Metropolitan Cathedral

San José's principal Catholic cathedral was built in 1871. Rather plain from the outside, the large neoclassical church features a pretty mix of stained glass works, tile floors, and assorted sculptures and bas-reliefs. It also boasts a wonderfully restored 19th-century pipe organ. A well-tended little garden surrounds the church and features a massive marble statue of Pope Juan Pablo II, with a woman and child, carved by celebrated Costa Rican sculptor Jorge Jiménez Deredia. Deredia also has a work at the Vatican. The cathedral is just across from the downtown Parque Central (Central Park).

National Center of Art and Culture

Housed in what was formerly the National Liquor Factory (FANAL), this complex of museums and performance spaces is also home to the Ministry of Culture. The best museum here is the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MADC), which has several very large exhibition spaces and features rotating shows of predominantly local and regional artists, with the occasional exhibition from the rest of the world. The theaters, as well as the central courtyard amphitheater, often host a wide range of cutting-edge Costa Rican drama, dance, and musical performances, as well as talks, conferences, and workshops. This place takes up a full city block between the Parque España and Parque Nacional, and just a half-block away from the Jade Museum.

Costa Rican Art Museum

Originally the main terminal of San José’s first international airport, this museum houses the largest and most important collection of works by Costa Rican artists from the colonial time to the present. The museum’s permanent collection has over 6,000 pieces, including works by Juan Manuel Sánchez, Max Jiménez, Francisco “Paco” Zuñiga, Francisco Amighetti, Lola Fernández, and more. In the back patio—which used to lead to the tarmac—is a large and lovely sculpture garden. This museum is free, and anchors the eastern edge of the large La Sabana city park, making it easy to combine a visit here, with a stroll through the park.

Jade Museum

This museum houses a beautiful and fascinating collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts, as well as other archaeological finds and relics, dating from around 500 b.c. to 1,500 a.d. Set on the western edge of the Plaza de la Democracia, this new five-story building has more than 7,000 sq. m (75,000 sq. ft.) of exhibition space, which for the first time ever, is enough to display the museum's impressive 7,000 piece collection. Check out the skulls and teeth bearing jade implants, as well as jewelry and functional objects and tools, all made of this precious stone. Everything is well presented, and explanations are in both English and Spanish.

Children’s Museum

This massive museum is fun and informative for the whole family. Interactive exhibits and educational displays describe everything from the rainforest, to pre-Columbian village life to the interior of a space ship (in honor of Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang). The simulated earthquake exhibit is always a favorite. This museum is in a former prison, and if anyone in your family is acting out, you can actually lock them in a former prison cell to set them straight. The museum is also home to the National Auditorium, and often features temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, as well. You can easily spend 2 to 3 hours at this museum. You’ll definitely want to take a taxi here, as the museum sits just in from a rather seedy section of the city’s red-light district.

National Museum

Sitting atop the Plaza de la Democracia, this museum provides a great, all-around sampling of the archaeological, historical, and natural wonders of Costa Rica from pre-Columbian times to the present. Housed in a large, former army barracks, the building features turrets and outside walls that still bear the bullet marks from fighting in the 1948 civil war. Exhibits include gold and jade artifacts like those you’d see at the Gold Museum or Jade Museum, but obviously not in the quantity that you’d find in either of those two more specifically oriented institutions. In addition to all the historical exhibits, this place also has a large butterfly garden with more than 25 species of this lovely insect cavorting about. I’d plan on around 2 hours to really get a good feel for this museum.

Gold Museum

Housing some 1,600 gold pieces dating from 500 b.c.e. to 1500 c.e. and spread over three floors, this museum is directly underneath the downtown Plaza de la Cultura. Admirers of gold and jewels will definitely want to stop here. This museum is actually one of three housed in this complex (there are numismatic and philatelic museums here as well), and your admission gets you in to all three. Admission is free every Wednesday.

Zoo Park Simón Bolivar

This zoo no longer suffers from the overwhelming sense of neglect and despair that once plagued it, though it's still pretty lackluster and depressing. Why spend time here when you could head out into the forests and jungles? You won't see the great concentrations of wildlife available in one stop here at the zoo, but you'll see the animals in their natural habitats, not yours. The zoo is really geared toward locals and school groups, with Asian, African, and Costa Rican animals. There's a children's discovery area, a snake-and-reptile house, and a gift shop. You can easily spend a couple of hours here.

Spirogyra Butterfly Garden

This butterfly garden is smaller and less elaborate than the Butterfly Farm, but it provides a good introduction to the life cycle of butterflies. It’s also a calm and quiet oasis in a noisy and crowded city, yet quite close to downtown. You’ll be given a self-guided-tour booklet when you arrive, and an 18-minute video runs continuously throughout the day. Spirogyra is near El Pueblo, a short taxi ride from San José’s center.

Teatro Melico Salazar

Built in 1928, this baroque theater is larger than the nearby Teatro Nacional. The facility is owned by the Costa Rican Ministry of Culture and houses the National Theater Company and National Dance Company. A regular slate of concerts and dance and theater performances are offered.

National Theater

Costa Rica’s most elegant and elaborate theater, the Teatro Nacional was opened in 1897. Funded with a special tax on coffee, and modeled on the Paris Opera House, this neo-baroque theater features marble floors and columns, numerous sculptures, and a beautiful painted fresco on the main auditorium’s ceiling. It is home base for the National Symphony Orchestra, and site of numerous other cultural events.