Things to do in San Jose Costa Rica

Tips, Travel Costa Rica

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Welcome to San José, Costa Rica, with Adobe Rent a Car

Costa Rica has certainly made its mark on the world map of the top vacation destinations. Its intense biodiversity, pristine natural beauty, and admirable conservation efforts are all major trademarks that make this little nation famous.

But what about the country’s history and democratic legacy? 

Some argue that Costa Rica’s culture can’t rival the colorful heritage and culinary traditions of its Central American neighbors. However, nowhere else in the Americas has one small nation dared to stand up for its humanitarian and environmental principles like Costa Rica has. 

We at Adobe Rent a Car want to share all of our country’s riches with our clients. And that includes our beloved capital city, San José. By walking through the city streets and visiting its monuments, visitors will see and understand the events that led up to the Costa Rica that we know and love today. 

The following attractions are a must-see in San Jose, Costa Rica. For those of you who prefer a guided tour through the Capital, there are many fun options to choose from further on in this article.  

 

Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica

San José became the country’s capital in 1823, replacing the Spanish colonial capital of Cartago in the Orosí Valley nearby. As one of the country’s most important commercial centers, the city played an essential logistical role in building the nation’s agricultural and coffee empire.  

In fact, the period is referred to as the “golden age of coffee.” And each grain of coffee represented the country’s growing wealth and the wellbeing of its people. Today, coffee remains the leading export crop. A fact that’s clearly evident by the endless stretches of coffee plantations blanketing the hillsides and mountains of the Central Valley.

 

Best coffee shops in San Jose

In Costa Rica, every day begins with a delicious cup of Joe. Actually, coffee is drunk around the clock and is a regular part of nearly every meal. School children also start drinking coffee at a younger age than their North American or European counterparts. 

For visiting aficionados, there are several coffee shops around dowtown San Jose and surrounding neighborhoods. Try Cafe la Mancha in the heart of the city on Avenida 1 and Calle 0, or Cafeoteca, a favorite among the young and hip, which is located in the artsy neighborhood of Barrio Escalante.

 

Activities in San Jose, Costa Rica

There are several day tours of downtown San Jose that are fun and informative. Most are walking tours. One creative provider, ChepeCletas, offers walking and bike tours around the metropolitan area. 

Some providers offer eating and drinking tours, as well. Patrons will sample local fare, coffee, liquor, and other typical Costa Rican treats. CarpeChepe is a well-known company that offers a variety of such tours. Choose from a popular markets tour, a pub crawl, craft beer tour, and even a free walking tour, among several others. 

There are literally dozens of San Jose guides online that provide information about local attractions, event schedules, and the local culture. 

 

Downtown San José tourist attractions

The coffee boom of the 1900s coincided with the country’s “cultural awakening.” Several notable buildings and monuments were built at this time, using tax revenues from the growing coffee empire. Many were designed by European architects and adopted the western styles popular at the time. 

Visitors interested in learning more about this critical moment in the country’s history should first stop at the Plaza de la Cultura. The busy plaza is quite literally at the center of downtown San José and is surrounded by several cultural attractions.

The National Theatre (Teatro Nacional), for example, would fit in easily on the ancient streets of Rome or Paris. It is located in the plaza next to the historic Gran Hotel of Costa Rica. 

The theater officially opened its doors in 1897. It’s ornate frescoes, murals, marble statues, and decadent gold-trimmed furniture were designed in the then-popular European Neo-Classical tradition. The master-craftsmanship that went into its construction has made it today what is considered Costa Rica’s most exceptional historical monument.

International and national artists perform plays, orchestras, dance, and concerts throughout the year. Tickets can be bought at the box office onsite or through their online platform.  

Visitors who don’t want to attend a performance can tour the theater for a small entrance fee. The cafe, gallery, and souvenir shop also offer an excellent introduction to the locale’s design and are open to the public without the entrance fee. 

To the east of the National Theater is the Jade Museum that houses the world’s most extensive collection of Pre-Columbian jade-based anthropological, archaeological, and geological artifacts.

A visit to the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, approximately one block south of the plaza, gives an enlightening glimpse into the lives of Pre-Columbian civilizations living in the area between 500 BC and 1500 AD. The museum displays an impressive collection of gold objects and artifacts depicting the region’s rich artistic and cultural heritage.

The National Museum, one block to the east, is located in the country’s original military headquarters. It is here that President José Figueres Ferrer made the landmark decision to abolish the national army. In its stead, he chose peace, democracy, and education as the country’s principal endeavors. The building houses the original military fortress built in 1917 that was used as barracks during the country’s civil war of 1948.

Besides hosting one of the most extensive exhibits of the country’s political history, the museum displays archeological finds from the area’s first settlers as well as presentations about the country’s rich natural history and endemic flora and fauna.

For a concert or major league soccer game, the newly inaugurated national stadium, Estadio Nacional, is a couple of kilometers west of the capital. The open-roof stadium borders the capital’s version of New York-style central park, La Sabana.

Surrounding la Sabana are local and international restaurants and bars, hotels, shopping, and the Museum of Costa Rican Art

 

What to do on a budget in San José?

Don’t worry if your budget doesn’t permit paying the entrance fees to multiple museums. There’s still plenty to do and see downtown. San Jose Province is home to roughly 75% of the country’s population, and exploring its vibrant streets sheds light on the lives and ways of local Ticos. 

One must-do is a stroll through the iconic Central Market (Mercado Central). The indoor market is the largest in the city. Established in 1880, it occupies an entire square block of Central Avenue and was declared a Cultural Heritage Site for representing Costa Rica’s rich traditions and identity. 

Visitors will find a large variety of goods for sale. Everything from shoes, toys, and medicinal plants, to fresh seafood, meat, and local produce. There are several small eateries (Sodas) in the market serving traditional fare that will give you an inexpensive taste of Costa Rican cuisine. 

For souvenirs and gifts that reflect Costa Rica’s indigenous and artisan craftsmanship, visit the Chietón Morén Museum and Artisan Market. The vibrantly colorful bazaar is a space for indigenous peoples and other artists to sell their goods without intermediaries. Visitors will likely find better prices as well as have the chance to share stories with the artists.

Sit and watch the goings-on at one of the many parks dotting the city, like Parque Morazán or Central Park, in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Not only are they great spots for people watching, you’re also likely to see street performers, lottery ticket hawkers, and other informal vendors selling everything from electronics accessories to jewelry, and other knick knacks. 

Just about every park boasts a Costa Rican church. The population is mostly Catholic, and the prolific number of churches is a testament to the country’s Spanish Colonial past. One of the most famous temples is the Basilica de Los Angeles. Every year thousands of worshippers make a pilgrimage to the church in honor of the Virgin Mary.

 

Attractions near San Jose, Costa Rica

If you’re looking for things to do around San Jose, Costa Rica, without traveling too far, you’re in luck. 

A visit to Poás Volcano National Park or a coffee tour are the most popular day tours that don’t entail traveling extensively. The drive up to the scenic volcano is picturesque and passes by fields of strawberries and flowers as well as through several different life zones. Many trips combine Poás with a coffee plantation tour in a two-in-one package. 

A boat ride to Tortuga Island (Isla Tortuga) is another favorite for people wanting a day trip to the beach. The little island’s pristine white-sand beach, excellent snorkeling, and calm, crystal clear water can’t be beaten. Tours generally include land and boat transportation, a hot BBQ lunch prepared in the shade, and beverages.