There’s a lot more to Costa Rica’s captivating capital city than simply a pit stop between volcanoes and cloud forests. San Jose is the largest city in the country of more than 5 million people, containing numerous historical and contemporary sights and experiences.
If you fancy joining one of the many thousands of visitors who are flocking to Costa Rica on their dream holidays, here’s everything you need to know about getting the most out of your time in San Jose.
A Brief History of San Jose
What was initially named Villa Nueva de la Boca del Monte was established in 1737 to house the scattered Costa Rican populace. For decades, the area would largely remain a sparsely developed landscape until the first coffee plantations arose in Valle Central at the turn of the 19th century.
The most significant period in the development of the city which we know today occurred during Costa Rica’s declaration of independence from Spanish rule in 1821. Civil war quickly broke out between San Jose, Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia, but in 1823 the independentistas emerged victorious and moved the capital to San Jose that same year.
Things to Do in the City
Since San Jose is such a vast destination, it makes sense to base yourself centrally. This will give you close access to the city’s greatest museums and will serve as an easy-to-reach landing point for any adventures you might wish to take further afield.
Central San Jose is split into districts, known locally as barrios, and each has its own atmosphere and culture. The most picturesque are found in the north; Barrio Otoya, for instance, contains several former plantation houses and is a joy to explore at a leisurely pace. International embassies can be found in Los Yoses, in the east of the city, and this is also a good area to stay in since it doesn’t attract huge crowds of tourists and accommodation is affordable.
The museums of San Jose are one of its biggest attractions and feature exhibits that you simply won’t encounter anywhere else on earth. The Museo de Oro Precolombino in downtown San Jose houses a collection containing more than 2,000 pieces of pre-Colombian gold. Meanwhile, if you head to the Museo del Jade, you’ll see the most extensive collection of this precious stone in the Americas.
Enthusiasts of contemporary art will undoubtedly flock to the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, which specializes in Central American modern art but also represents significant international work. The Museo Nacional is a must for history buffs, as it dives into the brutal colonization of Costa Rica and presents several important archaeological finds.
When the sun goes down, you’ll be spoilt for choice with the entertainment on offer in San Jose.
The Costa Rican National Dance Company (CND) is one of the most renowned companies in the Americas and regularly performs a repertoire blending classical interpretations with modern productions. The Teatro Nacional and Teatro Melico Salazar are the venues to head to if you want to catch dance, opera and music performances in the city.
There are also several casinos you can visit during your time here. While you’ll find most casino staples under their familiar names on the casino floor, such as slot machines and roulette, if you’re looking for blackjack, you’ll find it under the name “rummy”. While the format of the game is a little different to classic blackjack, if you’re a regular player, whether at a brick-and-mortar casino or in one of the many online versions, you’ll pick the rules up in no time.
Escape to the Country
It wouldn’t be a trip to Costa Rica without exploring some of the country’s most epic landscapes and environments.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, with its six ecological zones, is within easy reach of San Jose. This is the place to come to educate yourself on the incredible biodiversity in the country.
The Parque Nacional Volcan Irazu is just 50km east of San Jose and can be visited during a day trip. Whether you content yourself with the amazing forestry or climb the 3,432 meters to reach the top of the (active) Irazu Volcano is entirely up to you!
Finally, spend a few nights in Liberia, which is just a 3-hour bus ride from the capital. The hotspot of sabanero culture in Costa Rica is home to stunning parks housing over 300 species of birds, shy pumas, sloths and even jaguars. The best way to explore them? Why, on horseback, of course!