San José, affectionately referred to as “Chepe” by the locals, is Costa Rica’s capital city where commerce thrives. Visitors to San José will not find lush, tropical rain forests or killer surf breaks, but instead, a raw hustle and bustle that truly is Costa Rica. The entire span of the city can be walked in about 20 minutes, but everything found in between is an experience within itself. Vendors hawking everything from shoelaces and produce to hammocks and souvenirs shout out their offerings in competition with each other and the plentiful sounds of honking horns as cars attempt to weave through traffic. Diversity abounds in San José; Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Columbians and a variety of worldwide expats have flocked here over the years in search of prosperity, in search of change.
San José offers an assortment of museums, parks and markets for visitors to enjoy. Teatro Nacional (National Theater) is perhaps the city’s most enchanting public building. Erected in 1897, the building impresses with its columned neoclassical facade and statues of Beethoven and the 17th century Spanish dramatist, Calderón de la Barca. The lobby is filled with gorgeous paintings depicting 19th century Costa Rica. Performances at Teatro Nacional include plays, opera, dance and symphony, along with other major cultural events.
The Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (Contemporary Art & Design Museum) is housed in the historic National Liquor Factory, dating back to 1856, and showcases contemporary art by natives and other Central American artists. Rotating exhibits change frequently, so visitors hardly see the same work twice.
Museo de Jade, San José’s most famous museum, is home to the world’s largest collection of American Jade, where fine craftsmanship is seen in each gemstone. Additional exhibits highlighting archaeological pieces of stonework and ceramics are also featured.
Visitors traveling with kids should stop by the Museo de los Niños & Galaría Nacional (Children’s Museum and National Gallery). Child-friendly displays on science, music and geography will entertain young ones, while adults will enjoy bold displays of modern art.
Experience the thrill of haggling with vendors at the local markets; Mercado Central and Mercado Borbón. Both markets feature the standard tourist souvenirs, such as t-shirts, hats and local coffee and boast fresh meat, seafood and produce.
For a breath of fresh air, make your way over to one of the many public parks in San José and the surrounding suburbs. Parque Central houses a beautiful dome-roofed band stand where various musicians and dancers showcase their crafts on a rotating basis. Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, just outside the capital, features wonderful landscaping, a lagoon, a sports complex and two museums.
San José is a must-see stop while visiting Costa Rica, even if only for a day. The offerings of the capital city can’t be found elsewhere in the country, and to witness both ends of Costa Rica’s spectrum is an eye-opening experience that stays with tourists for years to come.