Before heading to the rainforest on your next trip to Costa Rica, consider stopping in the country’s capital city, San José. The city has acclaim across Latin America for its high quality of life, strong environmentalism, and security. Year after year, San José is ranked as one of the safest cities in Central America. Costa Rica is also one of the few countries in the world without a national army, which shows its commitment to peace.
Surrounded by a towering mountainscape, San José is a mecca in Central America for culture, history, and hospitality. If you don’t have much time to spend in the city, no problem! Here are the best things to do in San José, Costa Rica for a 48-hour trip.
Day 1: Explore downtown San José
After arriving in San José, throw on your walking shoes and get ready to hit Avenida Central, or Central Avenue, a busy pedestrian street full of shops, restaurants, cafés, and live performers. Browse the many local stores to buy Costa Rican souvenirs, such as the famous chorreador, or coffee bag, which is used to make coffee in the country. It looks like a small sock that hangs from a metal or wooden frame, where grounds are stored, and water is poured through into a mug to make fresh coffee. It is a staple in every Costa Rican home, and it’s a perfect gift for friends or family, along with a bag of delicious coffee.
A downtown walk is not complete without sampling the local cuisine. After you have built up an appetite, walk a short 10 minutes to Mercado Central, or Central Market, an extensive indoor market selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Inside, you will also find a wide array of sodas, or Costa Rican cafes, that sell typical lunches. Try the national dish, casado, which is a plate of rice, black beans, protein (chicken or beef), salad, plantains, and a fried egg. It is a colorful, filling, healthy, and delicious meal.
Another must-see while in downtown is the Teatro Nacional, or National Theatre, a historical theatre dating back to the late 19th century. Located in the Plaza de Cultura, or Culture Plaza, It holds daily tours in Spanish and English inside, where you can learn about the history of the theatre and its cultural significance, as well as appreciate its immaculate neoclassical architecture and antique paintings. If possible, check out one of the performances held in the theatre, ranging from opera, dance, and classical concerts. They are held all year round, with the high season between March and November.
Day 2: Go museum hopping
A trip to San José would not be complete without exploring the multitude of museums the city has to offer. Here are some of the best museums to visit in your second day in San José:
Museo Nacional (National Museum)
Check out Costa Rica’s national museum, which has exhibits relating to the country’s natural history, archeology, and major historical events. Located inside of a previous fortress, you can still see bullet holes in the walls from Costa Rica’s civil war in 1948.
Admission for foreign visitors costs around $11 USD
Museo de Jade (Jade Museum)
Did you know that the Jade Museum in San José has the largest collection of jade in the world? Visit this museum to learn about the country’s archeological heritage, as well as see pre-Colombian artifacts dating back to 500 B.C. The museum has over 7,000 pieces and five floors.
Admission for foreign visitors is $16. If you are a student, you can get in for $5 with a student ID.
Museo de Art Costarricense (Costa Rican Art Museum)
For the art buff, make sure you visit the Costa Rican Art Museum, which houses pieces from Costa Rican and international artists alike. The museum has the most extensive collection of art in the country, with pieces by famous Latin American artists.
Admission costs $5, but all admission to the museum is free on Sundays.
After browsing the exhibits, exit to Parque La Sabana, or Sabana Park, which is located right next to the museum. It is the country’s largest urban park, with a large greenspace, running and biking trails, and an artificial lake.
Bonus: Take a day trip to a volcano
If you are more adventurous and want to try something outside of the city, consider taking a day trip to Poás Volcano National Park, located an hour outside of San José. With plenty of hiking trails through the cloud forest, you can get incredible views of the world’s largest open volcano, which measures 1,050 feet deep, and over a mile across. The park is nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. Try out the Botos Lake Trail in the park, which leads to views of the blue lagoon inside of Botos Crater.
Because of its close proximity to San José, make sure to leave early for the park, as it can get very busy with tourists. Admission to the park costs about $15 USD for foreign adults.
San José is a gem of Central America, with direct access to a vibrant city, incredibly fresh cuisine, and stunning hiking trails. You are sure to relax when visiting the city, thanks to the country’s renowned commitment to peace, safety, and generosity.
Make sure to interact with locals and get a taste of the ‘Tico’ lifestyle, which is acclaimed for its immense hospitality and friendliness. One of the most common things you will hear while visiting San José is pura vida, translating to “pure life” – a fundamental saying of Costa Ricans which reflects the overall lightheartedness and happiness of the country.
There is an abundance of things to see and do if you only have 48 hours in San José. Make sure to check out Mercado Central, the wide array of museums, and Avenida Central to get an authentic view of the Tico lifestyle.