San José may never be called beautiful, but Costa Rica’s capital city is unarguably a celebration of the nation’s culture, history, and dedication to peace and political stability. Our San Jose travel guide takes you inside the capital city’s museums, markets, plazas and parks, then into the surrounding mountains, home to rolling coffee plantations and volcanoes, exotic gardens and wildlife refuges.
- Area: Central Valley
- Average Temperature: 18°C to 30°C (65º to 86ºF)
- Closest Airport: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), located in Alajuela (30 minutes away from downtown San José), and Tobías Bolaños International Airport (SYQ), located in Pavas, 5 minutes from the heart of the city.
- Can’t-Miss Attractions: La Sabana Park, Museums (Oro, Jade, Nacional, MADC, Museo de los Niños), Teatro Nacional, Mercado Central.
- Hot Activities: Visiting the parks, taking a tour of the city, having a movie night at Cine Magaly, partying at La California, watching a play at the historic Teatro Nacional.
Nestled in the center of the Central Valley, surrounded by stunning untouched cloud forests, lies Costa Rica’s capital – the largest city in the country.
“Chepe,” as the locals call it, is a vibrant and buzzing metropolis, full of sounds, scents and colors; it will definitely challenge your concept of Costa Rica being all about relaxing on a hammock, surrounded by sloths. (Although you can totally do that. Just not in San Jose.)
The city is loud and stretches out in every direction, with every corner having a unique market or little park, surrounded by street vendors loudly advertising their products. While it can be boisterous to the point of intimidating, San Jose offers an amazing opportunity for travelers to get to know Costa Rica’s history and culture – especially if you know where to go. (And that’s why we’re for.)
This San Jose travel guide introduces you to best the city and its surrounds have to offer, from the country’s best museums and most frequented markets, to the best day trips and mountain hikes.
Central Avenue is one of the most accessible areas of the city, where it’s easy to walk between all of the museums, historic plazas, parks, tour offices, restaurants and shops. This is a great place to start exploring the city! Some of the main attractions nearby are:
(Central Market): Founded in 1880, it’s the oldest and largest market in the city. It occupies an entire block of Avenida Central, and walking through it is truly a cultural and sensory experience. While most ticos do their shopping at regular chain supermarkets, this picturesque market is still visited by over 10,000 people everyday. Throughout the market, you will find a huge range of meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and coffees, as well as herbal remedies, flowers, prepared meals, souvenirs, and local crafts. Two blocks north is the Mercado Borbón, which specializes in food, offering a variety of fresh meat, fish, and fruit. If you are looking to try exotic and traditional products, visiting the “mercado” is a must!
(National Museum): In 1887, what was once an abandoned jail was transformed into a time-machine experience of Costa Rica’s cultural evolution and national heritage. The entrance – a beautiful glass atrium containing a mesmerizing butterfly garden – is in itself so worth the visit! The exhibits, organized thematically, comprise everything from pre-Columbian stone and gold crafts, to historic artifacts from the colony and the early republic. Don’t forget to stop and admire the exterior walls, which still have many bullets lodged in them from Costa Rica’s 1948 civil war!
Museo de Jade
(Jade Museum): Almost adjacent to the National Museum, this amazing archeological museum has the world’s largest jade collection, along with other semi-precious stones and pre-Colombian artefacts made of wood, ceramic, stone, shells and bones. This museum is now housed in a modern building which displays the collection in a highly interactive way and allows you to truly learn the story behind every piece.
Museo de Oro
(Gold Museum): Located under the Plaza de la Cultura, and next to another currency-related museum (National Coin Museum / Casa de la Moneda), this museum is a valuable resource for learning about the history of this precious metal. Inside the Museo del Oro, you can stroll through several floors of gold artifacts created by indigenous people and that date back to AD 0. There are over 1,600 artifacts in this impressive collection, all beautifully displayed in chronological order.
Museo de los Niños
(Kid’s Museum) This is a must do if you’re in San Jose with young kids. Not only is it Central America’s first interactive museum, but it’s housed in an old castle which used to be a prison (and is now said to be “haunted”). This great little adventure offers over 40 entertaining rooms designed for kids to learn through play and exploration. The museum offers all kinds of games, experiments and special events for the youngest travelers in your crew.
(Contemporary Art & Design Museum) + CENAC (National Center of Culture): San Jose also offers the largest and most important contemporary art museum in the region: the Contemporary Art & Design Museum (MADC). Now focused on exhibiting the works of contemporary Costa Rican, Central American and South American artists, this hip gallery was previously the historic National Liquor Factory. Walking into this museum is refreshing; everything is modern, minimalist and trendy. The exhibits are changed often and always offer a peek into the latest trends in interior design, graphic art, product design and fashion. Occupying approximately 1,200 square meters (almost 13,000 square feet), the museum has four exhibition rooms, an auditorium and the Pila de la Melaza, an open-air space where performances, art installations and other events often take place. Additionally, there is a small store, which also lets you access the museum’s website and a video library; here, you can appreciate MADC’s collection of over 900 works, by both young and established artists. If you truly want to understand the aesthetic, cultural and social traits of Central American culture, this is definitely a great place to visit.
(National Theatre/National Theater): This elegant, European-style historic building is possibly one of the most beautiful of Costa Rica. It stages a variety of shows throughout the year. My favorite way to experience this magical place is obviously going to a performance, several take place almost every day, and they are usually very inexpensive ($5-$10). For a small fee, you can also get a guided tour and see the breath-taking artwork and learn about all the little secrets and tricks of this place. There is one particular painting on the ceiling of one of these private chambers, which is famous because the woman’s eyes follow you no matter what corner of the room you are standing at – how creepy and cool!
Plaza de la Cultura
(Culture Plaza): In the very heart of the city, this busy plaza connects some of the major cultural landmarks: Avenida Central, Teatro Nacional, Museo de Oro and Museo de Jade. It is a great place to stop and take in the true essence of San Jose.
If you are looking for unique, fair-trade and authentic souvenirs, look no further! In their downtown San José gallery you will find the incredible artwork that comes from Costa Rican (and other Central American) indigenous and folk artists. There is no other gallery in the country that has brought together such a collection.
University of Costa Rica
If you are coming to San Pedro anyway, enjoying a walk through UCR’s campus can be a nice break from the city’s traffic. It feels a bit like a trip back in the 1970s, but the architecture and crowd give you a sense of the values of educated Costa Ricans. The neighborhood is replete with small and cheerful cafes and ‘sodas’ (diners, more or less) and the streets are full of young energy and busy students. Remember to keep an eye out for sloths and monkeys near the river. Afterwards you can enjoy a delicious and inexpensive lunch in one of the multiple cafes and restaurants on the “Calle de la Amargura.”
Exploring San Jose can be fun on your own, but there are some locals that love to take the experience to another level. Barrio Bird Walking Tours offer guided strolls through the city, and are full of local knowledge and fun. They offer a diverse range of experiences, depending on where your interests lie. You can choose between a more historic, cultural, gastronomic or artistic focus, to be sure you make the most out of your time here.
Don’t Forget the Parks
While you are busy out and about exploring the city, make sure you take time to relax and enjoy some of our beloved parks and let your mind unwind.
La Sabana Metropolitan Park + Costa Rican Art Museum
“La Sabana” is considered San José’s equivalent to Central Park in New York City. Also known as “the lungs of San José,” this park is a popular and vital space to get some fresh air and enjoy a relaxed afternoon or lazy picnic. Chepe´s residents bring their bikes, rollerskates or running shoes to the track and children fly their kites and play hide-and-seek behind the trees. There is also a big artificial lake where you can rent paddle-boats and enjoy the view of wild ducks happily swimming by. Although it can get busy on the weekend, La Sabana is a great place to enjoy nature in the middle of the city. Tip: While you’re there, make sure to visit the park’s small art museum, which is free and often has beautiful exhibits.
Parque de la Paz UPEACE
Founded by the United Nations, the University for Peace (UPEACE) strives to educate the brightest students to be active ambassadors for global peace. At their beautiful campus, they have a stunning 300-acre park open to public. It offers the visitors trails, lakes, monkey and bird sighting and a delicious restaurant that serves traditional food.
Parque Nacional de Diversiones
(National Amusement Park): With thrilling roller-coasters, huge water slides, a haunted house, and a small adorable farm, this is every Costa Rican child’s favorite place. Your whole family can ride a train around the park, enjoy the paddle-boats, the go-karts and the traditional bumper cars. Afterwards, you can explore Pueblo Antiguo, a small theme park which re-creates San José as it used to be during the 19th century. Not only is a charming and fun place to visit, but a good part of the profits go to the Children’s Hospital.
Become an Insider
A great way to get the “local experience” in Chepe is, well, doing what the locals do. Here I list some of the most unique and loved entertainment venues:
Cine Magaly (Magaly Movie Theater):
With over 1,000 seats located on orchestra and balcony levels, this independently operated movie theater has all the feeling of the “old-school cinema experience.” It does not follow the mainstream movie selection most mall cinemas do; instead, Cine Magaly screens independent movies, art films, movies from around the world, and also hosts film festivals. Tickets are inexpensive and they have a small cafeteria where you can buy snacks and drinks, their popcorn actually tastes home-made!
If you are looking to party Tico-style, you might want to visit La California, or “La Cali”, as locals call it. This part of the city has the greatest concentration of bars, dance clubs and party venues – salud (enjoy!)!
If you love live music and enjoy a casual and low-key environment, Jazz Cafe is for you! They have two locations, one in San Pedro and another in Escazú, both equipped with a beautiful stage and professional sound system. Here, national and international bands play in a very intimate and friendly environment. If you are lucky you might get to meet some world-renowned artists and buy them a drink later!
Spanish word for “basement”, “El Sótano” is the underground place you have been wishing a local told you about. It is a small intimate bar where artists meet and take turns playing vinyls and “jam” (improvised music) with each other. This little bar is inside a historic Neo-Classical house in the heart of San Jose, which also hosts the “Amon Solar” Art Gallery, a restaurant, and a big stage for concerts.
Art & Music Festivals:
FIA (International Art Festival), Transitarte, Art City Tour, and Festival Imperial are events all “Ticos” mark on their calendars. Attending one of these festivals is an outstanding opportunity to experience the passion and national pride Costa Ricans show for these celebrations.
The most progressive parts of Chepe, like Barrio Escalante and Los Yoses, offer a hip urban vibe and a spectacular selection of restaurants and bars that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. I highly recommend you drive about 3.5 miles west of San José to reach trendy Escazú, a quiet, beautiful and secure suburb with all the comforts of modernity. Driving through Escazu is surreal because parts of it feel like you are in a very sophisticated neighborhood in Los Angeles, and then suddenly, you run into a herd of cows and a shirtless Tico guy, waving a stick and trying to guide his bovines off of the highway. The contrast is insane; you will most likely experience both old dirty trucks and beautiful Ferraris sharing the same road.
Escazú’s culprit of high-end life is definitely Multiplaza, the largest and most modern mall in Central America, which offers more than 300 national and international stores. Next to it is Avenida Escazú, a stunning outdoor plaza which offers upscale stores, restaurants and cafes. Here you can also find Hospital Cima, a prestigious private hospital which receives a lot of medical tourism.
San Jose Travel Guide to Hotels
Now that you have so many reasons to come visit San José, you need to decide where to stay. There are so many options for accommodation and hotels in San Jose, but here I will list a few that for me, have a “special something” to them:
Hostel Urbano Los Yoses – If you are traveling on a budget, but still don’t want to sacrifice cleanliness and style, you can check out this hip, friendly hostel. Located in Los Yoses (that trendy neighborhood we just talked about above), you will be right in the epicenter of fun, adventure and young energy. What’s not to love about their industrial design inspired furniture and their cool vibe?
Hotel Aranjuez – is slightly outside the center of town, far enough out to be nice and quiet, but only a 10-15 minute walk to most of the places I mentioned above. The building has beautiful historic architecture and elegant wood finishes, all combined with a fresh, tropical vibe. They are famous for their abundant and delicious gourmet breakfast. This progressive neighborhood also hosts the Feria Verde, San José’s largest outdoor organic market.
Studio Hotel – If you can’t let modern and stylish pass, this stunning 5-star boutique hotel is for you. Offering mountain views and a super convenient location, Studio Hotel is also a real tribute to Costa Rican art and design. It showcases more than a hundred pieces of Costa Rican artwork, including pieces by Rafa Fernandez, Isidro Wong and other internationally renowned artists.
Hotel Alta – If upscale and sophisticated is what you seek, Alta is heaven on earth. Not only it’s located in Alto de las Palomas, one of the most exclusive areas of Escazú, it also will surprise you with its breathtaking view of the Central Valley’s mountains and volcanoes. Handcrafted furnishings, pendant lamps and soothing color schemes will welcome you, as you marvel at how “Alta” makes classic and modern meet so perfectly in one place.
San Jose Travel Guide to Restaurants
Park Café – The ambiance, the décor, the service and the food at Park Café come together to create a magical, out-of-this-world experience. Being a perfect fusion of an antique shop and French restaurant, Park Cafe offers a romantic and candlelit courtyard, an exquisite sampling menu (tapas), and a carefully curated wine list. Each dish is orchestrated with an array of flavors and textures and each individual element is perfectly seasoned. It is conveniently located 100m North of La Sabana Park.
La Terrasse – French Chef Patricia Richer brought to Costa Rica a new concept called “Table d Hôtes”, meaning the host’s table. This is exactly what she does: She receives you in her gorgeous, circa 1927 antique home, and takes you on a culinary journey through the most exquisite French cuisine. Luxuriously decorated and with a very intimate atmosphere, La Terrasse is the perfect place to have a memorable romantic night or to impress someone with the finest San Jose has to offer.
El Patio del Balmoral – If you need a relaxing place to take a break from exploring the city, check out El Patio at the Balmoral Hotel. Overlooking lively Avenida Central, this bar, restaurant and cafe serves a variety of Costa Rican specialties and international dishes in a casual ambiance.
Ravi Gastropub & Cafe – Ravi brings together many trends that are echoing around the world, such as organic food, healthy dishes, fair trade and authentic artisan products. Half of their ingredients are organic and nearly ninety percent of them are either bought from local artisans or prepared right at the place. With lots of vegan and gluten-free options, this is a great healthy choice without sacrificing an amazing culinary experience.
Mantras Veggie Cafe – This is hands-down the best vegetarian and vegan restaurant in San Jose. Mantras offers both indoor and outdoor seating, in a serene and casual ambiance. Every day they have three or four elaborate and unique meals to choose from, always at a great price. The servings are satisfying, the desserts are exquisite, and you can be sure the ingredients are always prime quality.
Tin Jo – If you are an Asian food lover, you need to visit this restaurant! It is located in a converted old mansion in the cultural heart of San José, surrounded by theaters, museums and galleries. Here you can choose between Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Philippine food, all in one place. It is truly a gastronomic adventure!
Aquí es – This is an excellent, small boutique restaurant with delectable entrées, a relaxed atmosphere and fantastic service. The ambiance and decorations transport you to another time and place, and the sangría is probably the best you will come across in Chepe. If you are meat lover and want to enjoy a reasonably-priced, delicious Argentinian steak, this is your place!
“Chepe” is not only geographically the heart of the country, but culturally as well. I hope my advice helps you have a one-of-a-kind, exciting and meaningful stay, while you explore the very core of the Costa Rican way of life.
Weather & Location
Located in the very heart of the country, San Jose is the best starting point to explore any part of Costa Rica. Its location also gives this city’s lucky population one of the best climates of the world: Over the course of a year, the temperature typically varies from 18°C to 30°C (65º to 86ºF) and is rarely below 17°C (63ºF) or above 32°C (90ºF).
Getting Around San José
Metallic Building, Downtown San Jose by Rodtico21 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Even though San José has grown to be a big city, it’s still a very disorganized one, with few street names and a ton of “Tico” directions, which use any point of reference as an attempt to communicate their whereabouts, from major landmarks to even an old but well-known tree!
Luckily, downtown San Jose is pretty on point with their avenues and streets and, generally, Ticos are more than happy to help you find your destination.
Hands-down the best way to get around the city is by using Uber, a reliable and safe transportation app. Although “Ubers” are rare in the rural parts of Costa Rica, they are abundant in San José. The rates are a little bit lower than a regular taxi and their GPS route tracking system guarantees you will not be overcharged. (And it’s the same Uber you use in the U.S., so no need to download a new app.)
Buses are also a great and inexpensive way to get around the city, although routes are complex and can be a little confusing. For this reason, I highly recommend you download the BusMaps app at www.busmapscr.com. Once you’re in the heart of the city the traffic is bad, so the best thing you can do is walk as much as you can.
If you are renting a car, I highly recommend you download the Waze app. I have found Waze to be the most reliable and updated GPS app in Costa Rica. Please be aware, though, that driving in San Jose can be dangerous and it can be the wild west, at least when it comes to traffic etiquette. My advice is to stay out of the heavy traffic until you have adjusted to the way things flow (or don’t flow) here. The same goes for pedestrians and bikers; please be mindful of your safety!
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