San José is a busy and confusing city, and many travelers depart before they really get a feel for the place.
After all, Costa Rica is famous for beaches, cloud forests and sloths, not gridlock traffic and concrete towers. Most visitors think of the Costa Rican capital as nothing but a necessary stopover.
But San José has a lot to offer passing tourists, as long as they know where to look. There’s no better place in the country for dining options and cultural venues, and nearly every block boasts historical significance. The weather is near-perfect year-round, and it’s become a global destination for entrepreneurs and medical tourists.
This city rewards a patient approach, but if you only have a couple of days and want to see San José at its best, certain experiences take priority.
1. Explore the museums
The best museums in Costa Rica are all clustered in downtown San José, and it’s easy to walk from one to the other in a single day. Each museum represents a different cross-section of Tico life and you can explore them in roughly historical order.
Start at the Museo de Jade, a massive modernist structure with several floors of exhibits. You’ll find displays of carved green stone, of course, but also authentic tools and multimedia recreations of pre-Columbian village life.
A perfect companion is the Museo de Oro Precolombino, an underground museum beneath the Plaza de la Cultura, where concrete walls are decked with ancient gold totems. Together, these institutions paint a brilliant portrait of Indigenous life before the arrival of the Conquistadors.
For a more contemporary experience, visit the castle-like Museo Nacional, which houses rotating exhibits on art, history and civic progress. The museum is built into a former barracks, which should intrigue architecture enthusiasts, and you can top off your visit with a walk through the indoor butterfly garden. Outside lies the Plaza de la Democracía, which holds regular outdoor concerts.
2. Watch a football match
Major football matches are impossible to escape in Costa Rica, even if you wanted to. Sports bars are jammed with fans. The play-by-play can be heard blaring out from every taxi radio. Every television in every home is tuned to the game. With each hometown goal, the city quakes with excitement.
But nothing beats the live event. Major games are held in the Estadio Nacional, where you can watch a face-off between regional rivals or even Costa Rica’s national team, “La Sele,” versus international visitors. Tickets are often competitive, but you can reserve them online or visit the stadium kiosk in La Sabana. The state-of-the-art stadium has seats for 35,000 spectators and also holds big-name concerts.
3. Catch a live band
San José had a feisty music scene, and Tico bands are always jockeying for local stages. You can find live performances almost every night leading into the weekend, especially at a handful of our favorite venues. El Observatorio draws big crowds to its colorful, high-energy auditorium. Amon Solar looks like a colonial mansion and it has become a favorite destination for blues, jazz and reggae. StarView C.R. feels like a grunge bar from the 1990s and many will find the atmosphere nostalgic, but it’s actually one of the newest venues in town.
There are many other stages hidden among San José’s side streets, and you can track down a DJ any Friday or Saturday. Just follow the crowds – and vibrations.
Planning tip: Cabs are your friend – nights get dark in San José and the rainy season really hits its stride after dark. If you’re out late and have trouble hailing a taxi, bar and restaurant staff are usually happy to help.
4. Sample some gourmet food
Costa Rica is famous for hardy meals, fresh fruit and rich coffee. But the epicurean offerings in San José are more diverse than in all other cantons combined. Here you’ll find the flavors of China and India, Lebanon and Colombia – you could eat out every night for months and still find something novel to try.
But it’s not just the range of cuisines – local restaurateurs have upped their game in recent years, especially in the trendy neighborhood of Barrio Escalante. Here you can browse block after block of cafes, gastropubs and gourmet bistros. This is also a great district for accommodations, making it easy to walk from hotel to dining room to bar in a few blissful minutes.
For an introductory sampler, visit Calle 33 or Jardín de Lolita, two dining halls packed with eclectic eateries. Here you can try ramen, burgers or gelato and sit anywhere in the communal compound. From there, taste any number of cervezas artesanales (craft beers) at low-lit Wilk.cr or the Bavarian-style Costa Rica Beer Factory.
5. Take in the nightlife
The nightlife in San José is loud, boozy and keeps the party going till well past midnight. Downtown’s biggest hot spot is Barrio California, an intersection of several different sports bars and nightclubs that throb with activity all weekend long. This nightlife can take the form of a raging dance party at La Destileria, munchies and a few beers at El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte, or an indie film at Cine Magaly followed by cocktails at Kubrick Gastro Bar next door.
You can also venture out to the college district of San Pedro, where numerous dance clubs flank the campus of the Universidad de Costa Rica. The most famous destination is Calle de la Amargura (Bitterness Street) where several popular college hangouts stand shoulder-to-shoulder.
Planning tip: Mastering the art of zarpe. “Zarpe” means “last drink” or “nightcap” in Tico Spanish, and celebrants will often use the word to taper off the night. But it’s usually a joke – some folks will have several zarpes before the night is done.
6. Shop til you drop
San José is the commercial epicenter of Costa Rica and Ticos travel from all across the country to stroll the malls and buy specialty goods. For travelers staying downtown, Avenida Central is a classic point to begin your journey. This kilometer-long pedestrian walkway is lined with stores and scores of merchants hawking their wares in the street. In the middle of it all is the Mercado Central, an indoor bazaar that has drawn customers into its labyrinth of stalls since 1880.
Detour: For a more decadent experience, take a cab to Avenida Escazú, a pristine multi-use development in the nearby suburbs. Here you’ll find luxury shops and refined restaurants, all among glittering high rises that look like they were built yesterday. This area is remarkably walkable, and you’ll find some nifty local businesses among the usual franchises.
7. Witness wildlife in the city
It may not be within walking distance of the city center but it’s worth taking take a cab or bus to the Refugio Animal de Costa Rica, an institution for injured animals on the edge of Escazú. It gives an excellent insight into the Costa Rican mindset when it comes to the importance of the natural world without having to trek into the rainforest.
Private tours are led by knowledgeable guides, and the on-site species represent the nation’s spectacular biodiversity.