Many people skip over it and head straight for the beach or the cloud forest, simply using San Jose as a gateway to the rest of Costa Rica.
But having lived and worked there for a summer, I can say firsthand that the country’s capital is so much more than the airport and the bus station. It’s a thriving place, filled with rich culture, friendly people and a dynamic nightlife. So, if you’re not sure where to start exploring, here’s a quick guide to San Jose.
The craft beer scene is booming
Move over, Imperial and Pilsen. These pale lagers are ubiquitous in Costa Rica, but craft beer is quickly taking over. The craft beer scene kicked off in 2010 when Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co. became the country’s first legal microbrewery. Small breweries like Lake Arenal Brewery, Treintaycinco and Volcano Brewing Co. have been popping up ever since.
For the best places to taste these beers, I recommend Barrio Escalante. This up-and-coming neighborhood is replete with hipster joints and gastropubs like Costa Rica Beer Factory, Apotecario and Wilk, where you can sample both Costa Rican craft beer and beers from around the world. The food and drink can be pricey here, but the quality and the cool vibes are worth it.
For a younger crowd, head to San Pedro, the area that encompasses the University of Costa Rica. Explore la Calle de la Amargura, a lively strip filled with hip bars, artsy cafes, photocopy centers and students enjoying happy hour. At night, la Calle is filled with people bar hopping, but it can be a little seedy, so keep your wits about you and drink those microbrews responsibly.
There are markets galore
The largest marketplace in San Jose is the Mercado Central. It’s located right off Avenida Central and is one of the best places to mingle with locals doing their weekly grocery shopping or grabbing a quick bite to eat at a soda (traditional restaurant). In addition to quick-serve restaurants, the market’s vendors offer up fresh produce, coffee, handmade goods, souvenirs and more.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, your best bet is the Mercado Calle Nacional de Artesania y Pintura (National Craft Market). Here you can weave through a maze of stalls filled with both artisan goods and kitschy souvenirs. From handmade hammocks to tank tops emblazoned with “Pura Vida”, this market has it all.
San Jose is also full of ferias (farmers’ markets). Most neighborhoods have a weekly feria that sells reasonably priced local produce. Visit the Feria Verde in Aranjuez or Ciudad Colon which features organic fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread and more. These markets are my favorite place to grab fresh, tropical fruit that is hard to come by back home. Eat your fill of mangoes, maracuya (passionfruit) and guanabana (a spiny, football-sized fruit that tastes like a delightful combo of pineapple and banana).
It’s the best place in the country to soak up some culture
San Jose is truly a cultural hub; it has more museums, art galleries and venues than I could possibly mention. My top picks are the Jade Museum, which houses the largest collection pre-Columbian jade in the world and the National Museum. This was formerly a fortress (it still has bullet holes in it from the civil war) but is now a museum dedicated to natural history, anthropology, archaeology and history.
Art enthusiasts will love The Museum of Costa Rican Art and The National Center of Art and Culture, which both showcase work by Central American and Costa Rican artists. And if you’re looking to purchase local art, Galleria Namu is a great spot for artisan goods and work by indigenous tribes from all over Central America. Lastly, everyone should visit (or better yet, see a show at) The National Theater. Its exterior is designed in the neoclassical style and its interior is ornately decorated and filled with art and statues.
The easiest way to take in all the culture that San Jose has to offer: attend the Art City Tour. Once a month, from 5pm on, all museums and galleries open their doors for free, with free shuttles provided to go between sites.
Exploring parks within the city is easy
Parque Metropolitano la Sabana is to San Jose what Central Park is to New York City. It’s a massive park in the city’s west end that provides an escape from the endless concrete. Visitors and locals alike can stroll down paths lined with rainbow eucalyptus trees that, with brightly hued bark peeling off their trunks in multicolored stripes, look like they’re straight out of The Lorax.
It’s the perfect spot to picnic beside the man-made lake, participate in a neighborhood yoga class, or join the local group of schoolkids playing soccer. The park also contains the National Stadium where the Costa Rican national team plays, and concerts and events are held.
Other parks around downtown include the Parque Nacional, Parque Espana, and Parque Central. They all offer walking paths, benches, and trees that provide a shady respite from the bustling city as well as great views of the surrounding mountains. There are lots of plazas and parks to escape to; turn the corner and you might stumble upon one of the many green spaces that dot the downtown.
Nature is a day trip away
If you can’t wait to get out of the urban jungle and head to the actual jungle, many day trips will take you outside of the city limits. San Jose is in the middle of the Central Valley, which lucky enough for my fellow caffeine addicts, has the perfect conditions to grow coffee. Take a day tour to a nearby coffee plantation to learn about how our favorite bean is grown and processed and, of course, sample a freshly brewed cup.
There are also a number of volcanoes within a day’s drive. Poas and Turrialba are both active volcanoes and are currently closed due to increased seismic activity. Irazu, however, is still accessible to the public. It is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica and has a road that leads directly to the summit. From the top, on clear days, you’ll have views across the country to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
If you’re looking to get active, you can go white-water rafting down the Pacuare River, cycling through Cartago (a suburb of San Jose you can visit on this local-led day tour), zip-lining through nearby canopies, or hiking through one of the many national parks surrounding the city.
What a city, what a location.
Excited to explore San Jose? View all of Intrepid Travel’s Costa Rica adventures.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x3, iStock/aceshot, iStock/Dsotto, Intrepid Travel)