As the capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose has a diverse mix of things to do and is the best place in the country for cultural and historical experiences. Founded in 1763, San Jose is now one of the most important cities in Latin America and is where the majority of the Costa Ricans live and work.
Many travelers brush off San Jose, using it solely as a transit hub to get to the volcanoes and beaches or skipping it entirely as they are daunted by the crowds, but the city is indeed worth a visit. Though a bit rough around the edges at first impression, all it takes is a day or two to discover the gems of San Jose.
If you’re looking for the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, here are our recommendations for activities, places to eat and sleep. Yeison grew up very close to San Jose and worked there for many years, so you can also find out some of the local hot spots in our guide as well!
San Jose, Costa Rica Travel Guide
Getting Around San Jose
This is probably what intimates travelers the most about San Jose: getting around. There are no address, there are hardly any street names! However, with new bus stations and routes popping up and Uber growing every day, finding your way around San Jose is much easier.
- Bus: There are many buses in San Jose that run all day, you can get to pretty much anywhere in the city with the public transportation. It’s cheap but it can get super crowded and there are no posted bus schedules. Read our tips for taking the bus in Costa Rica.
- Uber: We love using Uber in San Jose. It’s cheap, works great, fast and it’s really not that much more expensive than the bus. With Uber, we almost never take the bus anymore since Uber drivers pick you up exactly where you are and drop you off right where you want to go. Read our tips for using Uber in Costa Rica and get $10 off your first ride.
- Taxi: Honestly, we prefer Uber to taxis as taxi drivers in Costa Rica are pushy but you can find them everywhere in San Jose. Read our tips for taking taxis in Costa Rica.
- Walk: If you’re staying in the heart of San Jose, you can easily walk to many of the attractions. (Hotel recommendations and safety tips at the bottom of the post). We don’t recommend walking in San Jose after 9 PM as some parts can get sketchy.
Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
Walk Central Avenue
This is San Jose’s downtown and the Avenida Central goes straight through. It’s an excellent starting point because there are some museums around and it’s a great for experiencing the local city life.
If you go around 4-5 PM, you’ll see all the Ticos getting off work and is when most of the commotion is. There are tons of restaurants, hotels/hostels, shops and you’ll see locals selling items on the street, street musicians and performers.
Check out what it’s like to walk the avenue in the video below!
The national theater of Costa Rica is one of our favorite places in San Jose. The architecture and interior decorations are stunning and you can take a tour to learn about the theater or watch a performance.
There are incredible paintings throughout the theater, statues and chandeliers. Entrance fee is $10, open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 AM – 4 PM, next to the Gran Hotel.
The Central Market in San Jose is a must when in the city. I love the atmosphere of local markets, it’s fun to watch the locals go about their daily life, you can try traditional food and go souvenir shopping.
This is the best place to go souvenir shopping in San Jose since there are many stalls and tons of different things to look at. There are also many restaurants in the market so if you want to try a local favorite, head to Soda Tapia. It’s been in the market for over 100 years!
San Jose has several superb museums to learn about the history of Costa Rica. They’re cheap, educational, great for kids and adults and close to each other.
- Jade Museum: This archeological museum has the largest display of American jade in the world. Learn about the jade in Costa Rica and see over 7,000 artifacts and pieces. In the Plaza de la Democracia. Free for children under 10, open Monday – Sunday 10 AM to 5 PM. $15 for foreigners.
- Children’s Museum: Formerly a jail, the children’s museum is now a great place for kids with many hands-on exhibitions and presentations focusing on science and culture. Open Tues to Friday 9 AM to 5 PM, Saturday and Sunday 9:30 AM to 5 PM, closed Mondays. $4 for foreigners.
- Gold Museum: This museum has a large collection of Pre-Colombian gold dating back to AD 500. Under the Plaza de la Cultura. Open Monday – Sunday, 9:15 AM to 5 PM. $11 for foreigners.
- National Museum: Formerly a fortress, this museum is one of the most important places in Costa Rica due to its significance of the former president Jose Figueres Ferrer abolishing the army in 1948. You can even see the last bullet holes on the side of the building. Open Tuesday to Saturday 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and Sunday 9 AM to 4 PM. $9 for foreigners.
There are a couple more museums such as the Art Museum and La Salle Museum but the ones above are the most popular. The museums aren’t that big so you can spend one day visiting a good handful of them.
Our favorites are the Gold, National and Jade Museum. The Jade Museum opened in 2014 and it has some incredible exhibits to learn about Costa Rican culture and history.
Architects and sightseers can’t miss this unique building in San Jose. Designed by a Belgium architect and inspired by the Eiffel tower, the building is now a children’s school.
The funny thing about this building is how it was put together as it came with barely any instructions! If you examine the school closely, you’ll see numbers and letters which helped the workers figure out how to put it together.
If you have just 1 day in San Jose, take the a city tour. There is one company called Costa Rica City Square Tours that does a hop on, hop off style which is very convenient as they have 9 stops around the city to different museums and points of interests.
They provide guided tours and different packages if you want lunch, etc. I highly recommend this tour as you’ll have a San Jose local explaining about each attraction and providing a lot of interesting information. Even Yeison learned things about San Jose he never knew before!
Costa Rican craft beer is getting more and more popular in Costa Rica so if you love beer, take a tour to sample of the finest in the country. Craft beer is still a small scene, but it’s growing every year. The most popular one is Cervecera del Centro, where visitors can sample up to 5 different craft beers such as Ambar and Pilsen.
Just one hour away from San Jose are several volcanoes, waterfalls and other natural attractions. San Jose’s great location means there are plenty of awesome day trips where you can go ziplining, a boat cruise to an island and hike up to a volcano crater!
Want some recommendations for the best day trips? Check out our post 7 day trips from San Jose.
Here is a handy map that has some of the main tourist attractions in San Jose.
Where to Stay
- The Gran Hotel: This hotel is right smack dab in the downtown so it’s close to the museums, the national theater and many restaurants, banks and shops. It’s a bit more high end so not only does it have a great location, but rooms are very nice and this is actually where John F. Kennedy stayed when he visited Costa Rica.
- Holiday Inn Aurola: This Holiday Inn is very nice, with a large indoor swimming pool, a restaurant and bar and all rooms have a great view of San Jose. It’s near downtown and close to all of the attractions.
- Sleep Inn Hotel Paseo las Damas: This hotel is also near downtown and great for one night stays. The location is a bit seedy as it’s next to the famous Hotel Del Rey so I would not walk in that area late at night but during the day is fine.
Where to Eat
San Jose is a growing foodie scene with diverse cuisines popping up every month. You can find Argentinian grill, pho, Korean bbq, sushi, dim sum, Italian and other food in the city. In fact, you can even find many US restaurants such as Dennys, Hooters and Outback Steakhouse. But if you want to eat like a local, check out these spots.
- Posada de las Brujas: This restaurant in Escazu is the ultimate place for local food in San Jose. They have a huge menu full of only traditional Costa Rican dishes beyond the typical gallo pinto and casado and the best part is that it’s cheap. We always get bocas or appetizers because they are huge.
- Chelles: Downtown near the Sleep Inn is Chelles restaurant which has been in business for over 100 years.
- The Market: The Central Market is great if you want a lot of choices as it has local dishes, seafood, coffee and desserts, all Costa Rican. You can taste a variety of food just in the market.
- Don’t walk alone at night and try not to go out past 10 PM.
- Always keep your belongings close to you and where you can see them.
- The area around Hotel del Rey is one of the sketchiest due to its reputation with prostitutes. Avoid that area at night.
- Wear closed toed shoes – the sidewalks are horribly maintained with cracks and holes.
- When sightseeing, try not to leave your expensive camera out. Put it in your backpack when not using it.
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I hope this guide helps plan your trip to San Jose so you can make the most of your trip there. The city is quite unique, with an eclectic atmosphere and kind people and it is truly the best way to experience Tico life since majority of the population lives and works in San Jose.
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