While most tourists opt to get out of San José quickly for greener pastures, Costa Rica’s vibrant capital and the surrounding Central Valley offer plenty to see and do. If you have more time, take a whitewater rafting trip on the Pacuare River, tour a coffee farm, or head to Turrialba for a canyoning adventure and a visit to the Guayabo National Monument, Costa Rica’s top archaeological site.
DAY 1: Getting to know the city
Start your day on the Plaza de la Cultura. Visit the Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica, and see if you can get tickets for a performance at the Teatro Nacional. From the Plaza de la Cultura, stroll up Avenida Central to the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum).
It’s only open for breakfast and lunch, yet Maza Bistro, in a funky space beside San José’s Parque Nacional, is one of the most sought after tables in town for their market driven approach to comfort foods with dishes like fried chicken with sweet ayote arepas or eggs benedict with green papaya slaw. Don’t miss their Bloody Marys, which come with a slice of candied bacon.
After lunch, head to the nearby Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum). As soon as you’re finished taking in all this culture, some shopping at the open-air stalls at the Plaza de la Democracia is in order.
Try dinner at Argentine-themed steakhouse La Esquina de Buenos Aires, at Calle 11 and Avenida 4, near the Barrio Chino. This always busy hangout looks straight out of San Telmo and serves classic Porteño dishes like provoleta (baked cheese), mollejas (sweetbreads), and Ojo de Bife (ribe-eye steaks).
After dinner, head to the Teatro Nacional for the night’s performance.
DAY 2: Alajuela, Heredia & environs
Rent a car for the next 2 days, and get an early start for the Poás Volcano, before the clouds sock the main crater in. After visiting the volcano, head to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Take a walk on the waterfall trail, and enjoy the immense butterfly garden and lively hummingbird garden. This is a good place to have lunch. On your way back to San José, make a loop through the hills of Heredia, with a stop at INBio Park. In addition to being a fascinating natural-history museum, INBio Park also has a wonderful collection of intriguing animal sculptures by Costa Rican artist José Sancho.
DAY 3: Cartago & the Orosi Valley
Start the day taking in the scenery from 3,378m (11,080 ft.) at the top of the Irazú volcano. After admiring the view and hiking the crater trail, head down into the country’s first capital city, Cartago, visiting Las Ruinas and the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, on your way to the Orosi valley. As you drive the loop road around Lake Cachí, stop in Ujarrás to see the ruins of Costa Rica’s oldest church, and to check out the sculpture offerings at La Casa del Soñador.
Set on expansive grounds overlooking Lake Cachí, this place serves good, traditional Costa Rican fare. If the weather’s nice, grab an outdoor patio table with a view.
After lunch, visit the Orosi Church & Religious Art Museum in the town of Orosi. On your way home, stop at Lankester Gardens, one of the top botanical gardens in the country. Upon returning to San José, you can return the rental car and rely on taxis in the city, as it’s much easier and less stressful than dealing with downtown traffic.
DAY 4: More city sights & shopping
Spend this day further exploring the capital. Start by heading out on Paseo Colón to the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Costa Rican Art Museum), and spend some time in its wonderful open-air sculpture garden. After visiting the museum, take a stroll around the expansive downtown Parque La Sabana. Intrepid travelers can also do some shopping at the Mercado Central.
For your final dinner, splurge a bit and head to the elegant Grano de Oro Restaurant, located inside the boutique hotel of the same name. Serving up sophisticated contemporary cuisine using the freshest local ingredients, this is arguably one of the best restaurants in the city.
After dinner take a late-night turn on the dance floor at Vértigo or Castro’s.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.