While it's tempting to make a beeline for Costa Rica's luscious countryside, take some time to get to know San José, Costa Rica's humming capital city. Wander historic neighborhoods such as Barrio Amón, where historic buildings have been converted into contemporary art galleries, and Barrio Escalante, the city's gastronomic epicenter. Stroll with Saturday shoppers at the farmers market, join the Sunday crowds in Parque La Sabana, dance the night away to live music at one of the city's vibrant clubs, or visit the museums of gold, jade, art and natural history, and you'll begin to understand the multidimensional appeal of Costa Rica's largest city and cultural capital.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout San José.
On the southern side of the Plaza de la Cultura resides the Teatro Nacional, San José’s most revered building. Constructed in 1897, it features a columned neoclassical facade flanked by statues of Beethoven and famous 17th-century Spanish dramatist Calderón de la Barca. The lavish marble lobby and auditorium are lined with paintings depicting various facets of 19th-century life. History When construction began in the late 19th century, the President of Costa Rica was determined to create a lavish and impressive building that was worthy of the moniker 'National Theater'. However, the population of Costa Rica was quite low – San Jose alone had only around 20,000 residents – and cost was a major consideration. President José Joaquín Rodríguez Zeledón's solution to this problem was to place a tax on coffee, the main export of the country at the time. The construction was fraught with problems until an Italian engineer was brought in to oversee the entire project and guide it to success. The theater's most famous painting is Alegoría al café y el banano, an idyllic canvas showing coffee and banana harvests. The painting was produced in Italy and shipped to Costa Rica for installation in the theater, and the image was reproduced on the old ₡5 note (now out of circulation). It seems clear that the painter never witnessed a banana harvest because of the way the man in the center is awkwardly grasping a bunch (actual banana workers hoist the stems onto their shoulders). Performances and tours Costa Rica’s most important theater stages plays, dance, opera, classical concerts, Latin American music and other major events. The main season runs from March to November, but there are performances throughout the year. The hourly tours here are fantastic – guests are regaled with stories of the art, architecture and people behind Costa Rica's crown jewel of the performing arts. The best part is a peek into otherwise off-limits areas, such as the Smoking Room, which features famous paintings, lavish antique furnishings and ornate gold trim. Tours are offered every hour on the hour in Spanish and English, to a maximum of 30 people. Children under 12 are free. Alma de Cafe One of the most beautiful cafes in the city, this spot evokes early 20th-century Vienna. It's a perfect place to sip a cappuccino, enjoy a crepe or quiche and take in the lovely ceiling frescoes and rotating art exhibitions. The coffee concoctions – such as the chocolate alma de cafe, spiked with cinnamon and clove – are an excellent midday indulgence. Once you're finished soaking up all the culture within the theater, you can easily join one of the city walking tours that start from the cafe.
Entered via a beautiful glassed-in atrium housing an exotic butterfly garden, this museum provides a quick survey of Costa Rican history. Exhibits of pre-Columbian pieces from ongoing digs, as well as artifacts from the colony and the early republic, are all housed inside the old Bellavista Fortress, which historically served as the army headquarters and saw fierce fighting (hence the pockmarks) in the 1948 civil war.
This museum houses the world’s largest collection of American jade (pronounced ‘ ha -day’ in Spanish), with an ample exhibition space of five floors offering seven exhibits. There are nearly 7000 finely crafted, well-conserved pieces, from translucent jade carvings depicting fertility goddesses, shamans, frogs and snakes to incredible ceramics (some reflecting Maya influences), including a highly unusual ceramic head displaying a row of serrated teeth. Interesting indigenous history is on display, too. The museum cafe, Grano Verde, serves sandwiches, salads and smoothies.
This three-in-one museum houses an extensive collection of Costa Rica's most priceless pieces of pre-Columbian gold and other artifacts, including historical currency and some contemporary regional art. The museum, located underneath the Plaza de la Cultura, is owned by the Banco Central and its architecture brings to mind all the warmth and comfort of a bank vault. The interactive 360-degree videography display of Bribrí cultural hierarchy in the basement is worth the admission price alone.
Northwest of Plaza España lies this pleasant, historical neighborhood, home to a cluster of 19th-century cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions. Recently many of the area’s historical buildings have been converted into hotels, cafes, bars, and offices, making this a popular district for an architectural stroll. You’ll find everything from art deco concrete manses to brightly painted tropical Victorian structures in various states of upkeep.
Though josefinos mainly do their shopping at chain supermarkets, San José’s crowded indoor markets retain an old-world, authentic feel. This main market, lined with vendors hawking everything from spices and coffee beans to pura vida souvenir T-shirts. It's all super cheap, and likely made in China or Nicaragua (not the coffee beans, though).
If you're wondering how to get your young kids interested in art and science, this unusual museum – actually two museums in one – is an excellent place to start. Housed in an old penitentiary built in 1909, it's part children’s museum and part art gallery. Small kids will love the hands-on exhibits related to science, geography and natural history, while grown-ups will enjoy the unusual juxtaposition of contemporary art in abandoned prison cells.
Formerly a residential enclave, the streets of this increasingly hip neighborhood are now lined with dozens of restaurants, cafes, bakeries and bars. The largest concentration stretches along Calle 33 and has been dubbed Paseo Gastronómico La Luz (La Luz Restaurant Promenade) in honor of a small grocery store that used to stand on the street’s corner.
One of San José’s nicest green spaces, this shady spot lures retirees to read newspapers and young couples to smooch coyly on concrete benches. At its center is the Monumento Nacional, a dramatic 1953 statue that depicts the Central American nations driving out North American filibuster William Walker. The park is dotted with myriad monuments devoted to Latin American historical figures, including Cuban poet, essayist and revolutionary José Martí, Mexican independence figure Miguel Hidalgo and 18th-century Venezuelan humanist Andrés Bello.