If you’re visiting Costa Rica, you’ll inevitably begin your trip in the nation’s capital, San José. While many people simply stopover in the city on their way to the rainforests, the city deserves a visit on its own.
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Since it is an up and coming tourist destination, you can find plenty of San José, Costa Rica attractions and points of interest that make it worth a visit.
In our opinion, there are so many underrated things to do in San José, Costa Rica that are well worth your time! With lots of museums, churches, parks, and good eats, San José really has something for everyone. Costa Rica is one of our favourite countries and one that we’ve been able to explore at length.
While it’s common that people don’t know what to do in San José, Costa Rica, this guide should get you started with planning some fun-filled days in the city.
Best Time to Visit San José
Like most places in the tropics, San José experiences two seasons, a dry and a wet season.
Generally, the dry season between December and April is a much better time to visit in terms of weather. However, in that time, the heat can be oppressive and vegetation dry and parched. You’ll also find more tourists in the city and prices will be higher.
May to November is the wet season which is a bit cooler and more humid. Prices are lower and the rainforests are at their most beautiful shades of green. To meet in the middle and find a balance between price, crowds, and weather, we suggest visiting in the shoulder season, either November/ December or June/ July.
Best Things to Do in San José, Costa Rica
Visit the National Theater
First opened in 1897, the National Theater is a landmark of not just San José, but Costa Rica as a whole. While the exterior may appear ornate, it’s nothing compared to the lavish designs and decorations on the inside.
Seeing a show there is a real treat but if you aren’t interested or able to do that, definitely don’t miss a guided tour of the building which is included with the price of admission.
Tour the Metropolitan Cathedral
As the most significant religious building in the city, this is one of the best things to do in San José, Costa Rica.
Although it’s a bit unimpressive from the outside, the church’s interior is stunning. It is the second cathedral on the site as the first was destroyed by an earthquake and later rebuilt.
Make sure to take a tour inside to get the historical and cultural inside scoop from a local guide.
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Stroll Through the Mercado Centrale
Of all the things to do in San José, Costa Rica, this might be our favourite. The Mercado Centrale, or central market, is a feast for the senses with its long aisles of fruit stands, knick-knack and gadget vendors, and displays of Costa Rican souvenirs.
Here, you can buy things like cigars, coffee, and cacao, or simply wander the market, taking in the sights and sounds. This is a great way to support artisans and local shop owners during your trip.
Go to the Museums
National Museum of Costa Rica
For many visitors (especially the history buffs,) the National Museum of Costa Rica is a major highlight.
The museum building is actually that of an old military fortress, with cannons and bullet holes still visible along the walls. Inside, you’ll find displays organized by different topics including colonial history, religion, and geology.
The Gold Museum
This underground museum is one of the main San José, Costa Rica points of interest. Inside, you’ll find hundreds of gold artifacts preserved from Pre-Columbian times including Costa Rica’s first ever coin.
The Jade Museum
If you’re a fan of gems or geology, you’ll love the Jade Museum. This museum’s modern building houses the largest jade collection in the world and operates with the mission to preserve Costa Rica’s archeological heritage.
Attend the La Feria Verde
If you happen to be in town on a Saturday, don’t miss La Feria Verde, one of the best things to do in San José, Costa Rica if you’re an eco-conscious traveler.
This market is full of sustainable crafts, produce, and other products, making it an awesome shopping spot. You can also find delicious and locally sourced food here, making it one of the most unique activities in San José, Costa Rica.
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Where to Stay in San José
Located a bit outside the city to the northwest, the Adventure Inn is one of the best places to stay in San José, Costa Rica if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet.
During your stay, you’ll enjoy a lovely pool, gourmet food, and warm hospitality. The inn plants their own local garden tracks their energy use, and composts food waste, making it a TripAdvisor GreenLeader certified property on the silver level.
Check availability for the Adventure Inn
Along with its affordability and great location, this hotel is perhaps the greenest hotel in San José. They are currently one of the very few hotels in town with the GreenLeader Platinum Level status, using rainwater harvesting, solar panels, and completely banning plastic on the property.
At Hotel Aranjuez, you’ll find quirky decorations, a lovely sun deck, and some seriously delicious food including a breakfast buffet.
Check availability for the Hotel Aranjuez.
Costa Verde Inn
The Costa Verde Inn is a great choice if you’re looking for more of a guesthouse experience. Accommodations here are simple but charming. You’ll feel like you’re tucked into the jungle at this hotel, providing the perfect amount of ambiance.
Check availability for the Costa Verde Inn.
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Where to Eat and Drink
While there are many great places to eat and drink in downtown San José, Costa Rica, our favourite neighbourhood for dining is Escazu. It’s the most forward-thinking area in the entire city and consequently, you can find lots of vegan and vegetarian restaurants here to make your visit all the more sustainable.
Raw Co Juicery & Food
This is a great place to stop for a healthy lunch or fresh juice drink on a hot day. Raw Co Juicery & Food has a number of sandwiches, toasts, and superfood bowls to choose from along with coffee and baked goods.
Árbol de Seda
Árbol de Seda is another great healthy choice for either lunch or dinner. This restaurant is mostly vegetarian and can be vegan upon request. They serve a mix of Latin American and fusion cuisine.
For dinner with a view, head to Mirador Tiquicia, an upscale restaurant on a hill overlooking downtown San José, Costa Rica. With a long list of cocktails and traditional Costa Rican dishes, this restaurant is both authentic and classy.
They also regularly host performances on weekend nights, making a visit to this restaurant one of the best things to do in San José, Costa Rica.
This quirky restaurant is actually a lot more like the living room of a Costa Rica native. Joanna Stein calls this place home and opens up her doors to visitors to try her fresh, homemade cooking and often customizes dishes to her guests’ desires.
For a truly unique food experience, don’t miss the Cocina Eclectica while in San José.
Maxi’s By Ricky
If you’re looking for authentic Caribbean food, head to Maxi’s By Ricky. Although a little way out of the city center, it is worth the journey for the excellent rondón soup and other traditional dishes.
Mantras Veggie Cafe and Tea House
As one of the best vegetarian restaurants in all of San José, Mantras serves up soups, salads, pasta, and more, all completely meat free. In addition to their regular offerings, they also have a great weekend brunch.
How Much Time do you Need in San José?
San José is not a huge city and is easily digestible in a couple of days. In order to get a sense of the city and see all the main highlights, we recommend between 1-3 days.
However, there are a number of day trips and San José, Costa Rica activities that you might want to try. For example, a trip to the Waterfall Park and Wildlife Sanctuary or a Rafting Adventure Tour on the Sarapiqui River will take more of your time. If you want to do some of these day trips, give yourself closer to 5 days in the city.
A Note About Safety
San José is sadly not known for being a particularly safe city. During the day, the city is often crowded and pickpocketing is quite common, especially in touristy areas. At night, it can be especially dangerous downtown, so avoid walking in the dark if at all possible.
That being said, you can minimize your risk if you exercise caution and use common sense. With so many places to visit in San José, Costa Rica, it would be a shame to miss them in lieu of the rest of the country. Having been multiple times, we still highly recommend a trip to San José and hope you add it to your Costa Rica itinerary as well.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? Did you visit the cities or the rainforests?
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