Sprawling smack in the middle of the fertile Valle Central — San José. The capital of Costa Rica has a spectacular setting, ringed by the jagged silhouettes of soaring mountains – some of them volcanoes – on all sides. On a sunny morning, the sight of the blue-black peaks piercing the sky is undeniably beautiful. At night, from high up on one of these mountains, the valley floor twinkles like a million Chinese lanterns.
Travel tips for visiting San Jose, Costa Rica
That’s where for some the compliments largely end, however. Costa Ricans can be notoriously hard on the place. Some locals call it, with a mixture of familiarity and contempt, “Chepe”– the diminutive of the name José. Some write it off as a place of rampant crime and other urban horrors.
Travellers, meanwhile, tend to view it as an unavoidable stopover jarringly at odds with the expectations and impressions of the rest of the country.
Going by first impressions it’s easy to see why this is the case. San José certainly doesn’t exude immediate appeal. Whether it be nondescript buildings and aggressive street life full of umbrella-wielding pedestrians, narrow streets, noisy food stalls and homicidal drivers.
Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find a fantastic and beautiful city. There are plenty of places to walk, meet people, enjoy a meal, and go dancing. It's also a great place to explore museums and galleries.
It’s also relatively manageable, with less of the chaos and crowds that plague most other Latin American cities. San José is a surprisingly green and open city. It is small, carefully landscaped parks and paved-over plazas punctuate the centre of town. Cafés and art galleries line the streets, and some colonial-era wooden houses have survived in the leafy barrios of Amón and Otoya.
All the attractions lie near each other, and you can cover everything of interest in a couple of days. Curious? Here is our guide to this vibrant city.
EXPERT TIP - if you need help planning your trip, check our Costa Rica itineraries.
11 things to do in San José
With its lively streets, rich history, and breathtaking landscapes, this city is the perfect destination for travellers seeking a truly authentic experience. From exploring its vibrant museums and scenic parks to trying its mouthwatering cuisine. So pack your bags and get ready for an unforgettable journey in the heart of this magical city!
#1 Visit the heart of San José: Parque Central
At the core of the bustling city centre stands Parque Central. This is a peaceful haven of lush royal palms and a peculiar Art Deco kiosco that is steeped in history. It is the oldest public space in town and has seen the declaration of Central American independence back in 1821. It is also the site of the tragic execution of Central American president Francisco Morazán 1842.
When night falls, an array of green parrots take refuge amidst the palm trees, filling the air with their chirping and lively chatter that can be heard above the constant hum of traffic. A stroll around this tranquil park provides much-needed respite from the hectic hustle and bustle outside its boundaries.
#2 Visit Museo de Oro Precolombino
The Museo de Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is truly one of San José’s treasures. Here one can explore exhibits that chart the history of indigenous Costa Rican society from the Neolithic to Spanish periods. And as the name suggests, gold displays are the highlight here.
Most of the gold pieces are small and unbelievably detailed, depicting frogs, snakes and insects. These pieces were created to protect the bearer against illness. While here, it is also worth viewing the skilfully crafted (and painted) ceramics, tools and jade carvings also help to tell the story of daily life in the region. Another interesting section explores burial rituals, the role of women, shamans and other themes.
#3 Explore surrounding beaches
Costa Rica is known for it's beautiful beaches, but San Jose isn't. It is, however, possible to visit some picture-perfect beaches from San Jose. One of the best is Jaco Beach, located just over an hour's drive from San Jose. This popular beach destination offers a wide range of activities, including surfing, fishing, and zip-lining.
Another great option is Manuel Antonio National Park, which features several beautiful beaches and abundant wildlife. It's about a three-hour drive from San Jose but definitely worth the trip. Finally, if you're short on time or prefer something closer to the city, Playa Herradura is just a 20-minute drive from downtown San Jose. If you are a big fan of beaches, you might like our coast to coast trip!
Looking for more inspiration? Check the best beaches within a 4 hour drive of San Jose.
#4 Also see Museo del Jade
A visit to Plaza de la Democracía is not complete without seeing the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum). Here is where the home of the world’s largest collection of American jade is located.
As in China and other parts of Asia, jade was much prized in ancient Costa Rica as a stone with religious or mystical significance, particularly in the Neolithic period. It’s well known for its durability and is a good material for weapons and cutting tools like axes and blades. As no quarries of the stone have been found in Costa Rica, the big mystery is how the pre-Columbian societies here got hold of so much of it.
#5 Shop at Mercado Central
The squat Mercado Central dates back to 1880 and is quite an experience. Inside this labyrinthine building are colourful arrangements of strange fruits and vegetables, dangling sides of beef and elaborate, silvery rows of fish.
The market’s cooked-food stalls are certainly the best place in town to get a cheap bite to eat – especially Lola Mora. The view from a counter stool is fascinating. Watch as traders and their customers jostle for regional produce from chayotes (a pear-shaped vegetable) to piñas (pineapples) and cas (a sweet-sour pale fruit).
#6 Chill in Parque España
Lined with tall trees, the verdant Parque España is surrounded by several excellent museums. On the western corner stands the Edificio Metálica (Metal Building), so-called because its exterior is made entirely out of metal plates shipped from France over a hundred years ago.
Though the prospect sounds dour, the effect – especially the bright multicoloured courtyard as seen from the Museo del Jade, high above – is very pretty. Just west of Parque España lies Parque Morazón — a more concrete-paved square than a park proper. It’s centred on the landmark grey-domed bandstand floridly known as the Templo de Música.
#7 Explore the heart of San José — Parque Nacional
San José’s Parque Nacional marks the heart of downtown San José. Bordered by main roads and overlooked by rows of palms and thick deciduous trees, it is one of the city’s finest open spaces.
This park is popular among courting couples and older men discussing the state of the nation. After gaining notoriety as a hangout for muggers and prostitutes, it was equipped with tall lamps to add extra light. Even so, it’s still probably not a good idea to wander around here after dark.
If you like being surrounded by a lush green landscape, make sure to discover the north of Costa Rica.
#8 Learn about Costa Rica's history in Museo Nacional
The Museo Nacional collection is more than a century old and is a great place to learn about the history and culture of Costa Rica. Displays educate on how the arrival of the Spanish forever disturbed the balance of social and political power among the indigenous groups. A grisly series of drawings, deeply affecting in their simplicity, tells the story of the fate of Costa Rica’s indigenous people at the hands of the Spanish settlers.
The museum’s colonial-era section is dominated by massive Spanish religious iconography. This museum has a rich collection of colonial art, which replaced indigenous art forms with scores of lamentable gilt-and-pink Virgin Marys.
#9 Plaza de la Democracía
A block southwest of the Parque Nacional sits the concrete Plaza de la Democracía. Constructed in 1989 to mark President Oscar Arias’ key involvement in the Central American Peace Plan, this expanse of terraced concrete slopes up towards a fountain.
At its western end is a row of artisans’ stalls selling hammocks, thick Ecuadorian sweaters, leather bracelets and jewellery.
You can also buy Guatemalan textiles and decorative molas (patchwork textiles in vibrant colours) made by the Kuna people of Panamá. Other stalls sell T-shirts and wooden crafts and trinkets. The traders are friendly and won’t pressure you; a bit of gentle bargaining is a must.
#10 Enjoy an afternoon stroll in Parque la Sabana
Parque la Sabana was San José’s airport until the 1940s. It is today known as a solid expanse of green and home to the country’s key art museum, the Museo de Arte Costarricense. Concerted efforts to maintain its cleanliness, and an ongoing project to introduce hundreds of trees native to Costa Rica, provide the verdant Parque la Sabana with a sense of vitality.
Most people come to the park to enjoy an afternoon stroll amid leafy trees shading a central lake and colourful modern sculptures scattered around. On Sunday afternoons, hordes of local families feed the resident geese and eat ice cream. It’s also one of the best places in San José to jog. The cement track is usually full of serious runners in training, but if it gets too crowded you can also run quite safely throughout the park.
#11 Make one of these day trips from San Jose
San Jose is a bustling city with plenty to do, but sometimes you just need to escape the hustle and bustle for a day. Luckily, there are several great day trips from San Jose. One popular option is visiting the Poas Volcano National Park, where you can hike up to the crater of an active volcano and explore its surrounding cloud forest. Another great destination is La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which features five waterfalls, a butterfly garden, and a variety of rescued animals like jaguars and monkeys.
For those interested in history and culture, a visit to Cartago is a must-see. This colonial city was once the capital of Costa Rica and features beautiful architecture such as the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles.
Looking for more options? Check our best day trips from San Jose.
Where to stay in San José
San José has plenty of quality hotel rooms, with reasonable prices in all categories. Though, keep in mind that many of San José’s rock-bottom hotels have cold-water showers only.
TIP - you can find the best hotels in our blog best hotels in San Jose.
Central San José
Central San José is the beating heart of Costa Rica's capital city. Here, the energy is palpable. You'll find here bustling streets, lively plazas, world-class museums, and delectable dining options. This vibrant neighbourhood is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the rich culture and history of San José.
Barrios Amón, Otoya and Aranjuez
The most captivating neighbourhoods are the historic Barrios Amón, Otoya, and Aranjuez. These neighbourhoods are known for their beautiful architecture, charming streetscapes, and rich cultural heritage. Exploring the winding streets and vibrant plazas of these barrios is a must.
San Pedro is a hub of energy, culture, and excitement. With its lively streets, vibrant nightlife, and diverse array of shops and restaurants, San Pedro is the perfect destination for those seeking a taste of city life. From exploring the local museums, to indulging in the area's delicious cuisine, there's no shortage of things to do in this dynamic neighbourhood.
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and discover the tranquil beauty of Escazú, one of San José's most sought-after neighbourhoods. With its rolling hills, lush greenery, and peaceful streetscapes, Escazú is a true oasis in the heart of Costa Rica's capital city. This neighbourhood offers a unique blend of urban convenience and natural splendour.
Best restaurants and bars
For a Central American city of its size, San José has a reasonable variety of restaurants. Italian, Thai and even macrobiotic. For classic Costa Rican dishes — Sodas are usually cost-effective, family-run, and frequented by locals.
Many of the city’s best restaurants are in the relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of San Pedro, and in Escazú. Some local café chains are also worth visiting. Giacomín has an old-world European menu and vibe. Or try the dishes at Spoon, a resolutely Costa Rican establishment. Some of the best cafés are in the shopping malls outside San José.
While here, don't miss your chance to sip Costa Rican coffee. This coffee is world renowned for its mild, soft flavour.
Wherever you choose, eating out in San José can set your budget back considerably. Prices are generally steep, and the 23 percent tax added to your bill (which includes a ten per cent “service charge”) makes it even more expensive.
How to get around
San José is easily negotiated on foot. Several blocks in the city centre around the Plaza de la Cultura have been completely pedestrianized. There is little need to take buses within the city centre, though the suburban buses are useful, particularly if you are heading out to Parque La Sabana.
Escazú is a 20 minute ride to the west. San Pedro and the Universidad de Costa Rica are a 10min ride to the east. After the buses stop running, taxis become the best way to get around. Street crime is an issue, and most josefinos advise against walking alone after dark.
- By train: San José has been trying to develop an urban rail system for years, but the current service is infrequent and is targeted primarily at commuters (just 5–6 daily trains, early mornings and evenings) on lines that snake around the centre.
- By Bus: Fast, cheap and frequent buses connect the centre of the city with virtually all San José’s neighbourhoods and suburbs. They generally run from 5am until 10/11pm every day.
- By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful, even at odd hours of the night and early morning. Licensed vehicles are red with a yellow triangle on the side, and have “SJP” (“San José Público”) licence plates. The starter fare is shown on the red digital read-out, and you should always make sure that the meter is on before you start (ask the driver to toca la maría, por favor, “turn on the meter please”).
- By car: Renting a car specifically for getting around San José is a bad idea. Most of the city’s streets are one-way, though sometimes unmarked as such. Cars left on the street anywhere near the city centre are almost certain to be broken into or stolen.
Travel further in Costa Rica from San Jose
San Jose is the perfect start for you trip in Costa Rica, but there is much more to see. From beautiful beaches to sleepy fishing villages. If you don't rent a car, there are plenty of other ways to travel in Costa Rica. From San Jose, these are the most popular routes:
How many days do you need?
To truly experience all the beauty and wonder that this magnificent city has to offer, we would recommend at least three or four days. On the first day, explore downtown San Jose with its iconic landmarks, visit the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica, or stroll around Central Park.
On the second day, venture out to nearby Cartago and see the old ruins of Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Basilica of Our Lady of Angels). Next, head over to Barva where you can encounter La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Then, on the third day, discover Poás Volcano National Park—the nearest active volcano from San Jose! Finally, close your tour and appreciate nature by hiking up Chirripo National Park - home to Cerro Chirripo—the highest mountain peak in Costa Rica.
What is the best time to visit?
The best time to visit San José is from December to April, during the dry season. During this time, temperatures are warm, skies are clear, and there is little rain. This makes it ideal for outdoor activities and exploring the city and surrounding areas.
The rainy season, from May to November, is also a good time to visit, as the rains bring lush vegetation and waterfalls to the region. However, be prepared for rain showers and potentially muddy roads.
Read more about the weather in Costa Rica on our guide to the best time to visit Costa Rica.
How to get here
From the UK
Major airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer direct flights from London to San José. Alternatively, you can fly with a connecting flight, which may involve a stop in a North American city such as Miami or Toronto. The total travel time, including layovers, can range from 12-15 hours.
From the United States
Major airlines such as American Airlines, Delta, and United offer direct flights from major cities such as Miami, Atlanta, and Houston to San José. Alternatively, you can fly with a connecting flight, which may involve a stop in another Central American city such as Panama City. The total travel time, including layovers, can range from 3-7 hours.
More information about how to get to Costa Rica can be found on our page about getting to Costa Rica.