Viva the new San José: how Costa Rica's capital became cool
There you are, playing table tennis with a stranger in the middle of a park. All around you loom primeval trees festooned with vines. Around noon, you amble over to the century-old National Theater for a free performance of the National Symphony Orchestra. Feeling famished, you visit a posh new gastropub to sample their gourmet sliders, followed by pints of craft beer. By 10pm, you’re watching a local indie band perform in three languages.
Can this really be San José? When did the dark, rainy, confusing capital of Costa Rica become so cool? For years, “Chepe” has been a backpackers’ purgatory; a necessary layover before hopping a bus to greener destinations. Oh, San José is still gritty and a world apart from Costa Rica’s beaches and cloud forests. But in recent years the city has experienced a slow renaissance. Forgotten barrios are blossoming. At long last, urban Ticos are starting to feel a tinge of pride.
So don’t write off San José just yet. Thanks to a surge of artists, foodies, and entrepreneurs the city can be downright fun. Here are some new and exciting reasons to pencil in a couple of extra days during your trip.
The throbbing heart of San José is its downtown area, a hodgepodge of tiny neighborhoods that are walkable and well connected by buses and taxis. Note that neighborhoods are poorly marked and seem to overlap, and street addresses are useless. But any chepeño (San José resident) can direct you to the most exciting zones: Barrio Amón is a sloped, historic neighborhood with galleries, cafés, and novelty shops. Barrio Escalante has wide streets and rows of stately houses and inventive restaurants. San Pedro is home to the University of Costa Rica and a thriving party scene. Paseo Colón is named after a long avenue that leads to La Sabana Park, which offers a mix of hostels, chain restaurants and exciting new pubs. At first glance, Los Yoses seems to be just a highway connecting downtown San José to San Pedro, but a stroll down its back streets reveals some of the most popular venues in the city.
Food and drink renaissance
In the sprawl of San José, most tourists have to choose between gallo pinto (rice and beans) and Pizza Hut. But venture down the right thoroughfare and you’ll find a cornucopia of options. For a luxurious lunch, try Kalú (Barrio Escalante), a brightly lit bistro serving up gourmet coffee, elaborate pasta bowls and salads, combined with a boutique shop hawking ceramic plates. Café Rojo (Barrio Amón) is built into an old house, with hardwood floors and bossa nova on the stereo; the rotating menu has permanent delights like hibiscus tea and deli sandwiches on artisanal bread. Chepeños are now spoilt for dinner options, but a downtown favorite is Aquí Es (Paseo Colón) – a romantically lit Argentinean steakhouse.
Costa Rica’s craft beer revolution is creating quite a buzz about town, with an explosion of breweries like Perro Vida, Treintaycinco, and the Costa Rica Craft Brewing Co providing new ammunition for a San José night out. If you love something hoppy and strong, start with a Libertas or the powerful Maldita Vida. Both beers are rich, tasty, and easy to find. For the first time in Costa Rican history, scruffy youths are now conversant in cervezas artesanales.
A clutch of hotspots are making it their business to help you sample this rapidly evolving beer scene. Try Stiefel Pub (Barrio Amón), a two-story dive with tile floors and tables decorated in pop art, or El Gaff (Los Yoses), an expansive eatery with multiple patios and complex pizzas.
Because San José is such a condensed city, all these places are an inexpensive taxi ride away from any downtown hostel. Bars generally close between midnight and 2am, when cabs are strongly recommended.
Free art and entertainment
Upbeat municipal events are becoming popular in San José, thanks to a new generation of ambitious bohemians and their stubborn love for the city. The quarterly Art City Tour has become one of the most popular civic events in Costa Rica. During the tour, which is completely free, local museums and galleries open their doors to the public and free shuttles transport patrons from one cultural hub to the next. Organized by GAM Cultural, Art City floods San José with energetic youths, culminating in free concerts and block parties.
This event is the best way to enjoy San José’s full range of art venues: curious visitors queue downtown outside Museo de Jade, a newly expanded four-story colossus that houses one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian art and jade in the world. Meanwhile, guests can also sip wine outside TEOR/éTica Gallery, a plucky little art space in Barrio Amón. If you can’t time a visit around one of these tours, it’s worth checking out the rest of GAM Cultural’s exhaustive cultural calendar.
Another curious cultural phenomenon is Enamorate de tu Ciudad (Fall in Love with Your City), an ongoing series of workshops and performances in urban parks hosted by the Culture Ministry. Enamorate events are also public and free. During weekends, La Sabana Park comes alive with pickup soccer games, jogging groups and massive zumba classes involving hundreds of people. Just wander around San José’s version of Central Park and ask to join any activity that strikes your fancy.
Keep an eye out for colorful public murals, which pop up in neighborhoods like San Pedro and Barrio Amón. Imaginative and sometimes psychedelic, these paintings depict everything from jungle scenes to famous buskers. Central Avenue even has paintings on the garage doors of its shops, which appear when shopkeepers close for the night.
Sure, you can still find salsa clubs and dive bars with disco floors in San José, but if you’re after something more eclectic or discerning San José may surprise you. Music fans will gravitate toward the Hoxton Pub (Los Yoses), which has the air of a private mansion overrun by hipsters. You can usually catch a singer-songwriter at the gypsy-style Café de los Deseos (Barrio Carmen). Big and famous bands, like Tico superstars Sonámbulo Psicotropical, usually play at places like Mundo Loco El Chante (San Pedro) or Jazz Café (San Pedro).
All these venues double as bars and serve upscale pub food. Concert schedules are scattered and unpredictable, but most venues announce upcoming acts on their Facebook pages. A rule of thumb is that a Costa Rican concert will almost never start on time, and while most are slated for 7 to 9pm, they generally start an hour or two late. Covers can be pricey for Latin America, ranging from $5 to $20, but the atmosphere is usually worth it.
One of the most experimental venues in San José is AmonSolar (Barrio Amón), a large Romanesque structure that houses a restaurant, a large main stage and “El Sótano” (the basement), a subterranean speakeasy for jazz players. AmonSolar hosts all kinds of visual and performing artists, and the endless cycle of blues and jazz performances gives new meaning to Costa Rica’s famed pura vida (the pure life).
This article was refreshed in July 2017.