so that alone says a lot about this venue. From exotic spices, to flowers, to herbal medication, to souvenirs, and to rich Costa Rican coffee, they have it all here. Haggling for a lower price is an acceptable practice so tourists must do their best to bag that deal. This is located in the heart of the city, taking up a huge chunk of Avenida 1 and Avenida Central at Calle 6.

There is also Galeria Namu that offers unique souvenirs with their fair trade local handicrafts. They showcase handcrafted products made by various indigenous groups of Latin America. From intricately woven baskets, to vibrantly painted mask, and interesting textiles, this gallery on Avenida 7 near the pre-Columbian Gold Museum is also worth looking at.


The best place to be is in Avenida Central where all the city attractions are located so tourists can explore by foot and not have to worry about traffic nor parking. The Hotel Aranjuez is a good option in a quieter area, but still near enough to walk to the attractions. This hotel is located in a historic building with its high ceiling and rustic original wood finishing giving it an authentic old world vibe. Interestingly enough, this hotel is named after the barrio or town where it is located in. The first electric power plant was located here, making it the first Latin American country to have electricity. Noteworthy, San Jose is the third city in the world to enjoy electricity, showing just how advanced the country is.

I’ve made a page with a full list of hotels in San Jose, Costa Rica.  If you are looking for a place to stay, you’ll want to start there.

The Grand Hotel Costa Rica is also another historical accommodation that dates back to the 1930s. It was actually constructed as decreed by congress. They wanted a first class hotel to serve the city. The Gran Costa has the perfect location because it sits right across the National Theater and is right smack along the busy Plaza de la Cultura. This hotel has hosted many foreign dignitaries and celebrities over the years. It has undergone massive renovation so people can enjoy its old world, historical charm while availing of modern amenities.

If you are looking for easy access to San Jose, without staying there, I’d recommend the Marriott San Jose located in Belen.  About 23 kilometers away, it’s much more desirable without the grit and grime that San Jose has.

Food Glorious Food

No visit to a country is complete without sampling its gastronomic delights. A trip is not a trip without a feast for the taste buds. Costa Rican food relies heavily on fruits and vegetables. On top of that, each meal is served with rice and black beans. A breakfast dish of black beans, rice, and veggies called Gallo Pinto exhibits this.

The Casado is also another must try dish that is the most traditional Costa Rican food. This word means marriage and rightly so because a plate of casado marries different kinds of food. It is not a singular dish but a combination of things like black rice, salad, tortilla, fried platano (plantain), and meat.

San Jose will impress visitors with their wide selection of restaurants, (here’s the top ones) with influences for around the globe. There is a cozy French Bistro called La Terrasse that’s tucked in a quiet neighborhood serving good food and wine.For a more casual dining experience, there is Café de los Deseos that has a pub style chill vibe serving local craft beer. Siefel Pub is another great watering hole that serves its own craft beer. Café Rojo by the the National Theater is a great place to eat lunch.

This bustling city has a lot to offer, it is essential that tourists do not by pass this town in their mad dash to get to the beaches, volcanoes like Arenal, and rainforests. To experience authentic Costa Rican culture, a visit to San Jose is necessary. It would be a shame to just leave it as a transit hub to get to and from the airport. Part of experiencing a country’s real charm is understanding its history and dealing with its people.