There are few places more suited to family fun than Costa Rica, and the capital of San José is no exception—which is great news, considering that this is likely where you'll start your trip. A handful of kid-friendly cultural activities are on offer here, making for a full first day in-country and a perfect intro to Costa Rican history, wildlife, and flavors. This list focuses mainly on the city center, though two activities are a short drive from town—no matter what you choose, you won't have to travel far.
A good kick-off activity that will put you and your family in the heart of San José is to visit the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum). The museum takes up four floors with exhibits featuring many pre-Columbian artifacts including indigenous ceramics, pottery, and sculptures—many fashioned out of the titular mineral. The level of craftsmanship of jade and other items is impressive, especially the jewelry and animal representations on display.
Young kids should get a kick out of the interactive archeological exhibits (some featuring music), and older ones will likely find the information on burial rituals, warfare, and the underworld fascinating. There's also much information here about how the ancient indigenous arranged their societal hierarchies, such as the important role the shaman played. When you're done at the museum, there are cafés nearby for relaxing as well as an adjacent fleamarket if you and the family want to pick up some souvenirs.
Sibú Sustainable Chocolate Tasting
Sample some of the world's best chocolate at the production headquarters of Sibú, an eco-friendly chocolatier that uses locally-sourced Costa Rican cacao to make delicious (and beautiful) European-style treats. The tasting is perfect for parents and kids with a sweet tooth or those with a taste of history: the approximately 90-minute experience includes a presentation about the importance of chocolate in the country's economic development and pre-Colombian roots.
You'll then sample chocolate in its many forms: raw cacao fruit, roasted cocoa beans, a hot chocolate recipe dating back to the 16th century, dark chocolate pieces, and finally, the inventive bonbons for which the company is known. Flavors include honey and lavender, mint tea, cappuccino, and wild orange.
The tasting takes place in the mountain town of San Isidro de Heredia—about 20 minutes outside of San José's city center—on a covered rooftop terrace. Keep in mind you'll be outdoors at an elevation of around 4,500 feet: you'll want to come prepared with layers and a rain jacket to mitigate potentially chilly, wet mountain weather. Tours take place Tuesday through Saturday, and reservations are necessary. And if you anticipate you and your brood getting hungry for more than just chocolate, don't fret—there's a lunch menu available as well.
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Museo de los Niños
The Museo de los Niños is one of the premier destinations for kids in the city. And while it's billed as a "children's museum," there's fun to be had for the whole family. The museum is comprised of 40 rooms each featuring unique, interactive exhibits. Moreover, it enjoys the distinction of being the first wholly interactive museum in Central America. The creative exhibits on hand cover everything from astronomy and natural science to ecology and humanities. For example, there's a type of funhouse here that doubles as an earthquake simulator, and even a farm exhibit featuring live animals like geese and chickens.
Equally fascinating is the museum's history. It was once a military prison that operated for 80 years until 1979. In 1994 the government converted it into a museum, effectively turning a negative into a positive. To that point, there's an exhibit here detailing the building's time as a prison. The museum itself is a part of the larger Centro Costarricense de Ciencia y Cultura (Costa Rican Center for Science and Culture), which also features the Galería Nacional (a visual arts center), and the Teatro Auditorio Nacional, a theater offering a wide variety of cultural and educational presentations.
There are few better ways to experience the heartbeat of a foreign city than by visiting its municipal markets, and San José has a great one: the Mercado Central, located between Avenidas 0 and 1 and Calles 6 and 8. Founded in 1880, for well over a hundred years it has offered everything under the sun, from fresh vegetables and exotic fruits to handicrafts, herbal remedies, and clothing. These days the market boasts over 200 stalls and sees the foot traffic of thousands of people every day.
Bring the family and immerse yourselves in the local culture. Aside from sampling the aforementioned exotic fruits, like carambola (star fruit) and peach palm fruit, you can also have breakfast or lunch. Do like the locals and pull up a seat at one of the many sodas (small food stalls within the market) and order gallo pinto, Costa Rica's national dish. it's a mixture of rice and black beans typically served with eggs. For more info on this dish, as well as some of the produce you're likely to find in the market, see this list of the best culinary experiences in Costa Rica.
The Museo Nacional is another state building converted into a museum—this one used to be the headquarters of Costa Rica's long-since-abolished army. It's ideal for parents who want a quick run-and-gun activity (you can fully enjoy the museum's exhibits in 1-2 hours). Kids are sure to love the butterfly enclosure at the entrance, which features the iconic blue morpho butterfly, and there are lovely outdoor gardens to run around in.
Within the museum, there are exhibits on history, anthropology, and archeology covering the era of the first people all the way up to environmental awareness and even gay rights in Costa Rica. Best of all? Children under 12 get in free.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Capping this list is one of the most popular day tours from the capital: La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This private nature park offers the greatest hits of Costa Rica's natural highlights, including trails leading through rainforest to five different waterfalls. There's also wildlife spotting that won't leave you disappointed.
Here you can feed brightly colored toucans, view some of the many species of Costa Rica's hummingbirds, and chase fluttering winged friends in a butterfly enclosure. You'll also be able to view spider monkeys and big cats like Jaguars and pumas behind protective glass. There's even an orchid exhibition and a "serpentarium," which features a dizzying array of Costa Rica's beautiful but deadly snakes, such as the boa constrictor. For more on spotting wildlife in Costa Rica, check out this article.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens is located just an hour north of the airport, which makes the park easily accessible for day tours, typically lasting about six hours.