Things to Do in San Jose
Although visitors once flocked to Arenal Volcano for its impressive lava shows, the 5,437-foot (1,657-meter) volcano has stayed quiet since its last eruption in 2010. However, Arenal and the surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park remain a hot spot for visitors to Costa Rica, and is especially popular among those seeking hiking trails, swimming holes, hot springs, bird- and wildlife-watching, and sweeping views of the tropical rain forest.
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.
Poas Volcano National Park houses one of the more popular volcanoes in Costa Rica—a telling superlative for a country with world-famous geothermal activity. But with its spectacular wildlife, informative museum, and variety of hiking trails, the accolade comes as no surprise.
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.
Perhaps the most famous (and certainly most prized) public building in all of San Jose, the National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional) 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 in 1897, 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.
Bountiful produce stalls, local-approved cafeterias, and vendor stalls selling everything from coffee beans to cowboy boots give visitors to San Jose’s Central Market (Mercado Central) a taste of real Costa Rican culture. Visit as part of an epic errand run or for a chance to look behind-the-scenes at everyday life in Costa Rica.
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park is a natural for toucans, eagles, armadillos, sloths, monkeys, and jaguars. Catch a glimpse of its rugged beauty from the comfort of your car, or hike along the trails that lead to thundering waterfalls, towering mountains, and rapid rivers.
The thick green forests, fertile coffee plantations, and scenic mountains of the Orosi River Valley (El Valle del Rio Orosi) 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.
The Jade Museum (Museo del Jade) proves to Costa Rica visitors that this small Central American country is as rich in its history and cultural offerings as in biodiversity. The museum, located in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, showcases more than 1,000 years’ worth of artifacts from Mesoamerica dating from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D.—including pre-Columbian jade, wood, and ceramics—in a renovated space.
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.
More Things to Do in San Jose
With its 175 acres of green space and network of forested walking trails, La Sabana Park 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.
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 archaeological 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.
Spread over 36 acres (14.6 hectares) near San José, Rescate Animal Zooave is a conservation park that primarily houses rescued animals that wouldn't be able to survive in the wild on their own. The focus here is on conservation, and park tickets help fund other initiatives, including a rescue center and breeding programs.
A trip to through the lush rainforests surrounding Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park 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.
Cerro Chirripó, Coast Rica’s highest point, is just one of the attractions that draws wilderness adventurers to what some consider the nation’s wildest park. The 11-mile hike up a steep mountain pass can prove a challenging climb for even the most experienced trekkers. Two permanent shelters along the way mean hikers can leave their tents at home, but travelers will still need to carry plenty of food and water for the demanding trail. Though the pass can be difficult, the views from the top—including the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea—are truly amazing.
For less-fit travelers and those in search of more leisurely strolls, the forests of Chirripó National Park offer plenty of opportunity to explore the unique flora and fauna indigenous to Costa Rica. Its scenic passes, lush pastures and minimal elevation gains are accessible for the entire family.
Housed inside a bright yellow castle, the Children’s Museum (Museo de los Niños) in San Jose, Costa Rica, is designed to delight little ones. With interactive displays across 40 rooms, children (and the adults accompanying them) can learn about the human body, plants and animals, space exploration, and much more.
Costa Rica is famous for its amazing biodiversity, and Sarapiqui is a place where you can experience the thrill of the rain forest firsthand. Whether that’s ziplining through the trees at high speed, rafting along the river, or wildlife-spotting, the area is packed with natural wonders.
The quaint town of Sarchí is famous throughout Costa Rica for its handicrafts. From the brightly painted oxcarts that were once used in the coffee industry to decorated bowls, handmade jewelry, leather goods, and furniture, visitors looking for memorable souvenirs should plan to visit the town, only an hour’s drive from San José.
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(Casa Amarilla) 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.
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.
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.
Imagine soaring at 55mph while 300 feet above ground. Unlike a standard zipline, however, you’re stomach down in a “Superman” position, arms extended before you, as you fly across a lush preserve of Costa Rican forest. This is just one of the adventures available at Turubari Tropical Park, a 538-acre reserve between San José and the sea. Aside from the aerial, “Superman” cable, visitors can strap in a harness and helmet and ride the 8 different ziplines, or spend a few hours up in the saddle while horseback riding through gardens. The park is comprised of over 70,000 plants, and trained guides lead nature hikes that discuss the area’s natural flora and pristine mountain habitat. Because the park is an hour from the coast, it’s a popular choice for shore excursions while docking in Puntarenas.
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