17 Exciting Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica (& city guide!)
Contrary to what you may have heard, there are actually a ton of fun and exciting things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica! And in this blog, I’m going to tell you all about these activities and attractions so you can have best time possible in Costa Rica’s vibrant capital city!
San Jose, Costa Rica is often the forgotten destination of this beautiful country known for its lush jungles and amazing beaches. However, on your way to Costa Rica, San Jose is a likely stop before you head off to other destinations such as Monteverde (which is beautiful by the way!).
So, you may as well enjoy your time here and explore some of the amazing things to do in San Jose!
But flying into a big city can be daunting, especially if you haven’t been to San Jose before!
So while this article will cover all the amazing things to do in San Jose, it’s also going to let you know a little bit about the city itself, how to plan your trip to San Jose, and some of the city’s dangers.
About San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose is the capital and largest city in Costa Rica. It’s home to over 2 million people and is the business center of the country. For a large Latin American city, San Jose has one of the best standards of quality of life and safety.
For any traveler unsure about the city, (this is great news!) San Jose, Costa Rica is now the 6th most visited Latin American city – thanks mostly to visitors from the United States.
Despite the city’s large urban sprawl, San Jose itself is technically built in the middle of a tropical rain forest and it only takes a short drive outside the city limits to find humid forests and wildlife you’d expect to see in Costa Rica.
This makes San Jose a great base for day trips in and out of the city – as you’ll read below!
How long should I stay in San Jose?
This can be a hard question to answer but I’m going to give it a good shot! In my honest opinion, it really depends on how much time you have to spare. After visiting the rest of Costa Rica I can tell you honestly that although San Jose is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica, it doesn’t compare to some of the other destinations.
However, if you really want to travel to the country and get to know its people, then visiting its most important city is a must!
So my overall recommendation is to spend at least 1 full day San Jose. If you can spare an extra day, then spend a day on either side fo your trip (if you’re flying in and out). For many reading this, San Jose will be both your entry and exit point in Costa Rica, and in two days you can explore lots of the city and be satisfied you did it well enough.
In fact, 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. Which brings me to our next question!
What are the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica?
Top 8 things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
1. San Jose City Tour
A city tour of San Jose is hands down the best way to get to know the city, find your bearings, and get settled into the city overall.
There are a few great options for city tours in San Jose so it all depends on what you enjoy. There are lots of tour companies that provide paid tours which often involve a hotel/hostel pick-up as well as transport around the city.
If you are not feeling up to a long 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.
However, if you’re after a cheaper option and don’t mind a bit of walking then join the FREE walking tour! It was a beautiful day so this is what we decided to do!
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.
Important info: The company I went with was called San Jose Free Walking Tour and they were a good company that I can recommend. They have tours leaving every morning at 9 am that depart from the front of the National Theater in the heart of downtown.
Why go: 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 and the outdoors that I truly think that San Jose is the only place to actually learn about the history of the country.
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. Visit the National Theater – Teatro Nacional Costa Rica
The National Theater (or Teatro Nacional Costa Rica) is one of San Jose’s most prestigious buildings. It’s filled with lavish furnishings and many stunning marble statues. In the past, it was used as the main selling point to attract rich visitors to the country and city.
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, you won’t get to see much of the theater. Instead, come back on your own for a closer look.
Important info: It costs $10 USD to enter the theater for a look around. The National Theater is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 9 am to 4 pm and is located in the central section of San Jose near the Grand Hotel.
3. Explore a museum in San Jose
San Jose is home to many great museums that give visitors insight into Costa Rica’s history, culture, and politics. They are:
1. National Museum – Museo Nacional De Costa Rica
The National Museum of Costa Rice showcases exhibits that highlight Costa Rica’s history, archaeology, anthropology, and natural history.
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 I consider it one of the best attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Important info: Foreign visitors pay $8 USD to enter or $4 USD 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.
2. Jade Museum – Museo del Jade
The Jade Museum is home to over 7,000 pieces of jade. It’s 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 artifacts are made.
I loved this place (but I’ve had a weird thing for jade ever since I lived in New Zeland where you could collect small jade stones from beaches.)
Important info: Foreign visitors pay $8 USD entry, 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.
3. Pre-Colombian Gold Museum
The Pre-Colombian Gold Museum is home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold in Latin America. At the museum, you can find many gold artifacts dating back thousands of years. It is home to over 1,600 individual pieces.
Its a really nice exhibit with some amazing gold artifacts. I would recommend this museum to anyone who loves art and history!
Important info: Foreign visitors pay $9 USD entry or $5 USD with a valid student card. The museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day.
4. 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.
Unfortunately, I never had time to go so I can’t tell you how good it is, but reviews on TripAdvisor rate it high especially for those with kids!
Important info: Admission is free and it’s open from 8 am to 4:30 pm Tuesday to Friday, and 9 am to 5 pm Saturday and Sunday.
5. Museum of Costa Rican Art – Museo de Arte Costarricense
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.
I found this place to be okay, but out of the museums I visited, it was my least favorite!
Important info: The entrance fee is $5 USD or $3 USD with a student card. The museum is open from 9 am to 4 pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
4. Check Out the Central Market
The Central Market in San Jose is a must-visit! This place is filled with interesting shops to buy souvenirs and lots of food! 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”. One thing you must try is the ice cream shop called “Helados de Sorbetera”.
It’s a very unique tasting icecream and only found at this one specific store. Others in San Jose 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!
This place is famous so give it a try!
5. Speak to the locals and feel the “Pura Vida”
Costa Rica is great for speaking to the locals as they are very friendly people and many speak English.
If you get a chance to converse with a local it’s an awesome way to get to know the city and ask for some local recommendations. Locals in San Jose are more than willing to help and you’re sure to find a great restaurant or bar from a local suggestion.
There is a super friendly and chilled out vibe in which the locals call “Pura Vida,” which translates to “Pure Life”. It means a life with no stress which is quite the opposite of the typical western culture follows.
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, you get a more authentic experience. You will see it for yourself just from walking around San Jose!
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. There is a huge range of places to shop, and the great thing about the downtown area is that there are tons of really cheap places to shop.
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 or grab some souvenirs to bring home with you!
However, if you want quality clothing then there are two places you should really check out. The most famous area to go shopping is at Santana Row. This place is fancy and in no way cheap, but it’s a beautiful place to visit regardless. Here you can do some shopping and enjoy a really nice meal!
If your looking for a mid-range place to go that still sells real brands then San Pedro Square Market is a great option. San Pedro square 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 that 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.
Another new place to check out is Wilk Craft Beer. Here, you can try a huge range of craft beer from around the country as well as international beers! The food is also really good and it’s the perfect place for lunch!
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. Visit Tortuga Island
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 including amazing diving and snorkeling 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, and lush forests that include canopy zip line tours. You can also rent kayaks, paddleboards, sun chairs, and umbrellas as well as buy food and drinks on the beach.
The best way to visit Tortuga Island is on an organized tour from San Jose. Tours include hotel pick-up, lunch, snorkeling, and the boat to the island!
9. Go Whitewater Rafting
The Reventazon River is the best place in Costa Rica to go whitewater rafting. And not just for the rapids, the Reventazon 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 (which are pretty calm.)
Tours aren’t short and you’ll need an entire day for this whitewater rafting tour.
10. Learn All About Coffee on a Coffee Tour
If you love coffee then a coffee tour is perfect for you! Costa Rica is known as one of the best producers of quality coffee in the world, and coffee is one of their biggest agricultural exports!
Going on a coffee tour will allow you to learn about the entire coffee-making process. You’ll also get to try different kinds of coffee and buy some to bring back home with you! When we did the tour, we also got to sample some locally made chocolate too!
Going on a coffee tour is one of the best things to do in San Jose simply because the best coffee producer in the country operates here! Britt Coffee Plantation makes some very amazing coffee, and their coffee tour is one of the top-rated activities in all of Costa Rica – don’t miss this!
11. Visit the Arenal Volcano and Hot Springs
The Arenal Volcano is one of the most magnificent sights in Costa Rica – just look at it! Sure, it isn’t actually in San Jose, but it is easily accessible, and for that reason, many people visit Arenal on a day trip from San Jose.
I do need to warn you, the drive is about 3 hours each way, but if you choose a good tour and guide, the drive itself will be interesting and scenic too!
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!
Alternative option: If you don’t want to visit the Arenal Volcano on a day trip from San Jose, you can also spend a couple of nights in the town of La Fortuna.
12. See Baby Sloths at a Wildlife Center
If you want to see some very cool wildlife as well as support a great cause then taking a tour to the sloth and wildlife rescue center from San Jose is a great option. Here you’ll learn about the animals, the threats they face, and how the efforts of lovely people are ensuring their survival.
And if you wanted to see baby sloths while in Costa Rica, this is one place where you can!
It is only a short half-day tour from San Jose, and as such, one of the top attractions in San Jose.
Of course, only do this if you’re not going to Puerto Viejo as you can go to the Jaguar Rescue Center there!
13. Eat Tradtional Costa Rican Food
Remember how I said you need to enjoy San Jose for its authenticity, well it’s true, and with food too! In lots of the “touristic” destinations around Costa Rica you will find international food at fancy restaurants – but this isn’t traditional Costa Rican food.
That’s why one of the best things to do in San Jose is to eat typical food. Challenge you to try traditional dishes, and things you wouldn;t normally find at home.
Some dishes you should look out for include; Gallo Pinto, a rice and bean dish with tons of flavour; Sopa Negra, a black bean soup; and Arroz con Leche, which is a tasty and creamy dessert!
So find yourself a quaint local restaurant – you know, the ones where they won’t have an English menu available. Get out Google translate, and pick something you’ve never had before. Not only will this be fun, but it will also cheap too!
14. Day Trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest
I love Monteverde! In fact, I love it so much that I didn’t actually visit on a day trip San Jose, and instead, I spent nearly a week in the region. But I know that many people do not have time to do this, which is why a day trip to Monteverde from San Jose is a great idea!
Sure, it is a bit of a drive, but on an organized tour you can sleep, relax or just enjoy the views from the comfort of an air-conditioned van.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is an amazing jungle offering misty views, waterfalls, scenic lookouts, and lots of hanging bridges. It’s a whole different world that the city of San Jose or the beachside destinations frequented in Costa Rica. Expect to see lots of wildlife and interesting plants and trees.
Of course, like the Arenal Volcano, you can choose to spend a couple of nights in the area. The nearest town to the Monteverde Cloud Forest is Santa Elena, and believe it or not, there are lots of fun things to do in Monteverde!
15. Visit Manuel Antonio National Park
This is one day trip from San Jose you don’t want to miss – especially if you love the beach!
Manuel Antonio National Park is easily one of, if not, the best national park in all of Costa Rica. It is a jungle paradise right on the coast of the Pacific ocean with blue water for swimming, hiking trails everywhere, and the chance to see lots of wildlife like sloths, monkeys, iguanas, and tons of birds!
From San Jose, you can book an organized tour that will bring you to the park entrance where your day will begin. You’ll explore a flat and easy hiking trail to reach the beach. This is when you can relax, or hike on further if you want.
It’s definitely one of the top things to do in San Jose, and although a full-day trip, totally worth the time spent!
Note: If you do plan on spending a few nights in Jaco (as I recommend below), it makes sense to visit Manuel Antonio National Park from there as the park is closer to Jaco than San Jose.
16. Eat at La Foret Restaurant
La Foret is a beautiful restaurant in San Jose set in a forest. It is a fine dining experience offering French cuisine. It is highly rated as one of the best restaurants in all of San Jose!
This isn’t an activity for those on a budget as it is definitely a pricer restaurant. But if you ask me, it is totally with it – especially for any foodie!
La Foret is often fully booked, so it is important o reserve a table in advance. You can visit their website for contact details.
17. Head Over to Jaco
Okay, so this technically isn’t an activity to do in San Jose, but I think it’s important to mention anyways.
The only problem with San Jose is that there is no beach. Luckily, the town of Jaco exists only a quick hour and a half drive away. This town has become somewhat of a tourist hotspot and it is where many travelers spend the majority of their time in Costa Rica.
You can visit Jaco from San Jose easily on a day trip, or if you really want to soak up those rays on the beach, you can spend a couple of nights. It’s really a resort town and there are lots of beautiful hotels to choose from.
If you ask me, an ideal holiday in Costa Rice involves enjoying both the city (San Jose) and the beach (Jaco), so splitting your time in between the two is a great idea!
Tips for visiting San Jose, Costa Rica
-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 hotel 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 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 Stay in San Jose, Costa Rica
Selina – Selina has 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 too.
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 center 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 center of town as you can get and is only 200m from the National Theatre. Exe San Jose features a sauna and fitness center 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 while still being affordable.
Hotel Presidente – Hotel Presidente is a very luxurious hotel that comes at a very low end of a luxury 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 center. 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 centers. Check out our guide to Puerto Viejo, and our guide to the famous Cahuita National Park.
- Monteverde – completely the opposite of Puerto Viejo is Monteverde, a cloud forest inland! Daniel and I really enjoyed exploring Monteverde, especially in the wet season.
Before you go…
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!
if you have any questions please leave them below and we’ll do our best to clear them up for you! And, be sure to check out the rest of our Costa Rica blogs for more travel advice and important information!
Thanks and happy travels!
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July 12, 2020