For many, San José is just a stop on their way to a holiday on Costa Rica’s famous beaches, volcanoes and national parks. Yet the city is full of wonders for visitors who know where to look and its inhabitants are sure to provide a warm welcome.
Thoughts of a Costa Rican holiday are sure to conjure up images of white sand beaches and volcanic hot springs. San José is your first stop on your Central American adventure: this energetic city, situated in a verdant, tropical valley, is a hub of activity with plenty to offer visitors.
Home to the majority of the country’s population, San José is an excellent place to discover Costa Rican culture. The warmth of the Ticos, as the country’s inhabitants call themselves, is on full display in the city’s bars and eateries, in its colourful weekly markets or ferias, and in the boisterous activity of the city’s avenues. Heading from the orderly, temperate streets of Zurich to the hustle and bustle of San José is an amazing opportunity to familiarize yourself with tropical living and Tico culture.
Fly with SWISS from Zurich to San José and discover the land of Pura Vida.
When is the best time to visit San José?
As a tropical country, Costa Rica has rainy and dry seasons. The best time to visit is during the dry season, which lasts from December to April. During this period, it is much easier to get around and you will have unfettered access to the country’s sun-soaked beaches. A visit during the rainy season is not out of the question, though, as most days have a few hours of sunlight and the tropical downpours are a sight to behold.
What is the currency in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica’s currency is the colón (CRC), named after the Spanish name for Christopher Columbus, who made his first landing in Central America on the country’s Caribbean coast. Many ATMs throughout the country offer both colones and US dollars – the latter currency is accepted widely, though not everywhere, so do make sure to have some local currency on you at all times.
How do I get around San José?
One of the first things you will notice on the streets of the Costa Rican capital are the ubiquitous red taxis. The official taxis are a convenient and (relatively) inexpensive way to get around the city, though rideshare options like Uber are also available. Once you’re more familiar with the lay of the land, the city has a dense bus network with inexpensive fares – most routes cost well under £1. San José is the country’s main bus hub, meaning that routes are available to most tourist destinations as well. To skip the long bus rides, though, San José airport offers local charters and domestic routes to most of the main tourist areas.
Sightseeing: San José’s museums
San José is Costa Rica’s museum capital as well: it is home to the National Museum, but that is far from all. From the brutalist architecture of the National Library to the unique exhibits of the Museum of Jade and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold, your stay in San José offers a privileged view into the country’s past and present. A former prison, La Penitenciaría, has been converted into a museum for children, called the Museo de los Niños. Not to be missed are the rooftop exhibits of the National Museum, where a terrace offers a tropical garden and beautiful views over the city.
- National Museum (Museo Nacional)
- Jade Museum (Museo de Jade)
- Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Precolombino)
- Children’s Museum (Museo de los Niños)
- Museum of Costa Rican Art (Museo de Arte Costarricense)
Enjoy San José’s great parks
If you’re visiting San José in the dry season, chances are you’re coming from a grey northern winter or early spring, meaning that the best thing to do is walk through the city’s many parks and take in the exuberant tropical flora all around you. The city is dotted with small parks and plazas, from the newly renovated fountains of the Plaza de la Cultura to the parrot-filled Parque Central and the expansive forested area of La Sabana.
Go hiking in the mountains around San José
The mountains surrounding the city offer spectacular opportunities for hiking and enjoying sweeping views of the country’s Central Valley. The Barva volcano and the peaks of Escazú are right outside the city, though the famous peaks of the still-active Irazú and Poás volcanoes are just a short bus ride away.
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Buen provecho: eat like a Tico in San José
Costa Ricans are justifiably proud of their cuisine, which is a testament to the diversity of crops and cultures that come together in such a small country. A national staple, gallo pinto, is a rice and beans dish that is often eaten for breakfast alongside a cup of strong Costa Rican coffee. The busy eateries of the Avenida Central are an excellent place to begin your immersion into the country’s cuisine. For a more upscale dining experience head to Barrio Escalante, where fusion restaurants and craft breweries have set up shop in recent years, making for a completely new and refined culinary adventure.
Dance the night away in San José
San José is home to a wide array of nightlife for all kinds of interests. From the student crowds in San Pedro and La California to the popular watering holes of the city centre, there are plenty of places to enjoy a cocktail and dance salsa or cumbia. San José is also home to a variety of cultural celebrations, from film festivals to open-air concerts. If you enjoy a good rodeo, then come either shortly before or after Christmas to take in the Fiestas de Palmares or the Zapote Festival, both ideal for awakening your inner cowboy.
Shopping: Find unforgettable tropical mementos
The first (or last) stop for many gift-seeking tourists is the down town artisans’ market, an excellent place for all manner of souvenirs. For a unique (if slightly cramped) experience, head down the Avenida Central to the city’s Central Market, where coffee roasters and traditional restaurants sell their wares alongside one-of-a-kind vendors of an array of curios.