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. Now, I’m not saying you should sacrifice any days in the jungle or at the beach to spend time in San Jose, but chances are that if you are passing through either by flight or land you will stop for a night or two.
There is actually many things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica downtown area that can easily be accomplished within a day. For example, a San Jose city tour will only take an hour or two and cost next to nothing.
I spent three nights in San Jose exploring what there was to do and what it had to offer. This is my guide to getting the most out this culturally rich city.
Top 5 Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica Downtown
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 than 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 I decided to do a free walking tour! 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 10am from the front of the national theater. This 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 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. 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. 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 very unique and only found at this store as others have tried to copy the recipe – they have all failed. When I saw the locals enjoying it I thought “yuck, that looks gross.” But once I tried it, wow!
4. 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 about $12 USD a pair. So, 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!
5. Try some Craft Beer
Costa Ricans are quite proud of their fairly new craft beer industry. In the downtown area there are various restaurants which feature some of their best. There is also an option to join a craft beer tour one evening for $30 USD or you can just go to “Good Karma Artisan Ales & Café” 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.
My Travel Tips for San Jose
-Choose your accommodation carefully. Although the downtown area is nice and you will want to spend a day there, it is a little bit hectic. So I would recommend staying a couple minutes out in a quieter (and safer) area such as Yoses. We stayed in Yoses and could take an Uber for only $3 USD or walk 10-15 minutes to get to downtown. This was nice because we could escape the craziness of the city center when we needed and enjoy some peace and quiet.
We stayed at Hostel Urbano Yoses and I would definitely suggest it as a great option for the perfect location but also in terms of comfort. It was a really clean and a new looking hostel with lots of common areas and even mountain views. There was a lovely kitchen and a supermarket across the street so we did a fair amount of cooking while in San Jose to keep our budget on track.
-Use Uber as transportation when you can. Taxi drivers will charge up to three times as much and Uber is safer. 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 kilometers 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.
Where to Go Next
Like I said, San Jose is a common base for those who want to explore more of Costa Rica. The two places I would recommend going to which are easily accessible from San Jose are:
- Puerto Viejo – here you will get beach on the Caribbean as well as a big dose of animals in the national parks and rescue centers. 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 here and it is such an easy city to see fairly quickly. I hope my list of things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica downtown is helpful and you enjoy the city as much as I did!
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