Whether San José is your final destination, or you’re just passing through on your way to the jungle or beach, the capital of Costa Rica offers plenty of things to see and do. San José is also the country’s largest city, with a vibrant cultural and culinary scene. Here’s how to make the most of one full day in San José, from morning to night.
Browse the Central Market (or Mercado Central)
Start your day with breakfast at the Central Market. Located along Central Avenue (Avenida Central) in downtown San José, it’s been a local institution since 1880. Spanning an entire city block, you’ll find more than 200 stalls, shops, and eateries of different sizes, selling goods ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, cooked food, and more. Fuel up with a good cup of coffee, and try the typical breakfast dish of gallo pinto (rice and beans) or chorreadas (pancakes), then browse for souvenirs. Other good options for souvenir shopping include La Casona and the Municipal Craft Market, both located nearby.
Walk Along Central Avenue (Avenida Central)
Central Avenue is the main thoroughfare of San José, full of shops, restaurants, street performers, and all kinds of vendors. The stretch between Calle 9 and Calle 14 is closed to vehicles and particularly ideal for strolling. You’ll pass by several parks, plazas, museums, and other attractions. As you head east from the Central Market, you’ll soon pass by the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José (Catedral Metropolitana), an impressive neoclasscical building with beautiful stained glass windows and a massive pipe organ. Stop next door at the Central Park (Parque Central de San Jose) for some people watching, or head further east to the always busy Culture Plaza (Plaza de la Cultura) or Democracy Plaza (Plaza de la Democracia), with its many open-air markets.
Grab Lunch at a Soda
Sodas are traditional, often family-run, restaurants where you will get an authentic taste of Costa Rican cuisine at a great value. Try the typical lunch of casado (rice beans, and your choice of protein and several side dishes), arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), sopa negra (black bean soup), or patacones (fried plantains), and don’t miss trying the chileras (spicy pickled vegetables). Soda Tapia is a highly rated soda, but you can find many other good options downtown. If you’re too full from breakfast for a full meal, you can grab a quick snack from a street vendor, like an empanada (fried turnover) or a cup of ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices).
Visit a Museum
Within downtown, there are several excellent museums located just a few blocks of each other. Learn all about Costa Rica’s history at the National Museum (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica), housed in the historic Bellavista Fort. The selection of pre-Columbia artifacts is particularly impressive, and the butterfly garden small but beautiful. Several nearby museums are also worth a visit: explore several floors of indigenous gold, ceramic, and stone artifacts at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Colombino), the world’s largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts at the Jade Museum (Museo de Jade), and modern art, sculpture, and photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (Museo de Arte Y Diseño Contemporáneo or MADC).
Tour the National Theater (Teatro Nacional Costa Rica)
Constructed in the late 1800s, the National Theater is the most opulent building in San José, and well worth a visit. If you’re short on time, you can simply walk around the outside of the building, taking in the impressive architecture, statues, and landscaping, but a guided tour will give you the best insights and a view of its lavish furnishings. For the full experience, enjoy a performance at the theater, held several times weekly. Alternatively, catch a play, opera, or traditional Spanish zarzuelas (a humorous operetta) at the Melico Salazar Theater.
Sample the Flavors at Barrio Escalante
This trendy neighborhood has developed a reputation as the gastronomic hub of San José. A food tour is a great way to sample the best the area has to offer with a local guide. Or head to Calle 33, known as the neighborhood’s gastronomic walk (paseo gastronomico), full of restaurant after restaurant offering all types of cuisines. After dinner, don’t miss sampling the sweets made from locally grown cacao at Tapir Chocolates. For sweet treats infused with alcohol, try the artisanal ice cream at Galway Escalante or the slushies at Neon Ice Escalante.
Explore the Nightlife
There are plenty of options for nightlife in San José. Check out the craft beer and gastropub scene in Barrio Escalante, with standouts like the Costa Rica Beer Factory, Wilk Craft Beer, and the Lupulus Beer Shop. Or head to the University District of San Pedro with its vibrant pub scene. Check out some live music at the Jazz Café (which offers all styles of music, not just jazz), or dance the night away to salsa, cumbia, and merengue at Castro’s. To try your luck at a casino, head over to Casino Club Colonial or Casino Concorde. You can also find casinos in many of the city’s luxury hotels.