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When planning a trip to Costa Rica, travellers often overlook San José. And that is indeed a pity. Although the beaches, cloud forests and volcanoes are the country’s main attractions, the capital is the perfect place to soak up the local culture.
The compact city is a delight to explore on foot. Time seems to have stood still at the large Mercado Central market, while elsewhere the majestic colonial villas of the former coffee farmers have been transformed into trendy restaurants, galleries and gastropubs. If you are just arriving from abroad, San José is a lovely place to get acclimatized.
Start with a visit to the Mercado Central, which dates back to 1880, and browse the 200 stalls packed with local snacks and souvenirs. Then take time to admire the vast collection of pre-Columbian artefacts in the Jade Museum. Don’t miss the pride of San José: the opulent Teatro Nacional boasts a full calendar of dance and music performances. Fans of neoclassic architecture will enjoy taking one of the hourly tours – the marble lobby in particular is quite impressive.
Two neighbourhoods truly stand out. Barrio Amón and Barrio Escalante. The first is known for its art scene and many historic buildings in a variety of architectural styles. Here you will find more upscale hotels and fine dining restaurants, but also a museum focused on contemporary Central American art, the TEOR/éTica. Escalante is Amón’s hip brother, packed with trendy cafés and bars with a surprising number of vegetarian options. Rávi Gastropub serves up meatless pizzas and local craft beers on tap.
Art lovers may wish to plan their visit during San José’s Art City Tour. Held four times a year, this event is a major arts happening as many museums and galleries in town remain open beyond their regular hours and host a string of cultural events and celebrations. Admission is free and includes free shuttle buses between the venues. If you miss out, you can always explore the cultural calendar of GAM Cultural, the organiser of the Art City Tour. Here you will find lots of festivals, theatre performances and pop concerts.