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Set in the heart of the Central Valley of Costa Rica, San Jose (the capital city of Costa Rica) boasts rich culture and history that easily blend with modern architecture, and despite what you may have heard (or read), there are plenty of fun things to do and places to go here that’d genuinely make your stay memorable.
To make it easy for you to plan your vacation, I’ve researched some of the top things to do in San Jose Costa Rica so you don’t have to. Make arrangements for a free walking tour or a paid San Jose city tour and check out all of them!
Please do remember that the San Jose International Airport is about 30 minutes from downtown San Jose, where most of these activities are located. If you want to truly explore San Jose, the best thing to do is to spend a day or two in the city to try all of the great San Jose restaurants and explore the city more in-depth. If you choose to stay longer, there are a ton of great day trips from San Jose that you can explore too. (My favorites are the Poas Volcano, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and the Espiritu Santo coffee plantation.)
Once you are finished visiting San Jose, you may want to look into another Latin American capital city. One that’s on my bucket list is Havana, Cuba as I’ve heard there are lots of things to do in Havana.
The National Stadium is not only a sight to behold; it’s also one of the best places to catch some of the most mind-blowing sporting concerts and events Costa Rica offers. Located west of La Sabana park, the newly built master arena is the most modern and one of the largest in Central America, accommodating more than thirty-five thousand sports fans in its three decks of seating.
Here, you can get tickets for fabulous soccer matches or cool concerts from famous artists like Shakira, Coldplay, or Lady Gaga. And don’t worry if you can’t find a seat next to the field or stage; each end of the arena has enormous TV screens where you can see a close-up of every action!
You can drive here yourself or use public transportation. However, bringing a car may not be the best way to get here, especially on match or concert days, as there isn’t enough parking. To avoid the hassle, just hop into a taxi or catch one of the trains that run to Sabana station.
La Sabana Park
Another awesome place to spend your time during your stay in San Jose would be the La Sabana Metropolitan Park. If you’ve been to New York’s Central Park, you’ll definitely love being here, as the vibe is pretty much the same – there’s a vibrant atmosphere and verdant, well-maintained greenery where you can just relax and soak in the gorgeousness of the giant skyscrapers surrounding the area.
On the days when there are no matches at the stadium, you can come here and feed the geese by the pond, indulge in various outdoor activities including jogging, biking, rollerblading, tennis, and picnicking, or just hang out with loved ones on one of the benches. Although this park can be a little crowded during the weekends, it’s a great place to mingle with the locals or simply wind down and reconnect with nature in the bustling city center.
If you’re a history buff, the Jade Museum is a must-see. Located west of Plaza de la Democracia on the Avenida Central, just down the road from the iconic National Museum, this historic building houses a wide and diverse collection of artifacts showcasing rich Costa Rican history.
Here, you will find Pre-Columbian jade, adzes, tables, wood, ceramics, decorative pieces, and other artifacts dating from 500 B.C – 800 B.C carefully displayed in a renovated space. Expect to spend up to two hours touring all five floors of displays. There’s a café and restaurant on site where you can grab a drink or some munchie to keep those energy levels up as you explore the exhibits.
Got children? You’ll be happy to know that there are giant puzzles, excavation role-play, and other exciting kid-friendly activities to keep the little ones entertained.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is situated under the Plaza de la Cultura and houses one of the largest and most diverse collections of gold items in Latin America, making it an important destination for history and art lovers.
A guided tour of this museum will give you a chance to explore over 1,600 Pre-Columbian gold artifacts including jewelry, religious icons, handmade ceramics, and the country’s very first coin; it’s a great way to learn the history of the precious metal.
If you’ve got some time left, check out the two other currency-related museums located in Plaza de la Cultura – the Casa de Moneda and the National Coin Museum. The Casa de Moneda will showcase the minting history and the National Coin Museum will have displays dating back to 1236, all of which will get you learning more about the history of Costa Rican currency.
National Museum of Costa Rica
In the heart of downtown San Jose at Bellavista Fortress is another incredible art gallery, the National Museum, that offers impressive displays of indigenous and Pre-Columbian artwork, archaeological and geological items, and religious artifacts linked to the Ticos’ colorful history.
What was once a military barracks is now a center for studying, classifying, and protecting natural and artistic products, allowing visitors to explore ancient cultures dating thousands of years back.
While the fantastic collection of pre-Columbian artifacts including medallions, ornate jewelry, and gold statues will truly transport you back in time, do not miss the beautiful glass atrium butterfly garden at the entrance that showcases the country’s natural beauty or the building itself that still has bullet holes from the Civil War of 1948.
National Theatre (Teatro Nacional)
If you’re a fan of performing arts, then you definitely want to put the National Theater on top of the list when planning your day trips to downtown San Jose. Located on Avenida Segunda, the historic building has been entertaining both locals and foreigners with opera, symphony, and other fine art since 1897.
Apart from enjoying the alluring theatrical performances, the building’s neoclassical architecture, lavish finishings, and ornate interior will also be a true feast for the eyes. Several performances are held here every week!
Visit during the International Festival of the Arts that happens in March every year and watch San Jose transform into a giant stage with festivities and live concerts put together by the National Theater.
Visiting the Children’s Museum is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in San Jose with kids. The interactive, hands-on museum situated in the Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture and which was once a military prison now allows kids to learn, play, and explore our everyday science and interact with other children in a safe environment.
There are over forty exciting exhibits that can be enjoyed by both children and adults including one that showcases the suffering the prisoners experienced in a building that’s now a fun and happy place. Don’t forget to check out the earthquake simulator; it’s just as fascinating!
Although Costa Rica is not known for its vibrant markets a la Mexico and Colombia, the Central Market is the closest you will get to find the best of Costa Rica under one roof. And it’s a great representation of Costa Rica culture!
The traditional Costa Rican cuisine here is sublime, and local food is super cheap, so plan to have a meal here for sure. Then shop the herbal remedies, Costa Rican national dance costumes, and even some souvenirs before you head back out into the hustle and bustle of downtown San Jose.
Museum of Costa Rican Art
Located near La Sabana and the national stadium, the Costa Rican Art Museum is worth visiting for art fans. You’ll find traveling exhibits from some of the area’s best artists, and a gorgeous sculpture garden out back. In all honesty, this isn’t the best of the tourist attractions for families traveling with young kids- teens and university students might enjoy it more.
The building itself is the crown jewel of the museum- it’s two stories built in traditional Spanish style. Make sure ot visit the library ot see the gorgeous carved wooden ceiling.
There are tons of craft brewers in San Jose, and many of them are welcoming to children. You’ll enjoy everything from IPAs to stouts throughout San Jose. Some of our favorites are included in our favorite Costa Rican breweries list.
Street Art Tour
There is so much street art in San Jose that it’s almost hard to miss. Almost any neighborhood will have street art if you just venture off the beaten path a little bit. Some of the best viewings are near the university in the suburb of San Pedro.
Wander just a bit and you’ll find street food stalls almost everywhere in downtown San Jose. Vendors sell everything from fresh fruit to fresh empanadas and pork tamales. Since you can drink the water in Costa Rica, you don’t have to worry as much about consuming street food- so eat away!
Just south of the area where the National Theater and museums are is a cute little artesian market that sells the best of Costa Rican souvenirs and decent prices. I recommend stopping by to find some fun additions to your collection. They have everything from t-shirts to earrings to painted masks.
Welcome! I’m Christa, a Spanish teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. We’ve spent over 25 years living in and traveling to Costa Rica with our daughters, and this website is my love letter to all things Costa Rica- and to bilingual parenting too. You can read my full story here. Thanks for stopping by!