San José, Costa Rica is often skipped over when people visit this beautiful Central American Country, but it is worth spending at least a day or two exploring this historic city.
We did exactly that after our UnCruise from Panama to Costa Rica.
San Jose is the Capital city of Costa Rica and it is busy. It can be overwhelming when you first arrive. People fill the various walking streets and restaurants are packed.
But once you look past the congestion and chaos, you'll discover a cultural city filled with plenty of things to do.
These are our recommendations for things to do in San Jose if you stick around before or after your escape to one of Costa Rica's tropical beaches.
Things to do in San Jose Costa Rica
The first thing to figure out when visiting San Jose is deciding where to stay. We didn't have the first clue of where to start, but then as we did our research, we learned that you want to stay near the Avenida Central. (Central Avenue) located in downtown San Jose.
If you have the budget, we recommend the Gran Hotel by Hilton. It is right in the heart of all the action and it cost us $197 USD.
It was worth it for our short stay as we were walking distance to all the major attractions.
Plus, being Hilton Honors members, we got a late checkout (3 pm) and then had a relaxing place to chill while waiting for our 11 pm flight home the next day.
If you are looking for a more local option make sure to check out this cool Air B&B right in the center of town.
- Check out these interesting Costa Rica Facts
Avenida Central – Central Avenue
Avenida Central is a walking street going through the downtown core of San Jose. It is filled with restaurants, shops, and attractions.
The best way to start your day is to find a local coffee shop to have some flavorful Costa Rican coffee, take it away with you and start walking along the avenue.
It is quiet in the mornings and is the perfect way to get your bearings.
There are several walking streets besides Avenida Central, so get lost and stroll along the auto-free streets to feel the energy of the city.
Plaza de la Cultura
The Plaza de la Cultura is the main square of San Jose complete with the regular spots to please locals. McDonald's, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, you get the drift.
Don't be alarmed by all the police wielding guns walking around. They are there as a deterrent.
Plaza de la Cultura is very safe and it is a spot where many tours meet up, vendors sell crafts, street performers show their skills and where locals sell birdseed to feed the pigeons flocking to the square.
There are plenty of things to do in this area that you can easily walk to from the plaza.
And we are about to list them all below!
Mercado Central – Central Market
When searching for souvenirs, Central Market is a good place to start. It is one of the oldest landmarks in Costa Rica dating back to 1821.
Locals shop at this market and it's a great place to grab a bite to eat at one of the many stalls. You'll see people sitting on stools eating traditional food, so why not join them and say hello!
Teatro Nacional – National Theater of Costa Rica
The National Theatre of Costa Rica is the centerpiece of the city. It's a meeting spot and the grande dame of the town.
Dating back to 1897, this historic building is a must-see. Tours are offered for $11 USD.
The coffee barons of the 19th century went all out importing marble from Italy, statues and opulent frescoes. The original statues have been moved inside for fear of earthquakes and erosion.
Not photos allowed in the theater.
Coffee Shop at National Theater
If you don't have time for the 45 minute tour, or if you don't want to spend the $11, there is a coffee shop in the lobby where you can enjoy a brew.
If you ask to use the bathroom, you can take a peek inside the theater itself. They'll give you a pass to get by security, but don't spend too long lingering!
The shop is busy, so be sure to grab a table as soon as you see one.
Free Walking Tour
Each day at 9:00 am, there is a free walking tour lead by local guides. They are offered in both Spanish and English.
Patrons meet in front of the National Theater and join their guide with the red vest and umbrella for a cultural tour of San Jose.
Beware, there is a copycat guide that stands out front of the theater publicizing his own walking tour. He nearly got us the day before telling us that the free walking tour starts at 12:30.
We popped up to our hotel room to drop some stuff off and looked up how much we should tip. The first thing we saw was his face warning that he was a fraud.
The free tours don't ever leave at 12:30, they leave at 9:00 am every day.
Suggested Tip: $10 USD per person.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum of San Jose
Located under The Plaza de la Cultura (the main square of San Jose) The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is one of the most popular museums to visit in San Jose.
Some of the metal objects on display date back to 500 AD.
Here you'll learn of everyday life and what the use and purpose was of the gold spanning from 500 AD to the 1500s when the Spanish arrived in the area.
National Museum – Bullet Holes
If you want to visit another museum, the National Museum is a must.
If you aren't a museum fan, you still must stroll along the outside of the museum to see the bullet holes in the walls and watchtower that are still there from the 1948 Civil War.
The National Museum was originally a fortress and these were its army barracks.
It's a beautiful building. Be sure to check out the stone sphere sitting in a glass encasement.
The stone spheres of Costa Rica date back to 200BC and there have been more than 300 of them discovered throughout the country.
The stone balls ranging from a few centimeters to two meters in diameter and weighing up to 15,000 kg (16 tons) are so impressive that some are on display around the world including two in the United States.
Our guide told us that treasure hunters blew them up when they were first discovered thinking that gold was hidden inside.
The Jade Museum is yet another museum that is worth a visit. It is located just behind the National Museum and if you have extra time, you can pop in there.
The jade on display dates back to 500 BC. The Pre Columbians traded with the Mayans during this period and this rare stone played a large role in the daily life of Pre-Columbian Costa Rica.
Other Museums in San Jose
Children's Museum – The Museo de Los Ninos is popular for families complete with dinosaurs, science displays, ancient Egypt and Costa Rican history. What makes it good are the interactive displays.
Museum of Natural Sciences – Considered one of the best in Latin America for animals, archeology, and dinosaurs.
Another lovely walking street in front of the National Museum is California Boulevard. aka Calle 17.
It was designed to mimic the streets of Los Angeles. This walking street is far quieter than Avenida Central and its cobblestone path is lined with palm trees and colonial architecture.
This is where you'll find many government buildings, private residences, and educations centers.
Along this street, is where you'll also discover beautiful street art.
Like many cities, street tagging was becoming a problem in San Jose, so they offered artists a chance to own a piece of the wall to celebrate their expression of art.
We were told that each artist auditioned for their spot and they were granted a piece of wall for five years.
It is a quiet and small park, but the National Park of San Jose is historic. It is also a spot where you can view the railway.
Trains were a popular way to get around the country, but corruption put a stop to them when the people in power had a vested interest is automobile manufacturing.
Today, Costa Rica is working on rebuilding the rail lines and soon tourists will be able to get around the country in the comfort of trains.
Sa Casa Del Cacao – Chocolate Factory
Chocolate was once prized as much as gold in Costa Rica and it was once the top export of the country.
The Casa del Cacao offers chocolate workshops.
Enjoy this Day Tour of San Jose Costa Rica
Behind the Foreign Ministry is a piece of the Berlin Wall.
It's a lovely yellow building, so you can't miss it if you are strolling around the city.
Metropolitan Cathedral of San Jose
The beautiful cathedral is located in the heart of the city. Its doors are open to visitors, but be respectful as it is a working cathedral.
Each time we visited, mass was taking place and worshippers were sitting in the pews.
Its beautiful design is a mix of baroque, neoclassical and Greek orthodox. After a series of earthquakes, it was rebuilt in 1871. It is such an important church that Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1983.
If you are looking for that Instagrammable city sign that can be spotted all over the world, this is the place to go. It's less crowded than the sign at Plaza de la Cultura.
It is the oldest public space in San Jose located beside the Metropolitan Cathedral. There's some interesting architecture to check out here and it's a popular hanging spot for locals.
View from Bar at Gran Hotel by Hilton
The Gran Hotel is the most historic hotel in the city. It has been completely renovated and is very chic.
Built in 1930, The Gran Hotel has the most coveted location in San Jose. It's located directly on the Plaza de la Cultura with the National Theater, Gold Museum and Avenida Central located next door.
JFK stayed here during his visit but he wouldn't recognize it, its renovations have created a modern design that makes you want to hang out.
The staff is super friendly. Make sure to head up to the top floor to the piano bar for a glass of wine overlooking the city of San Jose. It's the best view in town!
Chinatown San Jose
A quirky stop on our free walking tour was San Jose's Chinatown. Our guide told us that the plan is to build it up more and make is an actual destination in the city.
We didn't see any Chinese during our visit to San Jose, but they do have a photogenic Chinatown gate, so I believe there will be much more in the future.
Taking the free walking tour helped us appreciate the buildings around the city. We stopped in front of many to learn of their history. This pink metallic building was inspired by the Eiffel Tower.
It was actually sent from Europe in pieces and was put together piece by piece. Today it is a private school, but it is definitely worth stopping to see.
There is a beautiful row of rubber trees that makes for a lovely photograph.
Where to Eat in San Jose Costa Rica
This unique cafeteria employs people with disabilities creating a space where they can feel comfortable, and gain employment.
It's known for its delicious coffee, smoothies.
It's located near the Chinese gate.
This popular spot for locals has delicious tortillas. While there, be sure to try the local lemonade-like drink known as Cas.
Getting Around San Jose
We used Uber to get to and from the airport. It was safe, fast and affordable. It cost us $15 USD including tip.
**Note we read that tips are not expected by Uber drivers in San Jose, but we have a habit of tipping. (gotta keep that high Uber star rating)**
For the rest of our travels in the city, we walked. Since we stayed right downtown, we didn't need to go anywhere else during our two days in San Jose.
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