What to do in San Jose (Costa Rica) if you’re there for work

As I already wrote in my first blog post about Costa Rica, San Jose is not really an attractive tourist destination. The city is neither colonial nor modern and as such doesn’t have many buildings worth seeing. However, there are nice parts to San José as well, for example, I do like the atmosphere on the streets of San José. They are lively, people are selling things from fruit to clothes and power banks for your phone.

In a nutshell, if you’re headed to San José for work, a walk through the centre will be pleasant and will also allow you to hop into some museums. The rest of the time you will probably only have time to enjoy some nice restaurants. However, if you have a day or two extra, I recommend leaving the city and exploring some of the beautiful sites Costa Rica as a country has to offer.

A Sunday walk through San Jose

I started my afternoon walk at the Plaza de la Merced that was full of people hanging around (not sure what they were doing though). A block away from the square is the Avenida Central, a (mostly) pedestrian street with plenty of vendors, which takes you passed the central market, plenty of local shops and the the Plaza de la Cultura (culture square) with the Teatro Nacional (national theatre), the jewel of San Jose.
First, I had lunch at the Alma de Cafe restaurant at the theatre. After lunch, with the receipt from the restaurant, they let you go to the WC which is inside the theatre and so you don’t have to pay entrance fee. The theatre is quite impressive from inside too, especially the first floor drawing room.
Underneath the Plaza de la Cultura there is the National Bank museum (entrance fee of 5,500 colones). It features a collection of indigenous artefacts and gold as well as an exhibition of coins from the territory of Costa Rica. It is nothing special and worth seeing only if is raining outside or you have too much time.
The same street continues on and takes you passed the Museo de Jade, featuring prehispanic culture, which is maybe the best museum in town. I visited it on my previous trip. Slightly up from the hill from there is the National Museum (fee 5,500 colones). As you enter you first go through a tropical rain forest with plenty of butterflies. Then you get out onto the main patio of this old fort that houses the museum. The exhibition rooms are all around the patio and they feature the history of Costa Rica. The museum is not mind blowing but I actually liked it.
On one hand, you can continue the walk North passed the the parliament buildings onto the Parque Nacional (national park), which is also not far from the cute Parque España. Or on the other hand, you can also go South and walk down back towards the centre on Avenida 2 that leads you passed the Chinatown to Parque Central.
Following this walk, you would have pretty much seen the whole of central San José. Additionally, in the east of the centre there is a large park called La Sabana and the national stadium. La Sabana is nice for jogging. It’s easy to go for 10k runs without getting too bored.
Restaurant suggestions
La Esquina de Buenos Aires: Definitely one of the nicer restaurants in San José. The atmosphere is very nice and is usually quite packed on any day of the week (I recommend to book ahead). The food was delicious, the steak was very well prepared. For dessert the ice-cream of dulce de leche and figs with nuts was really worth the calories. The service very nice and efficient. Highly recommended!
Grano de Oro: Fancy, old fashioned French restaurant. The decor is a bit heavy for my taste and the service very slow and old fashioned. But the food was delicious. I particularly liked the sea bass with cardamom and for dessert the meringue with almonds (some sort of semifreddo). However the prices were slightly steep for what it is. So I would recommend it but with a caution of high prices.
Alma de Cafe: The cafe at the national theatre. A very traditional and (if not) old fashioned, but good for a light lunch in the centre. The palm heart salad was good. However the best thing is that by eating there you can access the theatre for free.
Soda Tapia: A simple and traditional tico food restaurant – soda (simple usually lunch restaurant), that became quite famous and they have several branches around town now. The one on the western side of La Sabana is particularly big and open 24/7. They serve the typical tico lunch (casado = rice, beans and meat), sandwiches and hamburgers. The burger was good and really big (don’t order fries with it, it’s too much). I also liked the natural ice creams that they serve with a fruit salad, and unfortunately jelly as well.
Tenedor Argentino: This simple restaurant close to the national theatre comes up highly ranked on TripAdvisor, however I’m not sure why. The restaurant serves decent food for decent prices, but it’s far from anything special. The meat was good but far over cooked and the provoleta was just some ordinary melted cheese. The service was a bit rude as well. The best thing was the alfajor, which they have in the fridge just by the entrance.
Hotel Rincón Del Valle: A business hotel, which proved to be a huge disappointment. They gave me the smallest room with an interior window, and when I complained they didn’t want to listen. They said it would be too difficult to move me. They say there’s a gym, but the gym are 3 machines and they are all broken. And on top, the breakfast was very very basic. Not recommended at all.

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