Costa Rica’s capital city San José is set in the Central Valley region of the country. It is mostly considered a landing pad for visitors to the country who then head out to the country’s picturesque beaches, mountains, and national parks. But if you give the city a chance, you could be pleasantly surprised.
Remember what your mom always told you about first impressions—they aren’t always correct. This is important because San José or Chepe as Costa Ricans call it, doesn’t make the best first impression. But if you dig a little deeper you will discover some of the charms of the city that most tourists never know about.
San José, at 3,800 feet of elevation, has at its core the characteristic year-round mild temperatures that are so prized in Costa Rica. Therefore, spending two or three days in the pleasant weather certainly isn’t burdensome. And the haphazard arrangement of houses and businesses that is so common in all Latin America gives way to parks and buildings that house some interesting attractions.
Historically, San José was just a small village known for its excellent farming opportunities. But following independence from Colonial Spain, a very brief civil war caused the national capital to be moved from Cartago to San José. The introduction of coffee to the Central Valley in the early 19th century stoked San José’s prosperity as the city welcomed capitalism. A wealthy merchant class rose up as the result of coffee trade and locomotives, and they looked to Europe for architectural influence. That coupled with its late start and relatively marginal colonial influence left San José with little in the way of antique colonial Spanish architecture. Instead, plentiful World War II-era buildings fill the city’s skyline. Today, 40% of the nation’s population live in San José and its surrounding suburbs.
10 Must-sees in San José
Here’s my list of little-known jewels hidden throughout the nation’s capital. You’ll notice there’s no shortage of museums:
1. The National Theatre
Located in the heart of San José, the National Theatre constructed in the 1890s is considered to be one of the city’s most remarkable structures. The exterior is stylish, but it is its interior that is so spectacular—ornate golden ceilings are connected to exquisitely patterned wooden floors by large marble staircases. The theatre was the second theatre in the world to be illuminated by a new-fangled contraption called the electric light bulb. In fact, upon coffee barons seeing the world’s first in Paris, they promptly returned home and set to its construction.
Most recently, the director of the theatre wanted to make shows and cultural events more accessible to everyone. So a program was established that meant people working in San José could attend while on their lunch breaks. This program has proven to be a huge success.
2. Barrio Amón
Strolling through this famous neighborhood is key if you want to soak up the color of San José’s history. This old residential area is composed of large, rich, and fine historic houses dating from the late 19th century. It showcases tropical Neo-Victorian architecture. Many of the colonial mansions have been converted into contemporary art galleries.
3. Barrio Escalante
This is Chepe’s gastronomic epicenter. The streets of this former residential enclave are now lined with dozens of hip restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and bars. But be warned: on weekend nights, crowds descend so it is very busy.
4. Parque Nacional
This appealing national park, located in east San José, is the city’s largest inner-city park. At its center is the National Monument, which depicts Central American regulars driving out the filibuster William Walker. A statue of Juan Santamaría, a national hero, and for whom the nearby International Airport is named, is also there. You can also find the National Library and The National Center of Art and Culture, which is home to several art galleries, as well as a theatre.
5. The Jade Museum
I think this is Costa Rica’s most outstanding museum. Home to the largest collection of American jade in the world, this is one museum that you should not overlook. But it’s not just about jade, it is an innovative, state-of-the-art project for the conservation of the archaeological heritage of Central America.
The building was specially constructed to house the museum’s collection and its architecture echoes a cut jade block. The five floors exhibit objects crafted by artisans, ceramic exhibits, and stonework.
6. The Gold Museum
El Museo de Oro has a huge collection of around 2,000 Pre-Columbian artifacts—mostly of gold—dating back to 500 AD. Contiguous with the Gold Museum is the National Coin Museum which features displays dating back to 1236 which includes coins, banknotes, and unofficial items such as coffee tokens.
7. Sabana Metropolitan Park and National Stadium
This is a great place to escape the hub-bub of downtown. Once the city’s main airport, the area is now home to woodlands and large open areas that comprise the enormous park. These open spaces are especially welcomed by kite flyers and soccer players. Within the park is the National Gymnasium, a venue for large pop concerts. The National Stadium lies just to the south and plays host to everything from soccer games, and presidential inaugurations to major concert events.
8. National Museum of Costa Rica
Housed in the Bellavista Fortress, built in 1917 as a military barracks, you can still see bullets lodged in the walls from the 1948 Civil War. The museum focuses on scientific investigation, education, and the defense of the country’s cultural and natural heritage.
9. The Insect Museum
Yes, there’s even a museum about bugs in San José. You can have an unforgettable experience learning about the diverse population of incredible creatures that call Costa Rica home.
10. The Children’s Museum
If you were wondering how to get your young kids interested in art and science, this unusual museum is an excellent place to start. Housed in an old penitentiary that was built in 1909, it is part children’s museum and part art gallery. Kids will love the hands-on exhibits related to science, geography, and natural history, while adults will enjoy the unusual juxtaposition of contemporary art housed in the abandoned prison cells.
Costa Rica is an interactive sensory experience. But it goes beyond the exceptional array of environmental diversions, majestic volcanoes, and hundreds of beaches.
Yes, beyond that, in the much-overlooked—even snubbed—city of San José, you can stroll with Saturday shoppers at the farmers’ market, join the Sunday crowds in Parque La Sabana, dance the night away to live music at several of the city’s vibrant clubs, and visit the museums of gold, jade, art, and natural history. Only then will you begin to understand the multidimensional appeal of San José— Costa Rica’s cultural capital.
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