20 Things To Do In San Jose, Costa Rica

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Costa Rica is famous for its wildlife, both within its jungles but also on its two coastlines. The Pacific is 120 miles (around 190 kilometres) to the west and the Caribbean is almost the same distance to the east. The central location of San Jose within the Central American country of Costa Rica makes it the ideal starting point for anyone wishing to explore this stunning country. San Jose itself has much to offer and is Costa Rica’s capital and largest city with a population of around 350,000 and a modern infrastructure.

Costa Rica’s reputation as a country keen on the environment has swelled its visitor numbers in recent times. While some arrive across land borders, significant numbers of visitors arrive by air in San Jose.

The colonial architecture in San Jose provides a feast for the eyes, while its cultural development over the years ensures there is plenty to enjoy day and night. There are plenty of parks to enjoy as well as museums that tell the story of the history of the region. Here are the best things to do in San Jose.

San Jose, Costa Rica

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20 Things To Do In San Jose

1- Visit Catedral Metropolitana

san jose costa rica metropolitan cathedral
Visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral is one of the things to do in San Jose.

This cathedral in the heart of San Jose is one of nine catholic cathedrals in the country.

It is on several tour routes but you should consider spending time there to admire its lovely interior so just take a walk there.

A cathedral was a defining factor in achieving city status so work began in 1825 with the building finished in two years, however, it was not until 1850 that it was declared a cathedral.

Earthquake damage meant that two decades later, a decision was made to strengthen it and further work has been needed subsequently.

The exterior is fairly plain but go inside and you will see lovely windows, vaulted ceilings and colonial-style floors even before you examine things more closely.

Recommended tours:

2- Immerse Yourself In Local Food Culture At Mercado Central (Central Market)

San Jose: Central Market Tour with Food and Coffee Tasting
Tasting fruit in a local market is one of the fun things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.

This is the largest market in the city and it is once again on the route of several tours but to really enjoy the place, you should devote some time and learn more about the cuisine of Costa Rica, and San Jose specifically.

It opened in 1880 and occupies a whole block in Avenida Central.

You will see over 200 shops as well as stalls and restaurants within a series of narrow streets.

Huge crowds visit the market on a daily basis and there are non-food products on sale but it is the wide range of produce that you will find interesting.

Meat and fish, fruit and vegetables as well as spices and coffee are evidence of the fertility of the region.

The splash of colour at every turn adds to the experience of learning more about the dishes that you will find on menus everywhere.

Look out for Gallo Pinto (rice, beans with flavour), Sopa Negra (black bean soup) and for Arroz con Leche (creamy dessert).

3- Seek Out Sloths At The University Campus

Pale-Throated Sloth, Marino Ballena National Park, Costa Rica
Seeing the Pale-Throated Sloth is one of the unique things to do in San Jose Costa Rica.

It is always nice to be able to visit green areas within cities.

In the case of San Jose, the green areas include the campus of the University of Costa Rica and you are more than welcome to visit, with expectation of seeing sloths, and other wildlife.

If you take a tour, your guides will be young biologists studying at the university.

This is a chance to learn more about history and culture as well as admiring the lovely flowers, the vegetation in general as well as nature.

A wide range of birds, many migratory spend time in the campus forests and then of course there are the sloths.

4- Take A San Jose Bus Tour

El Templo De La Música In San Jose Costa Rica
Wandering around El Templo De La Música people watching is one of the things to do in San Jose downtown.

If you want to familiarise yourself with San Jose before heading our independently to explore places in more detail, a bus tour is one of the best ways to do that.

You will have a local guide and stops include several of the city’s highlights, such as La Sabana Metropolitan Park, the Central Market, the National Theatre and the Museum of Costa Rican Art. 

You will have a little time to walk around during the tour but not sufficient time to really explore places of particular interest.

The tour finishes with a tasty lunch of local favourites and then it is time to begin to think about the places you want to revisit.

5- Experience San Jose By Night

Local knowledge is very useful in a strange city.

That is definitely the case at night when you need to know the best places for nightlife as well as areas it is best to avoid.

Early in your visit to San Jose, it is worth thinking about a tour and getting the advice of locals.

Many of San Jose’s landmarks look different under lights and you should capture the images on your camera.

This specific tour includes dinner in an area of San Jose where you will enjoy the city at night.

Your guide will answer all your questions so you will be ready to enjoy nights in the city for the rest of your time in the city.

6- Hit The Bars In Centro Comercial El Pueblo

San Jose has a lively nightlife with Centro Comercial el Pueblo being a district of discos, bars and night clubs where visitors have plenty of choice when it comes to where to buy a drink.

It is crowded for sure but perfectly safe.

It makes sense in every city to leave valuables back at your hotel and that is the case here but otherwise relax and go with the flow.

Bars here are stylish and contemporary with drinks ranging from the increasing number of craft beers to a traditional shot, Chiliguaro.

Its base is a sugar cane liquor with tomato juice and a splash of something like tabasco to give it a kick.

By now, you may want to dance; no inhibitions left! Go ahead, because music fills the air in Centro Comercial el Pueblo. Check out this tour.

7- Try The Local Craft Beers

Craft beer is becoming increasingly popular in San Jose.

There are a number of places specialising in craft beer in neighbourhoods such as Barrio Otoya, Barrio La California and Barrio Escalante.

Should you wish, you can join a tour to get local expertise but the more you learn about the city, the easier it is to go around independently.

Depending on the time you have, the best place to head for is Barrio Escalante where you will find there are snacks that go very well with the beers.

Should you want to know about the ingredients used, and the brewing process, then think about a tour.

If all you want to do is to try the alternatives and settle on a favourite, then that is a personal choice.

8- See A Show And Admire The Architecture At Teatro Nacional

national theatre of costa rica san jose
Visiting the National Theatre of Costa Rica is one of the things to old in San Jose.

The National Theatre is a tourist attraction in itself even if you do not take in a performance but why not enjoy one while you are there.

This theatre, which holds 1,140 people, is in the heart of the city and first opened in 1897 with a performance of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

At that time, the city’s population was less than 20,000 with many performances purely private booking.

The interior of this building regarded as one of the most impressive in the city is exquisite with the mural Allergy of Coffee and Bananas outstanding.

Outside there are statues and monuments including ones of Beethoven and Chopin.

There are several performances on a weekly basis with the National Symphonic Orchestra regularly playing.

9- Discover Pre-Columbian Gold At Museo del Oro Precolombino

The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is a great illustration of the importance of gold in the Americas from the earliest days of colonial explorers, primarily Spain.

There are more than 3,500 artifacts in the museum which belongs to the national central bank.

Don’t think all the artifacts are gold! More than half are ceramics but almost 1,600 are indeed gold.

Some are dated as early as 400BC with the newest from the middle of the 16th Century.

There is a whole range of imagery; jaguars and alligators, frogs and eagles as well as the impressive El Guerrero, a gold warrior, life-size and adorned with golden ornaments.

10- Step Back Into History At Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

Tower Of The National Museum In San Jose, Costa Rica
Visiting the National Museum is one of the things to do in Costa Rica’s San Jose.

The National Museum between Central and Second Avenue is a must for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of Costa Rica from its earliest times.

It was a country with hunters and gatherers before the arrival of the Spanish who remained for 3 centuries.

It was part of the Mexican Empire subsequently before it gained independence.

All these periods are in evidence within the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

The building itself is impressive and its image is often used to advertise the city and its tours.

There are permanent and temporary exhibitions here with the country’s natural history also represented.

11- Wander Around Morazán Park And See The Temple Of Music

Morazan Park is the largest in the city with its Temple of Music well worth a visit.

It is in El Carmen and is a regular venue for the city’s cultural events.

There are many other important buildings close to the park so it is possible to see plenty of things in your day but arguably the Temple of Music is the highlight.

The park’s origins date back to the 19th Century when it was finally decided for health reasons to drain an artificial lake that was made in 1790.

The temple is a replica of one found in Versailles near Paris, France.

There are numerous monuments and statues within the park and often, the temple is used for political rallies, as well as hosting musical events.

12- Head To The Museo del Jade

The Jade Museum in San Jose has more than 7,000 pieces of jade, the biggest collection of pre-Colombian jade anywhere in the world.

Jade is typically green but there are examples in yellow and white.

It is a popular stone for ornaments and has been so in Costa Rica since long before the Spanish arrived.

It was always fairly rare but perhaps as a consequence it was used in many ancient rituals.

As well as viewing the artifacts, you will learn about the source of the stone, how it was retrieved and then fashioned into the artifacts that are on display.

13- Discover the Costa Rican Centre of Science and Culture

The Costa Rican Centre of Science and Culture comprises three museums: the Children’s Museum, the National Gallery as well as the National Auditorium.

Exhibits of science and technology, culture and recycling are on display.

The building is interesting, formerly the penitentiary from 1910 until 1979.

The Centro Costarricense de la Ciencia y la Cultura opened in 1994 after the building lay empty for 15 years.

The centre’s stated aim is to improve education as well as promote the national scientific and technological development.

14- Museo de Arte Costarricense In La Sabena Park

The Museum of Costa Rican Art has the best of national art and a wide range of exhibits, some of which are outside.

Paintings, sculptures, engravings, videos and photographs make up the collection and admission is free to the public.

You will find the museum in the city’s largest park, La Sabena.

The building was once a city airport building and there is plenty to do in the park which is hugely popular with the locals.

You will see an artificial lake, sporting facilities and the national stadium.

15- Call In At A Butterfly Garden

Butterfly gardens are found throughout Costa Rica and there are alternatives to visit within San Jose itself.

The closest two to the heart of the city are Mariposario Butterfly Kingdom and the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden.

Once you are there you can take a guided tour around the garden to learn more about the species that are there.

There are between 50 and 60 different species in the latter for example, all living in climate-controlled conditions.

The whole setting is beautiful with stunning vegetation, birdlife and waterfalls on the site.

16- Travel To The Suburbs

San Jose City
Aerial view of San Jose City in Costa Rica.

Escazu is on the outskirts of San Jose and it is where you will find Refugio Animal de Costa Rica.

If you are taking a local bus or taxi, you will be able to get there fairly easily.

This refuge takes in and treats injured animals.

It is a fine example of the country’s commitment to the flora and fauna within its boundaries.

At the refuge itself, you can get a guide to show you around.

17- Enjoy The City’s Wildlife Rescue Centres

Many visitors to Costa Rica go to see the natural environment and the wildlife that lives there.

You may not have the chance to do that yet there is still the opportunity to see wildlife within San Jose because there are a number of wildlife centres within the city.

Toucan Rescue Ranch is one example, a place determined to help this beautiful bird.

The aim is to cure and release.

The Ranch also treats other birds and some mammals.

Rescate Wildlife Rescue Centre has been a sanctuary for 30 years, accepting anything in need of help.

A third, Costa Rica Animal Rescue Centre takes in street casualties or anything retrieved from the illegal wildlife trade.

18- Hit The Shops

Window shopping in Downtown San Jose is fun even if you start without any intention of buying.

You are likely to be tempted because the city shops have everything from high fashion stores to those selling souvenirs.

Clothing other than high fashion is extremely competitively priced.

Likewise, you will find footwear to be very reasonable.

If you want to go to a mall where prices are mid-range, plan to visit Mall San Pedro in the square of the same name.

It is no more than a 15-minute walk from the heart of the city.

19- Watch A Football Match

Costa Rica played in the last FIFA World Cup and it is fair to say that the country is soccer-mad.

Sometimes, it is difficult to avoid a bar where a game is being shown.

Such bars will be very busy but better still, if you are a soccer fan and the season is in full flow, try getting a ticket to a live game.

Estadio Nacional is the venue where major games take place.

These include internationals between “La Sele” (the nickname of the national side) and another country or club games between the country’s elite.

The stadium has a capacity of 35,000 and demand for tickets is usually high but you can check online and even buy without needing to head to the ground.

20- Catch A Live Band

San José has a very lively music scene.

Local Tico bands play throughout the city and it is just a matter of asking around to find a performance.

There are more options at weekends but there is never a night when there is nothing.

You should check at the popular venues; El Observatorio which is always busy or Amon Solar which is in an old mansion.

Its musical range goes from reggae to jazz and blues.

Some venues are much smaller, even just down a side street. 

Looking for more to do in Central America? Check out these:

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Steve Smith is a widely travelled man who has lived on the South West Coast of Turkey since 2008. He hails from North East England where he lived most of his life but has been to every continent of the world, with a particular love for Southern Africa and its wildlife. He lists Argentina, India, and Vietnam as other favourite places that he enjoyed greatly while sport is also a passion, cricket and golf as a participant, rugby union and soccer as a spectator.