San José is the capital of Costa Rica and one of the fastest growing destination cities in the world. Built on the profits of the coffee trade, the city is abound with culture and boasts a score of museums, parks, theaters, and restaurants. Here are some of the best things to see and do while visiting this beautiful city.
Built in 1897, the National Theater has elegant European-style architecture and stages a variety of shows throughout the year. A great source of national pride, the establishment is best explored with the help of a guide, and there’s a coffee shop and gift shop within for those looking to relax and collect some souvenirs.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. (January-April), 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. (May-December) Price: $7.00 Can’t miss: The painting Alegoría al café y el banano
Museo del Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum)
Containing over 1,600 artifacts of Pre-Columbian gold from 500 A.D., this museum’s impressive collection is well worth a visit. It is located under the Plaza de la Cultura, which is home to two other currency-related museums, the National Coin Museum, which has a collection dating back to 1236, and the “Casa de Moneda” that shows the history of minting in Costa Rica. The saying “worth its weight in gold” definitely applies here; despite its small stature, the Meso del Oro Precolombio is a valuable resource for learning about the global history of this precious metal.
Hours: Monday-Sunday 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Price: Adults $9.00, Students $5.00 Can’t miss: Media Escudo, Costa Rica’s first coin
This sprawling park is known as “the lungs of San José.” It’s a popular and vital space for the city’s residents to get some fresh air, and a great stop for travelers to enjoy a refreshing afternoon stroll or lazy picnic. Located in the center of the city, it’s also been called San José’s equivalent to Central Park in New York City. Although it can get busy on the weekend, it’s a great place to observe the locals and enjoy a bit of nature in the middle of a busy city.
Can’t miss: Costa Rican Art Museum; it’s located right on the grounds and entry is free
Located on the northeast corner of Parque España, this beautiful colonial-style, yellow mansion is home to the ministry of foreign affairs. Although it is closed to the public, it’s worth strolling by to admire the elegant outer architecture, as well as the historic ceiba tree in front, which was planted by John F. Kennedy during his visit to Costa Rica in 1963.
The Museo de los Niños (the Children’s Museum) is one of the best cultural destinations in San José for both its location and content. Situated on a hill in a medieval castle, it offers beautiful views of the city and is a great place to take your family for an afternoon of exploration and education.
Hours: Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 9:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Price: Adults $4:00, free for children Can’t miss: The dinosaur exhibit
Located right by the National Park, the Catedral Metropolitana is a beautiful large church in the heart of San José. Don’t let the plain exterior fool you, as the inside holds exquisite wood carvings, stained glass windows, and a Christ figure dating back to the 17th century. For religious and non-religious alike, it’s a beautiful place to see while visiting San José.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 6:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Sunday 6:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Can’t miss: The recumbent Christ on the north side of the nave; devout Ticos leave their prayers on paper here
For those looking to explore an authentic Costa Rican market, this is the place to go. It sells everything from hammocks to knickknacks, coffee beans to cigars. Just try to avoid the tourist traps because there are better places to get souvenirs (see below for an idea), and don’t be afraid to bargain for what you want.
Can’t miss: The El Tostador booth sells great coffee beans and cocoa powder
Located on the hills of Bello Horizonte in Escazú, Biesanz Woodworks is a bit of a hike to reach but well worth the effort if you want a truly unique memento that combines sculpture with souvenirs. It is run by the celebrated artisan Barry Biesanz, who uses pre-Columbian techniques in which the shape of the object is determined by the lines of the wood. As a result, you’ll find bowls, humidors, and boxes of all shapes and sizes here. The pricing is relatively more expensive than the trinkets you might find at the Mercado Centrale, but the quality of the craftsmanship is truly excellent.
Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum of Costa Rica)
First opened in 1887, what was once an abandoned jail now hosts nine vibrant galleries, three or four of which are always temporary. The exhibits at the National Museum range widely from modern art to history, and it’s best to have a guide to get the most out of your visit.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sunday 9:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Price: Adults $9:00, ID Student $4:00, Children Free Can’t miss: The indoor butterfly garden
For those looking to escape the city for a day and have some adventure, Orosi River Valley is the perfect place to go. Pass by staffee plantations and beautiful Costa Rican countryside to visit Cartago, Costa Rica’s first capital, before arriving at the Tapanti National Park, which hosts a range of activities from boat rides to white-water rafting. While exploring the park, be sure to check out the natural hot springs located right on the river, and the oldest standing church in Costa Rica. There are some great hiking trails and beautiful views from the lookout point of Orosi as well, so be sure to pack your camera.
Can’t miss: Ujarras Church Ruins National Monument