Costa Rica: people say San José is a boring and ugly city. I say it’s not.
January 1, 1970
by Hannah Boom
I have to admit; San José is not the prettiest city. Give it a change though, and you might end up liking it just like me. Nine months living in this city gave me a great insight in the places to go, have fun, dance, eat and see.
A few neighbourhoods (barrios in Spanish) are worth going to. I’m going to show you some nice places in barrio San Pedro, Los Yoses, Escalante, Amon and Aranjuez.
The university area
The most Eastern area is barrio San Pedro. Famous for its university and cheap bars. The campus is a green oasis with plants, a river and even sloths hidden in the trees. Close to the university is la Calle de la Amargura, aka the street of bitterness, with bars where students go to after class and one of the best places for affordable beers and food. If you are looking for more decent food go to El Candil, which is a few streets away from the university. They have many traditional dishes and it’s always packed during lunch time. Try their chifrijo, a typical dish with beans, pork, avocado, tomato and nacho chips, or olla de carne, a soup with yucca, beef and vegetables. If you’d rather have a sandwich check out La Pataconería. A 10-minute walk from the university where they have lots of variety. Their patacones (fried and smashed plantain bananas) are definitely worth trying and a popular snack throughout Latin America. You have probably noticed that the Costa Rican cuisine contains a lot of meat, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have good vegetarian restaurants. In San Pedro you can find El Buho and Neshuma. Both have great options like vegan burgers, Mediterranean and Asian food, and healthy juices.
Go a bit south-west and barrio Los Yoses is right there on the other side of the Avenida Central. This is an area with a lot of residential areas, nice bars and small parks. Two bars not to skip are La Sospecha and Pub Rock. The first one has delicious food and craft beer for a good price. Pub Rock is a bit harder to spot since it looks like a normal house. Just walk up to the garage and someone will open the door for you. Take a seat in the garden with the city lights of San José in the back and order a plate of nachos and local beers. Make sure you look it up on Google Maps so you’ll have the right house!
Craft beer and coffee
North of this is barrio Escalante, an absolute favourite. The most popular street is Calle 33 with restaurants and bars scattered all over. Delicious burgers, crepes, coffee and craft beer (so many options!). Every night, and especially on the weekends, it fills up with young people drinking and eating. Not for partying but to start the night off. If you like beer, then the Beer Factory or Wilk are the places to go. The first one offers many international beers and the second one has homemade craft beer with even live brewing sessions. During the day it is just as good with lots of options for a cup of coffee. Try the Underground Brew Café on Avenida 1A. It is behind a yellow gate with the sign 3350. Just ring the bell and they will open the door for you. Again, it seems like a normal house/garage but hidden behind that grey wall is a DJ lab and this small coffee shop. Coffee comes from the Central Valley in Costa Rica and gets roasted by the owner himself. Decide whether you’d like an espresso, cappuccino or have it brewed with a V60, Chemex or any of the other options. Don’t forget to order a pie with it, which are made fresh and incredibly creamy! For the vegetarians who want to have breakfast or lunch, try Mantras. Delicious wraps, burgers and sandwiches. They also have a little shop with organic products and a serene garden to sit in.
Food, museums, parks and people
East of barrio Escalante is barrio Amon and Aranjuez. Again a good area for coffee, museums, parks and pubs. You can basically find everything close to Parque Nacional. Go east for late night hunger at La Ventanita Meraki streetfood which is just around the corner. Order a burger or platanos with meat and sauce and sit on the steps of the train station. Good for people watching and enjoying the fresh air of the night. On the other corner of Parque Nacional is the Museum of Contemporary Art. A good place for Latin American art. It’s a small museum but for only three dollars an interesting visit. Five minutes away from the museum is Café Del Barista where the best baristas in San Jose work. They offer very good quality and a pleasant place to sit. Enjoy the quiet hours in the morning or rush hour during lunch when the whole hospital gets his caffeine fix. Not enough coffee for you? Try Bici Barista Café in front of the INS. You can find him there from Monday to Friday in the mornings. Mariano, the owner, sells organic coffee on a red cargo bike. Freshly brewed on the spot and even cappuccino and cold brew options. Prefer beer to coffee? Then check out Stiefel Pub. Good vibes, craft beer and rock music. For 5 dollars you can get a good glass of Costa Rican made beer and they have numerous options to choose from.
Walk a bit more west on Avenida 7 and go to Café Rojo. A little lunch spot with great coffee and cakes. They have a bookstore on the left which is also worth checking out. The best place for live music in San José is El Sótano. Lots of live concerts, parties and a bar.
The party scene
Last but not least, the party scene of San José. It is relatively small but good. There are two options for electronic music; Antik and Vertigo. Both of them have international DJs regularly programmed and good local artists. Vertigo is more expensive but with a good sound system and good parties. Antik on the other hand has a basement where they play electronic music and Latin music on the second floor for if you want to mix it up a little. Less fancy and more local is La California calle 21. A street full of bars and people on the weekends. Most bars play reggeaton music but some of them also have house and rock music. Check facebook for up-to-date events.
What to try in other areas
- I call them the late night tomato treat. It is the Costa Rican version of a Bloody Mary, so lots of tomato juice and alcohol combined.
- Gallo Pinto. You have to try this one, because there is nothing more common in Costa Rica than this rice and beans dish. They put onions, little pepper and Lizano salsa in it. Many Costa Ricans eat this three times a day, so you better get used to it.
- La tortillería. One of my favourite places for lunch. For five dollars you’ll get a full plate of tortilla, meat, sour cream, salad and refried beans.
- The best French bakery in San José is a small coloured building on Avenida 20, calle 35. Fresh bread everyday, good sandwiches, and delicious croissants. Missing bread from back home? Then this is your place to go.
- Everything on the feria Verde. A nice Saturday morning outing is going to this market. They have organic vegetables, coffee, good cheese, clothing and accessories, and yoga sessions. Great place to hang out for a few hours.
So once you’re there, ask around for events. There are food festivals, alternative music festivals, design fairs, markets and much more! Last tip for walking around the city, never ever forget your umbrella. It can rain loads.
More on San José by Lonely Planet