Since Costa Rica is known for breathtaking natural landmarks, ample wildlife and exciting outdoor adventure, San Jose may not be the first destination to pop in mind. However, what majority of people don’t know is that San Jose is close to all of that and more! Not everyone has the luxury to slow travel 3 weeks in Costa Rica so if you’re short on time and more of a city person, San Jose is the ideal destination.
It’s particularly good for first timers because:
- SJO Airport is the main international airport in Costa Rica so there are more flights and prices may be cheaper.
- It’s pretty easy to get around using public buses.
- San Jose is in a central location in the country.
- Many of the attractions in San Jose are cheap.
Here is a sample 5 day Costa Rica itinerary based in San Jose. You’ll get to experience Costa Rican city life, lots of culture, nature and adventure! Perfect for city people who want a sprinkling of nature in their trip.
Things to Know About This 5 Day San Jose, Costa Rica Itinerary
- You don’t necessarily need to rent a car for this itinerary. Public transportation is very good in San Jose and Uber is available. Driving in San Jose is kinda crazy with awful traffic during rush hour, so if you’re worried about driving, don’t. For national parks or attractions out of the city, you can book day trips. Read our tips for taking the bus in Costa Rica.
- You need to be very careful in San Jose. Unfortunately crime in San Jose is fairly present, theft is the main crime. Don’t walk alone at night, avoid walking to places you aren’t familiar with and always keep your valuables close to you with both eyes on it at all times. Use your common sense and follow your instincts.
- Though San Jose downtown isn’t the nicest compared to other big cities in the world, it is an excellent location since you will be in walking distance to museums, restaurants and other attractions.
- We recommend using Uber at night. Read our tips for using Uber in Costa Rica or take a taxi for safety. Don’t walk, especially alone.
Where to Stay
For the first 2 days of this itinerary, you will be staying in the city so you can walk to museums and other attractions. There are several hostels and hotels in downtown that are in a good safe location.
Hotels in the City
- The Gran Hotel: This hotel is across the street from the National Theater so you’re super close to all the attractions. It’s an older hotel with lots of history, it’s actually where John F. Kennedy stayed when he visited Costa Rica. It has been recently renovated.
- 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. Rooms start around $80.
- Costa Rica Backpackers Hostel in San Jose: This hostel is smack dab in downtown and has an outdoor pool and communal kitchen. It costs around $12 a bed in a dorm.
- Hotel Casa Colonial: This small hotel is in downtown San Jose, close to the Museum of Jade. Good budget option. Rooms are cozy and simple, starting at $70.
Hotels Outside the City
Then for the last 3 days, head to the mountains outside the city to experience something different. Since the central valley cities of San Jose, Alajuela and Heredia are very close to each other, you can stay around any of those cities.
You can take a taxi or Uber to the hotel. Your hotel may be able to offer transportation with a small charge.
- Finca Rosa Blanca: This eco-friendly coffee plantation and inn has a spectacular view of Heredia. The hotel offers coffee tours on their property, it has a pool and very good restaurant. Rooms are incredibly spacious, perfect for couples or families. Suites start at $330.
- Pura Vida Resort: If you’re into yoga, this is an ideal place for you as the resort has yoga decks and offers lessons and retreats. They also offer packages with yoga, tours and transportation included. Rooms start at $130.
- Hotel & Restaurant Chalet Tirol: This hotel has a very unique design, built after the Swiss chalets up in the hills of Heredia. They have a spa, golf course and their wooden cabins are very modern. Rooms start at $85.
- Hotel Bougainvillea: If you don’t want to be too far away from the city but still want to experience staying outside of it, this is a good pick. This hotel is located a little outside of Heredia. Rooms start at $130.
- Hotel Alta Las Palomas: Located in the “Beverly Hills of Costa Rica” this 4 star hotel has everything for a luxury stay: a stunning view of San Jose, valet parking, lounge and on site restaurant. Rooms start at $100.
Day 1: Museums
San Jose has many great museums to learn about the history and culture of Costa Rica. Our favorites are the Jade Museum, Gold Museum and the National Museum.
Jade Museum: See the biggest display of American jade in the world at this new museum. There are over 7,000 pieces and artifacts. Located in the Plaza de la Democracia, free for kids under 10. $15 for foreigners, open Monday to Sunday 10 AM – 5 PM.
National Museum: This museum used to be a fortress when Costa Rica had a military. $9 for foreigners, open Tuesday – Saturday 830AM to 430PM and Sunday 9AM to 4 PM. You can see the museum in about 1 hour.
Gold Museum: Learn about Pre-Colombian gold in this museum, they have pieces dating back to 500 AD. Open Monday – Sunday, 9:15 AM to 5 PM. $11 for foreigners in the Plaza de la Cultura. You can see this in 1-2 hours as well.
All these museums are fairly small and can be seen in around 2 hours or less.
Other options: If you have kids, there is a great Children’s Museum in San Jose and an Art Museum.
San Jose City Tour and Dinner Show
If you’re interested in learning more about the city, we recommend taking a guided tour of San Jose. With a guide, you can learn more about the culture, history and places of interest in San Jose that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
You can read more about the San Jose city tour here. As this is an afternoon tour, you’ll finish right around dusk (6 PM) and for a full day of Costa Rican culture, we recommend to end the night at a Costa Rican dinner show.
There are two popular options: Mirador Tiquicia and Ram Luna. Ram Luna offers a traditional Costa Rican buffet and dance show on Wednesday and Thursdays, Tiquicia has theirs on Friday. If your dates work out, we personally like Ram Luna a bit more than Tiquicia. But both are great cultural experiences!
Day 2: White Water Rafting Rio Pacuare
Add some excitement to your trip by white water rafting the famous Rio Pacuare! This gorgeous river has Class 3 and 4 rapids and this is a full day of fun.
Twist, turn and spin in the river as you pass by beautiful waterfalls. Rio Pacuare looks like Jurassic Park (seriously), surrounded by a verdant jungle on both sides with toucans, kingfishers and herons flying around.
We did the one day Rio Pacuare tour with Rios Tropicales. It includes pick up and drop off at hotels in San Jose and lunch. Read about the 1 day Rio Pacure white water rafting here and we also offer an exclusive Rio Pacuare Mytanfeet discount.
Day 3: National Theater, Central Market, Move to Hotel in the Hills
Before checking out of the hotel, head to the National Theater in the morning. Take a guided tour or pay a $10 entrance fee for a self guided tour. This incredible theater has lavish gold decorations, elaborate statues and detailed paintings depicting local life. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Costa Rica.
You can do the National Theater in about 1 hour and afterwards, head to the Central Market to do some souvenir shopping. The San Jose Central Market is full of history dating back to over 100 years. This is where you can buy Costa Rican souvenirs.
You can also sample some Costa Rican treats, coffee and pastries. Visiting the local market is in our opinion, the best way to experience the culture and local life. There’s so many sights, sounds and smells to take in!
If you want to do some more shopping, check out the Artisan market 10 minutes walking down the street.
Check Out and Move Hotels
After check out, head to your next hotel to relax in the mountains. You’ll be amazed at how different it is – you’re still close to the city but it feels like you’re in a completely different country! Enjoy your last couple days in Costa Rica surrounded by birds, trees and nature.
More options: If you have time, stroll through Central Avenue. This is the main street in San Jose and you can walk in the shoes of the typical city Tico. You’ll see people playing music, selling random knick knacks and people juggling and doing tricks. Normal city stuff 😉
Day 4: Day trip to Poas Volcano, Doka Coffee and La Paz waterfalls
Visit two of the most popular natural attractions in Costa Rica: the Poas Volcano National Park and La Paz waterfall gardens. You can visit these on your own if you rented a car.
Poas Volcano National Park is the most popular park in Costa Rica since it’s only about 1 hour from San Jose. On a clear day, you can see the bright blue water in the crater. It is now reopen as of 2018 and visitors are allowed to be in the park for 40 minutes to see the crater.
Then you’ll go to Doka Coffee Estate to learn about how Costa Rican coffee is processed. You’ll find out why it’s such good quality, about the plants and the different kinds of coffee.
Afterwards, you’ll visit the La Paz waterfall gardens. This park has an animal sanctuary and 5 beautiful waterfalls on the property.
Tours with Transportation
If you need transportation, we have a partnership with Expediciones Tropicales to give small discounts for one day San Jose tours including the ones mentioned above.
Day 5: Rainforest Adventures or Relax
You may want to just relax on your last day in Costa Rica but if not, then there are plenty of other fun activities to choose from. Go on one last adventure and experience the essential activity of ziplining in Costa Rica at Rainforest Adventures Atlantic.
They also have an aerial tram and hiking trails you can do too.
Rainforest Adventures Atlantico offers transportation from most hotels in San Jose. A canopy tour costs $50.
Other options: If you have a lot of energy on your last day, you can also hike Barva Volcano, take another day trip to Arenal or Monteverde, or if you want to see the beach, you can take a day trip to Isla Tortuga (get $10 off the tour).
Tips for This San Jose, Costa Rica Itinerary
- San Jose weather is very nice since it’s high in elevation (around 1000 – 1500 meters, 3200 to 4900 feet). If you visit during dry season (middle of December to end of April), it is very comfortable with temperatures in the mid 80s F (29 C). If you visit during rainy season (middle of May to beginning of December), make sure to bring long pants, a sweater and rain jacket. September, October and November are rainy months so you must come prepared for rain and colder weather. Check our Costa Rica packing list and rainy season packing list here.
- When in the city, wear closed toed shoes as the roads and sidewalks have lots of holes. And since you’re in the city, long pants are the way to go for both men and women.
- Free open Wi-Fi is not that readily available in the city. If you go to a restaurant or cafe and see they have Internet, you can ask for their password if you’re a customer.
Want to see other Costa Rica itineraries? Check these out!
10 day itinerary: San Jose, Puerto Viejo and Arenal
1 week itinerary: San Jose, Jaco, Dominical and Uvita
2 week itinerary: Arenal, Monteverde, Nicoya Peninsula and Guanacaste
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