Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Travel Guide to the Capital City
As the capital city of Costa Rica where most of the locals live and work, San Jose is one of the most important cities in Latin America. For this reason, there are many cultural and historical things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Many travelers brush off San Jose, using it solely as a transit hub to get to the volcanoes and beaches or skipping it entirely. Though a bit rough around the edges at first impression, it’s certainly worth visiting. All it takes is a day or two to discover the gems of San Jose.
If you’re looking for the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, here are our recommendations. Yeison grew up very close to San Jose so you can also find out some of the local hot spots in our guide as well!
This post has been updated March 2018.
San Jose Costa Rica map.
San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica in the San Jose province with a population of nearly 300,000. Although many people think San Jose International Airport is in San Jose, it is actually in Alajuela.
Getting Around San Jose
This is probably what intimates travelers the most about San Jose: getting around. However finding your way around San Jose is much easier with Uber and new bus routes.
- Bus: There are many buses in San Jose, you can get to pretty much anywhere in the city with the public transportation. It’s cheap but it can get super crowded and there are no posted bus schedules. Read our What to do in costa rica tips for taking the bus in Costa Rica.
- Uber: We love using Uber in San Jose. It’s cheap, works great, fast and it’s really not that much more expensive than the bus and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. We almost never take the bus anymore since Uber drivers pick you up exactly where you are and drop you off right where you want to go. Read our What to do in Costa Rica tips for using Uber in Costa Rica and get $10 off your first ride.
- Taxi: Honestly, we prefer Uber to taxis as taxi drivers in Costa Rica are pushy but you can find them everywhere in San Jose. Read our tips for taking taxis in Costa Rica.
- Walk: If you’re staying in the heart of San Jose, you can easily walk to many of the attractions. (Hotel recommendations and safety tips at the bottom of the post). We don’t recommend walking in San Jose after 9 PM if you are by yourself as some parts can get sketchy. Always take a taxi or Uber at night.
How to get to San Jose from SJO Airport
The airport is about 17 kilometers from downtown San Jose. To get to San Jose from SJO airport, you can take a taxi or an Uber or arrange a transfer in shuttle. An Uber/taxi costs about $15-20 one way. Interbus, a shared shuttle company has airport shuttles leaving for San Jose every 15 minutes from 4 AM – 11 PM and costs $10.
You can also take the public bus. There is a bus stop right outside the airport. Walk down the ramp onto the main street and you will see the bus stop there. It runs frequently and costs just a couple hundred colones to get to downtown.
Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
Walk Central Avenue
Central Avenue is San Jose’s downtown and it goes straight through. It’s an excellent starting point because there are some museums around and it’s a great for mingling with locals.
If you go around 4-5 PM, you’ll see all the Ticos getting off work and is when most of the commotion is. There are tons of restaurants and shops. You’ll see locals selling items on the street, street musicians and performers. This is one of the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica because you get to experience local life and culture.
The Costa Rica national theater is one of our favorite places in San Jose. Take a tour to learn about the theater and see the stunning architecture or watch a performance.
Entrance fee for the teatro nacional is $10, open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 AM – 4 PM, next to the Gran Hotel.
This restaurant up in the hills of Escazu has a stunning view of San Jose, the surrounding mountains and nearby cities. They serve traditional food and drinks and on Friday nights, they have traditional performances by the local kids.
This is a wonderful place to see the city lights, eat local food and experience some Costa Rican culture.
If you don’t have a car, you can take a tour with Expediciones Tropicales. It includes dinner, drinks, performance and roundtrip transportation. Check out our San Jose day tours page for more information and to get our discount!
The San Jose Central Market is a must when in the city. I love the atmosphere of local markets. It’s fun to watch the locals go about their daily life, you can try traditional food and go souvenir shopping.
Most San Jose sightseeing tours stop by this market as it’s one of the most important places in the city.
This is the best place to go souvenir shopping in San Jose since there are many stalls. There are also many restaurants in the market so if you want to try a local favorite, head to Soda Tapia. It’s been in the market for over 100 years!
San Jose Museums
San Jose has several superb museums to learn about the history of Costa Rica.
- Jade Museum: This archeological museum has the largest display of American jade in the world with over 7,000 artifacts and pieces. In the Plaza de la Democracia. Free for children under 10, open Monday – Sunday 10 AM to 5 PM. $15 for foreigners.
- Children’s Museum: Formerly a jail, the children’s museum has hands-on exhibitions and science and culture presentations. Open Tues to Friday 9 AM to 5 PM, Saturday and Sunday 9:30 AM to 5 PM, closed Mondays. $4 for foreigners.
- Gold Museum: This museum has a large collection of Pre-Colombian gold dating back to AD 500. Under the Plaza de la Cultura. Open Monday – Sunday, 9:15 AM to 5 PM. $11 for foreigners.
- National Museum: Formerly a fortress, this museum is one of the most important places in Costa Rica since it’s where former president Jose Figueres Ferrer abolished the army in 1948. Open Tuesday to Saturday 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and Sunday 9 AM to 4 PM. $9 for foreigners.
Architects and sightseers can’t miss this unique building in San Jose. Designed by a Belgium architect and inspired by the Eiffel tower, the building is now a children’s school.
The funny thing about this building is how it was put together as it came with barely any instructions! If you examine the school closely, you’ll see numbers and letters which helped the workers figure out how to put it together.
This is one of the few free things to do in San Jose.
Costa Rican craft beer is getting more and more popular in Costa Rica so if you love beer, take a tour to sample of the finest in the country. Craft beer is still a small scene, but it’s growing every year. The most popular one is Costa Rica’s Brewing company.
Highly recommended if you like beer and want to see what Costa Rican craft beer is like!
San Jose City Tour
There are several tour companies that offer San Jose city tours. They’ll take you around to the highlights of the city such as Parque Morazan, a couple of museums, the central market and other points of interest.
If you’re interested in taking a city tour, please contact us as we have a partnership with Expediciones Tropicales to give 10% off!
San Jose Day Tours
Just one hour away from San Jose are several volcanoes, waterfalls and other natural attractions. As a result of San Jose’s great location, there are plenty of awesome day trips where you can go ziplining, a boat cruise to an island and hike up to a volcano crater!
San Jose, Costa Rica Map
Here is a handy map that has some of the main tourist attractions in San Jose.
San Jose, Costa Rica Hotels
- The Gran Hotel: This hotel is in downtown and close to the museums, the national theater, restaurants, banks and shops. This is actually where John F. Kennedy stayed when he visited Costa Rica.
- Hotel Presidente: A very nice modern urban hotel right in downtown. Has a very funky decoration, is pet friendly and has standard rooms and concept rooms.
- Holiday Inn Aurola: This Holiday Inn has a large indoor swimming pool, a restaurant and bar. All rooms have a great view of San Jose. It’s near downtown and close to all of the attractions.
- Adventure Inn: Great option if you need a place near the SJO airport. Beautiful little inn with excellent breakfast. Has a gym, office and restaurant. Get 10% off your booking in the link.
- Hotel Santo Tomas: Small cute hotel near downtown San Jose, walking distance to attractions. They also have a wellness center and anti aging clinic.
- Hotel Aranjuez: Good mid range/budget option for a hotel in downtown San Jose.
- Fauna Luxury Hostel: This luxury hostel has pods dorms and private rooms. It also has a co-working space, pool, rooftop, restaurant game room and other amenities. Much more than just a hostel! It’s in Escazu so it’s not walking distance to museums or downtown.
- Hotel Balmoral: This is a very nice and newly renovated hotel near downtown. They have a restaurant and gym with standard rooms and apartments.
- Costa Rica Backpackers: This hostel is in downtown San Jose and a good cheap place to stay in the city.
- Selina: They have a hip coworking environment and private rooms.
If you’re looking for a hotel near the airport, read our post for SJO Airport hotels.
San Jose Restaurants
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in San Jose, Costa Rica.
- Posada de las Brujas: This restaurant in Escazu is the ultimate place for local food in San Jose. They have a huge menu full of only traditional Costa Rican dishes beyond the typical gallo pinto and casado and the best part is that it’s cheap. We always get bocas or appetizers because they are huge.
- Chelles: Downtown near the Sleep Inn is Chelles restaurant which has been in business for over 100 years.
- The Market: The Central Market is great if you want a lot of choices because it has all Costa Rican things.
- Craic Irish Pub San Jose: Irish pub with fish and chips and good craft beer.
- Stiefel Pub: One of the best places for craft beer and bar food in San Jose.
- Silvestre: Amazing fine dining restaurant, same owner as Don Rufino in La Fortuna.
- Restaurante Machu Pichu Excellent Peruvian food. Their seafood is really good.
- Rincon Famoso: Amazing Argentinian grill. The empanadas are one of our favorites.
- Ram Luna: Restaurant similar to Tiquicia with a performance, nice view and Costa Rican food.
- 11.47 Aranjuez: For fine dining, this is an excellent choice. They offer gourmet Costa Rican fusion food and is one of our favorite restaurants in Costa Rica. Reservation only.
- Cafe Franco: Chill cafe spot with lots of pastries, great coffee and vegan/vegetarian options.
San Jose, Costa Rica is generally safe during the day but there are some places we recommend staying away from and things to keep in mind.
- Don’t walk alone at night and try not to go out past 10 PM (especially alone). If you want to go out, always take a taxi or Uber. Never walk down streets you don’t know.
- If you are lost or feel unsafe, go into a safe public area (supermarket, gas station, business) and ask the employees to help you. Most city Costa Rican speaks a degree of English but download our Spanish guide just in case.
- In case of emergencies, the emergency line is 911 and they have an English speaking option.
- Don’t wear beach clothes in the city. You will stick out like a sore thumb and could put you as a target for thieves since they can automatically tell you’re a tourist.
- When purchasing things, never take out all the cash in your wallet. Take out only the amount needed. If you use your credit card, always keep an eye on it, never let it leave your sight.
- Always keep your belongings close to you and where you can see them.
- The area around Hotel del Rey is one of the sketchiest due to its reputation with prostitutes. Avoid that area at night.
- Wear closed toed shoes since the sidewalks are horribly maintained with cracks and holes.
- Don’t leave your expensive camera out. Put it in your backpack when not using