I’ll be honest: San Jose-Costa Rica, is not a breathtaking city. It doesn’t feature an enticing waterfront, dazzling architecture, or a restaurant row.
Travelers to San Jose-Costa Rica, tend to blow through the city on their way to rainforests and resorts. They’ve come for biodiversity and beaches. Of the nearly two million visitors to Costa Rica each year, 80 percent are there for eco-tourism…not to explore a city. But they’re making a big mistake.
Easy to explore, give it a go!
Before–or after–experiencing the beauty of the country, San Jose deserves your attention. It’s the country’s capital and largest city, with about 350,000 “Josefinos” and “Josefinas,” as the male and female residents are called. The downtown is compact and easy to walk, with long pedestrian-only areas.
I spent three days in San Jose before embarking on my own eco-adventure, and I could have used at least another day. The area is charming, the people friendly, and the Tourist Information folks full of advice.
Here are the highlights of my too-short visit:
Central Market (Mercado Central): It’s no secret that I always head first to a market. Even with the compulsory souvenir stands, you can find the pulse of a city. Cruise the produce and meat displays; try whatever food the locals are lining up for; notice what’s different from other markets you’ve visited.
Before it became a bustling market in 1880, Central Market was a training place for snipers. A big one at that, because it occupies an entire block. It’s a maze of alleys and walkways, with over 200 stalls that sell everything: Meat, fish, cheese, and an astounding array of produce. Family restaurants, with tiny counters and loyal patrons, are everywhere. Move over an aisle to find flowers, ribbons, clothing, jewelry, sandals, housewares, and dried herbs to cure whatever ails you. Lottery ticket sellers roam the aisles and set up small tables outside the entrances.
About 20,000 people come to the market every day. Housewives, office workers, restaurant owners and chefs…and some tourists. And it feels more like a local place than an attraction.
National Museum (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica): San Jose has excellent museums that explain the country history, culture, and commitment to protecting its environment. The National Museum was founded in 1887; since 1950, it’s been housed in Bellavista, a former army barracks and weapons depository. (Costa Rica went “army-free” in 1948.)
The museum covers three aspects of the country: Anthropology & Archeology, going back to prehistoric times; History of Costa Rica, with over 35,000 artifacts; and Natural History, featuring animal and plant collections. The butterfly garden has cocoons that are constantly hatching. It takes several hours to see all the exhibits, well-described in both Spanish and English.
- Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
- The Numismatic Collection (Coins and Currency)
- Special exhibits, such as The Female Figure in Costa Rican Coins & Banknotes
San Jose-Costa Rica has a new Museum Walk Pass that covers all the museums I’ve mentioned.
But wait! There’s more!
The National Theatre (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica) is the city’s prettiest building and maybe its most ambitious, given that San Jose’s population was only 19,000 when the theatre opened in 1897. Funded by taxes on newly-wealthy coffee growers, the Neo-Classical building, designed after the Paris Opera House, was astounding to the residents. It also had electricity; San Jose was the third city in the world to get electricity, after New York and Paris.
Wasting no time to demonstrate a love of culture, the first performance was Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Today, concerts, operas, and ballets take place in the elaborately decorated theatre. Visit the marble entrance foyer for free; tours are available in several languages. It’s worth your time to see what the country considers its “crown jewel.”
In front of the theatre is the city largest center’s public space Juan Mora Fernandez Plaza. It’s busy all day long; people meet, students gather, and tourists stop to take photos.
Wander the city–there’s plenty to see within a few blocks. Buy some fruit from the vendors who set up shop at the corners. Pause to listen to a cimarrona band, playing Costa Rican favorites with brass and percussion instruments. Stop in a bakery for fresh pastries; the French had an important influence on the country, including fresh baguettes and pastry. I found some great street murals a block over from the National Museum.
The Costa Rican motto is “Pura Vida”…it translates as “pure life” or “simple life,” but it’s really describing the country’s lifestyle. You’ll find it easily in San Jose.
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