All year long, families flock to Costa Rica, where beaches and biodiversity enthrall travelers of all ages. Whether by necessity or design, you and your children will most likely find yourselves in San José, the nation’s capital, upon arrival.
Most travelers fly into Juan Santamaría International Airport, and they routinely spend a night or two in this no-frills urban crossroads. Luckily, San José has world-class museums and cultural venues, and it can show a kid a good time – if you know where to look.
Is San José, Costa Rica good for kids?
When people daydream about a vacation in Costa Rica, they're more likely to picture beaches and rainforests rather than San José – the busy, noisy metropolis that half a million Ticos call home. The city can easily overwhelm a first-time visitor with its aggressive hawkers and unswept streets, and that goes double for families.
But don't judge the city too soon, as there are many diamonds in the rough. As a rule, Ticos adore children, and the country is known for its quality of life and commitment to early education. The uneven streets don’t make it easy for strollers or small feet, but taxis are everywhere, and nearly every passerby will melt in the presence of a young traveler. Parks and plazas are scattered throughout the city, so you can almost always regroup on a shady bench.
Best things to do in San José, Costa Rica with kids
1. Museo de Los Niños
The must-see attraction for children is the Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum), which looks like a canary-colored castle on top of a hill. Here you’ll find visual art, interactive science exhibits and archaeological displays.
Live performances are common, and kids could easily spend hours roaming the gigantic rooms and corridors. Many of the rotating exhibits are geared toward adults as well, including the Galería Nacional.
2. Butterfly Kingdom
Tucked into the western suburb of Escazú, this mariposario (butterfly park) celebrates the 1500 different butterfly species that flutter through Costa Rica. Butterfly Kingdom’s established tour takes about two hours to complete, with airborne butterflies ready to be admired and plenty of hands-on activities for small children.
Planning tip: There is one tour scheduled each morning at 9am. Drop-ins are possible, but it’s best to arrange your visit through the organization’s email or social media pages.
3. Parque Diversiones
Do you wish Costa Rica had more roller coasters? Look no farther than Parque Diversiones, the nation’s single traditional amusement park. First established in 1981 to raise money for the local Children’s Hospital system, Parque Diversiones serves up all the loop-the-loops, water slides and vertical drops a young daredevil could ask for. While you’re there, keep an eye out for “Tío Conejo,” the traditional trickster of Costa Rican folklore – and the park’s mascot.
Planning tip: While Parque Diversiones is hard to reach on public transit, it’s only a 15-minute taxi ride from downtown San José (depending on traffic).
4. Parque La Sabana
This sprawling public park stands just west of San José, and it’s a panacea for people seeking open skies and a little slice of nature. The lawns of La Sabana are wide-open, as are the miniature woods and pond. Families can find all kinds of ball fields and athletic equipment, plus tables and benches for picnics. For kids who are yearning for familiar slides and swing sets, there’s an old-school playground located on the north side of the park.
Insider tip: The volleyball courts, baseball diamonds and other facilities are all free to use, but they’re often busy with locals, especially on sunny days. You may also want to bring your own accouterments, such as blankets and frisbees.
5. Refugio Animal
Costa Rica has a real knack for urban “refuges,” where animals unfit to live in the wild are treated and even repopulated. The Refugio Animal is one such facility, located on the twisting suburban road between Escazú and Santa Ana. You will need to take the tour, but the Refugio’s trained naturalists are usually great at engaging young visitors.
6. Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle
A favorite among Tico school groups, the Museo de Ciencias Naturales (Museum of Natural History) in La Sabana highlights both the diversity of the planet and the fine art of taxidermy. Here you’ll find one diorama after another of exotic birds, lizards and carnivores in artfully replicated habitats.
The museum is a little dusty, but the recreated dinosaur skeletons and thousands of fossils and minerals are definitely worth the modest admission fee.
7. Jardín de Lolita
The cure for picky eaters: a food hall with a little bit of everything. Jardín de Lolita is a mashup of several different eateries, like food trucks stacked on top of each other. True to its name, the verdant setting is indeed garden-like, and the communal seating makes it easy for families to snatch a table. Survey a range of world cuisines, from sushi to pizza to gelato.