More than likely you will fly into or out of San José, Costa Rica. While the city is full of noise, grit and grime it’s worth a look around the city if you have the time. There are quite a few things to keep you busy and pull you into the culture of Costa Rica in San José. Additionally, there are many good day trips, like the Amazing Tour of Poás Volcano, Doka Coffee Estate, and Sarchí, from the city. However, I don’t recommend spending more than a full day or two in the city; then you can move on to nicer parts of the country.
Top 5 Things to do in San José, Costa Rica
- Jade Museum – Home to the largest collection of American jade in the world, this is one museum you should not overlook. Other ceramic exhibits, stonework, and gold pieces complete the museum, which is arranged according to the particular cultural region from where they came.
- Pre-Columbian Gold Museum – The architecture of the building inside is pretty spectacular for Costa Rica. The museum is located in a subterranean building underneath the Plaza de la Cultura and is managed by the Banco Central de Costa Rica. The museum has a collection of over 1600 artifacts of Pre-Columbian gold dating back to AD 500. If you collect coins, or even if you don’t, the displays dating back to 1236, including coins, banknotes and unofficial items such as coffee tokens is impressive.
- Mercado Nacional de Artesanias – This is one of my favorite areas in Costa Rica to shop. We typically go during the weekday, when it’s not busy. You can check out all the stalls then wonder back through a second time to haggle the prices down. Plus, the prices are usually a fraction of the price you would see in tourist traps and other stores. The people are friendly, and if you speak Spanish, it’s easier to negotiate. The stand operators will ask you to come into their booth. However, they are not aggressive. Most of the items you will find are of high quality. *Insiders tip* If you buy a wooden piece like a mask you can ask the person selling it to you to engrave on the back side or bottom of the piece. This could be the year you bought it, the facts about it, or other information.
- San Jose Central Market – The Central market is is the largest market in the city and was established in 1880. It envelops the entire block on Avenida Central, 250m northwest of the Parque Central. With narrow alleys and over 200 shops, stalls and restaurants there is something for everyone. There is a smell to the air and market thrills the senses. A huge range of items can be purchased here. The food is cheaper than most other places in the city center and is delicious. You can find meals starting at only 1,600 CRC.
- Plaza de la Cultura – The Plaza is a crowded straight line of shops, restaurants, and entertainment that provides an ideal location to begin exploring the city’s urban attractions. It’s a great way to get to the nearby National Theater, Precolumbian Gold Museum and the Tourism Information Office (ICT).
Locations you might want to skip:
Teatro Nacional Costa Rica – For most Southerners or those who travel, if you didn’t know what this building was, you would pass it and not even know it. A large area in the front of the theater usually has people feeding pigeons and people pass along rushing to this or that place without a glance. The square in front of can be littered with trash, and the fountain has been broken for a while now. However, inside is the theater’s most famous painting of Alegoría al café y el banano, an idyllic canvas showing coffee and banana harvests. The painting was produced in Italy and installed in the theater, and the image was reproduced on the old ₡5 note (now out of circulation). With an admission price of $10 per person, you will have to think about if it’s worth the money to see it inside.
Simon Bolivar Parque Zoologico y Jardin Botanico Nacional – We went with our niece and nephew to this zoo and the kids enjoyed it. The zoo is in pretty good condition, however, but most cages seem too small, and there are very limited enrichment opportunities for the animals.
However, there is a different side of this zoo that you might not know. Virtually all the animals at the nonprofit Simón Bolivar Zoo are orphaned, injured or disabled and are nursed back to health here in hopes of releasing them, other than the lion which was born in the Cuba zoo. None of the aminals were taken from the wild and put in the zoo, they were all orphaned as juveniles or had other injuries. In fact, the zoo takes in injured, or orphaned animals and about 70% are returned to the wild, or so Eduardo Bolaños, who manages public relations for the zoo said.
Many people want this zoo to close, however, in 2014 the court sided with the zoo, who stated that they have a contract that automatically renews it for 10 years unless the proper paperwork is filed a year in advance. This means that the zoo will remain open at least until 2024. The zoo has been making improvements to the enclosures but is it enough to easy the negativity that has surrounded the zoo? Only time will tell.
The paths are shaded and the price to get in is very reasonable. Just don’t be surprised if the size of the cages and the look of the animals throws you into a bit of fury. You can read more about the zoo here.
China Town – This diverse area is only identifiable by the pagoda style gate over what used to be a through street. You might find a few stores that sell what you could get at a local Super Mercado or plastic China import items, but other than that, there is not much to see here.
While the downtown area of San José is a prime tourist destination during daylight hours, we strongly encourage you not to go there after dark and advise you to avoid the El Pueblo Centro Comercial area of San José at all times. Read our Safety Tips to make sure you stay safe on your adventure to Costa Rica.