San José, the lively capital city of Costa Rica, has recently been chosen as one of the world’s top 10 “destinations on the rise” by TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travellers’ Choice Awards. The city, sometimes overlooked by visitors who want to rush into nature, offers a wide variety of world-class museums, theatres, parks, historic buildings and trendy neighbourhoods that will pleasantly surprise those who want to find out more about the “hidden gem” of the world’s happiest country.
Best explored on foot, below are the top 10 things to do and see in “Chepe” – as San José is affectionately known:
Soak up some culture strolling along the ‘Museum Walk’: Getting to know the history of Costa Rica is a walk in the park – or along Avenida Central. Three nearby museums (National Museum of Costa Rica, Museum of the Central Bank of Costa Rica and the Jade and Pre-Columbian Gold Museum) offer an interesting insight into the sounds of the pre-Columbian communities that once inhabited the country. Ticket price: $31. www.museosdelbancocentral.org
Savour music and dance performances at the National Theatre: Costa Rica’s most important theatre – and a nation’s pride – stages plays, dance, opera, Latin American music and other major events all year round. Boasting a neo-classical style, a colourful beaux-arts interior and the famous painting “Allegory of Coffee and Bananas” by Italian artist J. Vila, it was one of the first buildings in Central America to have electric lighting. www.teatronacional.go.cr
Sample exotic fruit and vegetables at Zapote: Zapote’s farmers market, held every Sunday in the neighbourhood of Zapote (south-east San José), will make everyone’s mouth water with its wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Local delicacies include “guaba” (or pacay), “guanábana” (soursop), “cas” (fruit used to flavour drinks) and “anona” (fruit that changes colour as it ripens).
Get hipster at Barrio Escalante: This trendy neighbourhood is seeing a food and drink revolution, with new restaurants and cafes emphasising innovative, artisanal and farm-to-table fare. These hip restaurants, located along and around Calle 33 and Calle 35 (just half an hour walk from downtown), offer a mix of traditional dishes and innovative ones – including sirloin in coffee sauce.
Taste the “best coffee in the world”, according to Pope Francis: If there is a famous drink in Costa Rica, it is coffee. The nation is currently the 13th largest producer of coffee in the world, churning out around 1.5 million bags every year. There are eight different coffee regions in Costa Rica which produce different coffee flavours – being the Central Valley and Tres Ríos the closest to San José. A variety of coffee tours are available throughout these regions.
Mingle with locals in Parque Metropolitano La Sabana: At the heart of La Sabana neighbourhood is this popular 72-hectare park which serves as a recreational area for locals. On a weekday, joggers will be in abundance – running around the park’s lake. However, weekends are reserved for picnics and sports – no wonder why the Costa Ricas’s modernist soccer stadium is located here.
Join a pub crawl with local craft beers: Those missing their local pub while in Costa Rica should take part in one of the fun craft beer tours organised by Carpe Chepe. Escorted by a beer expert guide, the tour visits four bars (names not revealed) located within walking distance – participants will enjoy a craft beer in each bar accompanied by a pairing tapa. Tour price: $69. www.carpechepe.com
Spot some eclectic street art: Just by wandering around San José, visitors have the chance to spot some serious pieces of street art, including interesting murals and facial portraits. A great amount of them can be found in La California, a funky area near the University of Costa Rica that has become a creative and youthful neighbourhood open to street art.
Nature at its best at Else Kientzler and Lankester gardens: San José is surrounded by nature. Just 30 miles north, in the town of Sarchí, is Else Kientzler Garden – a private garden which features over 2,000 species of botanicals and tropical plants from all over the world, including cacti, acuatic plants, fruits trees and tropical woods. 18 miles south of the city, in Cartago, Lankester Botanical Garden is home to over 3,000 plant species – a third of them being orchids. The garden is also used as a research centre by the University of Costa Rica. Ticket prices: $5.20 and $10 respectively. www.elsegarden.com / www.jbl.ucr.ac.cr
Educate and excite the kids: San José offers more family-friendly options than some may think. Highlights include the Natural Science Museum La Salle – with its astounding array of skeletons and stuffed animals; the interactive Children’s Museum – an interesting place (located in an old prison) to learn about themes related to sciences, history, technology and arts by playing and exploring; and Spirogyra Jardín de Mariposas – a colourful garden housing more than 30 species of butterfly.
For more information about Costa Rica go to www.visitcostarica.com