22 Best Sights in San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo del Jade

Fodor's choice

San José's starkly modern Jade Museum displays the world's largest collection of the green gemstone. The holdings log in at 5,000-plus pieces, and are, in a word, amazing. Nearly all the items on display were produced in pre-Columbian times, and most of the jade (pronounced HAH-day in Spanish) dates from 300 BC to AD 700. A series of drawings explains how this extremely hard stone was cut using string saws with quartz-and-sand abrasive. Jade was sometimes used in jewelry designs, but it was most often carved into oblong pendants. The museum also has other pre-Columbian artifacts, such as polychrome vases and three-legged metates (small stone tables for grinding corn), as well as a gallery of modern art. Also included on display is a startling exhibition of ceramic fertility symbols. While the collection is undeniably fabulous, the pieces may begin to look the same after a time. Let your own tastes and interests guide you in how much time you spend here.

Museo del Oro Precolombino

Fodor's choice

This dazzling modern museum in a three-story underground structure beneath the stark plaza north of the Teatro Nacional contains Central America's largest collection of pre-Columbian gold jewelry—20,000 troy ounces in more than 1,600 individual pieces—all owned by the Banco Central (the country's central bank) and displayed attractively in bilingual exhibits. Many pieces are in the form of frogs and eagles, two animals perceived by the region's early cultures to have great spiritual significance. A spiffy illumination system makes the pieces sparkle. All that glitters here is not gold: most spectacular are the various shaman figurines, which represent the human connection to animal deities. One of the halls houses the Museo Numismática (Coin Museum), a repository of historic coins and bills and other objects used as legal tender throughout the country's history. Rotating art exhibitions happen on another level.

Teatro Nacional

Fodor's choice

The National Theater is Costa Rica at its most enchanting. Chagrined that touring prima donna Adelina Patti bypassed San José in 1890 for lack of a suitable venue, wealthy coffee merchants raised import taxes and hired Belgian architects to design this building, lavish with cast iron and Italian marble. Soft, illuminated coppers, golds, and whites highlight the theater's exterior nightly from 6 pm to 5 am.

The sumptuous neo-baroque interior is of interest, too. Given the provenance of the building funds, it's not surprising that frescoes on the stairway inside depict coffee and banana production. Note Italian painter Aleardo Villa's famous ceiling mural Alegoría del Café y Banano (Allegory of Coffee and Bananas), a joyful harvest scene that appeared on Costa Rica's old 5-colón note. You can see the theater's interior by attending one of the performances that take place several nights a week; intermission gives you a chance to nose around. Stop at the boletería (box office), just off the lobby, and see what strikes your fancy. Ticket prices are a fraction of what you'd pay at a similar stateside venue. Don't worry if you left your tuxedo or evening gown back home; as long as you don't show up for a performance wearing shorts, jeans, or a T-shirt, no one will care.

For a fee you can also move beyond the lobby for a guided tour in Spanish and English; offered hourly on the hour from 9 until 4 daily, except at noon. If you're downtown on a Tuesday from March through November, take in one of the Teatro al Mediodía (Theater at Midday) performances that begin at 12:10 pm. It might be a chamber-music recital or a one-act play in Spanish.

Recommended Fodor's Video

Barrio Chino

We should get one thing straight about the capital's Chinatown: San José is not San Francisco. But the Chinese government has financed the transformation of five blocks of Calle 9 into a pleasant pedestrian mall. A large arch modeled on the architecture of the Tang Dynasty marks the north entrance to the street and several Chinese–Costa Rican businesses—mostly groceries and nail salons, but nary an Asian restaurant—line the walkway.

C. 9, Avdas. 2–12, San José, San José, 10104, Costa Rica

Catedral Metropolitana

Built in 1871 and completely refurbished in the late 1990s to repair earthquake damage, the neoclassical cathedral, topped by a corrugated tin dome, isn't terribly interesting outside. But inside are patterned floor tiles, stained-glass windows depicting various saints and apostles, and framed polychrome bas-reliefs illustrating the Stations of the Cross. A magnificent 1891 Belgian pipe organ fills the church with music.

The interior of the small Capilla del Santísimo (Chapel of the Host) on the cathedral's north side evokes ornate old Catholicism, much more so than the main sanctuary itself. A marble statue of Pope John Paul II stands guard over the garden on the building's north side. Masses are held throughout the day on Sunday starting at 7 am, with one in English each Saturday at 4 pm. Although not part of the cathedral complex, a small statue of Holocaust victim Anne Frank graces the pedestrian mall on the building's south side. It was donated by the Embassy of the Netherlands.

C. Ctl., Avdas. 2–4, San José, San José, 10104, Costa Rica

Centro Nacional de la Cultura

Rather than tear it down, the Ministry of Culture converted the sloped-surface, double-block 1853 Fábrica Nacional de Licores (National Liquor Factory) into a 150,000-square-foot cultural center, with government offices, two theaters, and a museum. The Teatro FANAL and Teatro 1887 are two of the capital's foremost performing-arts venues. Both spaces were used for storage and testing in the original factory complex.

C. 13, Avdas. 3–5, San José, San José, 10101, Costa Rica
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Rate Includes: Tours free

Correos de Costa Rica

The handsome carved exterior of the post office, dating from 1917, is hard to miss among the bland buildings surrounding it. The lobby is not as interesting as the exterior, but it and the small pedestrian plaza in front are a perpetual hive of activity.

Estatua de John Lennon

Barrio La Soledad

A whimsical statue of John Lennon sits on a small, slightly out-of-the-way plaza across from La Soledad church. Sculptor José Ramón Villa's work marks the spot where, in 1966, Costa Ricans smashed Beatles records in protest of Lennon's statement that the iconic pop group was "more popular than Jesus." The official name of the statue is Imagine All the People Living Life in Peace, evoking the lyrics of Lennon's song “Imagine.” After more than a half century, bygones are apparently bygones: residents and tourists alike enjoy having their photos taken sitting with the casually seated figure.

C. 9, Avda. 4, San José, San José, 10104, Costa Rica

Jardín de Mariposas Spyrogyra

Barrio Tournón

Spending an hour at this magical butterfly garden is entertaining and educational for nature lovers of all ages. Self-guided tours enlighten you on butterfly ecology and let you see the winged creatures close up. After an 18-minute video introduction, you're free to wander screened-in gardens along a numbered trail. Some 30 species of colorful butterflies flutter about, accompanied by six types of hummingbirds. Try to come when it's sunny, as butterflies are most active then. A small, moderately priced café borders the garden and serves sandwiches and tico fare. The place is difficult to find if you're driving, so keep your eyes peeled.

Mercado Central

This one-block-square melting pot is a warren of dark, narrow passages flanked by stalls packed with spices (some purported to have medicinal value), fish, fruit, flowers, pets, and wood and leather crafts. The 1880 structure is a kinder, gentler introduction to a Central American market; there are no pigs or chickens or their accompanying smells to be found here. A few stands selling tourist souvenirs congregate near the entrances, but this is primarily a place where the average Costa Rican comes to shop. There are dozens of cheap restaurants and snack stalls, including the country's first ice-cream vendor. Be warned: the concentration of shoppers makes this a hot spot for pickpockets, purse snatchers, and backpack slitters. Enter and exit at the southeast corner of the building (Avenida Central at Calle 6). The green-and-white salida signs direct you to other exits, but they spill onto slightly less-safe streets. Use the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the market's patron and protector, near the center of the building, as your guide; it faces that safer corner by which you should exit. (We doubt it was planned that way.)

Bordered by Avdas. Ctl.–1 and Cs. 6–8, San José, San José, 10102, Costa Rica
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Rate Includes: Closed Sun.

Museo de Arte Costarricense

Paseo Colón

Located in La Sabana Park, which was once Costa Rica's international airport, this—the country's foremost art museum—was once its terminal and control tower. A splendid collection of 19th- and 20th-century Costa Rican art, labeled in Spanish and English, is housed in 12 exhibition halls. Be sure to visit the top-floor Salón Dorado to see the stucco, bronze-plate bas-relief mural depicting Costa Rican history, created by French sculptor Louis Feron. Guided tours are offered Tuesday through Friday from 10 to 3. Wander into the sculpture garden in back and take in Jorge Jiménez's 22-foot-tall Imagen Cósmica, which depicts pre-Columbian traditions.

Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo

This wonderfully minimalist space is perfect as the country's premier modern-art venue. The MADC, as it's known around town, hosts changing exhibits by artists and designers from all over Latin America. While the museum holds a permanent collection, space constraints mean that even that must rotate. You will probably not recognize the artists here, but names such as Miguel Hernández and Florencia Urbina tower over the field of contemporary art in Costa Rica. You can arrange for a guided visit with a couple of days' notice. The museum occupies part of a government-office complex in the Centro Nacional de la Cultura (CENAC).

C. 15, Avdas. 3–5, San José, San José, 10101, Costa Rica
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Rate Includes: $4, Closed Sun. and Mon.

Museo de los Niños

Barrio Tournón

Three halls of this museum are filled with eye-catching seasonal exhibits for kids, ranging in subject from local ecology to outer space. The exhibits are labeled in Spanish only, but most are interactive, so language shouldn't be much of a problem. The museum's most popular resident is the Egyptian exhibit's sarcophagus; the mummy draws oohs and aahs. Located in a former prison, big kids may want to check it out just to marvel at the castlelike architecture and the old cells that have been preserved in an admittedly gruesome exhibit about life behind bars. The complex that houses the museum is called the Centro Costarricense de Ciencia y Cultura (Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture), and that will be the sign that greets you on the front of the building. Though just a short distance from downtown, a walk here takes you through a dodgy neighborhood; always take a taxi to and from.

Museo Nacional

In the mango-color Bellavista Fortress, which dates from 1870, the museum gives you a quick and insightful lesson (in English and Spanish) on Costa Rican culture from pre-Columbian times to the present. Cases display pre-Columbian artifacts, period dress, colonial furniture, religious art, and photographs. Some of the country's foremost ethnographers and anthropologists are on the museum's staff. Nearly 1,000 pre-Columbian Costa Rican stone and ceramic objects dating from about AD 1000 are on display here. The artifacts were taken from the country in the late 19th century by businessman Minor Keith during the construction of the Atlantic Railroad and were repatriated from the Brooklyn Museum in 2012. Outside are a veranda and a pleasant, manicured courtyard garden. A former army headquarters, this now-tranquil building saw fierce fighting during a 1931 army mutiny and the 1948 revolution, as the bullet holes pocking its turrets attest. But it was also here that three-time president José Figueres abolished the country's military in 1949.

Parque Central

At the city's nucleus, the tree-shaded Central Park is more plaza than park. A life-size bronze statue of a street sweeper (El Barrendero) cleans up some bronze litter; look also for Armonía (Harmony), a sculpture of three street musicians. In the center of the one-square-block park is a spiderlike gazebo donated by onetime Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Bordered by Avdas. 2–4 and Cs. 2–Ctl., San José, San José, 10104, Costa Rica

Parque España

This shady little park is a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike. A bronze statue of Costa Rica's Spanish founder, Juan Vázquez de Coronado, overlooks an elevated fountain on its southwest corner; the opposite corner has a lovely tiled guardhouse. A bust of Queen Isabella of Castile stares at the yellow compound to the east of the park, the Centro Nacional de la Cultura. The bright yellow colonial-style building to the east of the modern INS building is the 1912 Casa Amarilla, home of Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry. The massive ceiba tree in front, planted by John F. Kennedy and the presidents of all the Central American nations in 1963, gives you an idea of how quickly things grow in the tropics. A garden around the corner on Calle 13 contains a 6-foot-wide section of the Berlin Wall donated by Germany's Foreign Ministry after reunification. Ask the guard to let you into the garden if you want a closer look. As with all San José parks, safety declines markedly after dark. Be on your way out before 5 pm.

Bordered by Avdas. 7–3 and Cs. 11–17, San José, San José, 10101, Costa Rica

Parque La Sabana

Paseo Colón

Though it isn't centrally located, the 180-acre La Sabana ("the savannah") comes the closest of San José's green spaces to achieving the same function and spirit as New York's Central Park. La Sabana was once San José's airport, and the whitewashed Museo de Arte Costarricense, just south of the Cortes statue, served as its terminal and control tower.

The round Gimnasio Nacional (National Gymnasium) sits at the park's southeast corner and hosts sporting events and the occasional concert. The Estadio Nacional, a sleek, futuristic-looking 40,000-seat stadium—a controversial gift from the government of China, which decided to use its own construction workers rather than employ locals—looms over the park's northwest corner. It hosts soccer matches primarily, but Paul McCartney, Elton John, Shakira, and Lady Gaga have all performed in the stadium. In between are acres of space for soccer, basketball, tennis, swimming, jogging, picnicking, and kite flying. The park hums with activity on weekends. The stadium grounds are fine, but avoid walking through the rest of the park after the sun goes down.

Bordered by Cs. 42–68, Avda. de las Américas, and Carretera a Caldera, San José, San José, 10108, Costa Rica

Parque Morazán

Anchored by the 1920 Templo de Música (Temple of Music), a neoclassical bandstand that has become the symbol of the city, downtown's largest park is somewhat barren, though the pink-and-gold trumpet trees on its northwest corner brighten things up when they bloom in the dry months. The park is named for Honduran general Francisco Morazán, whose dream of a united Central America failed in the 1830s. Avoid the park late at night, when a rough crowd appears.

Avda. 3, Cs. 5–9, San José, San José, 10101, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional

A bronze monument commemorating Central America's battles against North American invader William Walker in 1856 forms the centerpiece of the large, leafy park. Five Amazons, representing the five nations of the isthmus, attack Walker, who shields his face from the onslaught. Costa Rica maintains the lead and shelters a veiled Nicaragua, the country most devastated by the war. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador might dispute this version of events, but this is how Costa Rica chose to commission the work by French sculptor Louis Carrier Belleuse, a student of Rodin, in 1895. Bas-relief murals on the monument's pedestal depict key battles in the war against the Americans. As with all San José parks, you should avoid the space after dark.

Bordered by Avdas. 1–3 and Cs. 15–19, San José, San José, 10101, Costa Rica

Plaza de la Democracia

President Óscar Arias built this terraced space west of the Museo Nacional to mark 100 years of Costa Rican democracy and to receive dignitaries during a 1989 hemispheric summit. The view west toward the dark green Cerros de Escazú is nice in the morning and fabulous at sunset. The Jade Museum lines the plaza's western edge.

Bordered by Avdas. Ctl.–2 and Cs. 13–15, San José, San José, 10101, Costa Rica

Plaza del Banco Central

A widening of Avenida Central, this plaza is popular with hawkers, money changers, and retired men, and can be a good place to get a shoeshine and listen to street musicians. Outside the western end of Costa Rica's modern federal reserve bank building, don't miss Presentes, 10 smaller-than-life sculpted figures of bedraggled campesinos (peasants). La Chola, a bronze statue of a buxom rural woman, resides at sidewalk level on the small, shady plaza south of the bank. It's public art at its best. Beware: the money changers here are notorious for circulating counterfeit bills and using doctored calculators to shortchange unwitting tourists. Avoid them.

Bordered by Avdas. Ctl.–1 and Cs. 2–4, San José, San José, 10102, Costa Rica

Teatro Popular Melico Salazar

Across Avenida 2 on the north side of Parque Central stands San José's second major performance hall (after the Teatro Nacional). The 1928 building is named for Costa Rican operatic tenor Manuel "Melico" Salazar (1887–1950). It was constructed specifically to provide a less highbrow alternative to the Teatro Nacional. (Popular in Spanish refers to something "common" or "for the people," rather than meaning "widely liked.") These days the Melico provides the capital with a steady diet of music and dance performances.