Few people make time to explore San Jose. That is hardly surprising – Costa Rica is known for its climate and biodiversity, not for its urban highlights. Nonetheless, on our single visit to the country so far, we did set aside time to explore its capital.
Incidentally, skipping San Jose is mostly justified by the simple reason that it does not feel awfully pleasing. It is very hectic in the central area, loud, teeming with people, with not much visually going for it. There are a few good-looking Colonial-style churches (especially, the Metropolitan Cathedral ♥ and La Merced ♥) and occasional historic buildings. The National Theatre ♥ with a not-too-huge but comparatively impressive marble foyer is the undeniable highlight, as is the main post office. Murals and modern sculptures enliven the scene here or there. Covered markets, such as Mercado Central, offer a reasonable diversion. Most of the city center, though, is low-rise not overly well-maintained buildings, where practically every door is a commercial establishment.
Barrio Escalante, which is a few blocks to the east from downtown, is mentioned in many guides as the most atmospheric neighborhood, but we couldn’t find a convenient way to explore it.
The city is nonetheless home to a few great museums. Our itinerary only allowed time for one, so we explored the Museum of Jade ♥♥♥, which is really a museum of indigenous cultures, offering four floors of exhibits related to all aspects of pre-Columbian societies, including some interactive games for the kids, a lot of information, and jade and ceramics artifacts aplenty.
Other museums that may be worth exploring are the National Museum of Costa Rica, the Museum of pre-Columbian Gold, the Museum of Costa Rican Art, and the Children’s Museum. There is also the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden. We additionally tentatively targeted Galleria Namu and the Municipal Crafts Market, but their opening schedules during Christmas did not align with our availability.
We took a guided tour of downtown, with the guide offering a lot of information in digestible quantities and showing us a couple of hidden gems (one of which was Edificio Steinworth ♥). Ironically, we already covered about 80% of the route the previous evening on our own.
Our other pre-booked attraction was walking-with-sloths tour, which was more of a walk around the University of San Jose campuses which are located in nature preserves. We did glimpse a few bird species, as well as several insects, and located one single sloth after a long search. Builder ants may have been among the most impressive fauna representatives that we were able to observe. The telescope that the guide was carrying along was useful, and the guide did a good job describing the range of fauna in Costa Rica, and the role of the university in studying and preserving it, but the tour did not exactly live up to its sloth-watching billing. The campus is quite some distance from the city center, so we needed to Uber there and back.
Places to Eat
Our stay in San Jose in late 2022 spanned two lunches and two dinners. All visited as a party of two adults and a tween.
Restaurant Tenedor Argentino ♥♥ is centrally located, with a view onto the National Theatre. Fantastic food, fun ambiance, and excellent service. Our damage: ₡49,000/$82, including a bottle of house wine.
Le Sapore ♥, a block away from the Jade Museum, is a place for excellent Italian fare. Friendly and efficient service, nice ambiance, great all around. Our damage: ₡55,000/$92 with several drinks and extra gratuities.
Café La Mancha ♥, at Edificio Steinworth, is a nice lunch/snack choice. The food is not bad, if not exceptional either, but the coffee and desserts are fantastic. In the same space, there is a crêperie, and you can combine orders from both establishments at the same table.
As you walk the central streets of San Jose, you will pass many small eateries – urban versions of the Costa Rican soda. We somewhat randomly picked one for lunch near the Jade Museum, La Cuchara de Juanita. The fare is pretty simple, and not at all bad, but most importantly, pretty inexpensive. Our damage: ₡5,800/$10.
In late 2022, we stayed at Gran Hotel Costa Rica ♥♥, a modern hotel in a historically-listed building on the central Plaza de la Cultura. The location is hard to beat. Large-size room with all amenities and an interesting design decision of the toilet and the shower separated from each other by the sink/vanity area with almost non-existent privacy. The size of the beds in a “standard” room – two full-size beds – was a big minus for a party of more than two people. The most wide-ranging excellent breakfast that we’ve seen anywhere in Costa Rica partially compensated for the room deficiencies. The hotel enjoys a “hospitality legend” reputation according to several websites – service was certainly excellent.