While many people make San Jose a quick pit stop on their Costa Rica vacation, we are here to tell you to make sure to put it on your itinerary. With a cool vibe and plenty of attractions, there are many things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica making it the perfect beginning or ending to your trip.
So why should you visit San Jose? San Jose is the Capital city of Costa Rica, it is Costa Rica’s largest city and it is filled with beautiful architecture, friendly locals, and an exciting array of activities. San Jose is home to 1.5 million Costa Ricans who enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. There are plenty of museums and galleries to explore and its hip urban vibe makes for an excellent place to make a base as you explore some of Costa Rica’s top attractions.
Top Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose can be overwhelming when you first arrive. The city is a sprawling metropolis, as crowds of people fill the various walking streets, and the restaurants are packed with young and hip urbanites. Once you look past the congestion and chaos, you’ll discover a cultural city filled with plenty of things to do.
When landing at San Juan Santamaria International Airport, take the stress out of travel and book your private transfer to your hotel. Your driver will greet you at arrivals and take you directly to your hotel hassle-free. This airport is also where you’ll fly into when visiting the Arenal volcano area and Monteverde cloud forest.
Where to Stay in San Jose
We suggest staying near Avenida Central (Central Avenue) in downtown San Jose. Located in the center of the city, it is easy to walk to many of the top San Jose attractions. There is a huge concentration of hotels in this area to suit all budgets and we stayed at the Gran Hotel San Jose Hilton.
I wouldn’t suggest staying at the Juan Santamaria International Airport even though there is plenty of accommodation here. It is just a little too far out of town and you won’t really be able to take in all of San Jose’s nightlife and attractions. We loved being able to go for a walk on Avenida Central at night and early in the morning. That being said, the Hampton Inn & Suites is lovely. It’s a little more affordable and Ubers are quite reasonable to get around San Jose. If you are doing day trips and guided tours, the airport area could be a good option. Check it out on TripAdvisor
Gran Hotel San Jose
The Gran Hotel San Jose Hilton made for a great base to explore all of San Jose’s top tourist attractions and it was a superb property with outstanding views of the city. We had some travel points to use so we searched for the most convenient luxurious hotel we could find and it was perfect. We walked everywhere and its bar had the best views in the city. Even without travel points, it is an affordable luxury hotel by any city standards. Check out prices and availability on TripAdvisor / Booking.com
If you are looking for a more local option make sure to check out this cool Air B&B right in the center of town.
What to do in San Jose Costa Rica
Okay, now that we have suggested where to stay in the city, let’s take a look at all the amazing things to do in San Jose Costa Rica to entice you to add it to your bucket list. Let’s go!
1. Avenida Central – Central Avenue
Avenida Central (Central Avenue) is a walking street that goes right through the core of downtown San Jose. It is filled with restaurants, shops, and attractions. The best way to start your day is to find a local coffee shop to have some flavorful Costa Rican coffee take it away with you, and start walking along the avenue. Avenida Central is quiet in the mornings and walking along the street in solitude is the perfect way to get your bearings.
We took a long stroll from end to end to start planning our day. There are several walking streets beside Avenida Central in San Jose, and there are many walking streets that branch of from the main Central Avenue so get lost and stroll as long as you like along the auto-free streets to feel the energy of the city. There’s great shopping along here as well.
If you enjoy walking, this food and walking tour is a super way to learn about Costa Rican culture and food where you’ll meet in the morning for coffee at a café in Borbon Market before setting off to one of San Jose’s top attractions, Central Market to sample local foods and fruits.
2. Plaza de la Cultura
The Plaza de la Cultura is the main square of San Jose and a great place to begin your San Jose exploration. In the heart of the plaza, vendors sell crafts, street performers show their skills, and locals sell birdseed to feed the pigeons flocking to the square. If you want that classic photograph of a swarm of birds soaring off at your feet, this is the place to do it.
There are plenty of things to do in this area of San Jose that you can easily walk to from the plaza. Many of the top sights like the Central Market, Museo de Jade, Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica, and Gold Museum are all within walking distance of this plaza. It is here you’ll find typical fast-food chains found in every city in the world and it’s a great place to grab some ice cream to take with you as you explore.
Don’t be alarmed by all the police walking around wielding guns, they are there as a deterrent. Plaza de la Cultura is very safe and it is a spot where many tour groups meet up. The police are there to make sure everyone feels safe and because of that, it is probably the safest place in all of San Jose.
3. Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica – National Theater of Costa Rica
The National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica) is the centerpiece of San Jose and one of the city’s top attractions. It’s a meeting spot for tours and friends to meet up for coffee and it is the Grande Dame of the town. Dating back to 1897, this historic building is a must-see for anyone visiting San Jose.
The coffee barons of the 19th century went all out importing marble from Italy, and commissioning opulent frescoes and statues of Beethoven and Spanish Playwright. The original statues have been moved inside for fear of earthquakes and erosion so make sure to go in for the full experience.
The grand theater is beautiful from the outside with its neoclassical facade, stone columns, but inside you’ll find an ornate interior. The first thing you’ll notice is a painting by Aleardo Villa. Alegoría al Café y el Banano (Allegory of Coffee and Bananas) is dedicated to the Costa Rican coffee and banana harvest.
Tours are offered for $11 USD and are offered hourly in both Spanish and English. You’ll learn about the history and architecture and they take you on a backstage tour to see every nook and cranny. If you don’t want to take a tour, you can see a performance. This is the premier theater in Costa Rica and you’ll be able to watch everything from classical music to comedians and dance performances. Note: No photos are allowed in the theater.
4. Coffee Shop at National Theater
If you don’t have time for the 45-minute tour, or if you don’t want to spend the $11, there is a coffee shop in the lobby where you can enjoy a delicious Costa Rican coffee. If you ask to use the bathroom, you can take a peek inside the theater itself. They’ll give you a pass to get by security, but don’t spend too long lingering or you’ll get caught! The coffee shop is busy, so be sure to grab a table as soon as you see one.
5. Take a Free Walking Tour
Each day at 9:00 am, there is a free walking tour led by local guides. They are offered in both Spanish and English. Patrons meet in front of the Teatro Nacional and join their guide with the red vest and umbrella for a cultural tour of San Jose. The free tours don’t ever leave at 12:30, they leave at 9:00 am every day.
Taking the free walking tour of San Jose is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the city. We suggest doing this on your first day. It takes you to all the city highlights so you can get your bearings and decide where to come back to in the coming days. The local guides are knowledgeable and friendly and offer tips and information on where to eat and what else to see in San Jose. The tour is free, but make sure to show your guide some love at the end. Suggested Tip: $10 USD per person.
Looking for Day Tours from San Jose Costa Rica? These are the most popular!
San Jose is a great place to make a base for Costa Rican day trips. With its central location, you can easily get to see the cloud forest, volcanoes, and waterfalls.
We have a full description of San Jose’s best day trips at the end of this post. You can skip here to browse San Jose day trips
Beware, there is a copycat guide that stands out in front of the theater publicizing his own walking tour. He nearly got us the day before telling us that the free walking tour starts at 12:30. We popped up to our hotel room to drop some stuff off and looked up how much we should tip. The first thing we saw was his face warning that he was a fraud.
6. Museo Nacional de Costa – National Museum
San Jose is filled with museums showcasing Costa Rican history and culture and the National Museum (Museo Nacional de Costa) is San Jose’s premier museum. The National Museum was originally a fortress and these were its army barracks that give a nice overview of the history of Costa Rica with pre-Columbian artifacts to the abolishment of the Costa Rican Army in 1948. We found this fact fascinating. Costa Rico has not had a military since its civil war in 1948.
Military History and Bullet Holes of National Museum
If you aren’t a museum fan, you still must stroll along the outside of the Museo Nacional de Costa to see the bullet holes in the walls and watchtowers. It was a fierce battle and the scars still show from the 1948 Civil War.
As the former president, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Oscar Arias Sanchez said, “Military solutions to conflicts should be the last, last resort, Here, conflicts are resolved at a negotiating table.”
7. Stone Sphere – National Museum
The mysterious stone spheres of Costa Rica date back to 200BC and there have been more than 300 of them discovered throughout the country. You don’ have to go in search of them though, there is one located right downtown San Jose in the National Museum. The nearly perfectly smooth sphere sits on display in a glass encasement.
The stone spheres around Costa Rica range in size from a few centimeters to two meters in diameter and they weigh up to 15,000 kg (16 tons). They are so impressive that some are on display around the world including two in the United States. Our guide told us that treasure hunters blew them up when they were first discovered thinking that gold was hidden inside.
8. Pre Columbian Gold Museum of San Jose
Located in the heart of downtown San Jose under San Josés main square, The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is one of the most popular museums to visit in San Jose. Some of the metal objects on display date back to 500 AD. Here you’ll learn of what everyday life was like centuries ago. It also traces Costa Rica’s history from 500 AD to the 1500s when the Spanish arrived. This museum focuses on the purpose and uses of gold spanning from Pre Columbian times. The Gold Museum is one of the top attractions in San Jose with more than 1600 pieces of gold artifacts on display.
9. Jade Museum
The Jade Museum is yet another museum that is worth visiting in San Jose. It houses the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade in the world. Museu de Jade is located just behind the National Museum so if you have extra time, you can pop in there. The jade on display dates back to 500 BC. The Pre-Columbians traded with the Mayans during this period and this rare stone played a large role in the daily life of Pre-Columbian Costa Rica. It’s located just across the Plaza de la Democracia from the National Museum.
10. Children’s Museum
If you are looking for things to do in San Jose with kids, make your way to the Children’s Museum. The Museo de Los Ninos is popular for families complete with dinosaurs, science displays, ancient Egypt, and Costa Rican history. What makes it good are the interactive displays.
Museum of Natural Sciences – Considered one of the best in Latin America for animals, archeology, and dinosaurs.
11. Mercado Central – Central Market
When searching for souvenirs, Central Market is a good place to start. Central Market is one of Costa Rica’s oldest landmarks dating back to 1821. It is filled with food stalls and souvenir shops, but it is also a place to rub elbows with the locals. Locals regularly shop at this market and with its many food stalls you can sample some authentic Costa Rican food at bargain prices. You’ll see a lot of people sitting on stools eating traditional food, so why not join them and say hello!
12. California Boulevard
Another lovely walking street in San Jose can be found in front of the National Museum. California Boulevard, aka Calle 17 is a beautiful path that was designed to mimic the streets of Los Angeles. This walking street is far quieter than Avenida Central and its cobblestone path is lined with palm trees and colonial architecture. This is where you’ll find many government buildings, private residences, and educations centers.
13. Graffiti Wall
Along California Boulevard, is where you’ll also discover beautiful street art. Like many cities around the world, street tagging was becoming a problem in San Jose, so they offered artists a chance to own a piece of the wall to celebrate their expression of art. We were told that each artist auditioned for their spot and they were granted a piece of wall for five years.
14. National Park of San Jose
It is a quiet and small park, but the National Park of San Jose is historic. It is also a spot where you can view the railway. At one time, trains were a popular way to get around Costa Rica, but corruption put a stop to them when the people in power had a vested interest in automobile manufacturing. Today, Costa Rica is working on rebuilding the rail lines and soon tourists will be able to get around the country in the comfort of trains.
15. Sa Casa Del Cacao – Chocolate Factory
Chocolate was once prized as much as gold in Costa Rica and it was once the top export of the country. In Costa Rica’s history, chocolate was used in indigenous ceremonies and was so important it was used as currency. Chocolate production is making a comeback in Costa Rica, and the Casa del Cacao (The Costa Rican House of Chocolate) is a good place to experience some of that chocolate culture. It offers chocolate workshops and is a great place to pick up some genuine Costa Rican chocolate. Located in downtown San Jose you can sample two of Costa Rica’s prize exports, chocolate and coffee.
16. Berlin Wall
One of the best things to see in San Jose that nobody knows about is the Berlin Wall. Located behind the Foreign Ministry is a piece of the Berlin Wall. It’s a lovely yellow building, so you can’t miss it if you are strolling around the city. We always love finding pieces of the Berlin Wall in our travels. We were surprised to find that San Jose had a piece. You really need to seek it out as it isn’t exactly on display and many people walk right on by. We had to take photos through the fence to see it. The wall was a gift to Costa Rica after Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister asked for it to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its foreign ministry. Now you know, and here are more cool Costa Rica Facts to check out.
17. Metropolitan Cathedral of San Jose
San Jose’s most beautiful cathedral is located in the heart of the city. The Metropolitan Cathedral of San Jose’s doors are open to visitors, but be respectful as it is a working cathedral. Each time we visited, mass was taking place and worshippers were sitting in the pews. Its beautiful design is a mix of baroque, neoclassical, and Greek orthodox. After a series of earthquakes, it was rebuilt in 1871 and has been welcoming worshippers and visitors ever since. It is such an important church that Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1983.
18. Central Park
If you are looking for that Instagrammable city sign that can be spotted all over the world, this is the place to go. It’s less crowded than the San Jose sign at Plaza de la Cultura and is a nice little park to take a break from sightseeing.
Central Park is San Jose’s oldest public space and it is located beside the Metropolitan Cathedral. Street performers can be found alongside business people eating their lunches and kids skateboarding on the concrete. There’s some interesting architecture to check out here and it’s a popular hanging spot for locals.
19. View from the Bar at Gran Hotel
The Gran Hotel is the most historic hotel in the city and is a San Jose attraction in its own right. Even if you are not staying there it is worth going up to the bar for a cocktail or for dinner. The historic hotel has been completely renovated and is very chic.
Built-in 1930, The Gran Hotel has the most coveted location in San Jose. It’s located directly on the Plaza de la Cultura with the National Theater, Gold Museum, and Avenida Central located next door. When dining in its restaurant you are treated to one of San Jose’s best views.
JFK stayed here during his visit but he wouldn’t recognize it, its renovations have created a modern design that makes you want to hang out for days. Our room was super chic, the food was excellent and the ambiance was comfortably elegant. The staff is super friendly too. Make sure to head up to the top floor to the piano bar for a glass of wine overlooking the city of San Jose.
A quirky stop on our free walking tour was San Jose’s Chinatown. Our guide told us that the plan is to build it up more and make it an actual destination in the city. We didn’t see any Chinese during our visit to San Jose, but they do have a photogenic Chinatown gate, so I believe there will be much more in the future.
Taking the free walking tour helped us appreciate the buildings around the city. We stopped in front of many to learn of their history. This pink metallic building was inspired by the Eiffel Tower. It was actually sent from Europe in pieces and was put together piece by piece. Today it is a private school, but it is definitely worth stopping to see. There is a beautiful row of rubber trees that makes for a lovely photograph.
Things to do in San Jose Costa Rica at Night
Food and Culture Night Tour
If you are looking for things to do in San Jose at night, you can book this food and culture night tour of San José. Follow your expert guide to see important cultural sites followed by a traditional dinner with wine or beer pairings. You’ll start at Morazán Park to learn about post-colonial Costa Rican history. Then continue on a walking tour to the Metallic Building, the Yellow house from Spain Park, and the oldest residential neighborhood in San José, Barrio Escalante.
If you want to grab a beer in San Jose on your own, visit The Costa Rica Beer Factory is a great place to sample some local brews.
San Jose Night Tour
This highly rated tour is a fun way to experience San Jose away from the daytime crowds. Meeting at La Sabana Metropolitan Park you’ll get an overview of San Jose’s history as you visit some of San Jose’s top attractions like the National Stadium, University of Costa Rica, and the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. At the end of the tour, you’ll enjoy a traditional Costa Rican dinner.
Where to Eat in San Jose
Being Costa Rica’s capital city, there are plenty of excellent food choices all around San Jose. You can easily just ask your guide or hotel for recommendations. Another way we love to find great eateries is to look for where the locals are. If it is filled with regular clientele, you can be sure it is good. Here are a few recommendations.
Soda Tapia – Soda Tapia is a cool retro-style diner 100 years old that is popular with the locals and has a fun vibe.
Cafeteria Incluyeme – This unique cafeteria employs people with disabilities creating a space where they can feel comfortable, and gain employment. It’s known for its delicious coffee, smoothies. It’s located near the Chinese gate.
Tortilleria – This popular spot for locals has delicious tortillas. While there, be sure to try the local lemonade-like drink known as Cas.
Top of the Hilton – This was excellent fine dining with a fantastic view.
Day Trips from San Jose
Manuel Antonio National Park
This highly rated day tour from San Jose takes you to the white sand beaches of the world-famous Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s a full day tour packed with activities where you’ll be picked up in the morning and on the way stop at the biggest fruit market in Costa Rica and a stop at crocodile bridge to view one of the country’s largest crocodile populations. The rest of the day is spent searching for wildlife such as sloths and macaws, enjoying some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches and enjoying the rainforest hiking trails of Manuel Antonio National Park.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens & Poas Volcano
There is no shortage of things to do around San Jose, and the Poas Volcano National Park & La Paz Waterfall Gardens are one of the top day trips from San Jose.
This popular tour stops at La Paz Waterfall Gardens which houses Costa Rica’s largest animal sanctuary where 100 species of rescued wildlife lives are housed in the preserve. Enjoy some of the best hiking trails around San José as you enjoy waterfalls within the rainforest. This guided tour will also take you along hiking trails to the Botos Lagoon and climb up the crater to two crater lakes at the summit where you’ll witness one of the world’s most acidic lakes, Laguna Caliente. More details here.
This tour for nature lovers’ – is a full-day tour that takes you to one of Costa Rica’s most famous attractions. The Monteverde Hanging Bridges takes you above the cloud forest where you’ll observe wildlife in their natural habitat. It’s a long drive and it is suggested to actually spend more than one day there, but if you have limited time, this tour is a great option.
Getting Around San Jose
San Jose is a very walkable city and by staying downtown San Jose, we could walk to most of the top attractions. For other travels around San Jose, we used Uber, it was very convenient and very affordable.
To get to the airport, we used Uber. It was safe, fast, and affordable. It cost us $15 USD including the tip. Note: we read that tips are not expected by Uber drivers in San Jose, but we have a habit of tipping. (gotta keep that high Uber star rating)**
You may want to book a transfer in advance to avoid any hassles. When visiting a new city, we always feel more comfortable when we have our driver waiting for us at arrivals with our nameplate. They take us directly from the airport to our hotel and it is worth the extra cost. You can check airport transfers here.
And there you have it, all of the best things to do in San Jose. One day really isn’t enough so when planning your trip to Costa Rica, make sure to spend at least three days in its capital city.
If you are planning on going to Costa Rica to explore its beautiful beaches, cloud forest, volcanoes, and scenery, make sure to put San Jose on your list. You’ll enjoy this historic urban center.