Downtown San José generally falls short of most of the must-see places for tourists in Costa Rica. Most people don’t want to spend time visiting San José, but they are really missing out on seeing a truly vivid part of Costa Rica. It sure is congested and smoggy, but a lot of people visit New York City. And while you can now fly directly to Liberia so you can hit the beaches without even stopping in San Jose, the fact is that most people still fly into San Jose International Airport, so why not take a walking tour through the center of San José?
This is the route that I take my friends when I visit Costa Rica. Depending on how far you go on this tour, it can take several hours to even a full day.
If you have a rental car, parking is very cheap. I like the parking lot on the other side of the Omni mall so that’s where I’ll start this tour. Head east to Calle 4, Central Avenue near Plaza de la Cultura, where you will see lots of people and pigeons hanging out along with street preachers, comedians, and musicians, all performing live. On the other side of the square is the famous National Theater. It opened in 1894 and it is beautiful. Guided tours are offered. In front of the theater is the Grand Hotel de Costa Rica. What 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 ham sandwich (ham sandwich) is delicious. There is also a casino inside the hotel if you are the gambling type.
Back at the theater and down the grassy steps of Calle 5 you will find the ICT tourist information center. It is open Monday through Saturday 9-1, 2-5. From there, you can enter the plaza’s underground exhibits, including the Gold Museum, which features pre-Columbian artifacts. Admission is $ 6 and is open daily from 9:30 to 4:30.
The main road that leaves the Plaza de la Cultura has been turned into a pedestrian mall so you can walk freely as 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 competing for your attention on both sides of the streets.
Some good stops include La Casona, which is next to the pedestrian mall, just look to the right of Calle Central and you will see it. It is 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 will notice a great monument to the democracy of Costa Rica that is a group of bronze peasants standing humble but firm looking up with pride. It is in front of a large building that is the Central Bank. Keep walking and you will pass La Gloria, the largest department store in Costa Rica. On the other side of La Gloria is the Banco de Costa Rica, a huge black marble building.
Head towards the Central Market. The market is full of shops, restaurants, produce stands, and more. It covers the entire block of Avenida Central 1 and streets 6-8. This is a great place to learn about the daily life of local Costa Ricans. You will also find some interesting foods and meats on display. There are herbs that are sold for medicinal use with the claims of curing ailments.
If you are claustrophobic or don’t like crowds, don’t visit the market! Two blocks down is the historic Correo Central building. If you are a stamp collector, visit the second floor where they have a museum of the postal history of Costa Rica with old and rare stamps on display.
Return to the Plaza de la Cultura heading north past the ICT offices and the Gold Museum.
You will see a park in the middle of the city, which is Parque Morazán. It is close to the Aurola Holiday Inn. In the center of the park is the Temple of Music, inspired by Le Trianon in Paris.
Head 2-3 blocks north and you will come across Parque Bolívar and the location of the San José Zoo, which is open daily from 9 to 4:30. Admission is only about $ 2.00.
Heading east, you will pass Parque España, which is full of plants and trees in the middle of the city. Continue on Avenida 7 and you will see the Yellow House, which is the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has a nice park in front. Both donated by Andre Carnegie. Nearby is the National Cultural Center open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 5. It houses a museum and theaters. Nearby is the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design also open T-Sa 10-5. Admission is $ 3 and they have art and exhibits from around the world.
Up the hill on Ave. 7 is the National Library, which is the national library. It faces the largest park in the city, the National Park. Check out the National Monument that honors the battle of new filibuster William Walker. The statue was made at France Rodin Studios and shipped to Costa Rica.
Across the street from the park you will see the statue honoring the Costa Rican hero Juan Santamaría holding his torch and the Legislative Assembly that runs the Costa Rican congress.
Two blocks south of the National Park is the National Museum open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 to 4:30. This is a very popular tourist attraction. Admission is $ 4 and you can tour the old Fuerte Bellavista. You can still see the bullet holes from the 1948 civil war. Excellent exhibits in Spanish and English.
The next stop after the museum is the Plaza de la Democracia. You can see it from the museum. This is fairly new built in 1989 to commemorate democracy. It has a statue of José Figueres, hero of the 1948 civil war. Former president who abolished the army after the civil war. The square is lined with market stalls selling everything from clothing, jewelry, hammocks, and handicrafts.
Places to eat
There are several great places to grab a quick bite, a cup of coffee, or a cold beer. For a good cup of coffee and a delicious bagel, yes, bagel-Bagelmen’s is a must. Located in Central Avendia in Barrio California downtown.
Cafe de la posada on the footbridge south of the national museum. More local in nature. Good material.
Giacomin. Italian coffee and pastries. Located near the Fischel pharmacy in the city center.
Manolos, which is right in the pedestrian mall. Excellent casados and delicious churros.
There is also a Pops center around the corner from Plaza de la Cultura, right in the pedestrian mall. The best ice cream in town.
If needed, you will find all the franchises downtown like KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Macdonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. For a little more Latin food, try Rosti-Pollos, which is located in the center of town, across from Cine Vanidades.
There you go. A great walking tour of downtown San José that hits all the great places. So wear comfortable shoes and have fun!