Downtown San José generally falls short of most of the tourist must-see places in Costa Rica. Most people don’t want to spend time visiting San Jose, but you are really missing out on seeing a really vivid part of Costa Rica. It sure is stuffy and smoggy, but a lot of people visit New York City. And while you can now fly directly into Liberia so you can hit the beaches without even stopping in San José, the fact is that most people still fly into San José International Airport, so why not take a walking tour? through downtown San Jose?
Here is the route I take my friends on when I visit Costa Rica. Depending on how interested you are, this tour can take several hours, even a full day.
If you have a rental car, parking is very cheap. I like the parking lot across from the Omni mall so that’s where I’ll start this tour. Head east to Calle 4, Avenida central near the Plaza de la Cultura, where you’ll see lots of people and pigeons hanging out along with the street preachers, comedians, and musicians all performing live. Across the square is the famous National Theater. It opened its doors in 1894 and it is beautiful. Guided tours are available. Opposite the theater is the Gran 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 outdoor 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 like to gamble.
Back at the theater and down the grassy steps of Calle 5 is 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 it is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The main street of the Plaza de la Cultura has been converted into a pedestrian walkway so you can walk freely as cars are not allowed. Keep an eye on your valuables and don’t wear jewelry that could 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 outside the pedestrian mall, just look to the right on 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 Universal Library, 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 large monument to the democracy of Costa Rica which 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 packed with shops, restaurants, produce stalls, and more. It covers the entire block of Avenida Central 1 and streets 6-8. This is a great place to enjoy the daily life of local Costa Ricans. You’ll also find some interesting foods and meats on display. There are herbs that are sold for medicinal use with claims to cure ailments.
If you are claustrophobic or don’t like crowds, don’t visit the market! Two blocks further down is the historic Central Post Office building. If you are a stamp collector, visit the second floor where they have a museum of Costa Rican postal history with rare and vintage stamps on display.
Return to the Plaza de la Cultura to the north passing 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 the Trianon in Paris.
Head 2-3 blocks north and you’ll come across Parque Bolívar and the location of the San José Zoo, which is open daily from 9-4:30. Admission is only about $2.00.
Heading east, you will pass through Parque España, which is full of plants and trees in the middle of the city. Continue down Avenida 7 and you will see the Casa Amarilla, 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 Center of Culture open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5. 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 Biblioteca Nacional, which is the national library. It is in front of the largest park in the city, the National Park. Check out the National Monument that honors the battle against freebooter 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 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 Fort of Bellavista. Bullet holes from the 1948 civil war can still be seen. Excellent exhibits in Spanish and English.
The next stop after the museum is the Plaza de la Democracia. It can be seen from the museum. This is fairly new built in 1989 to commemorate democracy. It features a statue of José Figueres, hero of the 1948 civil war. Former president who abolished the army after the civil war. The plaza is lined with tent stalls selling everything from clothing, jewelry, hammocks, and handicrafts.
Places to eat
There are several great places to grab a quick bite to eat, 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 on Avenida Central in Barrio California Centro.
Cafe de la posada on the pedestrian walkway south of the national museum. more local in nature. Good material.
Giacomin. Italian-style coffee and pastries. Located near the Fischel pharmacy in downtown.
Manolos, which is right on the pedestrian walkway. Excellent casados and delicious churros.
There is also a Pops in the center just around the corner from the Plaza de la Cultura right on the pedestrian walkway. The best ice cream in town.
If necessary, you will find all the downtown franchises such as KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Macdonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s. For a little more Latin food, try Rosti-Pollos, which is downtown just across from Cine Vanidades.
There you go. A great walking tour of downtown San Jose that hits all the great spots. So wear comfortable shoes and have fun!