Street Art Walk
The outdoor murals on the streets of San José, Costa Rica easily rival the works you’ll find in a contemporary art museum. From larger than life portraits to trippy dreamscape designs, Chepe’s streets are living proof of the talent that inhabits the city. One of the best places to go in San Jose is the stretch of 17th Street from 1st Avenue down to the National Museum. The entire wall on the east side of this pedestrian only street has been turned into the equivalent of a free outdoor art museum. It's one of our favorite free things to do in San José. If you want to get a more in-depth view on whose painting what and why, join an Art Bird Walking Tour and learn more about local contemporary artists, and what their works mean to the city.
Picnic in the Park
San José has several really lovely parks where you can spread a blanket, unpack some homemade sandwiches and enjoy the lovely crisp weather that Chepe is known for. Parque La Sabana is a beautiful place to picnic - the largest park in the city has excellent views of the mountains to backdrop your idyllic afternoon. For those closer to downtown, Parque Morazán is a popular picnic spot where you can enjoy the good weather with locals on their lunch break. Or plop down at Parque Nacional - an especially good destination those who would rather get a to-go burger from La Ventanita Meraki or have Maza pack their a picnic basket.
Walking around the Feria Verde is a lovely way to spend a Saturday morning. Besides free tastings at the food stands, there’s live music, clothes and artisan goods on display and very good vibes. The Feria runs from 7:00AM to 12:30 PM on Saturdays, and takes place at the Campo Desportivo at the back end of Barrio Aranjuez. The Feria Verde is pet friendly and kid friendly, as well as a great place to sample locally produced artisanal foods. Easily one of the best free things to do in San Jose.
Barrio Aranjuez - Polideportivo Aranjuez; Av 15 Street 19
Open 7:00 AM - 12:30PM Saturdays
More Info: http://www.feriaverde.org/
Costa Rican Art Museum
The Costa Rican Art Museum exhibits more than six thousand works by national and international artists from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. The museum's works include photography, sculpture, paintings and more. Here you can reflect on different artistic periods and discover artistic movements that have left their mark on Costa Rican art. The museum has a lovely sculpture garden and a rooftop exhibit area with views of La Sabana Park. Best of all, the Costa Rican Art Museum is free to the public every day.
Open Tues - Sun 9AM - 4PM; Closed Monday
Free to the public
Walk around the Central Market
The Central Market is one of the most interesting sights in San José, as it is a piece of living history. The market has been open since 1880, in the exact same place, and every day the people of Chepe come to do business here. Vendors sell fresh fish and poultry to ladies whose bags are already filled with fruits, nuts and spices. While most tourists only show up in the late afternoon when the place is packed, its worth arriving early in the morning to see the local business taking place, just as it has every day for the past century. If you want to be guided through the mazes of products to the best secrets try a Hungry Bird Tour.
Downtown - Av Central between Street 6 and 8
Open 6AM - 6PM Daily; Closed Sundays
More Info: 2547 6104
Colonial Architecture in Barrio Amón
Barrio Amón is having an architectural resurgence. More and more business are moving into the area and helping to renovate old colonial houses, reigniting the urban beauty of the neighborhood.
Walk around and take a look at the old buildings - and if you want to stop inside of one, try Casa Pejibaye. This huge old house has been restored and turned into a co-working space. It’s one of the few buildings you can freely wander into (downstairs at least).
While your wowing at the vaulted ceilings, check out the Costa Rican designer goods at Tienda Carmen, or lounge on the wrap around porch drinking a coffee from Cafe Nauta, the coffee shop downstairs. If you want to know where all the most interesting architecture in the city is - and learn more about the history of each building - join a Barrio Bird Saturday’s Favorites tour.
It was tricky to compile a list of the Best Breakfast in San José, as that the majority of breakfast places in San José do not open before 10AM. This list celebrates scrumptious breakfast spots offered at cafés and restaurants who serve breakfast at a breakfast friendly hour (late risers might want to check out our “Best Brunch” post here).
Café del Barista
One of the earliest opening great breakfast joints in town, Café del Barista serves gourmet coffee, eggs, pancakes, waffles and pastries to the hip and hungry. The menu switches at lunch to focus on small plates, quesadillas, salads and the like, or you can choose for their any time menu of sandwiches, wraps and bagels.
For coffee lovers though, the most important thing to know is that Café del Barista doesn’t have its name for nothing. The espresso drinks are crafted by truly skilled baristas, each one trained by owner Manuel Dinarte, who organizes annual competitions to test the skills of baristas across the country. Now that's a good buzz to start off your morning with.
Barrio Amón - Av 9 between Streets 19 and 21
Open Daily 7am - 6pm; Closed Sundays
More Info: 2221 4712; http://cafedelbarista.com
If you’re looking for the best typical breakfast in San José, head down to the Central Market for some good, down-home cooking. While much of the market selling souvenirs and the like stay closed until later in the morning, many restaurant and food stalls open at 6am to cater to early morning food shoppers. Try Soda Los Angeles (2223-2606), where fresh squeezed juices are mixed with water or milk and sugar for a breakfast smoothie, or head upstairs to Soda Cristal (2223-5002), where you can hanker down for a traditional plate of gallo pinto. The Cafeteria y Cafe Central (2222-1769) serves delicious, fresh roasted coffee, and if you’re feeling cheeky, grab a post-breakfast dessert at Sorbetera de Lolo Mora (2256-5000), near the main entrance. This institution of an ice cream parlor makes one flavor only: a vanilla sorbet-like ice cream with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves - and has been making it for more than 110 years.
Downtown - Av Central between Streets 6 and 8
Open Daily from 6am; Closed Sundays
Grano de Oro
The gold medal winner for our number one best breakfast in San José is potentially the least known as well. Not that Grano de Oro itself is unknown - this beautiful boutique hotel has been delivering five star service and old world glamour to San José city lovers for more than two decades. Their restaurant is considered one of the best fine dining establishments in the city. What people don’t seem to know is that Grano de Oro also serves an excellent breakfast at completely reasonable prices.
Try their Eggs Benedict with salmon and avocado, accompanied by a fresh squeezed orange and pineapple juice. Or, the truffled eggs with a smooth black coffee. Really, who doesn’t want to lounge in an impeccably decorated courtyard, an oasis from the city’s bustle, eat delicious food and experience five star service for the same price you’d pay at any trendy café in the city? Consider the city’s best kept secret to now be officially revealed.
Sabana South - Street 30 between Av 2 and 4
Open Daily 7AM - 10PM
Our favorite Mediterranean restaurant, Sofia's, has opened up a breakfast cafe right down the street in Escalante and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Everything that you love about Mediterranean food - fresh ingredients, delicious, dips, feta cheese and the like - is now available in breakfast form, all day long.
The best thing about Mediterranean food is that the quality of the ingredients will always shine through, and Pandeli is no different. Fresh breads, rich butters and jams,thick honey and dark coffee enlighten the senses even for those surfing from the worst hangovers. If that won’t do it, then go for a chia seed breakfast pudding or a green juice. It's the most delicious detox you could hope for.
Barrio Escalante - Street 33 and Av 1
Tues - Sat 8AM - 7:30PM; Sunday 9AM - 4PM; Closed Monday
More Info: 2253 6474; https://www.facebook.com/pg/pandelic
El Lobo Estepario
El Lobo is the local rock bar. This low lit, black and red beast is a fan favorite for rockers and groupies alike. Both the food menu or drink menu are full of traditional bar fare. The tables, of which there are many here, are usually covered with nachos, burgers, beers and vodka & cokes. The predictability is clearly comforting to the right crowd, as even with two floors of seating extending far back from the street, you’ll still find a line at the door as early as 9:30PM on a Friday Night.
La California - Av 2 Calle 13
Open 4:00 PM - Just past Midnight Daily; Until 2AM Saturdays & Sundays
More Info: 8704 4111; 2256 3934; https://www.facebook.com/loboestepariocr/
In the middle of a city that has grown increasingly too expensive, it’s refreshing to find a clean bar serving affordable, no frills drinks and food. This is a bar of olden times known for it's draw of the local theater and political crowds both with offices nearby.
The music is pretty good, the bar is spacious and tables are plenty enough that those without deep pockets can still enjoy a night out with their friends. There isn’t much in the way of design or decor, and you’ll be hard pressed to find craft beers or fancy drinks on this menu, but if all you’re looking for is a place to hang out and chat with friends over a cold beer, El Acapulco is your destination.
La California - Av Central entre Calle 17 y 19
(not to be confused with Bar Acapulco)
More Info: Click here
La California’s coolest new night spot could be boiled down to little more than a collection of food and drink stalls inside of a gated off alleyway. El Mercadito, however, is so much more. An artistically designed, light blue iron gate walls off the outside world, and polished wood kiosks dressed with artistic wood burned signs serve fusion tacos, buffalo mozzarella pizzas, craft beers, wine and gin tonics. The narrow entrance opens up into a large courtyard full of seating areas, where bohemian string lights hand between the trees. Each stall specialized in only one or two items, so you’ll never have to be standing in line for too long. Four footed companions are welcome here.
La California - Avenidas 1 y 2, Calle 21
Thurs 9PM - 3AM; Fri & Sat 6PM - 3AM; Sun 1PM - 10PM
More Info: email@example.com, https://www.facebook.com/MercadoLaCalifornia/
Mil 948 is not just a cocktail bar - is a mixology house. Set in a redesigned colonial mansion, this bar is an updated spin on the speakeasy era theme. Design mixes classic pieces - like the 1950’s powder blue Chevy truck on the side patio - with modern furniture and decor. There is a main bar, ample indoor seating, outdoor seating and a large area outback equipped for private parties (there’s even a pool). Best seating is on the outdoor patio, or if you’re keen to learn about cocktails, grab a stool at the main bar and watch the bartenders - oops, mixologists - put on a show. Private, secure parking in the back.
San Pedro - Edificio B, Calle Negritos; Av Central entre Calle 29 y 33
Tues - Thurs 4PM – 12AM; Friday & Saturday 4PM – 2AM; Sunday 11AM – 10PM; Closed Monday
More Info: 8990 4527; https://www.facebook.com/mil948/
Stiefel is a craft beer pub that outdoes expectations. There is nothing flashy or contemporary about this joint - in fact, if it weren’t for the neon green sign announcing its existence, you might easily walk right by. The sign is there though, and so is a bouncer who welcomes you at the wrought iron gate of the narrow downtown house. After passing inspection, make your way through the world’s tiniest front yard, that somehow manages to hold two full tables of beer drinkers.
If you expected tack - due to the neon green signage and the conspicuously large boot shaped beer glasses, you might - you’ll be pleasantly surprised. A chilled out vibe resonates from every inch of the old house. Besides an extraordinarily large selection of both draft and bottled craft beers, Stiefel has a second floor of fun and different ambients. There is a room with low pallet sofas for relaxing; another with small tables and low music for easy conversation; a third room with a fussball table and bar seating for more active crowds. Twin tiny narrow balconies, each holding up to four people, cater for people watchers and lowers of fresh air. Rowdier drinkers hang out downstairs by the bar, and patrons can admire the cool artwork murals that fill the staircase on the way to and from. An excellent place to start off your night.
Barrio Otoya - Av 7 Calle 11A
Open 11:30AM–2PM & 6PM–2AM Daily ; Closed Sundays
More Info: 8850 2119; https://www.facebook.com/StiefelPub/
Antik is a lunchtime restaurant that turns into one of the city’s most popular clubs on Friday & Saturday night. For lovers of a late late nights, electronic or Latin/Pop and fun debauchery, you’ve found your mecca. At this three floor beautiful colonial house, the party here really gets started around 3AM - before then there’s not much action past the dinner crowd. At 6AM, those still standing are sent back out onto the streets. Check their Facebook page or website for parties and events.
Casa Matute, Calle 21 Ave 10,
Tue - Fri 11:30AM - 3PM (lunch); Thursday 6PM -11PM; Fri &Sat 6PM - 6AM; Closed Sundays
More Info: 4033 3324; https://www.facebook.com/pg/antikcr
Pulperia La Luz (Food Truck Park)
Pizza, Tacos, Artisan Beers
According to their Facebook Page, Pulperia La Luz is "a space for gastronomic expression, where one can enjoy authentic street food, artisan bears food trucks and music"
Pulpería La Luz "La Cantina del Barrio" is less of a bar and more of of nighttime feed and gathering spot. An indoor building serves drinks, music (and a much needed toilet break) for the parking lot food fest.
Though the main crowd seems more interested in the drinks and music, hanging out in the ample seeing area enjoying the DJ and beers, we prefer the outdoor picnic benches under stretched string lights, surrounded by the wafting smells of grilling choripan, chicharrones or gourmet burgers - the perfect nightcap for a booze soaked stomach.
Barrio Escalante - Av Central y Calle 33
Wed & Thurs 6PM-Midnight; Friday 5PM- 1AM; Saturday 3PM - 1AM; Sunday Noon-10PM;
More Info: https://www.facebook.com/pg/PulperiaLaLuz
This intimate basement jazz club is located downstairs in a beautiful 1920’s house in the Amón neighborhood. The tiny music club has two gallery rooms upstairs, a small menu of yummy food, and incredible jam sessions, live music shows or vinyl presentations. It’s a spot for musicians and true music lovers.
The brick-walled club, which holds maybe 30 people at once, is truly from another era. Both international and local groups play here - impressive for the small stature. Mondays is considered by many to be the best night to go. The one downside is a slightly sketchy location. If you arrive during the day you’ll be alright walking, but after dark its advised to take a taxi or an Uber.
Barrio Amón - Calle 3 Av 11
Monday - Saturday 3PM - 2AM; Check for Sunday events
More Information: 2221 2302; https://www.facebook.com/pg/sotanocr
As San Jose’s gastronomic culture grows, restaurants and cafés alike are finally catching up with the world’s favorite Sunday morning tradition - Brunch. These are our recommendations to experience the best brunch options in San José, Costa Rica.
Manos en la Masa - Creative
Get up early to beat the crowd at this local favorite hidden away near the railroad tracks in a renovated white and red house on a quiet street in Barrio Escalante.
Many times we have arrived at 10am or later and either had to wait or move on, only important if you are on a tight schedule.
When you finally do get a seat, be sure to check the specials board. Chef Adrianna, soft spoken in person speaks volumes with her tasty creations such as tostados with buffalo mozzarella, and fruit flambé with sourdough bread (made in house daily).
You could just as easily indulge your sweet tooth with an orange cinnamon roll and a bubbly mimosa (we may have been guilty of this a time or two ourselves.).
Barrio Escalante; Calle 25 entre Av 1 y 3
Tues - Fri 8AM - 7PM; Sat 9AM - 5PM; Sun 9AM - 3PM
More Info: 4035 6230; firstname.lastname@example.org;
Kalu - Scene
More than just a brunch spot, Kalu is a bonafied meeting place for the hip Tico crowd. Couples, families and groups of friends share the beautiful green courtyard in this repurposed house (the chef's husband is an architect) in Barrio Escalante with the few foreigners who are lucky enough to be in the know.
Young families keep an eye on the little ones running around in the dedicated kids' play area while they enjoy Eggs Benedict and fresh coffees. This is Kalu's second home and just as before they make wonderful use of outside space with a bamboo terraced roof and white globe lights.
Beyond a very cool garden terrace, Kalu also hosts a shop selling designer Costa Rican made goods, and a luxury coffee bar where discerning coffee lovers can get their caffeine fix. This couple really was one of the first to successfully bring contemporary and national design to the public in a dining setting and now their prices reflect that.
Barrio Escalante - Calle 31 y Av 5
Open: Tues - Fri Noon - 10PM; Saturday 9AM - 10PM; Sunday 9AM- 4PM; Closed Monday
More Info: 2253 8426; http://kalu.co.cr/
Mantras - Vegan/Veggie/Value
Mantras is #1 on our list for best brunch in San José.
This already popular vegetarian/vegan restaurant (which covers all its bases serving organic, raw, lactose-gluten-free, and artisan food) posts special brunch offerings on its Facebook page every Saturday and Sunday.
Faithful fans will line up to eat in one of the green-enclosed restaurant's four seating areas. The front terrace for people watching; back terrace for nature lovers; main dining room for the see and be seen crowd and the back dining room for those who prefer privacy.
Rich smoothies and coffee creations pair with free range, locally sourced organic egg omelets, vegan breakfast burritos and heaps of vegan and gluten free sweets. This pet friendly, family friendly, vegan friendly spot is also reasonably priced for the area and considering portion sizes - a Sunday morning win for everyone!
Barrio Escalante - Calle 35 entre Av 13 y 11
Open: 9:00AM - 5PM Daily
2253 6715; email@example.com
Saul Bistro - Best Design
It doesn’t mater if you eat the food at Saul Bistro, because just being there is an experience in itself. The eccentric design has won awards (and second looks) since its opening in 2015. The new Escalante location is one of four Saul locations in San José - there are more than a dozen in Guatamala where it first opened- and if Saul has anything to say about it, more will be one the way. Each restaurant tries to outdo the last in its avant guard design.
In Escalante, a tropical painted car on the front lawn is easily overlooked thanks to the life-size zebra greeting you at the door. The fun doesn’t stop there. Four different indoor and two outdoor seating areas are each designed in their own unique style. The service is also stellar in a country where attention to details is often lacking. Foodies however might be a little let down with the menu creativity and portion size compared to price but design lovers will have their day!
Barrio Escalante - Avenida 9 y Calle 31
Open 7AM - 10PM daily; Thurs until 11PM; Fri & Sat until Midnight
More Info: 2234 7936; https://www.facebook.com/SaulBistroEscalante
Maza - Downtown
No brunch list would complete without Maza, one of the pioneers of brunch in San Jose. Maza is a well known and popular brunch spot - with Canadian mixologist, Liz Furlong, at the helm for those hangover curing bloody marys.
Just as popular as their yummy food are the adorable picnic baskets they’ll pack you to enjoy your goodies in the park across the street. Maza has truly cornered the market in changing the typical brunch experience into a kid & pet friendly experience.
Calle 19 y Av 3
Open: 9AM - 6PM Daily, closed Mondays
More Info: 2248 4824; https://www.facebook.com/pg/MazaBistro/
San José, Costa Rica is no longer just for visiting the airport or passing through on your travels from one coast to the next.
While we started to see a cultural shift 5 years ago the past two have shown a real change in locals' opinions of the city and their desire to work on its potential as an adorable, culturally vibrant and livable city. Many new projects are underway and we can't wait to see what the next two years will bring. In the meantime we have created a list of 10 reasons to visit San José now.
The entire size of the downtown area is about 2 miles in length. Streets are on a grid, and finally there are street signs to help visitors get around. There are 2 main pedestrian-only routes down Avenida Central and Avenida 4 for sightseeing. There are many historic and tasty treasures hidden on the side streets of these paths so we recommend any of our city walking tours to get a real look at the history and new developments of the city.
2. Nighttime Views
San José sits in a valley and if you can get high enough you can see the lights rising up the mountainsides in every direction. Our favorite choice in downtown is the restaurant on the 17th floor of the Holiday Inn at Parque Morazan. The food is ok and a little more expensive than usual so maybe pop up right at 6:00 for sunset and early drinks and appetizers, or dessert at the end of the night.
3. Affordable Shows
At any moment downtown you can catch concerts and theater shows for a reasonable price. The National Theater offers short performances Tuesdays at noon and Thursdays at 5 for under $8 a person. International acts perform at the National Stadium and Teatro Melico Salazar for usually much less than a ticket in the US or Europe. If you speak Spanish there are dozens of small theaters for live performance and stand-up comedy such as on the Teatro Urbano on the south side of the Plaza de la Democracia. Club Vertigo, El Lobo Estepario, Latino Rock, Steinvorth and Hoxton are also great for live music and DJs.
4. Microbrew Beers
It has been an uphill battle for small brewers to bring beer to the local market between fighting the monopoly beer company La Cervecería and getting Ticos to try something new. Finally, gastropubs are opening and featuring these brewers. An entrepreneur just hosted the first Oktoberfest and this year saw the second annual beer tasting festival. Our food tour gets you 10% off a beer tasting sampler at one of the new gastropubs.
5. Century-old Architecture
Downtown neighborhoods continue to clean up and many historic sites have experienced some form of restoration. A stroll through many streets in the immediate center and Barrio Amon can take you back in time to see the direct European influence and to appreciate the luxuries people had in such a small pueblo.
6. Green Fashion Design
Downtown boutiques display costa ricans' environmental conscienceness via fashion design with recycled fabrics and materials. Tienda Eñe always provides a look at the newest trends in this field.
7. La Sabana City Park
Originally the airport, this city park, now swallowed by urban sprawl, provides a green escape from the noisy city streets. One can run on the marked trails, speed skate on the rink, swim at the public pool or visit the free art history museum on the eastern end. On the weekends you can people watch or join others in pic- up soccer games or sponsored aerobic dance classes.
8. Street Art
Growing as a popular art form, incredible graffiti murals decorate different areas of the city. A new program is even commissioning artists to paint the metal doors of downtown shops, turning ugly security panels into visual stories of San Jose. Works still exist from the Transitarte festival held 2 years ago at the Legistlative Assembly.
9. Free Festivals
At almost any time of year one can find a free festival happening downtown. Every Sat. except the Christmas holiday season you can visit Parque Morazan and Parque Espana for free dance and art classes, and catch concerts. December to April are host to Topes, Festival of Lights, Rock el Farolito, FIA and Transitarte.
10. Day Trip Hub
San José is centrally located in the country and if you have 5 or less days it might be easiest to base yourself in the city and take day trips out to volcanoes, birding, hiking, rafting and beaches. On a side note, we think the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde are two places to stay overnight. Many agencies sell these as a 1 day trip but it's 4-6 hours each way. For closer destinations see our recommendations.
By Stacey Auch.