San José is probably not the first destination that springs to mind when planning a Costa Rica holiday. Many use it as a stop after a long flight, or in between trips to the national parks the country is best known for. San José might not be as steeped in history like some of its Latin America counterparts, fascinating culture and an interesting past indeed can be found beneath the surface. What’s more, the friendliness of the locals makes you almost forget the hectic and intimidating feeling that this metropolis can give visitors at first.
The easiest way to get to grips with San José is by starting your visit in Avenida Central, where it’s convenient enough to navigate between the city’s parks, outdoor plazas, museums, bars and restaurants. A mix of students, business people and artists spend a lot of their time here, making it a busy and bustling part of town.
Avenida Central is also close to where you can find one of the highlights of the capital: Teatro Nacional, Costa Rica’s National Theatre. The historic theatre opened in 1897 with a performance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Not only the exterior is a real draw, but its exquisite interior with lavish furnishings is a stunner too. No wonder that it’s considered the finest historic building in the capital.
Plenty of culture can be taken in at one of the many museums that are scattered around the city centre. The National Museum, Jade Museum or the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum are just a few examples of the cultural offering. These museums provide a clear overview of the history of San José, as well as the country as a whole. For a more modern take on art and design, head over to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, not far away from the others.
For shopping San José has a lot to offer too, from large American-style shopping malls to local boutique-style shops. To really experience the ‘old-world’ feel, Mercado Central is a good place to go. This crowded indoor market sells everything from souvenir t-shirts to delicious local food. Speaking of food, if you’re lucky enough to visit on a Saturday, the Feria Verde de Aranjuez farmers market is a top choice.
Nightlife in San José is surprisingly vibrant, with plenty of bars, pubs, restaurants and casinos to be kept entertained. Not only that, but a craft beer culture has also taken over Costa Rica. One of the best ways to sample some locally brewed beers is by visiting the pubs in Barrio Escalante, as well as the microbreweries in town.
San José is surrounded by lush rainforest, steaming cloud forests and towering volcanoes. A day trip to Poas Volcano is an excellent way to get introduced to Costa Rican’s incredible scenery. A relatively short ride from the capital, the landscape and climate quickly begin to change as coffee plantations and strawberry farms gradually transform into dense forest. On the way, take a tour at a coffee farm to learn all about the traditional techniques of how Costa Rican’ renowned coffee is produced.
Later in the day you’ll arrive at the summit of the Poas Volcano and look straight into the vast bowl of the crater. You can often see misty fumaroles of smoke coming out of the milky turquoise lake inside the crater, hinting at the volatile energy that forged this harsh, ruptured landscape. The view from the summit is incredible, and one of Costa Rica’s most famous sights.
Your next stop is the idyllic La Paz Waterfall Gardens for a guided walk through the forest. There’s a total of 3.5km of walking trails, viewing platforms for the five waterfalls, a butterfly garden, a hummingbird garden and orchid houses to enjoy.
Alternatively, join in an excursion to the Toucan Rescue Ranch, a sanctuary where animals are being rehabilitated for release in the wild. Staff here have extensive knowledge about sloths and the other animals at the ranch, and have many anecdotes to tell.
After a busy day on the road, it’s nice to return to San José for some relaxation perhaps. When you’re staying in the capital, Hotel Presidente is an excellent good value choice. Near to all the shops, bars and restaurants, it features a wide range of holistic spa treatments in its Rain Forest Spa. Generally considered the best hotel in town, Hotel Grano de Oro is another great pick, as it features a rooftop deck area with secluded garden, Jacuzzi and independently-run spa.
When you’re looking for accommodation close to the city and the airport, but in the midst of the enchanted countryside, Xandari Resort could be the perfect option for you. Each of its clusters of villas feature a private terrace, and a wide range of natural spa treatments can be enjoyed in private jalapas at the Spa Village.
Where to eat
La Muny: typical Costa Rican food
Hotel Grano de Oro: one of the best restaurants in the capital
Hotel Presidente: tapas, shared plates and cocktails
La Esquina de Buenos Aires: Argentine/regional cuisine
Tenedor Argentino: steakhouse
The Corner Pizzeria: artisan-style pizzas
Soda Tapia: fast food
Two ways to arrive is with Air France via Paris or KLM via Amsterdam.
Flying to most major cities in Latin America, Air France and KLM are one of our preferred partners.
See the map for their comprehensive flight network
Destinations in Latin America served by Air France and KLM