San José is the capital and most populous city of Costa Rica, but it tends to be treated as little more than a way station where travelers arrive and pick up rental cars before heading to the beach or into the cloud forests.
It’s time for that to change. San José has stunning architecture, beautiful parks and delicious food, minus the crowds that can pack other Latin American capitals like Mexico City.
Whether you have a long layover en route to other Costa Rica destinations or a few days to spare in the capital, here’s what you need to know if you decide to travel here:
A feast for the eyes
Some of San José’s most beautiful buildings are within walking distance of each other. To get your bearings, walk down Paseo Colón, the central thoroughfare downtown.
Head straight to Teatro Nacional, a stunning Neoclassical building that is home to Costa Rica’s national opera and ballet companies.
The best way to experience the building is to see a show, but if you’re limited on time or waited too long to see what’s on offer, basic tours begin at $10 and cover much of the interior.
In addition to gorgeous sculptures of the nine muses, elaborate chandeliers and elegant gold detailing on fixtures, check out the square in front of the building where there are often art exhibits, performances and more – often free.
For a cup of perfectly brewed Costa Rican coffee, Alma de Café (Spirit of Coffee), the ground-floor cafe inside Teatro Nacional, is pretty hard to beat. They also do nice sweets made from Costa Rican chocolate, and even carry several bottles of local craft beer.
Just a few blocks away is San José’s Metropolitan Cathedral. This sweeping building, dating from the 19th century, is best known for its stained glass windows depicting scenes from Jesus’ life.
Besides that, visitors should look out for the impressive 16-foot organ on the cathedral’s second floor, delicate tile work – particularly on the floors – and a statue commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit here.
Note that this cathedral is still home to an active congregation, so be respectful if people are praying or lighting candles and don’t take photos of parishioners without their permission.
San José is home to several museums that will give you a sense of the country’s history and culture.
The sunshine-yellow National Museum of Costa Rica is a solid place to get started, as it gives context about indigenous history as well as the effects of Spanish colonization.
Underrated, but also worth a visit, is the Jade Museum. Don’t go expecting to see a collection of pretty jewelry, though – this is more about what jade represents than about what kind of cool things it can make.
Home to the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade in the world, the museum’s four floors explore the history of jade as a weapon, trading tool and finally adornment.
Teatro Nacional, Avenida 2, calle1, San José
Metropolitan Cathedral, Calle Central, Av. 2, San José
The National Museum of Costa Rica, Cuesta de Moras, San José
Jade Museum, Calle 13 y Av Central, San José
The reliably good weather makes Costa Rica a good place for spending some time outdoors. Ticos – the nickname for Costa Ricans – are proud of their nature and for very good reason.
La Sabana Park, which occupies 72 hectares of land in the city center, is the most central green space in San José. But this isn’t a quiet, empty park – you’re as likely to see workers in suits here on their lunch break as you are kids playing soccer.
If you want to stretch your legs, there are several good walking trails, and if you’re limited on time, a lap around the lake in the center of the park is a solid plan.
Building out your day? There’s plenty nearby, all accessible by foot. On the eastern edge of the park is the Museum of Costa Rican Art, and just off the southwest tip is the Natural Science Museum.
While La Sabana Park is definitely San José’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park, there’s also a Central Park that’s more like a square.
Head there to see the hustle of city life, with many shops and cafes to choose from, plus the occasional live music event or public celebration. It’s also in close proximity to the Metropolitan Cathedral and Teatro Nacional, making it a good place to meet up with friends or start a walking tour.
Its orangey-red central pavilion with a dome on top is also a popular spot for selfies.
Another outdoorsy option is the José María Orozco Botanical Garden. It’s part of the University of Costa Rica but is possible to visit, and it’s named for a pioneering former professor.
The school’s biology students cultivate mostly tropical and native plants here. There’s also a peaceful butterfly garden next door.
La Sabana Park, Bet Calle 68 and Hubria Libre, bet Av de las Americas and Av 12, San José
Central Park, Calle Central Alfredo Volio and Ave 2, San José
José María Orozco Botanical Garden at University of Costa Rica, Ciudad universitaria Rodrigo Facio Brenes, San José
Digging in deeper
If you only have one chance to eat a meal in San José, make sure you do it at a soda. English speakers might initially think that all the signs they see for soda mean that everybody here loves fizzy drinks, but a soda is a typical Costa Rican restaurant.
These restaurants are usually owned by a family and one member will cook while another waits tables. The menus are generally limited, but you can assume everything is fresh.
Seafood is generally a solid option – there are two coastlines, after all – and everything tastes good washed down with a local beer like Imperial or Bavaria.
Just keep in mind that you will need cash at a soda. Some also sell handicrafts, jewelry or other souvenirs as well.
If you want to get a bit more adventurous in your drinking, Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co. is bringing some creativity to the scene as the country’s first independent craft brewery.
On the souvenir front, head to Holalola, which sells stationery, calendars, posters and other paper goods inspired by different regions of Costa Rica. Bonus: in addition to picking up beautiful products, you’ll be supporting a woman-owned local business.
To simply take in the scenery, your best bet is to walk around the up-and-coming Barrio Escalante neighborhood, which is home to cool cafes, street art and coffee shops.
Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co, Brasil de Mora Ciudad Colón, San José
Holalola, 37 Dent Flats Montes de Oca, San José