Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica
Let’s face it, nobody goes to Costa Rica to hang out specifically in San Jose. However, chances are that you will find yourself in San Jose at some point during a trip to Costa Rica anyway, it is a transport hub! You might as well make the most of it while you are there. Believe it or not, there are actually a few cool things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica downtown area as well as surrounding areas. This is my guide to help you have an enjoyable time while in San Jose.
While this article is mostly about things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica there are a couple of other topics covered too, they are:
- Should I spend time in San Jose or just skip it?
- Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
- Tips for visiting San Jose
- Where to go next
Should I spend time in San Jose?
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica and an underrated tourist destination. As the economic hub of Costa Rica with its central location, San Jose is the most common exit and entrance point for tourists checking out this amazing country. Unfortunately, due to its bad reputation of “not having anything to do” most people simply visit San Jose in transit, not seeing or doing anything at all.
If you are very limited with the amount of time you have to spend in Costa Rica, you shouldn’t sacrifice any days in the jungle or at the beach to spend time in San Jose. But if time is on your side, chances are you are passing through San Jose at some point anyway (either by flight or land) so you might as well stop for a night or two.
There are actually many things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica that can easily be accomplished within a day. For example, a San Jose city tour will only take an hour or two and costs next to nothing.
I spent three nights in San Jose exploring what there was to do and what the city had to offer. And what did I think? I thought that San Jose was culturally interesting and overall a nice city to hang out in.
I have picked my top things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica which should help you decide to stay in San Jose for a couple of days or not.
Top 8 things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
There are so many things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica. Below are my top 8 suggestions including day trips from the city!
1. San Jose City Tour
In terms of a San Jose City Tour, there are a couple of options. Various tour companies provide a paid tour which often involves a hotel/hostel pick-up as well as transport around the city. If you are not feeling up to a walking tour then maybe choose a paid tour with transport included. However, you will be looking at around $40 USD plus tip as a minimum.
It was a beautiful day so we decided to join a free walking tour and get some exercise!
The tour was rich with historical facts, architecture, as well as interesting stories. I find that walking tours are the best way for me to get orientated quickly in a city and find some places I want to return back to.
The company I went with was called San Jose Free Walking Tour and they were a good company I can recommend. They have tours leaving every morning at 10 am that depart from the front of the National Theater in the heart of downtown.
It was great to learn so much about the history of Costa Rica. Everywhere else I visited in Costa Rica had such a strong focus on nature in the outdoors that I truly think that San Jose is the only place to actually learn about the history. For this reason, a city tour of San Jose (free or paid) is definitely my number one pick out of all the things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica downtown area.
2. Speak to the locals and feel the “Pura Vida”
Costa Rica is great for speaking to the locals as they are all willing (and many speak English.)
Costa Rica is a really unique country in the sense that they don’t have a military at all. There is a super friendly and chilled out vibe in which they call “pura vida.”
One of the greatest things about San Jose is that because it isn’t as touristy as the other spots you will likely go in Costa Rica, the culture really sticks. You will see it just from walking around the city.
3. Visit the National Theater
The National Theater is one of San Jose’s most prestigious buildings. In the past, it was used as the main selling point to attract rich visitors to the country and city. It is filled with lavish furnishings and many stunning marble statues.
These days the theatre still operates and you can come and watch a show here or just have a look around. The theatre is actually visited on the free walking tour of San Jose, however, to get a closer look you can pay $10 to enter.
The National Theater is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 4 pm and is located in the central section of San Jose near the Grand Hotel.
4. Explore one of the many Museums
San Jose is home to many great museums that give insight into Costa Rica’s history, culture and politics. They are:
This museum showcases exhibits that highlight Costa Rica’s history, archaeology, anthropology and natural history. The museum is also home to a butterfly garden. The National Museum itself is actually an old fort called the Bella Vista Barracks and old bullet holes can still be seen in the walls that surround it. This museum is a great place to visit for a broad understanding of Costa Rica and is considered one of the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Foreign visitors pay $8 to enter or $4 with a student card. The museum is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm every day except Sundays when it opens at 9 am.
The Jade Museum is home to over 7,000 pieces of jade. It is the largest collection of pre-Colombian jade in the world! Here you can find out the importance of jade to the Costa Rican people as well as how Jade artefacts are made.
Foreign visitors pay $8 entry or free with a student card or for children 12 years and younger. The Museum is open from 8:30 am – 3:30 pm Monday to Friday and 9 am to 1 pm on Saturday.
The pre-Colombian Gold Museum is home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold in Latin America. Here you can find many gold artefacts dating back thousands of years ago. It is home to over 1600 individual pieces.
Foreign visitors pay $9 entry or $5 with a valid student card. The museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day.
Costa Rican Centre of Science and Culture
The Costa Rican Centre of Science and Culture is actually home to three museums. These are the Children’s Museum, the National Gallery, and the National Auditorium. The exhibits on show are about science, culture, recycling and technology.
Admission is free and open from 8 am to 4:30 pm Tuesday to Friday and 9 am to 5 pm Saturday and Sunday.
Museum of Costa Rican Art
The Museum of Costa Rican Art is home to the most prominent art collections in San Jose and Costa Rica. The museum is both indoors and outdoors and features paintings, sculptures, engravings, photographs, videos and photos.
Entrance is $5 or $3 with a student card. The Museum is open from 9 am to 4 pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
5. Check Out the Central Market
On a San Jose city tour, they may take you here, but if not make sure to have a look on your own.
I could easily spend a couple of hours looking at items for sale or having a cheap lunch at one of the “sodas”. You MUST try the ice cream shop called “Helados de Sorbetera”. It is a unique tasting and only found at this store. Others have tried to copy the recipe but they have all failed. When I saw the locals enjoying it I thought “yuck, that looks gross.” But once I tried it, wow!
6. Go Shopping
Even if you didn’t plan on it, while walking around downtown San Jose you will likely stop and do a bit of shopping. The great thing about the downtown area is that there are tons of privately owned clothing shops which have some of the cheapest clothes I have seen so far on this trip.
Costa Rica is known to be quite expensive, which is pretty true in terms of normal day to day living costs, but I was shocked to see how cheap the clothes were (especially in comparison to how expensive clothes were in Puerto Viejo.) There are also knock-off running shoes for sale everywhere for about $12 USD a pair. This is the place to replace any missing items from your backpack!
If you are into higher quality stuff Costa Rica is great because there are also many American stores. There is a mall called San Pedro which is only a 10-15 minutes walk from the main downtown area (but only 2 minutes from where we stayed.) Here you will find all the best brands as well as a fully American-style food court and cinema!
7. Try some Craft Beer or Join a Tour
Costa Ricans are quite proud of their fairly new craft beer industry. In the downtown area, there are various restaurants which feature some of the best local craft beer. One place, in particular, is “Good Karma Artisan Ales & Café”, go here for some good food and try the self-proclaimed “best beer in town.” Prices are reasonable and there is live music from time to time.
You can also join a craft beer tour and meet some new people while sampling all of the best beer Costa Rica has to offer.
8. Take a day trip from San Jose
From the city of San Jose, you can venture out and explore many great places within a day. The things to do in San Jose Costa Rica shouldn’t be limited to the city borders. Some great day tours from San Jose include:
Tortuga Island is just about the best day trip from San Jose, Costa Rica. This small island is only accessible by boat and has something for everyone! This includes amazing diving and snorkelling to see an array of fish and even larger animals like Sharks, Dolphins, Octopus and Manta Rays.
Tortuga Island is also home to amazing beaches, hiking trails, lush forest that include canopy zip line tours. You can also rent kayaks, paddle boards, sun chairs and umbrellas as well as buy food and drinks on the beach.
The Balsa River is the best place in Costa Rica to go white water rafting, and not just for the rapids, the Balsa River is also a great place to spot wildlife – and in between rapids is a great time to do it. This activity is perfect for the whole family as the rapids are mainly Grade 3.
Irazu volcano is a spectacular volcano to visit. During the tours, you will be driven out to the volcano from San Jose before beginning a walk to the crater viewpoint. From here on a clear day, you can actually see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans! Some tours also include a visit to the town of Cartago to visit some ruins.
If you love coffee then this is the tour for you! Here you can learn about the coffee growing process as well as how the Costa Ricans make it taste so amazing. The tours run for 1.5 hours without allowing for transport.
This tour doesn’t involve a hike up the volcano, but instead, a scenic drive to and from which includes a lunch overlooking the volcano. Then it’s off to the hot springs to sit back and relax and feel rejuvenated from the thermal water. This tour is a very relaxing way to see one of Costa Rica’s stunning volcanos.
Jaco Beach is a beautiful beach area close to San Jose. On these tours, you will likely get up to a few different activities depending o the tour you book. These include zip lining, ATV riding, horseback riding, and surfing, You can also choose to just relax on the beach and enjoy a drink!
At the Toucan Rescue Ranch, you can learn all about and see lots of toucans. This tour involves a walk around the property with a guide learning about the different species and the importance of the centre.
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My Travel Tips for San Jose
-Use Uber as transportation when you can. Taxi drivers will charge up to three times as much as Uber. We only used Uber while in San Jose and the drivers were all super friendly. There is even sometimes an option for “Uber English” which is only a small amount more and your driver will speak English!
-Only bring the valuables you need with you. Although the city felt really safe, it is still a big city with the potential for crime. Leave passports locked up in your hostel as well as credit cards and only bring the spending cash you need with you.
-Be prepared for a bit of traffic. When we were leaving San Jose we got an Uber to the bus station which was only a couple of kilometres away but the ride took about 30 minutes. Just give yourself enough time to get anywhere for the chance that traffic could cause a bit of a delay.
San Jose Hotels and Hostels
Selina – Selina have hostels throughout Latin America and they are always a great budget-friendly option. Here, you can pick from dorm rooms and private rooms. Selina is located only 700m from the National Theatre.
Costa Rica Backpackers – Costa Rica Backpackers is another budget option located in central San Jose. A good thing about this hostel is that they also have a pool and free breakfast with private rooms. They offer large dorm rooms as well as private rooms.
Hostel Urbano Yoses – This hostel has a relaxed chilled out vibe and amazing views of the city. It is a little further out but in a nice area near shops and still walking distance from the city. They have privates and dorm rooms. It is very clean and modern for a hostel with an amazing kitchen!
Autentico Hotel – This hotel is a little further from the centre but still in an ideal location. It features air conditioning in every room, cable tv, a pool, and really comfy beds. This is the perfect mid-range option for two people.
Exe San Jose Center – This Hotel is as close to the centre of town as you can get and is only 200m from the National Theatre. Exe San Jose features a sauna and fitness centre in the building so its great for those who can’t miss the gym. It’s a very highly rated hotel on Booking.com!
Hotel Colonial – Hotel Colonial is a luxury hotel that features beautiful architecture and style. Its clean, comfortable and in a central location.
Hotel Presidente – Hotel Presidente is a very luxurious hotel that comes at the very low point of a high budget hotel. It’s in a perfect location and offers a free buffet style breakfast.
Grano de Ora Hotel – The Grano de Ora Hotel is a stunning place to stay close to the city centre. It’s luxurious and retains much of its antique style. It’s a beautiful choice!
Gran Hotel – The Gran hotel is arguably the nicest hotel in San Jose. This hotel is in an old colonial style building that has been revived and is now as stunning as ever. if you have the budget you really can’t go past the Gran Hotel!
Where to go next
As I said, San Jose is a common base for those who want to explore more of Costa Rica and the things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica won’t satisfy most visitors. The two places I would recommend going to which are easily accessible from San Jose are:
- Puerto Viejo – here you will get amazing beaches on the Caribbean coast as well as a big dose of animals in the national parks and rescue centres. Check out our guide to Puerto Viejo here, and our guide to the famous national park Cahuita here.
- Monteverde – completely the opposite of Puerto Viejo as this place is a cloud forest inland! Daniel and I really enjoyed exploring Monteverde, especially in the wet season.
If you have a bit more time you could also cross the border to Panama to check to the famous backpacker spot of Bocas del Toro. Here is our guide to the border crossing and here is our guide to Bocas del Toro.
Don’t skip San Jose completely. There is so much culture to experience there and it is such an easy city to see fairly quickly. I hope my list of things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica is helpful and you enjoy the city as much as I did!
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May 30, 2019