Last Updated on January 14, 2024

Costa Rica is home to two international airports: San Jose and Liberia. Most visitors fly into San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city, and location of the prime airport.

However, once travelers pass through customs and immigration, a majority are on their way to different destinations around the country. While I completely understand – Costa Rica offers so many incredible locations – on my family’s last Costa Rica trip, we decided to spend one day and night in San Jose to explore what this city is all about. We enjoyed our exploration.

San Jose is a mix of high-rises alongside historic 19th-century structures. This may seem an overwhelming jumble at first, but if you take a deeper look-see, you’ll soon discover that San Jose possesses a certain tico (charm) along with a vibrant energy and rich cultural tapestry.

Surrounded by verdant mountains and adorned with that fascinating mix of colonial and modern architecture, San Jose serves as a captivating gateway and base to discover the diverse wonders of this tropical paradise.

If you plan an extended stay that includes San Jose, we’re happy to share some of the places and activities you won’t want to miss.

And by the way, when in San Jose, do as the Josefinos do and hop aboard a public bus to see the city. Or book a city tour to see the sites. It’s a ton of fun!

National Theater (Teatro Nacional)

View of the National Theatre of Costa Rica.
The National Theatre of Costa Rica. Courtesy of Deposit Photos

This theater stands as a prominent cultural and architectural landmark in the heart of San Jose. Recognized for its neoclassical style and opulent design, the theater’s interior is equally remarkable with luxurious details such as marble staircases, gilded moldings, and a stunning main auditorium.

The main auditorium is known for its grandeur with ornate décor and a capacity to hold a sizeable audience. The theater’s acoustics are highly praised, making it an excellent venue for musical performances.

Visitors should also spend some time in the museum that showcases the history, artifacts and contributions of the theater’s artists and performers.

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Precolombino)

A fascinating museum located near the Plaza e la Cultura, this impressive venue is renowned for its extensive collection of pre-Columbian era gold artifacts dating back to the time when Indigenous cultures carefully crafted intricate gold objects for various purposes.

The jewelry, ceremonial objects and other items show the craftsmanship, artistic detail and advanced metallurgical skills of these ancient civilizations. In addition, the museum offers a glimpse into the beliefs, rituals, and daily life of these ancient societies.

National Museum (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica)

Another museum worth exploring, the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica is situated in the Bellavista Fortress, a historic military barracks located in the eastern part of San Jose. The fortress itself is a cultural and architectural landmark.

The museum was established in 1887 and is considered one of the oldest in Central America. Its main building dates back to the 19th century. Exhibits here cover Costa Rican history, archaeology, anthropology, and art, providing a comprehensive overview of the country’s cultural and natural heritage.

Don’t miss the Butterfly Garden offering visitors the opportunity to observe and learn about Costa Rica’s diverse butterfly species in a controlled environment. It’s a joy to be so up close and personal to these incredibly gorgeous creatures.

Parque Nacional de Costa Rica

Centrally located in downtown San Jose near the National Theater and National Museum, this park offers visitors and locals alike an oasis amid a bustling city.

One of the most notable features in Parque Nacional is the Monumento Nacional, dedicated to Costa Rican heroes. The park is adorned with fountains, sculptures and beautifully-maintained landscaping. Cultural events, concerts and festivals are held here, and visitors will likely encounter street performers, artists and vendors.

Because the park is pedestrian-friendly, many enjoy the leisurely walks throughout this picturesque area.

Mercado Central

View of the traditional Costa Rican chifrijo.
The traditional Costa Rican chifrijo. Courtesy of Deposit Photos

This vibrant, busy central market in the heart of the city is known for its lively and colorful ambiance. Locals flock to the historic building to shop for fresh produce, meats, seafood and a variety of other goods. In addition to its myriad of stalls offering a wide range of local and exotic foods, the market is a culinary haven with numerous eateries serving traditional Costa Rican dishes.

Vendors sell handmade items, traditional clothing, jewelry and more. You’ll find souvenirs, Costa Rican coffees, and a variety of stalls offering a sample of local specialties. Most importantly, you’ll experience a sensory journey into Costa Rican culture, offering a taste of the country’s culinary delights and lively traditions.

Barrio Escalante

Known for its eclectic atmosphere, street art and diverse culinary scene, Barrio Escalante is located just east of downtown San Jose. The trendy neighborhood exudes a distinct bohemian and artsy vibe as it’s adorned with colorful street murals, art galleries and studios, and is a culinary hub with a wide range of dining options.

Visitors can find everything from traditional Costa Rican cuisine to international dishes, trendy venues and gourmet restaurants. Calle 33 also called “Gastronomic Boulevard,” is a central street in the Barrio lined with numerous eateries and bars.

The neighborhood is also known for its burgeoning craft beer scene where craft breweries and bars offer a variety of locally brewed beers.

Barrio Escalante comes alive in the evening. The area offers a mix of laid-back bars, live music venues, and trendy spots for those looking to add some additional fun to their San Jose experience.

INBioparque

Short for Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad Parque, this is a phenomenal ecological park and educational center located in Santo Domingo de Heredia, very near San Jose.

The park is situated in a lush location where visitors can explore Costa Rica’s different ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, gardens, and wetlands, and learn about the country’s diverse flora and fauna. A trail system allows guests to explore various sections of the habitat that offer wildlife exhibits that explore the region’s native species.

INBioparque also contains botanical gardens with a wide variety of plants, trees and flowers.

Jade Museum (Museo Nacional de Jade)

Housing the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade in the world, this museum is located just behind the National Museum and is worthy of a stop if you’re already in the area.

The jade on display dates back to 500 BC when pre-Columbians traded with the Mayans during this period. Masterpieces include carefully crafted colgantes (amulets or pendants), tools, and other jade artifacts.

Visitors learn about the craftsmanship, symbolism and cultural practices related to this precious gem in these ancient societies.

Celebrate the Coffee Culture

My family loves the richness of Costa Rican coffee and we make it a point to bring some home with us when we visit. San Jose’s local cafes offer some of the country’s high-quality coffee varieties.

Coffee plantations are spread across different regions, each offering unique characteristics to the coffee beans. Some of the regions include the Central Valley, Tarrazú, Naranjo, and Brunca. Coffee tours are available in each of these areas, though if your time in Costa Rica doesn’t allow for a visit, no worries, as you’ll still be able to sample some of the best coffees in San Jose cafes.

Costa Rica is primarily known for producing Arabica coffee, which is considered one of the finest and most sought-after coffee varieties in the world. The country’s diverse microclimates, volcanic soils, and high-altitude regions contribute to the exceptional flavor profile of Costa Rican coffee.

Tarrazú is one of the most famous coffee-producing regions in Costa Rica, known for its high-altitude plantations and cool temperatures. This coffee is often characterized by its bright acidity, full body, and fruity notes.

So, no matter your final destination on your next visit to Costa Rica, don’t overlook its fascinating capital city. This is where the pura vida begins!

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy Captain, a managing editor of Rovology Online Magazine and a freelance travel writer. He currently resides in San Diego California with his wife Noreen who is also a travel writer and editor. Together they have traveled to such far off places as Europe, Thailand, Central America, Africa and more. Michael’s wide-ranging interests include history, nature, travel, photography, and, of course, military matters.