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Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica: 2021 Travel Guide

Written by Marisol

If you want to check out San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, you can easily do it in 1 or 2 days. It’s not a very big city but there are several excellent cultural and historical things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.

If you have a day in the city, here are our recommendations for what to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Location

San Jose, Costa Rica map. San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica and the capital city of the province with the same name.

San Jose, Costa Rica map
Map of San Jose

Interesting fact: Although many people think San Jose International Airport is in San Jose, it is actually in Alajuela, the province next door. Another interesting fact, San Jose was the third city in the world to get public electricity and one of the first for public telephones.

How to get to San Jose from SJO Airport

The airport is about 17 kilometers ( 10.5 miles) from downtown San Jose. To get to San Jose from San Jose International Airport, you can take a taxi, an Uber or arrange a transfer in shuttle.

An Uber/taxi costs about 8,000 – 10,000 CRC ($14 – 17.50 USD) one way. A private shuttle is $35 USD for 1-4 people from the airport to downtown.

The San Jose International Airport is about a 30 minute drive to downtown San Jose.

Bus

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.

Getting Around San Jose

  • 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 tips for taking the bus in Costa Rica.
  • Uber: We love using Uber in San Jose. It’s cheap, works great and is quick. Read our tips for using Uber in Costa Rica and get $10 off your first ride. Didi is another ride share app that works in San Jose.
  • Taxi: We prefer Uber but you can find taxis everywhere in San Jose. Read our tips for taking taxis in Costa Rica.
  • Walk: If you’re staying in downtown, you can easily walk to many of the attractions. 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.

Driving Around San Jose

We took a video of us driving around San Jose so you can see what the city is like. The video includes some commentary so you can learn more about the city.

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 locals getting off work and it’s fun to people watch. Walking through Central Avenue is one of the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica because you get to experience and see typical city Costa Rican life.

We personally like to sit in the Plaza de la Cultura and people watch.

National Theater

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.

national theater.
The National Theater

The National Theater entrance fee is $10 USD, open Monday to Sunday, 9 AM – 5 PM. Reservations required.

Restaurante Tiquicia or Ram Luna

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.

Restaurante Tiquicia performance
Tiquicia performance

Both Restaurante Tiquicia and Ram Luna offer night shows and dances.

Central Market

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.

Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica - central market

Most San Jose sightseeing tours stop by this market as it’s one of the most important places in the city.

In the Central Market
Walking through the alley

This is a great place to souvenir shop 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!

Municipal Craft Market

For more unique hand made local souvenirs, head to the Municipal Craft Market. They have dozens of local vendors selling their artisanal products.

San Jose Museums

San Jose has several superb museums to learn about the history of Costa Rica. Due to COVID, you will need to make reservations/purchase tickets beforehand. Make sure to check opening hours.

Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica - childrens museum
Children’s Museum
  • 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.
  • Children’s Museum: Formerly a jail, the children’s museum has hands-on exhibitions and science and culture presentations.
  • Gold Museum: This museum has a large collection of Pre-Colombian gold dating back to AD 500. Under the Plaza de la Cultura.
  • 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.

Metallic Building

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.

things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica - metallic building
Metallic Building

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.

San Jose, Costa Rica Map

Here is an interactive Google map with the attractions mentioned above. Click the left bar to open the categories.

Sample Itineraries for One Day in San Jose

Here is our recommended itinerary for one day in San Jose. This can easily be done on your own.

10 AM Morning guided tour to the National Theater
11-1130 AM After the tour, sit in the Plaza de la Cultura to people watch for a little bit.
12 PM Have lunch and spend an hour or two souvenir shopping at the Central Market. Also get an ice cream at the market.
2 PM Stop by the Municipal Craft Market for more souvenir shopping. Can check out the San Jose Cathedral on the way. Or head to the Jade Museum or Museum of Gold in the afternoon.
330-4 PM A coffee and cake at Spoon in downtown San Jose on Second Avenue
Head to hotel to relax and freshen up
Uber to dinner. 11.47 Aranjuez is very good or you can go to Barrio Escalante and pick a restaurant there.

For 2 Days

If you have two full days in the city, here is what we recommend for day 2.

Breakfast at your hotel or if breakfast isn’t included, get breakfast at Soda Tapia
Around 10 AM, Uber to La Sabana Park. Walk the trails, see the lake and enjoy the nice weather. Also visit the Museum of Costa Rican Art to see the exhibits and old airport.
For lunch, there’s a bunch of restaurants and fast food around. Highly recommend getting a Pops ice cream afterwards.
After lunch, Uber to the Simon Bolivar Botanical Garden to walk through the gardens and see their small animal center.
Uber back to your hotel. Rest, freshen up.
For dinner, we recommend Ram Luna or Restaurante Tiquicia for beautiful city views. And hopefully you can visit on one of the days they have the dinner shows.

For More Days

If you plan to use San Jose as a homebase or have more days in the city, here is a sample 5 day San Jose itinerary.

Guided 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 Catholic church, the central market and other points of interest.

Things to do in San Jose Costa Rica - San Jose city tour

For a full day of cultural and fun, we recommend to do the San Jose city tour and then the Ram Luna or Restaurante Tiquicia at night. The City tour is in the afternoon and they’ll take you straight to the restaurant afterwards.

Get a discount off the San Jose city tour here! The tour is called San Jose Explorer and you can also find Ram Luna and Restaurante Tiquicia on the list.

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!

A couple of our favorite day trips from San Jose are Tortuga Island (get $10 off the tour here), Rio Pacuare white water rafting (get $10 off the tour), Doka coffee tour and Irazu Volcano.

Want some recommendations for the best day trips? Check out our post 7 day trips from San Jose. You can also get our San Jose day tours discount here to save some $$!

San Jose, Costa Rica Hotels

  • The Gran Hotel: In downtown and close to the museums, the national theater, restaurants, banks and shops. Now part of Hilton and very nice.
  • Hotel PresidenteA very nice modern urban hotel right in downtown. Has a very funky decoration and is pet friendly with standard rooms and concept rooms.
  • Holiday Inn AurolaThis Holiday Inn has a large indoor swimming pool, a restaurant and bar. All rooms have a great view of San Jose. Near downtown.
  • 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 TomasSmall cute hotel near downtown San Jose with a wellness center and anti aging clinic.
  • Hotel Aranjuez: Good mid range/budget option for a hotel in downtown San Jose. They have an amazing restaurant.
  • Fauna Luxury HostelThis luxury hostel has pods dorms and private rooms. It also has a co-working space, pool, rooftop, restaurant and game room. In Escazu.
  • Hotel BalmoralThis is a very nice and newly renovated hotel near downtown. They have a restaurant and gym with standard rooms and apartments.
  • Selina: They have a hip co working environment and private rooms.

Vacation Rentals

There are also a ton of Airbnbs in San Jose. We actually like to stay in a condo tower because it has secure parking and a guard.

We’ve stayed at Ambar Torre Condos, Nunciatura flats, QB SkyHomes, Condominio Vistas del Robledal, Apartamentos Witite and Azena Towers. The only thing to note is if you stay at an Airbnb condo tower, tour companies will have you go to the nearest hotel for the pick up and drop off point since they can’t pick up at Airbnbs. 

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. Barrio Escalante is the best neighborhood for food. Uber Eats and Globo work in San Jose.

  • Posada de las Brujas: This restaurant in Escazu is one of our favorite places for local food in San Jose. Big portions, very good prices.
  • The Market: Has several local restaurants.
  • 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.
  • Taste of India 506: In Escazu Village, very good Indian food.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Zaika: Gourmet Indian Cuisine

Safety Tips

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 UberNever walk down empty streets.

Face masks are required indoors at all establishments.

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.

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 should also wear good shoes. Sidewalks and roads have a ton of cracks and holes.

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. Never hang your purse or backpack on the back of your chair or put it underneath. Always put it somewhere you can see it at all times.

The area around Hotel del Rey is one of the sketchiest due to its reputation with prostitutes. Avoid that area at night.

Don’t leave your expensive camera out. Put it in your backpack when not using it.

Read Other Costa Rica city guides below!

La Fortuna, Costa Rica: Main town and tourism hub near Arenal Volcano, famous for adventure, wildlife and nature

Jaco, Costa Rica: Biggest and most developed beach town, only 1.5 hours from San Jose. A popular surfing beach.

Tamarindo, Costa Rica: The main surf town in the North Pacific (Guanacaste province). Popular for backpackers and families, has good nightlife and lots of beautiful beaches around

Monteverde, Costa Rica: Small farming town up in the cloud forest. Famous for nature, hanging bridges, ziplining and birdwatching


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