San José, capital of Costa Rica, is a city located in the central valley of the Cordillera de Talamanca. This is where you will arrive by plane from France, and here you will also need to pick up your rental car at the international airport. Once this is done, set out to visit the city that stands out from the rest by the presence of numerous buildings dating from the Spanish colonial era. We take you on a guided tour of the 5 most beautiful places in the city.
By car, park in one of the many guarded car parks near the Cathedral or the National Theater. Count around 1000 CRC (= € 1.5) per hour. Give your license plate number to the parking attendant and he will give you a ticket in return to hand over when you return. Payment is made primarily in cash.
1. Visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José
As in all parts of Latin America, the Catholic religion is dominant. Open all day, the churches and cathedrals are places of passage, of meditation, of prayer and are an integral part of the life of the city.
The construction of the Cathedral of San José began in 1825. Less impressive and brilliant than other cathedrals in Latin America, it remains a landmark in the city. Despite several earthquakes, the cathedral remained standing, maintaining its austere presence.
The cathedral pavilion overlooks the famous and lively Central Park garden. Meeting place, Ticos like to sit on benches and watch passersby and street vendors ... Do the same to soak up the city.
In front of the main avenue, the great white neoclassical building is the Melico Salazar Popular Theater, declared a cultural heritage of San José. Many companies, philharmonic concerts and shows perform there. The balusters and bas-reliefs on the 1st floor are of great beauty.
Going down the main avenue slightly, you will arrive at the Plaza del Teatro Nacional.
2. Visit the National Theater
It is the most emblematic monument in San José. Located in the heart of the capital, its construction began in 1891 to host international shows and operas. Connoisseurs will see a resemblance to the neoclassical style of the Paris Opera. To finance its construction, in 1890 a significant tax was imposed on coffee exports. 6 years later the theater was inaugurated and it was in 1965 that it was listed as a historical monument and the renovation works began.
Once inside the Theater, take time to admire the ornaments on the walls and coffered ceilings covered in gold, marble and mirrors. The paintings are numerous: there are scenes of daily life from the 1890s linked to the exploitation and trade of coffee and bananas. The theater hall is impressive in size and beauty. Imagine that the floor you are walking on can be raised to the level of the stage by mechanisms that still date from that time. Amazing!
Practical information: the National Theater of Costa Rica can be visited from Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. at 4 p.m. for the modest sum of $ 7. It is a must-do of San José, do not miss it during your stay.
In front of the National Theater is the Gran Hotel, recently bought and renovated by the Hilton group. We like to have a coffee or a cocktail at the end of the day, under the glass roof on the top floor and enjoy the view of the Plaza de la Cultura, the Cathedral and the pedestrian streets.
3. Visit the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum
Leaving the National Theater, on your right is the famous Plaza de la Cultura under which is an archaeological museum with more than 1600 pieces made in gold dating from 500 to 1500 AD: it is the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. Most of the pieces come from the southwest of the country, where the Chibcha and Diquís indigenous tribes lived. You will see all kinds of objects: from the small erotic statuette to the large statue of a warrior, passing through amulets and jewels of incredible finesse.
The museum visit costs $ 15 per person and is open 7 days a week from 9:30 a.m. at 5 p.m.
4. Walk the Pedestrian Streets and mix with the Crowd of the Center
As you leave the Pre-Columbian Museum, take the pedestrian street towards the Central Market. Guaranteed immersion in the urban life of the capitals of Latin America. And yes, you have to walk, after all you've been hiking, you can walk for a few hours!
Here international brands mix: McDonald's, Starbucks with neoclassical buildings that recall the splendor of this neighborhood.
If there is a photo to take, it is the one in front of the logo of the city of San José, at the end of the Plaza de la Cultura.
You can also stop on 1st Street, at the corner of the Steinvorth Building and the Knöhr Building for a coffee or craft beer in a bohemian atmosphere while admiring the mural on the wall of the building opposite.
Pass by the Plaza del Banco Central with its beautiful statues, including that of the Chola, this somewhat round bronze woman made by Manuel Vargas. representing a somewhat round woman. That's what Métis women are called, women of the common people. Tradition says that we take his hand and make a wish.
The other statues of the Central Bank made by Fernando Calvo represent a group of frozen and upright people, characteristics of the inhabitants of the Central Valley and those who are said to have been the founders of Costa Rica.
After this walk, you will arrive in front of the Central Market and its characteristic yellow entrance where street musicians are often found.
5. Take a Tour through the Central Market of San José
The Central Market opened its doors in 1880. It is the largest and one of the oldest in the capital. It is in a way the Rungis of the 19th century where all the country's producers came to sell their crops to city dwellers and restaurateurs.
In the 200 stalls you will find everything you are looking for: fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and even some souvenirs to take to France. If you are hungry, you will find some "sodas" in the market. It is these small local restaurants that offer typical dishes of Costa Rican cuisine based on rice, beans, salad and meat for a ridiculous price. Eating there is a very good compromise for tasting the local cuisine on a budget.
In this market you will have a very good overview of the Tica culture, its richness and diversity. It is definitely worth a visit.
Of course, like any market, access is free. Closed on Sundays, but open the rest of the week from 6 a.m. at 6 p.m.
When leaving the market, retrace your steps along Avenida Central, observe the building of the post office (Correos de Costa Rica). The Post Office building is eclectic in style, but with a strong French influence with large square towers.
For the more adventurous, the visit is not over. We will continue past the Plaza de la Cultura to reach the iconic Jade Museum.
6. Visit the Jade Museum
You will not be able to miss this large gray, modern, windowless building …
Another very interesting visit to San José. Here you will see a large collection of ceramics, gold objects, and other materials dating from pre-Columbian times. That said, the Jade Museum is primarily drawn to its collection of objects made with Jades, hence its name. It is the largest collection in the world ... Just that!
Count $ 15 per person to visit this gem of Costa Rican art.
The Jade Museum overlooks the Plaza de la Democracia y la Abolición del Ejército (Plaza de la Democracia y Abolición del Ejército) and is dominated by a large yellow building that now houses the National Museum of Costa Rica, former headquarters of Bellavista (Cuartel of Bellavista).
7. Visit the National Museum of Costa Rica
Located in the Bellavista Barracks, the National Museum of Costa Rica is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding historical places in the country. It is in this precise place where President Don José Figueres Ferrer signed the abolition of the army on October 11, 1948, through decree N 749. The resources that were previously used for the Army transferred to education that since then is free and compulsory in the country.
The museum is structured around 3 main themes, all of which are much loved by Ticos.
- Natural history: you know that Ticos love nature, that's probably why you came here. You will learn about exotic plants and animals (birds, mammals, insects, etc.) that live or have lived in the country. You can find some in the parks that you will do during your stay, such as in Monteverde or Manuel Antonio.
- Anthropology and archeology: Upon leaving there, you will become familiar with the civilizations of the pre-Columbian era thanks to archaeological finds that will allow you to understand their ways of life and their hunting and fishing techniques. Exciting!
- History: Here you will see and understand the Costa Rican way of life and the evolution over the years, throughout its history.
- Whether permanent or temporary, the exhibits are fascinating. Allow $ 9 per person to visit the National Museum of Costa Rica, which is open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
Our advice: exit the museum through the back door. It overlooks the Calle 15 pedestrian street, a landmark of street art. A playground for artists who express themselves on important issues of life in Costa Rica.
8. The old an new legislative assemblies
The Old Legislative Assembly is this beautiful blue colonial house right in front of the National Museum.
It was originally intended to be the presidential house, under León Cortés Castro, but its construction has been seriously delayed.
To its left, a large modern and rather austere tower (still under construction in 2020), in the same spirit as the Jade Museum, is the new seat of the Legislative Assembly. Which would you prefer?
9. Visit the National Park and Monument
Here you are in the old bourgeois neighborhood of San José, where the politicians, artists and industrialists of the early twentieth century used to meet. Look at the large, colorful houses up to the National Park.
In the Center of the National Park you can see its famous statue of the French artist Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, called "National Monument" and considered the most important monument in Costa Rica. It presents the heroism of the Central American peoples who freed themselves from oppressors such as pirates or the Spanish. You will find 4 female figures (the 5 Central American countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) carrying weapons and 2 male figures, one to represent the dead soldiers and the other to represent William Walker on the run.
This park is the perfect place to kick back, relax and observe a multitude of trees and the local flora.
On your right, you will reach the famous Barrio Escalante, very lively at night with very good restaurants and a festive atmosphere.
From the National Park, opposite, you will see the austere National Library that hides behind it the former home of President Figueres and the Le Château culinary training center.
Continue to the left and you will pass by the Plaza de la Libertad Electoral and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design which is located on the premises of the first brewery (brewery). For security reasons it has been moved but the place is still very interesting to visit to leave at the end of your visit to Parque España.
10. Spain Park / Morazan Park
The Parque España, the Jardín de la Paz and the Parque Morazán mark the entrance to the Barrio Amón, a neighborhood in full renovation and that is becoming fashionable.
Take a look at the long pink steel building the "Metallic Building", built in 1896. It is an old school for girls that was inspired by the Eiffel Tower! The entire structure was made in Europe and then brought by ship to Costa Rica. If you approach the metal towers, you will see the engraved numbers (at their feet) that allowed them to be reassembled.
Stroll through Parque Morazán and imagine the concerts and dances under the bandstand. Take a deep breath and let the wind lull you through the park's century-old trees.
This is the end of the walk in the historic center of San José. Often forgotten by tourists, this city center is experiencing a renaissance where neo-colonial buildings and museums mix with parks and street art.
It is a perfect compromise before or after exploring the national parks and paradisiacal beaches.