The city of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, is one so often overlooked. With a reputation for the hectic, loud and sometimes lawless, trepid travellers tend to be in and out as quickly as possible, fixated on reaching the Central American country’s famed jungles and beaches in record time. But to do so is to miss out on a vibrant, hip city with an undeniable energy, warm, hospitable people and fantastic food. Don’t make the same mistake. Be brave, and you’ll be richly rewarded. Here are 5 IDEAL things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.
VISIT THE PRE-COLOMBIAN GOLD MUSEUM
If bling be your thing then you’ve come to the right place. We’re not talking about the gaudy, ostentatious displays of wealth beloved of E! Entertainment stars. Rather, some of the best artefacts and examples of pre-Colombian gold on the planet, some of which hark back over 1500 years, are housed here. Located beneath the Plaza de la Cultura, this archaeological collection belongs to the Museum of the Central Bank and contains nearly 4000 objects. It’s also a neat look into the history of what is now known as Costa Rica, but was previously inhabited by pre-Colombian civilizations.
One of the must-see exhibits is Costa Rica’s first coin, the Media Escudo, which marked the county’s transition from the exchange of precious stones to a more fully-fledged economic system using currency. Fascinating stuff, and the building is gorgeous too.
MARVEL AT THE NATIONAL THEATRE
Speaking of gorgeous buildings, the National Theatre is one of Latin America’s most beloved feats of architecture, and well worth a visit if you’re in San Jose for even a day. Opened in the late 19th century, the venue has attracted composers, playwrights, singers and performers of worldwide repute, but it’s equally famed for its lavish ceiling murals, as well as a statue of Beethoven and a monument to Chopin at the entrance. A neoclassical national treasure, indeed.
SAN JOSE AFTER HOURS
The Costa Rican capital has a vibrant and diverse nightlife scene which feels both more boisterous and more upmarket each time we return to the city. Most partygoers tend to head to El Pueblo and its surrounding activity, which has a handful of happening bars and clubs all under one roof. Be aware; it doesn’t really get going properly until midnight. Club Vertigo is perhaps the liveliest place to cut some rug, and is considered one of the premier clubs (a word of warning; ‘nightclub’ refers solely to strip clubs here, so just go with ‘club’ if you’re asking a local for tips) in Central America, spinning electronic, house and techno pretty much 24/7. If you’re looking for something a little more lowkey music-wise, then the Jazz Club San Pedro is a great place to listen to live music and enjoy a more sedate experience.
San Jose is also famed as being something of a gambling destination, with a clutch of casinos in the city serving those up for combing a night out with some table time. The Concorde Casino at the Irazu Hotel is perhaps the most iconic, with over 250 slot games and 9 tables. Or, the Grand Casino at the Sheraton Hotel boasts three dedicated poker tables. Though you won’t be able to practice the Costa Rican version of Rummy, which is popular here, consider checking Starspins casino review and having a go at some free spins online prior to visiting, to sharpen your skills before the real thing.
GO SHOPPING AT MERCADO CENTRAL
If you’re like us and when visiting a new city you simply love to get lost in a market, checking out the local fresh produce and shopping for souvenirs, then Mercado Central, San Jose’s biggest market, will be right up your alley. Alley is the operative word here, as the market is a hectic tangle of little lanes. Hawkers will tug at your sleeve, offers and counteroffers will be exchanged and the friendly banter of barter will ring in your ears, but that’s all part of the fun, right? Be sure to drop into some of the Mercado’s ‘sodas’ (snack bars, essentially) and check out the artisanal, handmade leather goods and traditional Costa Rican clothing; the embroidered white shirts and dresses are particularly lovely.
GET STUCK INTO THE LOCAL CUISINE & COFFEE
They say that to get under the skin of any city, you have to get stuck into the cuisine and eat as the locals do, and that’s certainly true here in San Jose. At the aforementioned Mercado Central, it’s pretty much obligatory to visit La Sorbetera, one of Latin America’s first homemade ice cream producers, and beloved of locals and tourists alike. They churn out some of the finest vanilla ice cream we’ve ever tasted, but don’t stop there; the shaved ice is super refreshing too.
Having already had dessert and rather doing things in reverse, head to Soda Tala, the definitive snack bar of the city, which does superb tortillas and ground beef hash, with lashings of the country’s beloved chilera, Costa Rica’s take on chilli sauce. Or, head to the neighbourhood Barrio Escalante where foodies flock in their droves each evening for the various hip cafes and bars. For something a little more formal, try out the area’s best restaurant Al Mercat, which serves up whatever is fresh from the market, family style but done with finesse. Lovely.
And while in a country so famous for its coffee, make sure you drink a few cups of the good stuff. Cafe del Barista, close to the Calderon Hospital Guard, is perennially popular, and the Underground Brew Cafe, in that foodie mecca Barrio Escalante we already mentioned, does great coffee and pumping electronic music; a great mix if you ask us. The city’s cool crowd seem to agree.