Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose is also the country’s largest city, comprising 11 districts in total. Known as Chepe to the locals - a common nickname for ‘Jose’ - downtown San Jose is a vibrant hub of culture and also the best place to discover a potted history of the nation. Museums, theaters and markets can be found within this fascinating area of the city, along with a raft of trendy bars and clubs, traditional cafes and restaurants and bustling marketplaces.
At uVolunteer, all of our Costa Rica volunteers have three days free each week, and we highly recommend you fill some of this leisure time with an exciting and enriching trip to San Jose – your volunteer coordinator will be able to advise you on getting to and from the city, where to stay if you don’t want to travel back to your base each evening and what to do during your trip. Here are our suggestions for having an amazing weekend in Chepe.
Most of San Jose’s museums can be found in and around Central Avenue, so if you’re keen to learn more about Tico culture this is the place to be. The three-in-one Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática can be found on Central and 2nd Ave and contains a wealth of exhibits, art and artifacts relating to Costa Rican heritage, visual arts, currency and archaeology. The Jade and Pre-Columbian Culture Museum, National Museum of Costa Rica and Museums of the Central Bank of Costa Rica are all housed in this unique building beneath Costa Rica’s cultural hub Plaza de la Cultura.
There are more than a dozen museums within San Jose, some of the best in addition to those already covered are to come in the next sections but here’s a selection of the rest: The Children’s Museum, The Peace Museum, the Museum of Forms, Spaces and Sounds and the Stamp Museum.
Art and architecture
The architecture of Costa Rica fuses elements of neo-classicism and colonialism with modern contemporary designs. One of the most famous buildings within the city is the Teatro Nacional, or National Theatre – a grand and elegant neo-classical construction dating back to 1897. Another standout structure within the city of San Jose is the Edificio Metálico, which translates at the Metallic Building. Located on the edge of the Parque España, the building is used as a school. There are also many striking modern buildings in and around the city, including the brutalist-style skyscraper that houses the Instituto Nacional de Seguro.
Another unmissable landmark is the Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture, or Centro Costarricense de la Ciencia y la Cultura. The science and culture museum is housed in an awe-inspiring building that was once a prison and is now home to the National Gallery, which contains both native and international exhibits including drawings, ceramics and photography. Don’t miss a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, too, where you can admire paintings, sculptures and installation art.
Markets and crafts
Experience the hustle and bustle of authentic Costa Rican life at the Mercado Central, or Central Market, established in 1880. Located on Central Ave, this vibrant market is open every day of the week, from 6.30am to 5.45pm. The bazaar comprises narrow passages, shops and stalls that span an entire block and sell everything you could possibly imagine, from fresh produce and herbal remedies to clothing and cowboy accessories! There are innumerable opportunities to sample Costa Rican cuisine here – try the olla de carne, which translates as beef stew, or a traditional casado at one of the ‘sodas’ – small diner-type restaurants.
If you’re keen to pick up some souvenirs for folks back home, head to the Mercado de Artesanías (Crafts Market) on 2nd Ave, where you’ll find colorful woodwork, jewellery and handicrafts galore. To browse folk art for sale, head to Galeria Namu on 7th Ave and admire the indigenous exhibits made by local artists and craftspeople; there are lots of goods for sale, from carved wooden masks and animals to textiles and painted pebbles. Visit 19th Ave on a Saturday morning when Feria Verde de Aranjuez takes place; enjoy organic food and drink and join in the recreational activities taking place.
Put on your dancing shoes and explore San Jose’s bars and clubs for some evening entertainment. House and techno music fans should make their way to Vertigo in Central Colón, which is renowned as one of the nation’s best dancehalls. Hoxton Pub on Los Yoses Boulevard, meanwhile, is a hipster club set in a 1950s mansion playing hip hop, live music and more. Head to El Steinvorth on 1st Ave to enjoy an evening of indie, dance, electro and karaoke with a rocky vibe or stop by Stiefel Pub on 7th Ave to sample local craft beers coupled with tasty gastro dishes.
For a comprehensive experience of the city’s nightlife, why not join one of Carpe Chepe’s bus tours? The reputable firm operates a bus along a route of more than 20 bars, dropping off riders and returning some time later – an entire night of travel around San Jose’s best bars costs just $7!
San Jose is a charming city full of life and bursting with culture, so make sure you pay a visit during your volunteer vacation. A simple way of taking in many of the city’s best features is to book a tour, either on foot or by bicycle. There are numerous companies offering tours of the city, one of the most reputable of which is ChepeCletas – tours are bilingual and include both popular landmarks and hidden gems. There are also free evening art tours of the city every couple of months, which include stop-offs at galleries, museums and other sites of cultural interest. Find out more about what Costa Rica has to offer volunteers when you download the program brochure.