San Jose is the heart of Costa Rica and home to roughly half the country’s 4.9 million citizens. It’s one of those cities that doesn’t wow you from afar, but once your feet are on the ground it’s easy to appreciate its humble blend of tradition, grit, and culture. Some have called San Jose a working man’s city, comparing it to the likes of Glasgow or Chicago. Visitors to this metropolitan area are often surprised by the city’s eternally spring-like climate, which can be attributed to its valley location in the Tilaran mountains. Many travelers come to Costa Rica for the rainforest and beaches, but San Jose’s creates a distinct atmosphere all its own. In fact, more and more people are spending an extra night in San Jose than ever thanks to a revitalization of the city’s cultural pulse.
The New Face of San Jose
Over the last five years, downtown San Jose has revived itself through food and art. As the influence of younger generations takes hold, people are rediscovering San Jose through elevated flavors and a newfound appreciation for historic treasures. This youthful cultural renaissance promises to distinguish it from other Central American capitals.
Downtown San Jose: The Historic Center
What to See
San Jose’s cultural attractions are located in a wonderfully compact area downtown. A day exploring the downtown city center is an easy way to feel out the vibe of the city. Located on Avenida Central (Central Avenue), a convenient street for navigating places of interest, Plaza de la Cultura is the cultural and physical center of the city. Start here. This well-known pedestrian plaza is fantastic for people watching. Grab a snack from a street vendor and watch the city come to life. The Plaza de la Cultura is located above the Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold. On the south side of Plaza de la Cultura sits the National Theater (Teatro Nacional) – Costa Rica’s architectural gem. Open to the public in 1897, the National Theatre was modeled after the Paris Opera House in the neoclassical style. The newly renovated Gran Hotel is right next door to the west of the plaza.
A five-minute walk east along Avenida Central will bring you to the small newly renovated Jade Museum, an archeological museum that sheds light on Costa Rican culture and pre-Columbian communities. Further east on the Avenida Central, pass through the Plaza de la Democracia for its lively open-air markets. Originally built as a military barracks, the Costa Rican National Museum sits directly to the east of the plaza.
Where to Stay
The newly renovated Gran Hotel is about as downtown as you can get. This is one of the hotels in San Jose on the forefront of the city’s facelift, providing a blend of modern elegance and convenience.
Around the corner is funky Hotel Presidente – a hotel you won’t be able to miss thanks to its modern mural façade.
What to Eat
Dining is one of the highlights of downtown San Jose. For something hip but casual, try Azotea Calle 7, the rooftop restaurant at Hotel Presidente, which is a short walk from the Avenida Central and other major downtown sites. The hotel’s bright, modern mural will be sure to catch your eye, so why not stop in for some tapas and cocktails?
If you need something sweet, walk over to POPS for helado, or ice cream. Fans of Asian cuisine should check out Tin Jo Restaurant, which serves up unique flavors from Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, China, the Philippines, and India. La Esquina de Buenos Aires showcases in a fantastic array of meats from its namesake city in Argentina. Make a reservation in advance and don’t miss the empanadas, blood sausages, and beef carpaccio.
Barrio Escalante: The Gastronomic Hub
Though unique dining can be found across the city, Escalante has become the clear leader in San Jose’s food scene. Costa Rica Foodie Tours is pioneering the city’s mini culinary renaissance with eye-opening food tours– a great way to get while sampling modern bites.
Explore modern coffee culture at cafes like Cabra Negra, the open-air Franco, CafeOteca, or Nueve Specialty Coffee. If it’s after 5 pm, head to Costa Rica Beer Factory and Lupulus Beer Shop. These beer-focused additions are a breath of fresh air in a country that mainly drinks Imperial, Pilsen, or Bavaria brand beers. Isolino Restaurant offers visually-stunning gourmet creations. Luna Roja prepares innovative yet traditional Costa Rican meals.
Al Mercat is the go-to spot for vegetarian and vegan dishes with a side of greenery. Lush plants adorn their walls, creating a chic and fresh atmosphere.
Throughout the year, Escalante hosts the Festival La Luz, an outdoor culinary festival of music, food, and craft beer attracting thousands. Each festival celebrates a culinary theme like Italian, Costa Rican, Mexican, and the like.
La Sabana & Paseo Colon: The Business Sector
What to See
Just west of the bustle of downtown is La Sabana, an area of the city that typically attracts business travelers. The Paseo Colon is a broad commercial avenue leading right into the city center. It is also home to La Sabana Park, the city’s biggest dedicated green space. This expansive park sits right next door to the country’s futbol stadium and gives residents a place to walk, bike, boat, and play.
What to Eat
An afternoon in La Sabana can be followed up with innovative tapas menus at Park Cafe. This elegant mansion also doubles as a furniture and antique store. Also north of the park is L’Olivio Restaurant, a cozy Italian restaurant with a great wine list. For after-dinner drinks, check out the little Aqui Es! for sangria and snacks.
Where to Stay
Experience refined dining at Hotel Grano de Oro, a converted Victorian mansion just a few blocks west of the Paseo Colon. The hotel’s restaurant is one of the best in the city, with tropical gourmet versions on classic French cuisine as well as local delicacies. Grano de Oro attracts local regulars and manages to give tourists an elevated dining experience. Situated in the interior courtyard of the hotel, the atmosphere skews toward European. The Experts recommend the Macadamia Crusted Sea Bass and the Grano de Oro pie.
Barrio Amon & Paso de la Vaca: The Historic Marvel
The Amon neighborhood is making a comeback as one of San Jose’s most visually striking barrios and an open stage for burgeoning business. The neighborhood has a unique mix of architectural styles ranging from modern skyscrapers to Art Deco apartments and colonial mansions. Take a stroll through it and admire the neo-Victorian tropical architecture of homes dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century and enjoy the unique collection of cafes, galleries, and shops. A highlight of Barrio Amon is the Escuela Metalica (Metal School) which was shipped over piece by piece from France in the 1880s.
What to Eat
Don’t miss Silvestre for dinner, an upscale dining experience that takes place in a historic home decorated in the style of the neighborhood’s peak about 80 years ago. Silvestre features contemporary Costa Rican cuisine and ingredients in a unique presentation that nod to Costa Rican culture.
Where to Shop
After checking out the cool houses and boutiques in Amon, wander over to the Paso de la Vaca area, home the Mercado Central. The market presents an old-school maze of colors, flavors, scents, and sounds that promise to leave an impression. Over 200 stalls of vendors sell everything from fruit and spices to toys and souvenirs.
Sample exotic fruits and be sure to grab a bag of that famous Costa Rican coffee to bring home. Have lunch at one of the traditional Sodas that surround the market. Sodas serve typical Costa Rican cuisine, which is usually a rotation of hearty Central American staples– beans, rice, various meats. Eating at a soda is a great value, as they usually fill you up with large, inexpensive portions of Costa Rican food.
San Pedro: The University District
East of downtown along the Panamerican Highway, San Jose’s sprawl becomes San Pedro. This large area is home to the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, creating a younger vibe with plenty of opportunities for fun.
Music, Dancing, and Entertainment in San Pedro
A few minutes east of downtown San Jose by taxi, Jazz Café is a live music venue popular with San Pedro locals, international students, and travelers alike. Jazz isn’t the only thing you’ll hear though – on any given night, local musicians treat patrons to reggae, rock, indie, and folk. With a full menu and casual atmosphere, it is easy to devote an entire evening here. It is no secret that Costa Ricans love to dance! Salsa, Merengue, and Cumbia are hugely popular, and you can test your skills at Castro’s. The pub scene has really grown in San Pedro, and we recommend the newly-renovated Eastern Pub. In the same night, you can easily crawl over Pub Rock and Roots Bar & Calm for a quintessential San Pedro night out.
For a little nostalgic daytime fun head to Salon de Patines, a large indoor roller-skating rink where the lights and music are just as important as the wheels. Manga fans can walk over to Casa Manga, a kitschy ode to Japanese pop culture and comics with a side of coffee, sushi, and ramen.
Day Trips from San Jose
While the best of Costa Rica lies beyond the reaches of San Jose, there are some great single-day trips if you are based in the city and short on time.
If adventure is what you seek, a day rafting the famous Pacuare River is sure to up your adrenaline levels. The beautiful rainforest scenery and riverside picnic lunch make this rafting trip from average to extraordinary. If one day on the Pacuare isn’t enough, multi-day trips are also available.
For a full-day tour with a lot of variation, head toward the Central Highlands and see Poas Volcano, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and Doka Coffee Plantation all in one trip. After breakfast at scenic Doka, you’ll have the chance to walk up and view Poas Volcano’s picturesque crater. Some days, there is too much cloud cover to see it, but the experience of being atop a volcano is special nonetheless. Then it’s on to waterfalls and wildlife exhibits at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. After lunch, transfer an hour back to San Jose.
These, of course, are in addition to the abundance of amazing restaurants and beautiful historical sites to keep you busy in San Jose.
Flights into San Jose International Airport
San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport is the main arrival point for thousands of travelers every year. Unless you’re heading to the resorts in Guanacaste (in which case you should try to book your flights into Liberia), you’ll like fly into the San Jose airport and start your journey from there. The airport is small but efficient, so depending on the time of year it is possible to clear immigration and customs in under an hour.
If San Jose is the first destination on your Costa Rica vacation, it’ll be just a twenty-minute drive to your hotel. Of course, this depends on traffic which can be brutal in San Jose. But having a knowledgeable local driver and a private vehicle makes all the difference!
You can also reach the Arenal volcano area, the Monteverde cloud forest, and Manuel Antonio within a 3-hour drive from the airport.
Related Article: The Complete Guide to Flights and Airports in Costa Rica