As the capital city of Costa Rica where more than 1 million Costa Ricans out of a population of 5 live and work, San Jose is one of the most important cities in Latin America. For this reason, there are many cultural and historical things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Many travelers brush off San Jose, using it solely as a transit hub to get to the volcanoes and beaches or skipping it entirely. Though a bit rough around the edges at first impression, it’s certainly worth visiting. 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. Yeison grew up very close to San Jose so you can also find out some of the local hot spots in our guide as well!
This post has been updated November 2020
Click to skip to the section.
- Getting around
- Things to do
- Day Trips (plus our discount for tours)
- Sample Itineraries
- City Tour
- Safety tips
San Jose, Costa RIca map
San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica in the San Jose province with a population of nearly 300,000 people and many more commuting locals.
Interesting fact: Although many people think San Jose International Airport is in San Jose, it is actually in Alajuela, the province next door. Another interesting fact, San Jose was the third city in the world to get public electricity and one of the first for public telephones.
Getting Around San Jose
This is probably what intimates travelers the most about San Jose: getting around. However finding your way around San Jose is much easier with Uber and new bus routes.
- Bus: There are many buses in San Jose, 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 and is quick. Read our tips for using Uber in Costa Rica and get $10 off your first ride.
- Taxi: We prefer Uber as taxi drivers in Costa Rica are pushy but you can find taxis 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 if you are by yourself as some parts can get sketchy. Always take a taxi or Uber at night.
How to get to San Jose from SJO Airport
The airport is about 17 kilometers ( 10.5 miles) from downtown San Jose. To get to San Jose from San Jose International Airport, you can take a taxi or an Uber or arrange a transfer in shuttle. An Uber/taxi costs about 8,000 – 10,000 CRC ($14 – 17.50 USD) one way. A private shuttle is $35 USD for 1-4 people from the airport to downtown. The San Jose International Airport is about a 30 minute drive to downtown San Jose.
You can also take the public bus. There is a bus stop right outside the airport. Walk down the ramp onto the main street and you will see the bus stop there. It runs frequently and costs just a couple hundred colones to get to downtown.
Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
Walk Central Avenue
Central Avenue is San Jose’s downtown and it goes straight through. It’s an excellent starting point because there are some museums around and it’s a great for mingling with locals.
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 and shops. You’ll see locals selling items on the street, street musicians and performers. This is one of the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica because you get to experience local life and culture.
Check out what it’s like to walk the avenue in the video below!
The Costa Rica national theater is one of our favorite places in San Jose. Take a tour to learn about the theater and see the stunning architecture or watch a performance.
Entrance fee for the National Theater is $10 USD, open Monday to Sunday, 9 AM – 5 PM, next to the Gran Hotel. Reservations required.
Restaurante Tiquicia or Ram Luna
This restaurant up in the hills of Escazu has a stunning view of San Jose, the surrounding mountains and nearby cities. They serve traditional food and drinks and on Friday nights, they have traditional performances by the local kids.
This is a wonderful place to see the city lights, eat local food and experience some Costa Rican culture.
The San Jose Central Market 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.
Most San Jose sightseeing tours stop by this market as it’s one of the most important places in the city.
This is a great place to souvenir shop in San Jose since there are many stalls. 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!
Municipal Craft Market
For more unique hand made local souvenirs, head to the Municipal Craft Market. They have dozens of local vendors selling their artisanal products.
San Jose Museums
San Jose has several superb museums to learn about the history of Costa Rica. Due to COVID, you will need to make reservations/purchase tickets beforehand. Make sure to check opening hours.
- Jade Museum: This archeological museum has the largest display of American jade in the world with over 7,000 artifacts and pieces. In the Plaza de la Democracia.
- Children’s Museum: Formerly a jail, the children’s museum has hands-on exhibitions and science and culture presentations.
- Gold Museum: This museum has a large collection of Pre-Colombian gold dating back to AD 500. Under the Plaza de la Cultura.
- National Museum: Formerly a fortress, this museum is one of the most important places in Costa Rica since it’s where former president Jose Figueres Ferrer abolished the army in 1948.
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.
This is one of the few free things to do in San Jose.
San Jose Day Tours
Just one hour away from San Jose are several volcanoes, waterfalls and other natural attractions. As a result of San Jose’s great location, 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!
San Jose, Costa Rica Map
Here is an interactive Google map with the attractions mentioned above. Click the left bar to open the categories.
Sample Itineraries for One Day in San Jose
If you have a one day in San Jose and want to spend it sightseeing on your own, here are our recommendations. All these spots except for Silvestre is right in downtown and you can walk to all the attractions. For Silvestre, we recommend to Uber.
- 10 AM Morning guided tour to the National Theater
- 11-1130 AM ish Sit in the Plaza de la Democracia to people watch for a little bit
- 12 PM Have lunch and spend an hour or two souvenir shopping at the Central Market. Also get an ice cream at the market.
- 2 PM Stop by the Municipal Craft Market for more souvenir shopping and browsing
- 3 PM A coffee and cake at Spoon in downtown San Jose on Second Avenue
- Head to hotel to relax and freshen up
- Dinner at Silvestre or 11.47 Aranjuez for a nice dinner.
An alternative option is to do the guided tour of the theater in the morning and visit one of the museums in the afternoon.
San Jose City Tour
There are several tour companies that offer San Jose city tours. They’ll take you around to the highlights of the city such as Parque Morazan, a couple of museums, the Catholic church, the central market and other points of interest.
For a full day of cultural and fun, we recommend to do the San Jose city tour and then the Ram Luna or Restaurante Tiquicia at night. The City tour is in the afternoon and they’ll take you straight to the restaurant afterwards.
Get a discount off the San Jose city tour here! The tour is called San Jose Explorer and you can also find Ram Luna and Restaurante Tiquicia on the list.
San Jose, Costa Rica Hotels
- The Gran Hotel: In downtown and close to the museums, the national theater, restaurants, banks and shops. Now part of Hilton and very nice.
- Hotel Presidente: A very nice modern urban hotel right in downtown. Has a very funky decoration and is pet friendly with standard rooms and concept rooms.
- Holiday Inn Aurola: This Holiday Inn has a large indoor swimming pool, a restaurant and bar. All rooms have a great view of San Jose. Near downtown.
- Adventure Inn: Great option if you need a place near the SJO airport. Beautiful little inn with excellent breakfast. Has a gym, office and restaurant. Get 10% off your booking in the link.
- Hotel Santo Tomas: Small cute hotel near downtown San Jose with a wellness center and anti aging clinic.
- Hotel Aranjuez: Good mid range/budget option for a hotel in downtown San Jose. They have an amazing restaurant.
- Fauna Luxury Hostel: This luxury hostel has pods dorms and private rooms. It also has a co-working space, pool, rooftop, restaurant and game room. In Escazu.
- Hotel Balmoral: This is a very nice and newly renovated hotel near downtown. They have a restaurant and gym with standard rooms and apartments.
- Selina: They have a hip co working environment and private rooms.
There are also a ton of Airbnbs in San Jose (get $40 USD off for signing up in the link). We actually like to stay in a condo tower because it has secure parking and a guard.
We’ve stayed at Ambar Torre Condos, Nunciatura flats, Condominio Vistas del Robledal, Apartamentos Witite and Azena Towers. The only thing to note is if you stay at an Airbnb condo tower, tour companies will have you go to the nearest hotel for the pick up and drop off point since they can’t pick up at Airbnbs.
If you’re looking for a hotel near the airport, read our post for SJO Airport hotels.
San Jose Restaurants
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in San Jose, Costa Rica. Barrio Escalante is the best neighborhood for food and you can find restaurants of all types of cuisines there. Uber Eats and Globo work in San Jose for delivery.
- Posada de las Brujas: This restaurant in Escazu is one of our favorite places for local food in San Jose with a huge menu. Big portions, very good prices.
- The Market: Has several local restaurants.
- Craic Irish Pub San Jose: Irish pub with fish and chips and good craft beer.
- Stiefel Pub: One of the best places for craft beer and bar food in San Jose.
- Taste of India 506: In Escazu Village, very good Indian food.
- Silvestre: Amazing fine dining restaurant, same owner as Don Rufino in La Fortuna.
- Restaurante Machu Pichu Excellent Peruvian food. Their seafood is really good.
- Rincon Famoso: Amazing Argentinian grill. The empanadas are one of our favorites.
- 11.47 Aranjuez: For fine dining, this is an excellent choice. They offer gourmet Costa Rican fusion food and is one of our favorite restaurants in Costa Rica. Reservation only.
- Cafe Franco: Chill cafe spot with lots of pastries, great coffee and vegan/vegetarian options.
- Zaika: Gourmet Indian Cuisin, they have a sister restaurant in Tamarindo
San Jose, Costa Rica is generally safe during the day but there are some places we recommend staying away from and things to keep in mind.
- Don’t walk alone at night and try not to go out past 10 PM (especially alone). If you want to go out, always take a taxi or Uber. Never walk down streets you don’t know.
- Face masks are required indoors at all establishments. Since it is the city and difficult to stay 1.6 meters apart from other people, it is recommended to wear your face mask outside when walking.
- If you are lost or feel unsafe, go into a safe public area (supermarket, gas station, business) and ask the employees to help you. Most city Costa Rican speaks a degree of English.
- In case of emergencies, the emergency line is 911 and they have an English speaking option.
- Don’t wear beach clothes in the city. You will stick out like a sore thumb.
- When purchasing things, never take out all the cash in your wallet. Take out only the amount needed. If you use your credit card, always keep an eye on it, never let it leave your sight.
- 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.
- Don’t leave your expensive camera out. Put it in your backpack when not using it.
If you’re visiting San Jose for a short period of time, here is a sample 5 day San Jose itinerary.
Read Other Costa Rica city guides below!
La Fortuna, Costa Rica: Main town and tourism hub near Arenal Volcano, famous for adventure, wildlife and nature
Jaco, Costa Rica: Biggest and most developed beach town, only 1.5 hours from San Jose. A popular surfing beach.
Tamarindo, Costa Rica: The main surf town in the North Pacific (Guanacaste province). Popular for backpackers and families, has good nightlife and lots of beautiful beaches around
Monteverde, Costa Rica: Small farming town up in the cloud forest. Famous for nature, hanging bridges, ziplining and birdwatching