San Jose, Costa Rica is not renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s not a secret. Most tourists spend time in San Jose just after flying into the SJO airport or just before flying out. We don’t blame them! Costa Rica has so many astonishingly beautiful sites, that we don’t expect anyone to stay in the capital longer than they need to.
That being said, tourists do often find themselves in San Jose, whether pre or post flight or when crossing from coast to coast. While our largest city might not be the highlight of Costa Rica, it isn’t without its charms.
If you search for “things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica” or “What to do in San Jose”, you’ll find a lot of articles that look really similar. The vast majority will offer you the same five or six activities- mostly related to museums and a few other downtown classics.
In this article, we’re taking a look at some of the more unique things to do in San Jose. Many of these will never be found online. Here’s your local’s guide to activities in San Jose, Costa Rica.
#1 Eat an Ice Cream in the Central Market
There are several places to find ice cream in downtown San Jose. There are also several sites to enjoy in the Central Market. However, if you go to the Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in the Central Market for your ice cream, you won’t be disappointed. You’ll find this gem near the southeastern entrance to the market. Good luck finding an open stool; this place is often full.
They only sell one flavor of ice cream there. It’s the flavor this family has been making for the last hundred plus years. The flavor is one-of-a-kind and completely indescribable. You’ll have to try it for yourself! You can also get a Puntarenas classic combination there: the granizado, which combines this unique ice cream with shaved ice and fruit syrup.
Where: Central Market on the Walking-Only Central Avenue
Schedule: Monday – Saturday 8am – 6pm
#2 Have a Coffee in Alma de Cafe in the National Theater
Costa Rica’s national theater is a frequent flyer on articles about things to do in San Jose. However, one thing you might not have known is that there is a gorgeous cafe in the theater itself. There you can sip some renowned Costa Rican coffee while enjoying delicate neoclassical architecture and the art (for sale) that often decorates its walls.
Schedule: Monday – Saturday 9am – 7pm; Sunday 9am – 6pm
#3 Get a Drink in La Bohemia Bar
La Bohemia Bar is the oldest bar in San Jose. People have been coming to this establishment for over 100 years. And the patrons keep coming! Even today, La Bohemia Bar remains one of the most popular cult classics in the city. Experience the warm culture yourself by grabbing a drink there on a free evening.
#4 Picnic in a Park
There are a ton of parks around San Jose, several of which we recommend for some nature time within the city. If you’re looking for a break from restaurant eating, then a picnic in the park is a delightful idea. Just pick up some food from the nearest Auto Mercado, MasxMenos, or local shop and pick your park.
- Sabana Park (Parque La Sabana) – La Sabana
- National Park (Parque Nacional) – Downtown San Jose
- Bellavista Park (Parque Bellavista) – Rohmroser
- French Park (Parque Francia) – Barrio Escalante
- East Park (Parque del Este) – Sabanilla
- Iskatzu Park (Parque Iskatzu) – Escazu
- Coffee Park (Parque del Café) – Rohmroser
#5 Catch an Independent Movie at Magaly Movie Theater
While the Magaly Movie Theater also shows the standard Hollywood, it is better known as the best place to catch independent films. Magaly is also home to the local film festival and hosts the movies of international film festivals.
Where: Magaly Movie Theater (Cine Magaly) in Barrio La California near downtown
#6 Shop at a Weekend Open-Air Farmers Market
You can find a Saturday open air market in just about every single neighborhood of San Jose. Sometimes the markets go up on Sundays, but usually on Saturdays. The main feature of these markets is the fresh produce, though you can usually find a nice variety of artisan products and homemade-feeling food. The staff at your hotel will probably know when and where the closest market is. Ask for “la feria”.
One of the biggest open-air markets in Costa Rica is the Zapote market. This one occurs on Sundays and includes farmers and produce vendors from all over the country. Rows upon rows of the freshest most colorful tropical fruits and vegetables. Artisan products like honey and pastries. Freshly squeezed juice. Street food. It’s a lovely experience.
#7 Walk through Chinatown
Like many cities, San Jose has its own Chinatown, which can be found downtown. To be honest, the majority of what is considered Chinatown isn’t much to look at. However, there is one walking street that runs right down the middle, which does make for an interesting stroll. This walking street is known as the Students’ Promenade (El Paseo de los Estudiantes).
You’ll find an elaborate arch on Second Avenue, marking the beginning of the pedestrian street. Pass by one of San Jose’s beautiful cathedrals and plazas. After that, the street continues for several blocks. You’ll find lots of different kinds of shops and grocery stores there. The main reason most people go to Chinatown is for the food. Some of the restaurants and cafes there have become quite famous for their delicious, authentic Chinese cuisine.
Here are a few of the more popular restaurants found in Chinatown:
- Tin Jo Restaurant – Find a variety of gourmet cuisine out of Eastern Asia.
- Coconut Restaurant – A cult classic for the Hong Kong Style BBQ Pork
- Tang Dian Xuan Cafe – Don’t leave without trying the bubble tea and the Japanese Cheesecake
- Cuchara Oriental – Considered one of the best Chinese food experiences in the city by Chinese locals
Just outside of Chinatown you can also find these two authentic Chinese favorites:
- Wong’s – You absolutely must try the dim sum here.
- Casa China – This restaurant looks and tastes exactly like many restaurants in Beijing
#8 See a Soccer Game at the National Stadium
There is little most Costa Ricans love more than soccer. During normal times, you can catch a game in the National Theater, as well as the various stadiums that host local teams. Currently, due to COVID-19, there is no in-person seating, but you can still catch games on TV. And trust me, watching a game at a local bar can be almost as exciting as seeing one live. People really take their soccer seriously here.
#9 Take a Walk through the University of Costa Rica Campus
The University of Costa Rica is renowned not only for its excellent quality studies, but also for its dedication to conservation and its beautifully natural campus. You can visit the campus and meander through the many paths that connect different buildings. Or you can follow the internal street that loops around the outside of the campus. \
#10 Try a Locally-Made Craft Beer
Naturally there are many different restaurants and bars where you can order a locally brewed beer. However, one of the best areas for finding these artisan brews is Barrio Escalante, the gastronomic center of San Jose. Here, you’ll find plenty of places for great food and great drinks.
Regardless of where you end up eating, if you want to try local beer, ask for a drink from one of these local breweries, amongst many others:
- Os Beer Co.
- Costa Rica Meadery
- BlackMan Brewing
- Arboleda Cervecería Artesanal
- Bribri Springs Brewery
- Perro Vida Brewing
#11 Go Graffiti Hunting in Barrio California
As we all know, there are two kinds of graffiti and one of them is much more beautiful than the other. You can find murals in many different parts of the city, though Barrio California, located next to downtown, seems to have a much higher percentage of beautiful graffiti than others. Take a walk while you hunt for murals of exceptional graffiti.
#12 Experience the Aranjuez Green Market (Feria Verde de Aranjuez)
The Aranjuez Green Market is a very special kind of farmer’s market. It caters to people who value the environment and choose to eat healthy and natural. If you visit this market, you’ll find organic produce, naturally-made artisan products like handmade soap and jellies made from tropical fruit, and locally owned restaurants that often offer vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Where: Aranjuez Green Market (Feria Verde de Aranjuez) in Aranjuez Barrio near downtown
Schedule: Saturdays 7am – 12:30pm
#13 Enjoy Street Performers on the Central Avenue
Downtown San Jose’s Central Avenue is a pedestrian-only walking street that runs directly down the center of the city. During the dry season especially, you can find street performers on almost every block. There’s no schedule to the performances, as all are individually organized, yet it’s always worth a walk downtown to try and catch a breakdance group or marimba set.
#14 Explore Barrio Escalante, the Gastronomic Center
Barrio Escalante is San Jose’s gastronomic jewel. The last ten years have seen an explosion of restaurants, bars, and cafes along these calm streets. Brunch, burgers, ramen, and alcoholic ice cream are just some of the highlights of Barrio Escalante.
#15 Get a Drink with a View Downtown
The chic Hotel Presidente in downtown San Jose has a little-known rooftop treat. Azotea Calle 7 offers both hotel patrons and external guests alike gourmet food, refreshing cocktails, and a delightful view of the surrounding mountains. It’s the perfect place to come and enjoy downtown San Jose, without having to be directly in downtown San Jose.
Schedule: Schedule varies due to pandemic restrictions; call or visit for current schedule.
#16 Discover Nature Within the City via the Ruta Naturbanas
The Rutas Naturbanas (loosely translated to Nature-Urban Route) are a recent addition to the list of things to do in San Jose. The ultimate goal of this conservation project is amazing, to provide a single walkway completely in nature that crosses the entire city. Currently, there is only a small piece constructed, as this initiative depends on donations by individuals and organizations.
Schedule: Open 24 hours a day
#17 Venture to the Eólicas
The Santa Ana Eólicas are a group of wind turbines along the crest of the mountain just outside San Jose. Locals have been driving up to this lookout for years to get some fresh air and enjoy the view. A trip to the Eólicas can make for a refreshing morning or sunset trip. We do recommend going only if you are in a car with enough get up and go to make it up the steep roads.
Where: Santa Ana Eólicas in the mountains outside Santa Ana
#18 Listen to Live Music at Jazz Cafe
Jazz Cafe has been blessing San Jose with live music since 1999. Originally playing primarily jazz, nowadays you can go there to enjoy rock, R&B, latin music, and more. It’s one of the best ways to get to know local talent, have a good drink, and enjoy a great night at the same time.
Where: Jazz Cafe in Escazu
#19 Drink a Coffee in Cafe La Mancha in the Old Steinvorth Music Hall
Considering how proud Costa Rica is of its amazing coffee, there are honestly more lovely coffee shops than we can list. What makes Cafe La Mancha extra special is its wide variety of coffee bean options and preparation methods, as well as its location. The Old Steinvorth Music Hall is an enchanting building right in the heart of downtown San Jose. It is currently home to a variety of shops and offices, though Cafe La Mancha is one you can’t miss.
Schedule: Monday – Saturday 10am – 7pm
#20 Commission a Tattoo
Now, we know that tattoos aren’t for everyone. If they aren’t for you, then move on to the next activity. However, if you are into beautiful ink, then hear us out. Destination tattoos are one of the most rewarding ways to give yourself a memory of your vacation that will last forever. And Costa Rica has some serious tattoo talent. Just search for #costaricatattoo or #tatuajecostarica to see a huge selection of amazing artists. Of course, you want to be as sure as possible of the quality and safety of your potential permanent art, which is why we’re sharing a short list of some trusted artists and studios.
- Juan Carlos Brenes – Traditional Style
- Lolita Ink – Delicate single needle original art
- Kevin Poveda – Bright colors and black line work
#21 Treat Yourself to Haute Cuisine Costa Rican Fusion at Silvestre
Silvestre is one of the most exciting restaurants in San Jose. This gourmet restaurant is located in an old-fashioned style home and serves contemporary Costa Rican cuisine. You won’t find our famous gallo pinto here, however, at least not in the way you expect. Chef Santiago Fernández Benedetto explores Costa Rica cuisine from an avant garde perspective. Nothing is as expected, yet everything is familiar. It’s a real treat of a culinary experience.
Where: Silvestre Restaurant in Barrio Amón, near downtown
Schedule: Via Reservation
#22 Shop and Eat at Sin Domicilio Fijo
One of the downsides to souvenir shopping in downtown San Jose is the proliferation of low quality “artisan” products that really aren’t worth the dollars they ask tourists for. This is why we wholeheartedly recommend Sin Domicilio Fijo (translated as No Fixed Address). Located in the heart of cute downtown Escazu, this show is full of high quality, true artisan products.
Jewelry, handbags, clothing, toys, and more special gifts can be found in the meandering rooms of this shop. Even if you aren’t looking to buy, it is a great place to “window shop”. In the back you’ll find a restaurant that feels more like you’re at the beach then in San Jose.
Where: Sin Domicilio Fijo in Escazu
Schedule: Monday – Sunday 9am – 6pm
#23 Visit an Urban Theater
There are quite a few urban theaters sprinkled around San Jose that show plays, independent movies, and classics alike. Here’s are the favorites:
#24 Go Shopping at Avenida Escazu and Multiplaza
Multiplaza Escazu and Multiplaza del Este are two of the largest shopping malls in Costa Rica. Whether you’re looking for something you forgot to pack or enjoy strolling through malls, these are the two we suggest.
Avenida Escazu is a modern shopping center that also hosts a hotel, numerous restaurants, offices, and high end apartments. Centered around a short private road and roundabout, it is a safe place to take a short walk and shop.
Where: Multiplaza Escazu in Escazu
Where: Multiplaza del Este in Curridabat
Schedule: Monday – Saturday 10am – 9pm, Sunday 10am – 8am
Where: Avenida Escazu in Escazu
Schedule: Hours differ per business
#25 And finally, there are always the museums
If you’ve done much research of things to do in San Jose, then you’ve undoubtedly learned all about our museums. We’ve added them last to our list, not because they aren’t worth visiting (they are!), but because they’re the first thing most San Jose activity articles talk about. Often, they’re the only thing mentioned.
By all means, explore our museums and learn about Costa Rica’s rich history, but try giving some of the other activities on this list a try! We promise you’ll get a much more accurate and interesting view of Costa Rican culture this way.