May 25, 2024

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Complete Guide To The Costa Rican Capital City

Complete Guide To The Costa Rican Capital City

San Jose is the vibrant capital of Costa Rica and the biggest city in the country. While it’s often underrated as a worthwhile destination on a Costa Rican itinerary, there are multiple gems to discover in the capital. San Jose is home to gorgeous waterfalls, breathtaking volcanoes, lush green jungles, pristine beaches, and a delectable dining scene.


Popularly known as “Chepe” by the locals, the city’s 1.5 million population offers tourists the best opportunity to experience authentic Latin American culture. From wandering its lively downtown, visiting historical monuments, and sampling sumptuous flavors to partaking in the buzzing nightlife, there are enough fun activities to fill a tourist’s to-do list.

First-timers will love the sunny weather, which remains near-perfect throughout the year. Whether traveling alone or with family, a memorable holiday awaits in one of Costa Rica’s top tourist destinations.

Top 9 Things To Do In And Around San Jose

From history buffs and culture junkies to food enthusiasts and party animals, San Jose welcomes all types of travelers with an endless list of remarkable adventures. Prepare for an action-packed visit with the top things to do in this quaint Costa Rican city.

1 Explore The Lively Streets Of Downtown San Jose

Beautiful architecture
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Beautiful architecture in San Jose, Costa Rica

One of the best ways to get familiar with a new city is to check out its downtown, and walkers will cherish the many opportunities in Chepe’s city center. The area is rich in history and culture, where visitors can admire the fantastic architecture, interact with friendly locals, and visit historical museums and art galleries.

Learn about the fascinating past of the city and the country through the eyes of its locals by wandering the quiet streets and soaking in its rich art. This is also a great time to hunt for a souvenir from the many businesses around or sample the city’s famous coffee in one of the downtown restaurants.

Several local outfitters provide guided walking tours of the city that tourists can pay for. These usually comprise hotel pickups and informative commentary on historical facts, architecture, and exciting tales during the tour.

Related: What Makes Tamarindo One Of Costa Rica’s Most Beautiful Destinations

2 Visit The National Theater

Windmills in the hills of San Jose
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Windmills in the hills of San Jose, Costa Rica

The National Theater, also known as Teatro Nacional Costa Rica, is an iconic city landmark and one of the first stops for tourists in San Jose. The grandiose building impresses with its appealing architecture and boasts numerous marble statues and lavish furnishings.

Built with funds raised from coffee, the structure was historically meant to attract wealthy tourists to the city. Today, it still maintains its unrivaled allure.

Guests can tour the theater to marvel at its chic neoclassical architecture, catch a live ballet show in the performance hall, or scope out opulent furnishings and fittings.

Admissions: Around $10 per adult

  • Admissions
    : $10 for a guided tour

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 9 am – 5 pm

Evenings are the perfect time to tour the National Theater, and its on-site café, Alma de Café, serves a must-have cup of coffee.

3 Check Out The National Museum

National Museum of Costa Rica
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National Museum of Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s capital is home to multiple museums, but The National Museum best chronicles the country’s historical, archeological, and anthropological past. It houses permanent and temporary exhibitions highlighting Costa Rica’s rich past, from pre-Columbian to current times.

There is a lovely butterfly garden before entering the museum, where insect lovers can admire the bright, beautiful species in different colors and sizes.

Interestingly, the building housing the National Museum was a military fort (Bella Vista Barracks), and visible bullet holes on the walls tell the story.

  • Admissions
    : $11 per adult

  • Hours
    : Tuesday to Saturday, 8:30 am – 4:30 pm, Sunday, 9 am – 4:30 pm

4 Marvel At La Paz Waterfall Garden

Laguna de don Manuel
Pixabay

Laguna de don Manuel in San Jose

The LA Paz Waterfall Garden is a magnificent outdoor space full of exquisite flora and fauna, including a bird sanctuary, butterfly garden, hummingbird garden, trout lake, and other animal enclosures. However, the visit’s highlight must be the five spectacular natural waterfalls spread along the property’s trail network.

La Paz Waterfall Garden is perfect for nature lovers who crave quality outdoor time to experience Costa Rica’s jungle life. The breathtaking atmosphere makes for the ideal serene getaway from the busy city.

  • Admissions
    : Adults $50, Kids $34

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 8 am – 5 pm

The establishment is approximately 1.5 hours outside the city by car, so booking this tour is the best and most convenient way to get to La Paz Waterfall Garden.

5 Soak In The Views From The Giant Hand Platform At La Chimba Coffee Farm

Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen
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Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen, San José, Costa Rica

Getting a bird’s eye perspective of the Latin American jungle while standing on a human-hand-shaped stage in the middle of a coffee plantation is one of those unique experiences tourists can only find in Costa Rica.

Two trails at La Chimba Coffee Plantation, including the 9-kilometer Hacienda y Beneficio La Chimba, offer guests a gentle way to exercise while exploring the lush plantation.

Both trails lead to the hand-shaped viewpoint, rewarding hikers with a dramatic scenery worth sweating for. Beautiful views aside, tourists enjoy coffee tours, and those looking for an extra thrill will be right at home, ziplining through the dense forest.

  • Admissions
    : $12 per person

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 8 am – 5 pm

If visiting to hike, be sure to get there before 2 pm as the facility won’t allow guests on the trail past that. Also, remember to wear comfortable hiking shoes and pack some bug spray, snacks, and enough water.

6 Admire The Majesty Of The Arenal Volcano

Dense jungle
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Dense jungle in San Jose, Costa Rica

The Arenal Volcano, or “Volcan Costa Rica,” is a dormant volcano about 56 miles northwest of the capital. Found inside the Arenal Volcano National Park, it is a wondrous sight to behold, and the surrounding jungle landscape adds to its appeal, making it a top tourist site in the region.

A day trip to the Arenal Volcano will be an excellent way to spend time away from the capital, and tourists will revel in the rich outdoors and its biodiversity.

Aside from the fantastic views of the volcano, travelers can fish in Lake Arenal and participate in various fun sports, including kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing, and sailboarding. They also get a chance to interact with wildlife, such as parrots, orioles, and white-faced monkeys.

  • Admissions
    : Adults $15, Kids $5

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 8 am – 4 pm

Related: Overlanding Costa Rica: 10 Things To Do On Your Road Trip

7 Experience Local Culture At The Bustling Central Market

A busy street
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A busy street in the city center, San Jose

The Central Market (Mercado Central) is an old city landmark that traces its history back to 1880 when it was opened. It is situated in downtown San Jose and is the perfect place for visitors curious about Costa Rican cuisine and culture. The market houses numerous shops and shacks selling beautiful souvenirs and traditional foods.

Guests can shop for fresh agricultural produce, including fruits, meats, vegetables, and fish. Some outlets specialize in the country’s top export, coffee, allowing newcomers to try out the famous Costa Rican beverage.

  • Hours
    : Monday to Saturday, 6:30 am – 6 pm

8 Check Out The Jade Museum

High-rise in San Jose
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High-rise in San Jose, Costa Rica

The Jade Museum is a must-visit for historians and houses the universe’s most extensive collection of pre-Columbian jade. With over 7,000 pieces to its name, the museum offers a glimpse into the region’s medieval jade world with intimate exhibits that date as far back as 500 BC.

The stone was a huge part of trade between the original inhabitants and the Mayans before Columbus came to the region.

A tour of the Jade Museum allows visitors to learn about the significance of jade during that period and its role in day-to-day life activities. There is also an on-site gift shop selling cute souvenirs for those interested.

  • Admissions
    : $16 per person

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 8 am – 5 pm

History buffs looking to save can purchase a 3-museum pass at $33 and access the Jade Museum, National Museum, and Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismatica.

9 Stroll Along The Quiet Streets Of California Boulevard

Streets of San Jose
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Streets of San Jose – Costa Rica

When feeling a little homesick, California Boulevard will give travelers a taste of home. Calle 17, as it’s popularly referred to locally, is an appealing path near the National Museum designed to replicate the streets of Los Angeles. The cobblestone path is marked with imposing palm trees and colonial architecture that invokes its rich history.

The atmosphere is relatively quiet, allowing tourists to unwind while inspecting the area’s multiple government buildings, education centers, and private residences.

10 Best Time To Visit San Jose

San José, Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica

San Jose experiences delightful weather throughout the year, with temperatures between 75 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather is divided into two seasons, wet and dry, but the temperature fluctuations are minimal.

Given that the rainy season tends to limit outdoor adventures, the best time to visit San Jose is during the dry period, between January and April. The warm weather and clear blue skies bring the most visitors to the capital to bask in the sandy beaches and explore lush mountains.

This is an excellent time to dip in an outdoor pool, go for a day excursion in the dense rainforest, or explore the city’s busy streets.

For budget travelers, the second half of the year (May through November) offers the perfect opportunity for a cheap vacation. This is also the wet season, and while the mornings remain sunny, expect dark clouds to start gathering around noon.

Tourists should plan any outdoor itineraries for the first half of the day to avoid the rain and pack an umbrella if they have to stay outside until late in the evening during the green season.

11 Best Ways To Get Around San Jose

Bijagual
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Bijagual, San José, Carara, Costa Rica

San Jose is Costa Rica’s major transportation hub, and its central location makes it the ideal launch pad for those looking to explore the top spots in Costa Rica. The nearest Airport is Juan Santamaria International Airport, approximately 12 miles from San Jose, in Alajuela.

Upon arriving in the city, travelers have multiple options to get around, including:

Bus

Buses offer the best way to get around San Jose, especially with the capital being the epicenter of the bus transit system in the entire Central Valley region. The fare is relatively cheap, and most city residents use them to commute, so tourists need not worry about being isolated during the ride.

Passengers must pay before boarding the bus, and drivers keep enough change for medium-sized bills. The only thing is that the system can be complex for first-timers, with numerous routes and stops throughout the city.

  • Fares
    : About $1 to any destination in the city

Taxi

Taxis can be found in almost every corner of the city, and the red taxi (taxi rojo) is the go-to service in San Jose. The conspicuous cars spot a fire-engine red color, and tourists can flag them down anytime they need a ride. Overall, taxis are dependable and convenient when heading to distant sites outside the city.

  • Rates
    : About $2.5 per mile

Watch out for unofficial red taxis that will try to make a quick buck out of unsuspecting tourists, and make sure the meters in the taxis are working when boarding one.

Car

Several offices are available at the airport for tourists looking to hire a vehicle, and service providers will deliver the car to the hotel upon request. However, driving in the city can be a nightmare. The streets are narrow and thronged with people and animals. Not to mention that the bumps are almost invisible to first-time drivers (so look out!).

  • Rental rates
    : range between $20 and $100 per day

Only get a rental car in San Jose if necessary, and remember to reserve in advance before traveling, especially in the high season. There aren’t enough cars to meet the high demand of tourists.

Walk

Walking is an excellent option for tourists in the city center. San Jose is relatively compact, and all the main sites worth visiting are within a block or so of one another. This makes the area ideal for exploring on foot. Dense foot traffic in the area means tourists will find it easier to walk than take a taxi or bus.

Try to be modest when wandering the streets of downtown San Jose; any jewelry, expensive cameras, and carelessly held handbags can easily attract thieves and muggers.

Related: This Car-Free Town is Costa Rica’s Best Kept Secret

12 Where To Stay In San Jose

Vázquez de Coronado
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San José, Vázquez de Coronado, Costa Rica

The capital city is probably the best area to stay for those who prefer urban life. It has diverse lodging options to suit different budgets, and its central location in the country places tourists within touching distance of other exciting areas to visit.

San Jose is also home to an electric nightlife, sumptuous cuisines, museums, and art galleries, making it a top choice for travelers. So whenever in Chepe, these are the top areas to stay and their subsequent lodging options.

Downtown

The city’s heartbeat, downtown San Jose offers the most action for newcomers in the capital. It houses all the cultural and historic sites, including the iconic National Theater, House of Culture, and Metropolitan Cathedral.

The streets here are busy and crowded with tourists and locals alike, while multiple shopping venues, restaurants, and coffee shops make it a hotbed of activities. Downtown is also known for its lively nightlife, with various bars and taverns keeping guests entertained to the late hours of the night.

Another advantage of staying in the city center is the well-established public transit system, featuring buses and trains for commuting to other neighborhoods.

Luxury option:

Holiday Inn San Jose-Aurola

  • Address
    : 5th Avenue and 5th Street, San José 1000

  • Rate per night:
    Starts at $87 for 2 guests

  • Amenities
    : Indoor pool, Coffee machine, Fitness center, Bar/Lounge, Free Wi-Fi, Restaurant, Tea/coffee maker, Coffee shop, Room service, Valet parking

Budget option:

Hotel Casa Leon

  • Address
    : Ave. 6 entre Calle 13 y 15, San José 10001

  • Rate per night:
    Starts at $32 for 2 guests

  • Amenities
    : Free Wi-Fi, Internet, Parking, Valet parking, Flat-screen TV, Cable or satellite TV, Free toiletries, Wi-Fi available in all areas, Laundry facilities

Escazu

Escazu is a quaint neighborhood perched on a hill about 4 miles west of downtown. It is home to the crème de la crème of the city and will be a fine option for travelers looking to mix seclusion with leisure. The suburb is highlighted by shopping centers, including Multiplaza, hotels, restaurants, and an 18-hole golf course.

Several international companies are headquartered in the area, which means Escazu enjoys high security and is safer than most other neighborhoods in San Jose. Notable hotels to stay here include:

Mid-range option:

Apartotel & Suites Villas del Rio

  • Address
    : East Side Of Costa Rica Country Club, San José 2007-1000

  • Rate per night:
    Starts at $62 for 2 guests

  • Amenities
    : Outdoor pool, Bar/Lounge, Free Wi-Fi available in all areas, Tea/coffee maker, Coffee machine, Free parking, Fitness center, Business center, Flat-screen TV

Budget option:

Costa Verde Inn

  • Address
    : La Rosalinda,300 Mts Sur Del Cementerio, Escazú 1610-1250

  • Rate per night:
    Starts at $56 for 2 guests

  • Amenities
    : Outdoor pool, Cable or satellite TV, Room service, Coffee machine, Free parking, Flat-screen TV, Free Wi-Fi, Free toiletries, Internet

San Antonio de Belen

The San Antonio del Belen area is about 3 miles from the airport, ideal for tourists looking for quick accommodation upon arriving. It has some of the best hotels in the city and boasts remarkable green spaces with a cozy atmosphere, offering a nice escape from the downtown noise.

Travelers can choose some of the top luxury resorts in Costa Rica, shop at various shopping venues, or eat in one of its highly-rated restaurants. Recommended hotels in the area are:

Luxury option:

Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen

  • Address
    : 700 meters west from Bridgestone/Firestone, La Ribera de Belen, Heredia

  • Rate per night:
    Starts at $209 for 2 guests

  • Amenities
    : Spa and wellness center, Outdoor pool, Coffee machine, Coffee shop, Restaurant, Bar/Lounge, Room service, Free Wi-Fi, Fitness center, Tea/coffee maker,

Budget option:

Wyndham San Jose Herradura Hotel & Convention Center

  • Address
    : Autopista General Canas, San José

  • Rate per night:
    Starts at $60 for 2 guests

  • Amenities
    : Outdoor pool, Coffee shop, Fitness center, Room service, Free Wi-Fi, Coffee machine, Restaurant, Bar, Free parking, Business center

Related: These 8 Resorts In Costa Rica Are Worth The Flight

13 Where To Eat In San Jose

Pueblo Nuevo, Cajón, Pérez Zeledón
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Pueblo Nuevo, Cajón, Pérez Zeledón, San José, Pérez Zeledón, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s capital boasts a luscious dining scene with multiple restaurants serving the most sought-after local dishes to international flavors. Tourists can use local guides or simply follow the locals to find the best spots in town. The craft beer scene is also on the up and up and worth trying.

Coffee:

Cafeteria Incluyeme

  • Address
    : Al costado sur de la Iglesia de la Soledad, San José, San Jose, Costa Rica

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 1 pm – 7 pm

  • Food to order: Coffee, carrot cake

Lunch and dinner:

Tortilleria y Cafe de Luján

  • Address
    : San Joé Frente al edificio del PANI, Barrio Luján, San José., San Jose 10110 Costa Rica

  • Hours
    : Open daily, 6 am – 7 pm

  • Food to order:
    Tortillas

El Jardin de Lolita

  • Address
    : Avenida 3 Calle 25 y 29 Barrio Escalante, San Jose 10101 Costa Rica

  • Hours
    : Tuesday & Wednesday (12 noon – 10 pm), Thursday to Saturday (12 noon – 11:30 pm), Sunday (12 noon- 9 pm)

  • Food to order
    : Gelato, sangria

Drinks

Costa Rica Beer Factory

  • Address
    : Barrio Escalante 100 mts sur del fresh Market de barrio Escalante., San Jose 1001 Costa Rica

  • Hours
    : Monday to Friday (Noon – 11 pm), Saturday & Sunday (11 am – 11 pm)

14 Tips To Know When Visiting San Jose

san jose, costa rica at night

Mihai-Bogdan Lazar / Shutterstock.com

When traveling to San Jose, here are valuable tips to consider for a comfortable stay in the Costa Rican Capital:

Target the dry season, December to April, to travel to San Jose rather than the rainy season, as this allows tourists to visit all the outdoor sites without interruptions.

If possible, choose Uber over taxis, as taxi drivers can charge up to three times to get the most out of unsuspecting foreigners.

When wandering the streets of San Jose, only carry the necessities. Leave valuables like passports and credit cards in the hotel room. Although relatively safe, there’s always potential for crime in the capital, given the opportunity.

Tourists can use US dollars when in San Jose, but the exchange rate may not be favorable in bars or restaurants. It is recommended to exchange at the bank upon arrival.

Related: 10 Must-Do Activities In Costa Rica Only Known By Locals

15 How To Spend The Perfect Day In San Jose

Laguna Don Manuel
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Laguna Don Manuel, Quebradillas, San José, El Jardín, Costa Rica

Start the day with a historical journey exploring San Jose’s past by touring the downtown museums. Head to the National Museum to learn about Costa Rica’s overall history, then walk to the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, not too far away, to inspect the numerous gold artifacts created by the city’s early inhabitants. Later, visit the Jade Museum to check out the vast jade artifact collection and finish the tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.

Afterward, spend time at the iconic National Theater admiring the architecture, décor, and lavish furnishings inside the building, then eat lunch at Tortilleria to restock energy reserves.

Begin the afternoon scoping out the National Artisans Market and tour Mercado Central to hunt for fresh produce and souvenirs. Relax at the Parque Nacional to enjoy the calm atmosphere and, later, the Plaza de La Cultura.

Spare some time for a day trip to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens or the majestic Arenal Volcano National Park to marvel at the wonderful Costa Rican outdoors before the dark sets in. Finally, go for supper at Cafeteria Incluyeme and wind down the day sampling craft beer at Costa Rica Beer Factory.

FAQ

Q: What is San Jose, Costa Rica, best known for?

Costa Rica’s capital is famous for its world-class museums, historic buildings, theaters, and art galleries. However, its outdoor attractions offer some of the most epic experiences visitors can have in Costa Rica, such as visiting the Arenal Volcano and the La Paz Waterfall Garden.

Q: Is San Jose a walkable city?

San Jose is relatively walkable, especially downtown, saturated with interesting attraction sites. And although Costa Rica is generally safe for newcomers, visitors should take safety precautions when exploring the streets.

Q: What is Costa Rica famous for?

Costa Rica is famous for its sweet aromatic coffee, progressive government, and fascinating natural wonders that make for bucket list destinations and can’t-miss experiences in the country.