Downtown San José usually doesn’t make it to most tourists must-see spots in Costa Rica. Most folks do not want to spend time visiting San José but you are really missing out on seeing a real vivid part of Costa Rica. Sure it’s congested and smoggy but a lot of people go visit New York City. And although you can now fly directly to Liberia so you can hit the beaches without even stopping in San José, the fact is most people still fly into the San José International Airport so why not go on a walking tour of downtown San José?
Here is the route I take friends on when visiting Costa Rica. Depending on how much you get into it this tour it could take several hours even a full day.
If you have a rental car parking is very cheap. I like the parking lot across the Omni shopping center so that is where I’ll start this tour. Make your way towards East of Calle 4, Avenida central near the Plaza de la Cultura where you will see a lot of people and pigeons hanging out along with the street preachers, comedians, and musicians all preforming live. Across the plaza is the famous Teatro Nacional. It opened it’s doors in 1894 and it is beautiful. Guided tours are available. Across from the theater is the Grand Hotel de Costa Rica. Which is the most famous hotel in Costa Rica. It used to be the most exclusive and luxurious hotel in Costa Rica. They have a nice outside cafe where you can have a coffee or a drink and a snack. Their sandwich de jamon (ham sandwich) is delicious. There is also a casino inside the hotel if you’re the gambling type.
Back towards the theater and down the grassy steps on Calle 5 is the tourist information center of the ICT. It’s open Monday-Sat 9-1, 2-5. From there you can enter the plaza’s underground exhibits including the Gold Museum which features pre-Colombian artifacts. Admission is $6 and it’s open daily 9:30-4:30.
The main road off the Plaza de la Cultura has been made into a pedestrian mall so you can walk freely since cars are not allowed. Keep an eye on your valuables and don’t wear jewelry that can be snatched by thieves. Here you will see many shops and restaurants vying for your attention on both sides of the streets.
Some good stops include La Casona which is off the pedestrian mall just look to the right off of the Calle Central and you will see it. It’s a two story building full of typical Costa Rican souvenirs. You can take care of all your gifts for friends and family right here. You will also see the Librieria Universal which is one of the oldest stores in Costa Rica. You can buy gadgets, maps, books, and more. You will also see Libreria Lehmann another great bookstore.
There you’ll notice a large monument to Costa Rica’s democracy which is a group of bronze campesinos standing humbly but firm looking up proudly. It’s out in front of a large building which is the Banco Central. Keep walking and you’ll pass La Gloria, Costa Rica’s largest department store. Across La Gloria is the Banco de Costa Rica a huge black marble building.
Make your way down towards the Mercado Central. The market is crowded full of shops, restaurants, produce stands and more. It covers the whole block of Avenida Central 1 and calles 6-8. This is a great place to take in the daily life of local Costa Ricans. You will also find some interesting food and meats on display. There are herbs sold for medicinal use with claims of curing ailments.
If you’re claustrophobic or don’t like crowds do not visit the market! Two blocks down is the historic Correo Central building. If you’re a stamp collector check out the second floor where they have a museum of the Costa Rican postal history with rare and old stamps on exhibit.
Head back towards the plaza de la cultura heading north passed the ICT offices and Gold Museum.
You will see a park in the middle of the city, which is the Parque Morazan. It’s near the Aurola Holiday Inn. At the center of the park is the Music Temple, patterned after Le Trianon in Paris.
Head 2-3 blocks north and you’ll run into the Parque Bolivar and the location of San José Zoo which is opened daily form 9-4:30. Admission is only around $2.00.
Heading east you will pass the Parque Espana which is full of plants and trees in the middle of the city. Keep going on Avenida 7 you will see la Casa Amarilla which is the home of ministry of foreign relations. It has a nice park in front. Both donated by Andre Carnegie. Near by is the Centro Nacional de Cultura open Tue-Sat 10-5. It houses a museum and theaters. Near by is the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design also open T-Sa 10-5. Admission is $3 and they have art and exhibits from all over the world.
Up the hill on Ave 7 is the Biblioteca Nacional which is the national library. It faces the largest city park, the Parque Nacional. Check out the Monumento Nacional which honors the battle again filibuster William Walker. The statue was made in France Rodin Studios and shipped to Costa Rica.
Across the street from the park you will see the statue honoring Costa Rican hero Juan Santamaria holding his torch and the Legislative Assembly which hoses the Costa Rican congress.
Two blocks south of the Parque Nacional is the Museo Nacional open Tue-Sunday 8:30-4:30. This a very popular tourist attraction. Admission is $4 and you get to tour the former Bellavista Fort. You can still see the bullet holes from the 1948 civial war. Excellent exhibits in Spanish and English.
Next stop after the museum is the Plaza de la democracia. You can see it from the museum. This is rather new built in 1989 to commemorate democracy. It features a statue of Jose Figueres hero of the 1948 civil war. Former president who abolished the army after the civil war. The plaza is full of tented market stalls selling everything from clothing, jewelry, to hammocks and crafts.
Places To Eat
There are several great spots to grab a quick bite, a cup of coffee, or a cold cerveza. For a nice cup of coffee and a delicious bagel-yes, bagel-Bagelmen’s is a must. Located on Avendia Central in Barrio California downtown.
Cafe de la posada on the pedestrian walkway south of the national museum. More local in nature. Good stuff.
Giacomin. Coffee and Italian style pasteries. Located near the Fischel pharmacy downtown.
Manolos which is right on the pedestrian mall. Excellent casados and delicious churros.
There is also a Pops downtown right around the corner of the Plaza de la Cultura right on the pedestrian mall. Best ice cream in town.
If need be you’ll find all the franchise stuff downtown like KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Macdonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. For a bit more Latin fare try Rosti-Pollos which is downtown right across Cine Vanidades.
There you have it. A great walking tour of downtown San José which hits all the great spots. So wear comfortable shoes and have fun!