The Perfect Day in San Jose

Costa Rica’s capital is far more than just a place to fly into on your way to other parts of the country. A vibrant city with fascinating shops, top-notch restaurants, museums, and easy access to some of Costa Rica’s most fascinating natural wonders, you might be tempted to just set up camp in town for your entire stay. But, if not, make sure you spend at least a day in town.

Calle 22
San Jose’s Pre-Columbian Gold Museum has an impressive collection of gold objects, yes. It’s remarkable to see a collection of sculptures, tools, and jewelry made with this coveted metal, some of which date back to 500 AD. There’s even Costa Rica‘s first gold coin, minted in 1825. But the building contains other treasures, including the national coin museum, a high-end gift shop, and a pretty plaza that was a welcome relief from the city’s sooty grayness.
Cuesta de Moras, San José, Costa Rica
The walls of the National Museum still bear the scars of cannonballs. The museum, formerly the Bellavista barracks, was where prisoners were jailed, in cells that can be visited by those interested in how prisons and dungeons worked. Less grim aspects of Costa Rica are explored here, too, including a complete wing on pre-Columbian history and indigenous gold; a national history section, with photos and objects dating from colonial times to independent, republican days; and an area devoted to the country’s natural setting, including a great butterfly garden. In addition to the prison, the building’s past is explored in the so-called Casas de los Comandantes—in use at the end of the 19th century and containing the era’s luxurious furnishings—as well as another scarred wall. This one is where a mace blow was struck to abolish the Costa Rican army, turning the nation into an official land of peace.

Calle 33, San José, Costa Rica
Thanks to some amusing murals by local artist Juan Gha, no one overlooks Bocana. Besides the artwork, Bocana is known for a selection of tapas, pizzas, and other bar food, as well as an array of Costa Rica’s popular artisanal beers. The menu includes some highly original flavor and style combinations, like the platanachos, which blend two favorite snacks—fried plantain chips, called patacones, and cheesy nachos—on one plate. The second-floor location offers lovely views of Escalante architecture and the commuter trains as they hustle by.
Calle 5, Amón, San José Province, San José, 10101, Costa Rica
Alma de Amón, located in old-school Barrio Amón, seeks to revive some of Latin America’s very best dishes. The border-crossing cuisines are served by candlelight in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. Among the recommended dishes: traditional Costa Rican olla de carne (a beef and vegetable stew), Puerto Rican–style mofongo, with fried plantains, and Cuban guava pastries. The artisanal sodas—created by Canadian mixologist Liz Furlong—include standouts like the Dr. Clorito Picado (named for a pioneering physician and malaria researcher). The grapefruit concoction is served with a red-syrup-filled syringe for color. The vivid red cocktail happens to match the restaurant’s walls, which are hung with portraits of eminent Latin Americans like Pope Francis, Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, and the legendary soccer star Pelé.
Entre Av 7 y Calle 11A, San José, Calle 11A, San José, Costa Rica
eÑe was one of Costa Rica’s first so-called cultural boutiques. Its showroom, in a beautiful Barrio Amón building overlooking the Parque España, is a pleasure for the eyes. Even its sign is stunning: an enormous red “Ñ” against the building’s otherwise gray facade. Inside, the works of more than 60 local designers are artfully displayed—brightly colored must-haves that range from pencils and coffee cups to one-of-a-kind apparel, scarves, handsome leather accessories, posters, framed artworks, and more—and all items cleverly conspire to make consumer decisions tough.
Avenue 9, San José, Costa Rica
Looking for authentic souvenirs of Costa Rica to bring back home? Kúkara Mákara offers a great selection of items, all 100 percent artisanal and officially Costa Rican. Its name—an allusion to children’s nonsense songs—hints at the relaxed, jovial mood inside the shop. The inventory changes constantly, so surprise is the order of the day. Recently we spotted original dolls, key chains, jewelry, satchels, handbags, decorative pillows, and objects made from recycled or repurposed materials. There’s also a small café that serves fresh, healthy fare.
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