Things to Do in San Jose
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park may be divided by one of the nation’s busiest highways, but this just means easy access for travelers, as well as the possibility of picturesque views without ever having to leave the car.
Lazy travelers can traverse the highway snapping photos of lush landscapes from the comfort of their car seats, while those eager to get back to nature can embark on one of the miles of trails leading to the waterfalls, open pastures and mountain stations that dot the rainforest. An Aerial tram on the eastern side of the park offers open gondola rides through the dense understory and canopy of the woods, where its possible to spot the sloth and other forest creatures that call Braulio Carrillo National Park home.
Perhaps the most famous (and certainly most prized) public building in all of San Jose, the National Theater of Costa Rica in the city’s Catedral district, is home to the nation’s cultural community. Classical music, theater and dance performances take place several times a week. And while it’s always worth catching a show, the theater’s traditional Renaissance architecture, breathtaking ceilings and grand interiors make it a must-see stop even if you can’t get tickets for the symphony.
Free tours of the historic building, which was built in1897, take place daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and the theater’s highly regarded café with picturesque San Jose views, is a perfect spot to grab lunch before exploring the rest of the city.
The lively San Jose Central Market was founded in 1880. For free entertainment and a real taste of the local atmosphere, there’s no better place in the city! The market has more than 200 stalls, selling everything under the sun from souvenirs and cowboy boots to herbal remedies and handicrafts. Inside you’ll also find cafes and bars for a welcome break between browsing. Pick up some coffee beans for a tasty souvenir.
With its 175 acres of green space and network of forested walking trails, Parque La Sabana is San José’s version of New York’s Central Park. The large open lawns are perfect for Frisbee, soccer, or tossing a ball, and the walking trails and running tracks are where to work up a sweat. This site once housed the city’s airport until the 1940s, and today the former terminal building houses the Costa Rican Art Museum. Also within the leafy park is the country’s national stadium, where concerts and national soccer matches are held for up to 40,000 people. On most days, however, the park plays hosts to groups of locals all feeding the geese by the pond, or families simply enjoying a picnic beneath the shade of a tree. It’s a calming place to escape the crowds and the urban city bustle, and a comfortable perch for people watching and mingling with San José locals.
Costa Rica’s jade is world famous, and the Jade Museum - or Museo de Jade - displays arguably the world’s largest collection of the precious stone. At this museum you’ll not only see a huge array of jade jewelry and artifacts, you’ll also discover why the precious stone was revered in pre-Columbian times, and how it was used and traded. There are examples of jade from all over the Americas, including the Mayan Empire.
More than 1600 pre-Columbian artifacts, including Costa Rica’s very first coin, handmade ceramics and a life-sized warrior, are housed in this museum that was opened in 1985.
The museum’s collection displays indigenous works dating from 500 AD to 1500 AD, including traditional jewelry and culturally relevant pieces from other Latin American countries. Displays on the second floor explore the influence of these artifacts on the social and cultural development of the nation, as well as a history of Costa Rica’s currency. Signs in both Spanish and English easily guide guests through hallways filled with rich history.
Explore the works of some of Costa Rica’s greatest artists from the colonial era through today at the Costa Rican Art Museum, including almost the entire body of work from prolific local artist Juan Manuel Sanchez. The museum is housed in the building that once served as the main terminal of San Jose’s original international airport and outside, toward where the tarmac once sat, is a lovely sculpture garden where visitors can walk around an enjoy the tropical weather. The museum often has chamber music concerts playing in the Golden Hall.
The National Museum, housed in the barracks of the Bellavista Fortress, has been proudly displaying indigenous and pre-Columbian artifacts, religious artwork and geological and archeological pieces linked to Costa Rica’s rich and colorful history since 1950.
Separate rooms explore ancient cultures dating back some 12,000 years, as well as collections of ornate jewelry, medallions and statues made of gold. And while the Museum’s impressive collection of grinding stones and other artifacts from ancient Costa Rica grant tourists a chance to travel back in time, visitors should be sure to explore the grounds, too. Nationals fought at the barracks during the Civil War in 1948, and damage from bullet holes and warfare can still be seen in the Spanish-style courtyard.
As far as city squares go, Plaza de la Cultura leaves much to be desired. That’s because its unremarkable architecture and mostly concrete designs tend to make it one of the less visually pleasing squares in this colorful city.
Still, travelers in search of a true taste of San Jose life will do well to visit this busy square, where locals gather after weekend shopping trips and stay well into the night. Ice cream vendors sell sweet, cool treats, which are perfect for taking the edge off a steamy afternoon. Plaza de la Cultura is typically teeming with street performers and vendors and a nearby police tower means that even with the crowds, it’s still one of the safest places in the city.
The Costa Rica Children’s Museum is an interactive fun experience for all the family. Housed in a gaily painted toytown castle, that’s actually a historic old military prison, the museum’s hands-on exhibits range across all manner of topics. Kids will love the 40 exhibits exploring outer space, old-fashioned fun on the farm, history, music, science and ecology and everyday life in Cost Rica.
More Things to Do in San Jose
The most famous national park in Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano National Park protects the still sizzling Arenal Volcano, one of the world’s 10 most active volcanoes. The park also encompasses 16 reserves and an amazing dozen different ecological zones, proof of Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity.
A visit to the national park reveals an active cone topped with flows of red lava, belching columns of ash. As you’d expect it’s an unforgettably dramatic sight, especially if you take a visit to the park at night. Arenal’s 140-metre (460-foot) wide crater was dormant for centuries until catastrophically blowing its top in 1968. The most recent major eruption occurred in 1998.
There aren’t too many places in the world where you can almost touch the rim of an active volcano, but at Poas Volcano National Park you can get up close to the smoking crater.
One of the world’s most accessible volcanoes, Poas Volcano is filled with an amazing aquamarine lagoon, blanketed in ferns and ringed with hiking trails leading to panoramic lookouts and picnic areas.
The park is filled with wildlife to spot, including the famous quetzal, toucans and hummingbirds.
The best visibility is December to April, and especially in the early morning.
The thick green forests, fertile coffee plantations and scenic mountains of the Orosi River Valley draw bird watchers, freshwater fishermen and nature lovers to the banks of the Reventazon River, as well as the pristine lake formed by the Cachi Dam.
Travelers can spend the morning wandering through Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi Church, where Spanish Colonial artifacts and religious paintings line the interior of Costa Rica’s oldest church still in use. Adventurers will enjoy an afternoon at the Irazu Volcano. Crater lakes and lush farmland make for scenic hikes and picturesque views.
The Ruins of Ujarras, with peaceful gardens and even a nearby public swimming pool, prove another popular destination for both travelers and residents. Buy lunch from one of the local women selling fragrant arepas before exploring the historic ruins and cooling off with a refreshing dip.
You’ve heard all about Costa Rica’s famous biodiversity – and the tropical rainforest Sarapiqui Canopy is the place to experience it first-hand.
Home of the endangered green macaw, and a number of famous reserves including the Braulio Carrillo National Park, Sarapiqui’s river-filled fertile landscape is best discovered by boat cruise. From the waterways you’ll spot monkeys, sloths, otters, turtles and all kinds of birds, including the quetzal.
This lush public park at the center of San Jose was named after Francisco Morazan, an old-school general who tried to unite all of Central America into one common country. And while Morozan Park was once a hub for San Jose’s grit and grime (it used to be a known for drug sales and prostitution), the park has recently undergone a complete renaissance.
Travelers can safely wander through the green gardens that make Morazan Park a respite from the otherwise urban feel of San Jose and stretch out for an afternoon picnic on thick lawns under massive shade trees. The Templo de Musica, a concrete gazebo at the center of the land, is the highlight of any visit to Morazan Park—especially when live local musicians are playing.
Costa Rica is known for its diverse wildlife, breathtaking waterfalls, dense rainforest and endless outdoor adventures. But the Central Valley neighborhood of Escazu offers travelers a taste of a different Costa Rica—one that’s filled with modern architecture, posh homes and even an exclusive country club. Visitors say this hip spot is the perfect place to enjoy the best of big city life in a neighborhood that rocks a more laidback country vibe.
Travelers can wander the main streets lined with big name stores and unique boutiques or tuck into a meal at one of Escazu’s exclusive restaurants for a relaxing lunch or world-class dinner. State of the art gyms and well-kept bed and breakfasts mean visitors looking to escape the city for a weekend and experience a slice of true Costa Rican life can have it all in Escazu.
The capital of Alajuela province, Sarchi is renowned for its arts and crafts, in particular its decorative oxcarts recalling the heyday of Costa Rica’s coffee industry. Lying almost 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level in the Cordillera Central, the whole of Sarchi is devoted to crafts, from woodworking and leather goods to textiles.
The most famous handicrafts are known as carretas, the ornately painted carts that have proved so popular as Costa Rican souvenirs over the years. While you’re here, tear yourself away from browsing the stores to visit the lovely church, with its wooden carvings. The gardens in front feature an oversized, brightly painted oxcart. The drive to Sarchi is part of the appeal of this popular day-trip destination, leading past coffee fields, pineapple farms and landscape dotted with volcanoes, villages and rainforest.
A trip to through the lush rainforests surrounding Arenal Hanging Bridges may be perfect for nature lovers, but it’s not for the faint of heart. That’s because 16 bridges—some suspended high above gorges and others stretching far across jungle floors—line the winding paths of this epic Costa Rican hike. Visitors can wander through thick vegetation on well-marked trails, look for families of monkeys swinging through the air, and spot lazy sloth lounging among tree limbs. Despite their height, bridges are stable and secure. And while heavy rains can make parts of the path difficult to navigate, a hike through this forest in sunny weather is a perfect way to spend several afternoon or mid-morning hours out of doors.
This easy-to-spot structure was built in Brussels and imported to Costa Rica via France in 1896. Upon arrival in San Jose, it served as one of the country’s very first schools. Because the original site was mostly swamplands, the Belgian company constructed the individual iron pieces overseas before assembling them onsite, once they arrive in Costa Rica.
Today, Metallic Building serves as homage to public education and two primary schools—Buenaventura Corrales and Julia Lang—still operate inside its historic halls. Visitors can explore the grounds on their own, or participate in one of the city’s historic walking tours to learn more about this iconic building.
Built using funds donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1912, Costa Rica’s Yellow House is a noteworthy (and noticeable!) building that houses the Central American Court of Justice. It has since been appropriated for use as a presidential home, a temporary facility for the Legislative Assembly and, most often, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cult.
Travelers can explore the grounds on their own or take a self-guided tour through one of San Jose’s most famous buildings. Once a week, local history experts offer official tours, which include a visit to the Museum Marques Manuel Maria Peralta, a gallery named after one of the country’s most important diplomats that is stationed on site.
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