When most people come to Costa Rica, it is in search of beautiful beaches, dense jungle and unique animal encounters. And it’s true–Costa Rica does all of those things incredibly well. So if you are traveling on a limited time frame, does it make sense to use valuable vacation time to explore the slightly gritty, rough-around-the-edges capital city of San Jose?
It’s not really an easy answer. Costa Rica is admittedly absolutely gorgeous; you don’t have to be a beach bunny or adventurer extraordinaire to appreciate the slew of pristine landscapes that dot the entire country. That said, San Jose does have more to offer than might appear on first glance. If you have a few days to add to your travel itinerary, then here are a few of the attractions that await in Costa Rica’s capital:
The Jade Museum
The Jade Museum has always been a popular attraction in San Jose, but since moving to its new, glittering location next to the Plaza de Democracia in 2014, it is even more of a must-see. For the first time in the museum’s history, all 7,000 pieces can be displayed throughout the museum’s five stories. While learning about the jade, pottery and other exhibits, visitors can enjoy interactive displays that add to the overall experience. There is also a special emphasis on how jade has influenced cultural development throughout the ages, which is quite a fascinating touch.
The Mercado Central
Perhaps Costa Rica’s most impressive market, the Mercado Central was first established in 1880. Today it occupies an entire block, and features fresh produce, a variety of local food and arts and crafts. Although the Mercado Central is certainly a tourist attraction, one of the reasons it is so special is that it remains an authentic meeting spot for local Ticos. The market is a place to shop, eat or wile away the day with friends. Costa Rica can be overwhelmingly touristy at times; if you are looking for a place to soak in a local atmosphere, than the Mercado Central is certainly the place for you. It’s open from dawn until sunset every day of the week.
The Plaza de Cultura
Another crowded, noisy and undeniably local place to explore in San Jose is the Plaza de la Cultura. This central plaza is slightly dirty and grungy, but it can’t be beat for people watching or stumbling upon a local celebration or event. The Gold Museum, National Theater and Gran Hotel Costa Rica are all close by, meaning you’ll likely pass through the park on some occasion or another anyway. It’s not a sweeping plaza like you might find in Europe or some cities in South America, but it is delightful all the same.
The Central Park
Just as the name suggests, this is San Jose’s most central park, unique for the large gazebo in the park’s center. A few hotels and restaurants surround the park, but unfortunately the area has deteriorated slightly over the years. Still, it is a nice place to go for a walk and soak in the unique atmosphere of San Jose. Do time your visit during the day though when the park is safer.
The Teatro Nacional
The National Theater is often considered to be the finest historic building in all of Costa Rica – and just moments into any visit, it doesn’t take long to see why. The elegant building dates back to 1897, and boasts well-worn seats as well as gold leaf décor and other influences from Europe. To feel transported to an era now long gone, try to catch a concert or opera. The symphony on Sundays always receives sublime reviews.
Perhaps one of the best parts about San Jose is its central location. Should you decide the city isn’t for you, then adventures in and around Costa Rica’s volcanoes, rivers, valleys and beaches are never that far away! But before you start planning your getaway, give San Jose a chance to lure you in. You might just find there’s plenty to stick around for.
Have you been to San Jose, Costa Rica? What did you think?