The Saturday City: San Jose

statue on top of the national theaterWhen I first went to San Jose, Costa Rica in 2003, I thought it was a grimy city. It wasn’t a place I wanted to spend a lot of time in. There was trash everywhere, the buildings were run down, and when compared to other Spanish cities, there was no post-colonial charm to be found.  After visiting the city again for a second time, I still feel the same way. San Jose isn’t a charming city. It’s still gritty. It’s still grimy.

The city has changed a lot in recent years, but not in a good way. In 2003, I don’t remember seeing any fast food restaurants beyond the occasional McDonalds. Now, there are streets lined with fast food. I even saw a Quiznos, and I never see them anywhere! Granted, the locals seem to love fast food. Every Taco Bell I saw was filled with diners.  But the overall feel of the city – a mish mash of people in a gritty hard place – was still there.

Nevertheless, here are a few highlights that you shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting San Jose:

National Center of Art & Culture – This sprawling museum occupies an entire block and it houses the offices of the Cultural Ministry and several performing-arts centers, It is also home to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design where you can see the cutting edge artistry of Costa Rican and Central American artists. This is the place to see contemporary dance and theatre in San José.

The Gold Museum – The ‘Museo del Oro’ is part of a three-story basement complex just off the Plaza de la Cultura. The museum has an extensive display of the uses of Pre-Columbian gold as viewed by the indigenous societies and there are hundreds of exquisite glittering pieces to admire. There is also a museum featuring the history of their currency.

barrio amos street

Jade Museum – The Jade Museum is located on the 11th floor of the largest building in Central America, the National Insurance Building. The museum has the world’s largest collection of Pre-Colombian jade with pieces dating from 500 BC to 800 AD. Thanks to recent upgrades to the lighting fixtures; you’ll see them in all their glory. The museum also offers an excellent view over San José and the Central Valley.

Mercado Central – The Central Market in San José is found in a bright yellow building on the Avenue Central – you can’t miss it. Buy your souvenirs or check out local foods amongst the hundreds of colorful stalls. There are a lot of good eateries here too. Make sure you try the sorbet place in the center of the market. Words can’t describe how delicious it is.

Barrio Amos – This is the old colonial part of the city and it’s my favorite part to wander. There are many quiet streets and beautiful homes in this area. It’s picture perfect.

Parques – San Jose has a lot of parks. They aren’t huge or even some of the best in the world, but they are worth a good stroll and can be a nice place to sit and relax after a long day of walking.

poas volcano, costa rica

Poas Volcano – Poas Volcano isn’t active anymore but it does feature a sulfur water-filled caldera. The water is so still and aqua marine, you might think it’s fake or that it has been painted on. The area has some good hiking trails and you’ll get pictures that will make jaws drop. This is definitely the best day trip outside of the city.

If you do find yourself in San Jose and you’re on a budget, the Mercado Central has amazing food and cheap local prices. Plates of the day are 1,700 Colones, or half of the cost of what can be found in major tourist areas. Moreover, avoid taxis at all costs. At a minimum, they will cost you around 5,000 colones to get around the city. They just aren’t worth it, as everything you need is centrally located.

San Jose can be avoided but chances are you will pass through it at some point as you criss-cross Costa Rica. It’s easier to go through it than make your travel plans around it.  San Jose isn’t an “awful” place; it’s simply a grimy place. After you’ve seen the major sites and done some day trips, it’s best to head to the better parts of the country.

  1. Hi Matt, great round up of San Jose’s main sights. I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on all the fast food joints on your last trip in 2003, though. Even back when I lived in Costa Rica (1999-2000) Papa John’s, Subway, Mickey D’s and Burger King were all over the place. You’re right – San Jose doesn’t compare to Spanish cities, but on my subsequent visits throughout the year, I’ve always really liked San Jose, and found it friendly and worth a visit – especially when compared to the nightmare capital cities of Central America like Tegucigalpa, Managua, and Guatemala City. We’re really looking forward to arriving in San Jose next month!

  2. Great stuff Matt! I can’t wait to go it’s on the top of my bucket list. Poas Volcano caldera reminds me of one I saw in the south island of New Zealand (where they filmed a lot of Lord of the Rings). It almost looks identical. Ever been?

  3. I spent a few weeks (yup, weeks) in San Jose in high school on a student exchange. It was perfect for its central location for our constant trips around the country and for getting to be the only non tico in the bar!

    I went everywhere on this list and definitely recommend the National Center for Art and Culture and even more so Poas…. breathtaking!

  4. I came across your website in the travelpod website. Yours came in top 100 travel blogs. I want to let you know that I have enjoyed reading your informative blogs especially about Costa Rica. I did visit there on an excursion tour when I went on a cruise in April 2009. My first impression was the filth, however as we were riding on the bus to the rain forest, I was fascinated with the environment and buildings. Very different than what I have seen. Costa Rica seems to be a hot spot for alot of people to go to this year. I would say the past two months (Nov and Dec), I have known about 10 people who have travelled to CR. I have not been to San Jose, and do plan to go back to Costa Rica and see more of the country as I felt my visit back then was very minimal. FYI, I bookmarked your site so I can come back and read more. :-)

  5. Matt,

    I totally agree. San Jose is gritty and somewhat boring. When I went, I was so bored that I ended up going to the movies.

    It is also true that the Poas and Irazu volcanoes are relatively close to the city. However, if you are planning to visit any of the volcanos, take into consideration the season. I visited on December (winter). I booked a day tour to the Poas volcano and another to the Irazu volcano (on different days). I was not able to see anything (no craters at all). It was just a sea of clouds. Additionally, it was extremly cold and windy. Later, I told the story to some locals and they told me winter is not the time to make those types of trips. The chances of seeing the craters are really low during the winter months. The tour company knows this well but they sell the tours (and collect you money) anyway. So, it is good to do a little research before going(summer is good time to go).

  6. What a great picture from Poas Volcano! You have some great info also, my girlfriend are heading to San Jose, Costa Rica later this year and we had never heard of the Jade Museum. She is very excited to stop in. Glad i stumbled across you blog, I look forward to reading more.

  7. As a Costa Rican native, I gotta say you nailed the city’s description perfectly. There have been lots of projects looking for improvement of San José lately like a new “Chinatown” and additional boulevards, but in all honesty the best thing would be to raze everything down and start from scratch (a pipe dream, I know), as there are few saving graces on it and the grime won’t go away. No wonder tourists flock to our beaches, volcanoes and jungles like mad – that’s where the sights worth coming here are, anyway. :)

  8. Jff

    The best to do in San Jose is going out and see some concerts, almost all nights are gigs somewhere or electronic music events, some free and some for 5 or 10 dollar fee. Give it a chance, you can get a nice surprise.

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