There are more things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica than you may imagine.
Chepe, as Ticos lovingly call their capital, is the heart of Costa Rica. While most travelers do not spare it negative comments, I find that despite its messy architectural style – which is due to the economic boom and urban expansion – this modern city is a cool place to hang out for a few days.
Even people who live in Costa Rica actually enjoy it and add visiting it to the list of 50 things to do in Costa Rica.
I suppose the bad reputation of San Jose is partially due to the fact that the lush nature of the rest of the country – with its sloths, crocodiles, volcanoes and rain forest – fascinates visitors and is unfound here. Yet, since most backpackers follow the gringo route and foreign residents opt to visit and stay in other regions where they can enjoy the nature of the country, this ends up being the best place to experience the true Costa Rican identity.
In this post, I will highlight the best things to do in San Jose and share some tips on how to make the most of it. Before that, let me share some background information about this interesting city.
What You Need To Know About San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose was founded in 1737 and it was originally called Villanueva de la Boca del Monde del Valle de Abra. The name was then changed to remember that of its saint patron. Interestingly, for a long time it was only of secondary importance to the bigger Cartago. After Spain took everyone by surprise by abandoning its colonies in Central America, Cartago and San Jose signed a number of treaties while preparing for war in secret.
On 5 April 1823 San Jose won the battle of Ochomongo and became the capital of the country. Later on, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela attempted to ransack the city in a siege known as La Guerra de la Liga, but the capital managed to win and confirmed its status.
In more recent times, San Jose has undergone a vast urban development, as many Ticos and Nicaraguans moved to the capital in search of a better life. This has led to the creation of vast shantytowns and to increased crimes.
San Jose is a modern town, with a functioning transportation system, and compared to other cities in Central America, you will find it much more European with its shopping malls, traffic lights, modern buildings and trendy restaurants. Despite being a large city, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are very friendly (a typical scene would be meeting someone, asking for information and eventually be greeted with a “Pura Vida!”).
17 Actually Cool Things To Do In San Jose, Costa Rica
Take a walk along Avenida Central
One of the coolest things to do in San Jose is going for a walk along Avenida Central. This is the main artery of the city, where you will get to see most of the local action. Depending on the time of day, you will see lots of locals on their way to work, or getting off work and heading back home. The street is lined with shops and restaurants, and it is not uncommon to come across street artists and musicians, as well as people selling stuff on the street.
For a walking tour of San Jose, click here, here or here.
Explore Barrio Amon
Exploring Barrio Amon is a must. It’s located northwest of Plaza Espana, and it is a lovely colonial district which is still the residence of “cafétaleros” (coffee producers), with homes that were built between the 19th and the 20th centuries.
Some of the buildings have been recently restored and turned into hotels, restaurants and offices, making it extremely pleasant to walk around. This is by far the most popular area among tourists.
Go to the National Theater
One of the nicest things to do in San Jose is visiting the National Theater. This is one of the most beautiful buildings in town, dating back to 1891, when it was built with funds coming from taxes put on coffee (back then, the main local export). You can opt to do a tour or to go at night for a show.
The National Theater is located next to the Gran Hotel. It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. It costs $11.30 USD to visit.
Visit the Central Market
Visiting the Mercado Central is a lot of fun. It honestly has little to do with the colorful markets of other countries in Central America, but it is a good introduction to the local culture and way of life, and it is lively and busy and has a great selection of fresh produce. It’s also a good place to go if you want to try out some local specialties – there are some of the most well known eateries in the country, such as Soda Tapia.
The Municipal Craft Market is the best place to shop for souvenirs.
For a market tour, click here.
Hang out at Parque Metropolitano La Sabana
At the top of Paseo Colon, Parque Metropolitano La Sabana is the best place to escape the chaos of the city. You can hang out at the park, admiring the lagoon, the fountain and making use of the sports court and swimming pool.
Visit the National Museum
Located in a building that was once a fortress, this is a real must when in San Jose – mostly for its historical importance, as this is the place where former president Jose Figueres Ferrer announced the abolition of the army in 1948.
The museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and on Sundays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The entrance fee is $11 USD.
Visit the Museo de Arte Costarricense
One of the coolest things to do in San Jose to learn about its history is visiting this museum, which is located on the east side of the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana. It has a permanent exhibition of Costa Rican art of the 19th and 20th centuries and it is located in a nice colonial building.
The Museo de Arte Costarricence is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
Visit the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle
On the south west side of Parque Metropolitano La Sabana there is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle. If you are interested in natural history and don’t mind observing embalmed animals and butterflies, visiting is a must do.
The museum is open Mondays to Saturdays from 8:00 am to 4.00 pm and on Sundays from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Go to the Museo de Oro Precolombino
One of the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica is visiting the Museo de Oro Precolombino. It’s located in Plaza de la Cultura – but watch out as it is actually underground. The museum has a collection of more than 1600 artifacts of Pre-Columbian gold dating back to 500 AD.
The museum is open every day from 9:15 am to 5:00 pm. Admission fee is $13 USD. For a guided tour that goes to the gold museum, click here.
And to the Jade Museum
This archeology museum has an impressive exhibit of more than 7000 artifacts of American Jade. It’s located in Plaza de la Democracia.
The museum is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is $16 USD.
Take your kids to the Children Museum
Located in what used to be a prison, this museum is a great place to visit for families with children, who can enjoy a hands on approach to learning about science and culture.
The museum is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is around $4 USD.
Pass by Plaza de la Cultura
Plaza de la Cultura is considered by locals as the geographic heart of Costa Rica. It is a cool place to hang out to catch a bit of local action. It’s where the Museo de Oro Precolombino is located.
And by the Metallic Building
One of the most iconic buildings in San Jose and now the location of Buenaventura Corrales Elementary School, the Metallic Building was designed by a Belgian architect and is Central America’s first ever metallic building.
San Jose is a great place to do a Spanish Course. There aren’t that many tourists in the city, so this may well be your chance to practice your language skills away from other English speaking people.
Go on a beer tour
Food in Costa Rica is good, though quite mild. Beer is ok. The good news is that the craft beer scene is slowing improving, and one of the coolest things to do in San Jose now is going on a craft beer tour. Make sure to visit Costa Rica’s Brewing Company for the best tasting local beer.
Enjoy San Jose vibrant nightlife and music scene
San Jose has a vibrant nightlife. In Avenida Central in San Pedro you will find the Jazz Cafè, the best place to go for quality live music, with bands that play from jazz to salsa.
For a night tour of San Jose, click here.
Go on a day trip outside of the city
San Jose is well connected to the rest of the country and though most of it is not suitable for a day trip, getting out of the city is one of the best things to do in San Jose.
These are some of the best and easiest day trips from San Jose.
At a 45 minutes bus ride from San Jose, Cartago is an interesting city to visit for its religious significance and its conservative charm and a good place to go for day trips from San Jose. Highlights include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, a byzantine style church which has been renovated in 1926 following the 1910 earthquake and where you can see the famous statue of La Negrita (a black Virgin statue).
You will also be able to see Las Ruinas de la Parroquia, the ruins of the Iglesia del Convento built in 1575 in honour of San Juan and destroyed by an earthquake in 1841. Reconstruction works were interrupted in 1910 after the earthquake.
You can easily reach Cartago by bus from San Jose. Autotransportes Lumaca and Transtusa have regular buses. The ticket costs $2 USD.
This probably is the best day trip from San Jose as you get to see one of the most famous volcanoes in Central America. You have the chance to hike, go zip lining and admire several waterfalls and enjoy hot springs.
The best way to enjoy this day out of town is to do a guided tour. This one is an excellent tour that you can book via Get Your Guide – it may seem expensive but it literally includes everything – lunch, transportation, all activities. You don’t have to worry about anything other than having fun.
Practical Tips To Organize Your Trip To San Jose
When to visit San Jose
Costa Rica has two main seasons – the dry and the rain one. I recommend visiting during the dry season, as traveling in the rain season can be challenging. Compared to the rest of the country, San Jose enjoys a much milder climate in terms of temperatures, which are more spring like than in the rest of Costa Rica.
Where to stay in San Jose
San Jose has a few good places to stay. Here is a selection of places I recommend:
- Stray Cat Hostel, in the heart of the student and residential area of San Pedro, is a great choice for backpackers on a budget, with dorms at $ 14 per night. Beds are comfortable and have great lockers, rooms are spacious and clean, with large wardrobes; bathrooms are spotless; a pancakes and fruit breakfast is served daily. The hostel also features a well equipped kitchen, a lovely backyard, great common spaces and book exchange.
- Gran Hotel Costa Rica Curio Collection by Hilton is the best hotel in town, with spacious modern rooms, a fitness center, a bar, a restaurant and perfectly located.
- Hotel Presidente San Jose has clean room decorated in a classic, modern style. There is a restaurant, a bar and a fitness center on site.
How to get to San Jose
San Jose International Airport is located in Alajuela, about 10 km from the center of the city. The airport connects Costa Rica to the rest of Central and South America and the world via numerous daily flights. The airport is well connected to the city via public transportation. Alternatively, you can get to San Jose by shuttle (they depart regularly from just outside the main terminal) or taxi / Uber. The second option is cheaper but it only works in San Jose.
There is no real public bus system and no central terminal in San Jose, but a number of private companies operate from hubs scattered through the city. The biggest stations serve entire regions: Gran Terminal de Caribe has buses to the Caribbean Coast; Terminal Coca Cola connects to the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast. Terminal San Carlos serves Monteverde, La Fortuna and Sarapiquì. Tracopa links to San Isidro de General and the South.
Tica Bus and Transnica are the best companies to use for long distance travel, and they connect Costa Rica to Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Book the ticket in advance to ensure a seat.
If in Nicaragua, catch a Tica or Transnica bus from Managua through Rivas all the way to San Jose. The advantage is that it is much easier to go to through immigration if you are traveling by one of these buses, with the staff that clearly explains everything there is to do.
For more information about border crossing in Central America, check out this post.
Safety and scams in San Jose
Costa Rica in general is one of the best places to travel alone.
Although San Jose is a safe city during the day, you should definitely use some precautions after the sun goes down. The most important recommendation is not to go out at night, especially alone. If you need to do so, get an Uber. Don’t walk down streets you don’t know – definitely avoid getting lost.
Locals are generally very friendly and helpful and will do their best to keep you out of trouble if they realize you are going in the wrong direction unknowingly. If you don’t seen anybody around and feel like you are lost, find a store or any other public space and ask for help. Knowing a bit of Spanish definitely helps.
Try not to look too different from the locals. If you notice, they don’t go around in shorts, tank tops and flip flops in the city – and neither should you. This inevitably attracts unwanted attention. Don’t wear anything flashy and definitely keep your camera in your bag unless you are not using it.
Avoid areas where prostitutes are known to work – especially the surroundings of Hotel del Rey.
The number for emergencies is 911 and there is an option to speak English.
Other useful information
Costa Rica is by far the wealthiest and most advanced country in Central America, making it the most expensive too. Be prepared to pay twice the prices of Panama and up to four times those of Nicaragua.
Make sure to get a good travel insurance for your trip to Costa Rica.
Get your insurance here. Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.
If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and Central America, make sure to read my other posts:
- 27 Unmissable Things To Do In Costa Rica
- A Complete Guide To Tortuguero, Costa Rica
- A Guide To Renting A Car In Costa Rica
- A Guide To Driving In Costa Rica
- 10 Best Things To Do In Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
- The Most Awesome Things To Do In Nicaragua
- What to expect when volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
- The Best Things To Do In Panama