San José: What to see in limited time there

San José (san ho-say), the capital of Costa Rica, is the geographic, political, and cultural hub of the country. With it’s location at the centre, you’ll invariably pass through San Jose to get from anywhere west to anywhere east.

Things to do in San Jose

I’ll be honest with you: There is not much exciting about San Jose, it is a functional city and a logistics hub, and certainly nothing like Quito or Lima or Havana or any other Latin American capital. That said, for most travellers one or two days is sufficient to check out the city and experience some of its attractions and offerings.

The city is laid out on a grid, like most Spanish colonial towns, with narrow streets (many of these are one way only) and colonial architecture. It feels like a gritty downtown, especially some blocks near the bus stations, but that’s only on the surface. Once we started walking there and interacting with people, it felt friendly and warm. Street vendors are perfect to buy fruit and groceries from, or inquire about that interesting wooden Jesus doll in a cart full of toys.

Walking tour

Start off at the Central Park (Parque Central) with some icecream and people watching. Right next to the park is the Catedral Metropolitana, the main cathedral in San Jose. Teatro Popular Melico Salazar is a large Baroque style theatre few blocks to the east and has a full schedule of shows. You’ll also notice a number of beautiful old buildings flanking the side streets. Keep walking east on Avenida 2 to the Teatro Nacional which is more or less in the central part of the city.

Your options are to stop for a snack, head into the little Chinatown, or turn to a smaller street one block south and go all the way east to the beautiful Iglesia de la Soledad which is built in classical and neoclassical styles. Check out the stained glass windows. Behind the church is a smaller market.

Criscross smaller street in a north-easterly direction to arrive at the leafy national monument park. Lots of students hang out here and it’s a good place to catch some shade, perhaps a large glass of juice. Near the park is a train station, a quick detour for train geeks like me, although I have to say there’s nothing special there. Rail system in Costa Rica is extremely limited.

After relaxing at the park, head west to the Morazan park and Edificio Metálico, or the metal building, that was built in Belgium and assembled here.

If you are around on a Thursday, check out Parque Morazan. It’s a spot for jugglers and drummers to gather and jam together, reminded me of Montreal’s tam tams. During most other days you’ll see young skateboarders. Free event in a public park!

The central market: Mercado central

Walking further west on the pedestrian walkway (Avendida central) will lead you straight to the Mercado central where I recommend finding a restaurant to eat. There are numerous, mostly indistinguishable, restaurants and enterprising attendants will try to aggressively get your business and attention. Rest of the market is fairly typical and similar to what you might find in other Latin American cities. There’s a grocery section, meat section, knick knacks, houseware, religious paraphernalia, hardware, etc. its all there!

Shopping

Most of the commercial district is located around Avenida central and Avenida 2. If you’ve taken the walking tour described above, you should finish it off with a stroll on the pedestrian-only streets. A bunch of cafes and restaurants are lined up on this stretch and it’s very convenient to walk here with your camera dangling from your neck, not having to worry about traffic.

Food

Street restaurants, called “Sodas” because you used to be able to buy sodas there, are common and definitely recommended experience. One of the nice things about Costa Rica is that the water quality is guaranteed, so that makes it easier to try street food in places I otherwise would not. Most places have a vegetarian option, rice and beans (gallo pinto) being the staple dish.

Street art

Murals and graffiti on the streets of San Jose really stood out. These are everywhere, and quite colourful.

Logistics

Calle 2 (north-south street) and avenida central (east-west street between Ave 1 and 2) are pedestrian streets. Bus stations serving the east (Cahuita, Puerto Limon, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, etc.) as well as the west (Monteverde, Tamarindo, Jaco, etc.) are located north west of downtown core, around Avenida 7 and Calle 10. Different companies share different bus stations all one or two blocks from each other, so ask around.

You’ll spend lot of time changing buses in San Jose. To go from San Jose to Cauhita or to Monteverde and central highlighds, to the surfer spots in Tamarindo.

Airport bus from San Jose to the airport in the Heredia neighbourhood depart across from the central park and very easy to find.

Hope you enjoyed this brief intro to San Jose, happy travel there!