When I first went to San José, 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 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 José 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 those 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 mishmash 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 José:
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.
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-Columbian 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 among 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; it’s my favorite part to wander around. There are many quiet streets and beautiful homes in this area. It’s picture perfect.
Parques – San José 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 – Poas Volcano isn’t active anymore but it does feature a sulfur water–filled caldera. The water is so still and aquamarine, 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 José 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 José can be avoided, but chances are you will pass through it at some point as you crisscross Costa Rica. It’s easier to go through it than make your travel plans around it. It’s not 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.
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