Many people fly into the capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose, only to quickly leave and go to another city or cities for their vacation, and they don’t bother checking out things to do in San Jose. I recently went to Costa Rica for the second time and I purposefully chose to stay in San Jose (technically it was a suburb only 5 minutes from downtown San Jose) so that I would be centrally located for day trips in the Central Valley region of Costa Rica. This decision turned out to be even better than I thought it would be.
Here’s a paragraph taken from the Frommer’s travel website that sums up San Jose well: “Although most tourists enter Costa Rica through the international airport just outside this city, few travelers take the time to soak in San José’s gritty charm. Costa Rica’s bustling capital and population center is not a bad place to hang out for a few days, or to get things done that can’t be done elsewhere, but it isn’t a major tourist destination. Still, that lack of tourism makes the city feel uniquely Tico. And because San José is the country’s biggest urban center, it has varied and active restaurant and nightlife scenes, museums and galleries worth visiting, and a steady stream of theater, concerts, and other cultural events that you won’t find elsewhere in the country.” I agree completely.
What’s there to do in San Jose?
Well, if you like museums, there are plenty of good ones including the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art). The art museum is in La Sabana Park at San Jose’s first international airport facilities, and the building itself is a work of art. You can find contemporary and modern art in many different forms and as you would expect the museum houses the most complete collection of Costa Rican art in the world. Upstairs includes a room with bas-relief walls, visuals of the pre-Columbian natives and an impressive mural by French artist Louis Feron. Outside is a sculpture garden with art by Costa Rican sculptures. Very little information is in English but that wasn’t a problem for me, given the nature of the material.
The Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum) is in the Plaza de la Democracia and includes a wide array of historical and archaeological samples with pre-Columbian art and artifacts, musical instruments, recreated tombs, pottery, and pieces in jade and gold. There are also dioramas with recreated interiors, furniture, and paintings. There is even a butterfly garden with over a dozen different species. Much of the information is in English. Check the website for prices and other info: https://www.museocostarica.go.cr
One of my favorite museums in San Jose is the Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum). I was told by a tour guide that this museum was one of his favorites in San Jose and after visiting I could see why. Not only are there 1600 gold pieces dating back to 500 B.C., there are many cultural displays about the indigenous people in Costa Rica, which I found interesting. There were also many ancient maps and information about Spanish and other conquerors over the years in Costa Rica and Central America. Much of the information is in Spanish and English so it’s easy to understand the displays. https://museosdelbancocentral.org/eng/exhibiciones/
Another popular museum is the Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum). It may surprise you that during pre-Columbian times in Central America and Mexico jade was more valuable than gold. This museum is massive, with 5 floors and over 7,000 pieces so make sure you allow a couple of hours to fully explore everything. All of the text on the walls is also in English. http://Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum)
One museum that was one of my favorites but is often over-looked is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle (La Salle Science and Nature Museum). This museum is also in Parque La Sabana, so it’s easy to combine it with a visit to the Museo de Arte Costarricense. At first glance you might think it’s for children because there are dinosaur bones when you first walk in, but this museum is most definitely for adults as well. I was in awe at the huge number of items on display here. There are taxidermic animals and birds from Costa Rica and beyond, animal skeletons, sea shells, minerals, preserved specimens in jars (including a two-headed pig!) and an enormous collection of butterflies. According to the pamphlet I picked up at the entrance, “this is one of the most complete museums in Iberoamerica with more than 70,000 items on permanent exhibit.” There is an incredible amount of specimens on shelves plus dioramas full of taxidermic animals grouped together by category, like birds or mammals. It was utterly fascinating to me. Like the art museum, there is very little in English here but since it’s such a visual museum, it’s not necessary to be fluent in Spanish to understand what you’re looking at. https://www.museolasalle.ed.cr
I saved the best for last, in my opinion. Teatro Nacional (National Theater) is a must-see place in the Plaza de la Cultura. It took 7 years of construction but the theater opened in 1897 using taxes on coffee (their most popular export at the time). The theater still houses plays, concerts, dances, and operas. They offer a one-hour tour in English every hour (but that varied when I was there, so check in advance) and it is well worth it, even if you don’t normally take tours. The tours are led by artists who perform at the theater and include some areas normally off-limits like the Men’s and Women’s (separate) Smoking Rooms. Plus, you learn information about the theater you wouldn’t otherwise know. Finally, there is one of the most beautiful cafes in San Jose in the theater where you can enjoy a cup of their delicious Costa Rican coffee. http://www.teatronacional.go.cr
The Municipal Crafts Market is a fun place to stroll around for 30-60 minutes and browse the local goods. This is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir and you can find a wide array of hand-made goods, along with clothing and leather products (wallets, purses, etc.). The people selling their goods are more than willing to haggle, even if you don’t normally engage in this. I don’t haggle but when I went to purchase a Christmas ornament, the woman automatically lowered the price, without me even asking. https://mercadomunicipaldeartesanias.negocio.site/
In the same vein as the Municipal Crafts Market, there’s San Jose Central Market. This is more geared towards locals rather than tourists because it has more “everyday” products like herbs, meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, desserts, and also some crafts and souvenirs. There were also some small restaurants called “sodas,” which doesn’t refer to the drink but it means they have local food on the menu and mostly locals eat there. In other words, sodas in Costa Rica have delicious, authentic and inexpensive food.
Being a big city (with around 1.5 million people), San Jose has all of the shops you would expect but some were eye-openers to me. There were stores that I would call “Dollar Stores” back in the United States that were utterly fascinating to walk through. Things seemed to be randomly arranged on the shelves with umbrellas next to makeup next to small religious statues, then there was some candy, next to men’s socks. We made it a point to check them out after we experienced our first store and just see all of the crazy offerings and laugh at how they were grouped together.
I found prices to be all over the place at the clothing stores and other stores we went in. Some things would be much lower than here in the US, like the cute t-shirt my daughter found for $4, but other things like a name-brand shampoo I could get for $20 a bottle was $60 a bottle in San Jose. Groceries were mostly cheaper than in the US, with some exceptions, and restaurants were always cheaper unless they were obviously geared toward tourists, which is always the case no matter where you are in the world.
Driving in San Jose
I did not rent a car the entire time I was in Costa Rica and every single day I was glad I didn’t. The traffic in San Jose is busy, the drivers are aggressive, and drivers often don’t stop at stop signs. Parking didn’t seem easy to come by in San Jose, either. On the other hand, taxis and Ubers were plentiful. Uber is a funny thing in Costa Rica. Technically it’s illegal but you’ll have no problem finding half a dozen drivers to pick you up, at least in and around San Jose. If you have problems in other areas, it’s probably because you’re in a remote area and you can’t get a good signal for Uber.
The Uber app works exactly like it does in the US. Once you request a driver, you’ll be connected to one and given their car make and model and license plate. Since it’s illegal, it’s best if you don’t make it so obvious by sitting only in the back seat if you’re traveling with others but honestly, my daughter and I rode in at least three Ubers before a driver suggested I ride in the front (so it wasn’t so obvious he was breaking the law to take me back to my resort). Never once did I feel unsafe or that it was a potential problem. I only took one taxi (when I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal) because I was warned by a local they’re more expensive than Uber and the drivers sometimes “forget” to start the meter when you get in the car. The one time I took a taxi, he did start the meter but the price was definitely more than any of my other Uber rides for the same distance.
Have you been to San Jose or Costa Rica before? If not, are you surprised at all of the museums in San Jose? Do you like museums or not so much?