things to do in san jose costa rica

The Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s diverse natural beauty, ecological abundance, and rich cultural heritage have made it a top tourist destination in Latin America. For these reasons, it has plenty to offer for nature lovers, adventure seekers, culture junkies, and even those just looking for an off-the-beaten-path holiday. Most tourists are eager to explore the rainforests and beaches of Costa Rica and forget to explore San Jose. However, San Jose itself has its own appeal that you might want to explore before heading off elsewhere!   So today I’m sharing the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.

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Being the capital and largest city in Costa Rica with over 2 million residents, San Jose’s standard of living is high, making it a desirable option for an international traveler who wants to experience life as the locals do.  But this beautiful Costa Rican marvel offers so much more than just its large urban sprawl. For any traveler unsure about San Jose, not only do they have access to amazing natural areas outside the city limits but when traveling within them, visitors can expect to see lush forests and wildlife that make up much of Costa Rica.

There are countless places waiting to be checked out throughout this vibrant city and I want to share these top things to do in San Jose so that your time spent can afford as much fun and culture as possible. Who knows? You might just find yourself returning to this beautiful bustling city for more!

Where to Stay in San Jose Costa Rica

Especially if you’re here for a short period of time, you’ll want to make sure that you’re in the best location in San Jose. Here’s our picks of where to stay in Costa Rica’s capital City.

Spurge on luxury at the Grano de Oro Hotel Perfect location with a rooftop garden, it’s a great place to acclimatize to Costa Rica.  There’s free wifi in all areas and air conditioning in all rooms.  Each room features a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom and you can also opt for a balcony or terrace. >  Get a price and reserve a room now.

Incredible reviews at the Capital Hostel de Ciudad Seriously clean with a fabulous breakfast.  There are barbecue facilities, a garden, and a terrace.  Each room has a kettle and you’ll find some with a kitchenette, a microwave, a toaster, and a fridge.  It gets justifiably rave reviews for the superb free wifi. > Check availability and book now!

Small, friendly, practice your Spanish at the Hotel Trianon A superb location very close to the San Jose Main Square, the owner here speaks English but is happy to let you practice your Spanish with her.  There’s wifi throughout the property and private bathrooms are available.  Breakfast, which is included, is a fabulous introduction to Costa Rican cuisine. > Book your room now.

The Best Way to See San Jose Costa Rica 

If you’re a traveler in search of the best way to see San Jose, Costa Rica, there are options you can choose from. One is to book a private tour and see San Jose’s highlights with just you and your group. This way, you can change the itinerary to suit your interests. You can also explore the city in comfort by traveling via a private vehicle that is flexible to any of your wants.

If you book a group tour, you will have travel companions during the trip but don’t worry because there is some free time included in the itinerary when you can be on your own.

Take a FREE Walking tour of San Jose Costa Rica

The best way to get to know an area, city, country, and people is to meet with the locals.  The free walking tours run in San Jose are run by locals.  There’s no fee for them, but you do have to book a place so that they know how many people to expect, you simply tip your guide appropriately for their time.  I’ve taken free walking tours all over the world and they are simply brilliant.  On the free walking tour of San Jose, you’ll get to see and hear about all the major attractions of the area.  

This free walking tour meets at the National Museum of Costa Rica and sets off on a route that has you visiting the most symbolic spots in the city’s historic center. You’ll get to see the Paseo de Los Damas, then pass through the National, Spanish, and Morazán Parks before seeing the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José. You’ll also get to visit the oldest ice cream parlor in San Jose and try the goods! This free San Jose walking tour also goes through Costa Rica’s political system and wraps up in front of the National Theatre of Costa Rica

Reserve your place now!

Take a guided tour of San Jose Costa Rica

When you go to Central America for the first time, it can be a little daunting. But I’m here to tell you not all is as bad as they say! Consider taking a local guide for the day or half a day, as they will navigate you around safely and make you feel at ease. Not only will this relieve some of the pressure from navigating alone in an unfamiliar place, but they also know all about the hidden gems.  You can book the best-guided tour of San Jose, Costa Rica here.

Fabulous guided night tour of San Jose with dinner

You can join a shared group or private tour of San Jose with a local guide to experience the lively nighttime vibe and end the evening by indulging in a traditional Costa Rican dinner that includes wine or beer tastings! Book a guided night tour here

Best Bus Tour of San Jose Costa Rica

Your bus tour around San José will take you to see its most iconic monuments and enjoy the best views of the Costa Rican capital with an expert guide, who will keep you entertained with fun facts about the country’s history and culture. You can book the best bus tour of San Jose here.

San Jose Costa Rica

The Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica

There are so many great things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica. The city is home to a variety of museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions where you can find art, culture, and history. So if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path vacation, San Jose has plenty of attractions that will surely capture your interest.

Wander past the National Theatre, San Jose Costa Rica (or go inside and see the opulence)

Costa Rica has a national theatre that they are very proud of – the National Theatre, which is a great artistic landmark in Costa Rica. You can wander past the theater to admire its beauty, take a photo of your visit, or even enjoy a show!  A front view includes two statues – the Calderón de la Barca and the grand composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. The inside boasts of high ceilings adorned with Aleardo Villa’s painting ‘Allegory of Coffee and Bananas’, which pays homage to all coffee farmers and their contributions. 

San Jose Opera House

Take a photo at the San Jose Sign

Nothing beats taking a picture with city signs as proof you’ve been there so if you’re up for it, be sure to snap a photo with the San Jose sign located in Plaza de la Cultural to serve as a souvenir of sorts. I love how vibrant the sign is and the fun poses some visitors make while taking a picture with it!

See Sloths – Yes in the City of San Jose

One of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica is the chance to see sloths. While this might sound strange, it’s true! You can see them on a tour or at a sanctuary and I must say, I am so thrilled to see these beloved animals up close.   Some people even consider it an “animal encounter” for their bucket list, as they’re typically only found in rainforests. If you’re interested in seeing some sloths while you’re in San Jose, you can book the best-Guided Nature Walk to See Sloths Here

Sloths in Costa Rica

Eat in San Jose, Costa Rica

Whether you’re an adventurous eater or not, there’s no shortage of delicious and authentic Costa Rican dishes to try in San Jose. (our guide to the food of Costa Rica is here)  However, you can also take a break from the local cuisine and enjoy some international food for a change – you can find anything from French to Italian to Middle Eastern and Thai food here. 

It is needless to say that the restaurant scene is absolutely thriving in San Jose, so you’re bound to find something that will suit your taste buds! This fabulous San Jose Food Tour will take you to all the best places to eat and you’ll experience really good Costa Rican food.

San Jose Traditional Food

Al Mercat

Al Mercat is a restaurant located in the heart of downtown San José, which offers an intimate dining area with vines draped against its walls. What makes this restaurant interesting is that the restaurant serves cuisine that changes daily depending on what’s available at the market. In fact, Al Mercat’s name translates to “the market” – paying homage to the Tico tradition of shopping for fresh produce at their local markets.   With dishes like tostadas, ceviche marinated with lime and orange juice; crispy porkchop; chicken salad with turmeric; or grilled steak–this place has something for everyone! 

If you’re a vegetarian then don’t worry because they also got you covered with their culinary creations such as sweet potato gnocchi or smoked cheese sandwich accompanied by crimini mushrooms and chimichurri sauce.

Café de los Deseos

I admit I was curious about this place as it translates to “Cafe of wishes” in English. And I wasn’t disappointed! Its funky art-gallery vibe will definitely make you feel like you’re in a dream and its hip ambiance plus delicious food like burgers, pizzas tacos wraps plus some traditional Costa Rican staples, I consider it gastro heaven.

Take a San Jose Food Tour

I have always liked exploring new cities by engaging in cultural activities, and one of my favorite ways to do so is by taking a food tour. If you want to explore San Jose, try joining the San Jose Food Tour where you will experience the gastronomy of Costa Rica. Surely, you’ll be tempted by local delicacies!

Explore Central Avenue, San Jose

Central Avenue is considered San Jose’s downtown and a great place to wander, explore, and watch how locals live. I loved walking through Central Avenue and seeing what everyday life looks like there! So if you’re like me, you can try it to give you a good perspective on Costa Rican culture. If you get bored people-watching, there are interesting shops for souvenirs and international cuisine, plus coffee shops and bars with outdoor seating.

Go to the San Jose Central Market

If there’s one activity you must not miss when in San Jose, I must say it’s exploring this bustling market. Being one of the oldest and largest markets in Costa Rica, it’s a great way to experience one of San Jose’s most vibrant neighborhoods. And if you’re looking for souvenirs, then this is the place to be as you’ll find everything from fresh produce to handmade crafts here. A little open secret here, this is where I bought a few items for my friends back home!

Check out a museum or two in San Jose Costa Rica

Costa Rica is home to many museums that feature everything from archaeological artifacts to contemporary art. These museums are a great place to learn about Costa Rican history, culture, or even just admire some beautiful artwork. I suggest you check out the following museums below to make the most of your stay in San Jose:

The Jade Museum, San Jose Costa Rica

I am in awe at how much jade the Jade Museum stores! The museum is in Plaza de la Democracia and is considered one of the largest displays of pre-Colombian jade in the world with over 7,000 artifacts and pieces. 

What I love about the museum is that it’s interactive and informative as it lets you explore Pre-Colombian tribal life. It’s rare to see this type of museum pop up at the top list for things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica but I actually prefer it more than any other museums or attractions that are usually recommended by people because it has a lot of variety which makes it more engaging for visitors.

The Children’s Museum San Jose

If you’re visiting San Jose with kids, the dinosaurs and other exhibits inside the Children’s Museum will keep them entertained. Otherwise, this castle-themed museum is fun for photos (think Instagram) and has a great hilltop location with views over the city as well as many hands-on exhibitions and science presentations about culture.

The San Jose Gold Museum

The Pre-Colombian Gold Museum is home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold in Latin America, with individual pieces dating back thousands of years. It is located under Plaza de la Cultura and welcomes visitors with an amazing exhibit. I would recommend this museum to anyone who loves art and history!

The National Museum of Costa Rica in San Jose

The National Museum of Costa Rice is one of the most important places in the country because it’s where former president Jose Figueres Ferrer abolished the army in 1948. The museum showcases exhibits that highlight Costa Rica’s history, archaeology, anthropology, and natural history. San Jose’s National Museum is housed in the Bellavista Fort.  The fort itself was originally known as Bella Vista Barracks and I was surprised to see bullet holes on its walls that surround it! It is a great place for anyone interested in understanding more about what makes this country so special and I consider it one of San Jose’s best attractions.

San Jose National Museum

How Long Should you Spend in San Jose Costa Rica?

My recommendation is to spend a full day in San Jose. In fact, San Jose offers many great things for visitors who have only a short time available – the majority of these attractions can be accomplished within a day.  But if you have the time, it would be really great if you could spare an extra day and explore lots of different parts of the city.   You can also make San Jose your base and take day trips out to some of the great things to see in Costa Rica.

Things to do near San Jose, Costa Rica

Most international flights to Costa Rica land in San Jose, which makes this city a great starting point for your stay there. Once you are finished touring the city of San Jose, it is worth exploring other top tourist attractions and destinations available nearby.

Visit Manuel Antonio from San Jose

Why not take a day trip from San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park? It’s one of the best national parks in Costa Rica. Our guide to Manuel Antonio is here. You’ll see blue water for swimming, hiking trails everywhere, and tons of wildlife like sloths, monkeys, iguanas, and birds!  If you are an outdoors enthusiast, you can book organized tours that will start the day by exploring the flat easy hiking path leading straight to the beach area. After that, you have the choice to relax or continue hiking, if desired.  It’s surely one of the top things to do from San Jose and in Costa Rica and even though it takes all day, the time invested is worth it! Book the best Manuel Antonio National Park Day Trip here

Manuel Antonio National Park

See Poas Volcano from San Jose Costa Rica

Poás Volcano is only about 2 hours from San Jose, making it a perfect half-day trip. You can’t expect to see lava here though; what you will see is a bright blue geothermic lake in the volcano’s crater that almost looks like something “from another world”.

Visit Poas Volcano from San Jose

Most people visit Poas Volcano on a guided day tour where your guide can explain all about this wonder of nature. You can book the best Poas Volcano tour here but if you want a clear view, it’s best to go early in the morning as opposed to later in the day. The volcano often has foggy weather, which means the clouds can completely obstruct the view so make sure to do your research and book the best times to go there.  If you want to visit Poas volcano without joining a tour, there are some things you need to know: entrance costs $15 USD per person and only 56 visitors are allowed every 20 minutes. Unfortunately, during busy seasons these usually sell out fast so make sure not to wait too long, or else they may already be sold out.

See Arenal Volcano from San Jose

Arenal Volcano is a magnificent sight in Costa Rica – it’s not easy to access but it’s definitely worth the drive from San Jose. If you choose a great guide and itinerary, then this time may end up being interesting as well as scenic!  This particular tour includes zip-lining over rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs where you can relax your weary muscles. Not only that, but if you Book the best Arenal Volcano Tour here you may see some of the area’s animal species such as white-faced capuchins, sloths, or jaguars.  After your exciting adventure, the trip ends with a dinner buffet consisting of rice, beans, two types of meat, salad, and juice.

Arenal Volcano

Visit Tortuga Island from San Jose

Tortuga Island is an excursion that you should not miss while in San Jose, Costa Rica. The island (only accessible by boat) has something for everyone including amazing diving and snorkeling to see an array of fish and even larger animals like dolphins and whales – the list goes on!   Tortuga Island also features beautiful beaches as well as hiking trails through lush forests – with a canopy zip line tour thrown in there too. You can also rent kayaks or paddleboards. And if you think all of this isn’t enough to do, then there’s always food shopping right on the beachfront where drinks are just next door! Book the best Tortuga Island tour here.

See the stunning Tortuguero National Park from San Jose

Tortuguero National Park is located on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and was created to protect endangered sea turtles. It is one of the wildest national parks in Costa Rica, only accessible by boat.   We spent 3 days in the park (and wrote about it here), but if you’re time-poor you can go from San Jose to Tortuguero as a day trip.

The star of the park is actually the green turtle but there are also fascinating animals that coexist with them such as manatees and crocodiles. It’s also home to endangered mammals like sloths, monkeys, and white-nosed coatis. 
We were so lucky that the guide we used was more than happy to stop when he spotted lone turtles so we got beautiful photos with these wonderful creatures. I highly recommend it so book a guided Tortuguero National Park tour here now to explore Costa Rica’s animal world!

Where is San Jose?

San Jose is the capital and largest city in Costa Rica, with services available for international travelers. Known as a modern and cosmopolitan city, it has become home to more than 3/4 of the country’s population.

San Jose has a lovely location with Irazu and Barva volcanoes to the north, Talamanca Mountains to the south, and many other attractions for tourists. It is also a perfect jumping-off point if you want to visit many other Costa Rican destinations like Arenal or Monteverde. However, you can also stay longer since the city offers a lot of cultural spots, exciting bars and restaurants, and authentic experiences for tourists.

Where to Stay in San Jose, Costa Rica

Deciding on where to stay in San Jose can be tough with so many options. Your first decision will depend on whether you want the hustle and bustle of the city or a more tranquil atmosphere. But just a note here that based on my experience, the vast majority of tourists choose to stay downtown due to its accessibility to other parts of Costa Rica.

But if you are looking for a safe, close-to-the-airport area to stay in San José that is also near the city center and not too far from an airport, we would recommend either Cariari Ciudad or San Antonio de Belén. They are both pretty areas with easy access to the city center as well as being close to the airport – it’s just 15 minutes away. The area boasts of a shopping center with restaurants that are perfect for lunchtime visits – not bad at all!

If you want somewhere even safer and more luxurious, I recommend Escazú where San José´s rich and affluent live. It is also just a short distance from the center and only 20 minutes by car from the airport.

If you only have a short time in Costa Rica’s capital you’ll want to get a centrally located hotel or hostel.  Here are our recommendations on where to stay in San Jose.  If you’re using San Jose as a base and then heading out into Costa Rica then you’ll want to check out where your next bus leaves from.  The San Jose Bus Terminals for buses going to different locations are spread out around the city.

Spurge on luxury at the Grano de Oro Hotel

Perfect location with a rooftop garden, it’s a great place to acclimatize to Costa Rica.  There’s free wifi in all areas and air conditioning in all rooms.  Each room features a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom and you can also opt for a balcony or terrace. >  Get a price and reserve a room now.

Incredible reviews at the Capital Hostel de Ciudad

Seriously clean with a fabulous breakfast.  There are barbecue facilities, a garden, and a terrace.  Each room has a kettle and you’ll find some with a kitchenette, a microwave, a toaster, and a fridge.  It gets justifiably rave reviews for the superb free wifi. > Check availability and book now!

Small, friendly, practice your Spanish at the Hotel Trianon

A superb location very close to the San Jose Main Square, the owner here speaks English but is happy to let you practice your Spanish with her.  There’s wifi throughout the property and private bathrooms are available.  Breakfast, which is included, is a fabulous introduction to Costa Rican cuisine. > Book your room now.

How to Get to San Jose

There are many options when you’re trying to go to downtown San Jose. SJO Transportation is reliable so I’m pretty sure you can make it into town no matter what time your flight arrives.

Renting a Car in Costa Rica

If you need to rent a car in Costa Rica we recommend Discover Cars for car hire.  You can search, compare and save up to 70%, with no hidden fees and free cancellation, it’s the perfect option! Get a price for a rental car in Costa Rica here.

Buses to San Jose

There are multiple bus stations around the city of San Jose – each focusing on long-distance buses to different parts of the country.  When you’re booking a bus be sure that you which bus station in San Jose it arrives at and leaves from!  You can easily book buses online in Costa Rica with bookaway.

How to go to San Jose from Puerto Viejo > our guide to the best things to do in Puerto Viejo is here

How to go to San Jose from Tortuguero > our guide to the best things to do in Tortuguero is here

How to go to San Jose from Monteverde

How to go to San Jose from Manuel Antonio > our guide to the best things to do in Manuel Antonio is here

How to go to San Jose from Tamarindo > our guide to the best things to do in Tamarindo is here

How to go to San Jose from Jaco > our guide to the best things to do in Jaco is here

How to go to San Jose from Limon

How to go to San Jose from Arenal > our guide to the best things to do in Arenal is here

How to go to San Jose from La Fortuna

Flights to San Jose

Flying is one of the most efficient ways to get around Costa Rica and yes, it can be expensive, but it saves a lot of time! If you have a flexible budget, I recommend mixing it with a rental car or shuttle if you feel like you want more options on the ground.

How to get to San Jose from SJO Airport

The four different modes of transportation to get from the airport to downtown San Jose are a taxi, hotel transfer, rental car, and bus. The first option takes approximately 30 minutes depending on traffic conditions while hotel transfers are only available in upscale luxury hotels so if you’re staying in backpacker hostels, this service is not available. On the other hand, renting a car at the airport offers a 12% concourse fee.   Our guide to taking the bus from SJO to downtown San Jose is here.

How to Get to San Jose from Nicaragua

It’s just as easy to get from Nicaragua to San Jose. Most travelers will come to San Jose from Managua or to San Jose from San Juan del Sur. Here are the details on how to do that.

How to go from Managua to San Jose

How to go from San Juan del Sur to San Jose.

Travel Tips for Exploring Costa Rica

Final Words on the Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica

I believe that San Jose offers something to everyone – you will find educational cultural experiences, adrenaline attractions, and activities that help you calm your mind and reconnect with yourself. Hopefully, my list will be helpful in suggesting some sites to see during your time there. With so much waiting to be explored in San Jose, I recommend not skipping it during your travel to Costa Rica. I’m sure you won’t regret it!

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