Most visitors to Costa Rica will inevitably find themselves flying into Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in the country’s bustling capital city of San Jose. While most tourists choose to spend the vast majority of their time traveling throughout the country’s verdant, natural areas, there are still plenty of things to be discovered in and around San Jose.
The city is a hub of history, culture, food, art, and music. So if you find some time at the beginning or end of your Costa Rican adventure to explore San Jose, this article will give you some ideas of the best things to do while you’re there.
While SJO is the main airport serving San Jose, it’s actually located in the neighboring province of Alajuela. So, once you arrive at the airport, you’ll probably either have to find a taxi driver to take you into the city (which is by far the easiest option, especially if you don’t speak Spanish) or take the public bus.
Although many locals will encourage you to get out of the city as soon as possible and start exploring the rest of the country, there are plenty of things to do in San Jose. So, take your time as you make your way through the city, talk to some locals along the way, and enjoy living la pura vida.
1. Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica
One of the most famous landmarks in the city of San Jose is the National Theatre, or the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. Due to its location in the center of the city, it’s a wonderful place to start your journey through the city.
This Neo-classical theatre was built in the 19th century and is one of the best examples of architecture in the country. As you walk up to the impressive front of the theatre, the first thing you’ll notice is the beautiful statues of Calderon de la Barca and Ludwig van Beethoven. And things only get better once you enter the theatre and see the vaulted ceilings and classy decore.
The National Theatre was a joint project that represents the meeting of minds of European and Costa Rican culture. Today, while many tourists choose simply to admire the building itself, the National Theatre still acts as a temple of art that hosts many live performances, including those of Costa Rica’s National Symphony Orchestra. If you go on the right day, you might just be able to catch a performance and hear some world-class music.
2. Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
Located quite close to the Teator Nacional in a subterranean building beneath the Plaza de la Cultura (the main plaza in San Jose), the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is one of the coolest cultural sites in the city.
The museum contains over 3,500 pre-Columbian artifacts curated by the Banco Central de Costa Rica including golden animal figurines, ceramic pottery, and so much more. One of the coolest features of the museum is the replica of a grave that contains 88 gold artifacts discovered on a Costa Rican banana plantation in the 1950s.
Located in the same building as the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is the Museo Numismatico (National Coin Museum). In this museum, you can see coins and banknotes dating as far back as 1236.
There are also unofficial forms of currency called coffee tokens that were once used as a method of exchange in the Costa Rican coffee trade. Whether you want to learn about the history of Costa Rica or simply look at some shiny pieces of art, visiting the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and Museo Numismatico is a must.
3. Morazan Park
If you get tired of sightseeing and just want to kick back and relax in a park, Morazan Park is the place to go. The park features a well-kept green area surrounding a tiered water fountain, making this area the perfect place to have a picnic and enjoy the beautiful weather of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. You can get some food from one of the surrounding food vendors and enjoy some people-watching on the grass while you savor your meal.
One of the best parts of Morazan Park, though, is how busy it can get with performing artists. With any luck, there will be plenty of hula-hoopers, slack-liners, skateboarders, drum circle musicians, jugglers, and painters for you to observe as they do their work. There is also another park, Parque España, located within short walking distance from Morazan Park if you want to do a little walking.
4. Museo del Jade
If you walked out of the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum wishing that you could see even more Costa Rican artifacts, you’re in luck. The Museo del Jade contains the largest collection of American jade artifacts in the world, and there are some seriously impressive pieces in its collection. As you walk around the museum, you’ll be treated to intricate jade carvings, massive stone spheres, and beautifully painted ceramic works.
The Museo del Jade is certainly a fun tourist attraction, but it serves a far more important purpose as well. In response to a chronic graverobbing problem, the Costa Rican Banco Nacional de Seguros made an effort to collect all of the stolen artifacts and consolidate as many of the country’s artifacts in one collection as possible.
The result was the Museo del Jade. So, in addition to providing the Costa Rican government with a source of income from tourism, the museum also plays a huge role in protecting the cultural heritage of the country.
5. Irazu Volcano National Park
If you want to get out of the city and go on one seriously epic hike, check out Irazu Volcano National Park. While Costa Rica is well-renowned for its volcanoes, Irazu Volcano is the closest volcano to the city of San Jose and is definitely one of the more impressive volcanic sites in the entire country.
In fact, Irazu is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica with a crater that’s 980 feet deep. It’s also an active volcano that erupted back in the 1960s, so you might want to skip this adventure if you have severe volcanophobia.
If you do choose to do this hike, you’ll probably need to find a tour company or someone to drive you out there. As you walk along the slope of the volcano, you’ll pass through bountiful fields of potato, onion, and cabbage that give way to dairy farms as you get higher and higher up.
Once you get up near the rim of the crater, the landscape begins to look like the surface of the moon and is dotted with brilliantly colored mineral pools. There are also some burnt trees along the ridge as well as plumes of toxic smoke emerging from the crater, indicating the volcanic activity going on under the surface of the lake.