Things to do in San José, Costa Rica
San José may be just ‘another big city,’ but it’s the perfect jumping-off point to other incredible natural destinations in Costa Rica. Located in Valle Central, it’s precisely that: central!
This luscious region is home to everything from volcanos to coffee plantations, offering plenty to see and do for travelers. While you’re passing through San José, don’t miss out on the top things to do in this up-and-coming city
1. Walking Tour
One of the best things to do in San José is book a walking tour to get to know the city on foot. Be guided around downtown San José – an area full of history, culture, and fantastic architecture. You can pay for a private tour or go for the budget option of a free walking tour (but remember to tip the guide!).
Learn about the fascinating history of San José and Costa Rica while familiarizing yourself with the city center streets. See iconic landmarks, learn about Costa Rican culture, get restaurant recommendations and discover hidden gems with a local guide. It is also a great opportunity to meet and connect with other travelers.
2. National Theater
The Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica is a stunning building and one of the grandest in San José, built with money raised from Costa Rica’s main export, coffee. Get a guided tour of the building and awe at the lavish furnishings and intricate design, including incredible murals on the ceilings.
The evening is a fantastic time to visit when you can enjoy a concert or ballet in this spectacular setting. The theater’s cafe (Alma de Café) is also a must-see, with elegant neoclassical architecture and fantastic coffee.
Opening Times & Entry Fee: Open daily from 9 AM – 5 PM. The lobby and cafe are free to enter. Guided tours in Spanish and English 9 AM – 4 PM for 5.90 USD. Check the website for specific event times.
3. National Museum
The National Museum (El Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) is a cultural and natural history museum that explains Costa Rica’s rich history from pre-Columbian days until now. It has fantastic permanent and temporary exhibitions, including a beautiful butterfly garden at the entrance, where you can see butterflies of every color and size.
The museum is housed in a bright yellow building, the Bellavista Fortress, formerly a military barracks. This unique location is used to help explain Costa Rica’s civil war and consequent abolishment of the military. In fact, you can even still see bullet holes in the walls!
Opening Times & Entry Fee: Tuesday – Saturday 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM, Sunday 9 AM – 4:30 PM, closed Mondays. 11 USD entry (you can’t book online, so just show up on the day).
4. San José Food Tour
There is no better way to get to know a place than through its cuisine, so we recommend taking a food tour with Bites and Sights – one of the best things to do in San José, Costa Rica. Experience bustling food markets with a knowledgeable guide, taste local produce and see the highlights of downtown San José, such as the theater and the cathedral. End the tour with a coffee tasting, a cooking lesson, and a delicious meal! This is a great way to get local insight into the city and Costa Rican food culture while filling your belly.
5. Jade Museum
The Jade Museum (Museo del Jade) has thousands of jade artifacts from the pre-Columbian period and is the most extensive collection of its kind in the Americas. Jade stone was originally used as a material for artisan goods made by the indigenous population who once lived here. Discover some beautiful examples of ancient jewelry and artwork throughout the five floors of the museum. Open daily, 8 AM – 5 PM. 16 USD.
6. Bajos del Toro Day Trip
A relatively unknown town in the mountains, Bajos del Toro, sits between two beautiful national parks, Juan Castro Blanco and the Poás Volcano. This area is a cloud forest reserve, a high-elevation forest where misty clouds can be seen from above, which makes for cool mountain air, incredible natural scenery, and some of the best biodiversity in the world.
Hike through green valleys and over volcanic hills, swim under waterfalls in bright blue water, and spot local wildlife in this peaceful natural oasis.
The waterfalls around Bajos del Toro are an incredible sight (you can also swim in their blue volcanic pools). Please note that most waterfalls are on privately owned land, so you do have to pay an entry fee. However, this fee sometimes includes a local guide.
Take the hassle out of travel arrangements and book a day tour to Bajos del Toro from San José. See availability and prices here.
Tesoro Escondido Waterfall
Translating to ‘hidden treasure’, this is a great swimming spot that is popular with locals, located just outside of town. There is a beautiful hike to reach it, with many viewpoints along the way. Open daily, 9 AM – 5 PM—12 USD entry fee.
Catarata del Toro
Catarata del Toro is one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls in Costa Rica at 270 feet high, with water that thunders into an old volcanic crater coated in vibrant green moss. It’s open Monday-Saturday, 7 AM-5 PM. 14 USD.
Top Tip: The owners of the falls keep special feeders at the entrance to attract hummingbirds, so keep an eye out for these colorful feathered creatures.
The Blue Falls (Cataratas Las Gemelas)
The Blue Falls are a series of 7 waterfalls and pools, where the water crashes below into magnificent aquamarine rivers and pools. Most of them are also fantastic for swimming! The bright blue color comes from volcanic minerals deposited from the nearby Poás Volcano; it really is a magnificent sight.
Open Monday-Saturday, 7 AM – 5 PM. The entrance fee is 15 USD for the Blue Falls Light Tour, which includes 3-4 of the blue falls. Alternatively, opt for the Blue Falls Full, which includes all seven falls and your visit to Catarata del Toro (50 USD).
Bajos del Toro is a 90-minute drive from downtown San José. We’d recommend renting a car, taking a taxi, or booking a tour, as there are some hard-to-reach spots and limited public transport.
Tip: Wear good shoes, as some of the trails can be slippery. You should also bring waterproof gear and warm clothing to change into (the water is cold!).
Best Cafes and Restaurants in San José
You can find a huge variety of cuisine in San José, Costa Rica, both local and international. Head to Paseo Gastronómico in Barrio Escalante for some amazing spots. Cozy coffee shops with fantastic locally grown coffee, delicious brunch menus, and an up-and-coming craft beer scene are some of the highlights.
- Café Otoya
- La Criollita (traditional)
- Franco (recommended by locals)
- La Esquinita de la Abuela
- Soda Tapia
- Soda Yoguis
- El Jardin de Lolita
- Costa Rica Beer Factory
If you’re on a budget, the central market is a great spot to try fantastic seafood and locally-grown produce. Alternatively, go to one of the many sodas (small family-owned restaurants; the Costa Rican equivalent of an American diner)
Where to Stay in San José, Costa Rica
The downtown area is the best place to base yourself if you’re not staying long; it’s close to all the main cultural sites and museums, and you can find relatively cheap accommodation. Selina Hostel is particularly good, but there are plenty of hostels in San José to choose from (search all hostels here).
Alternatively, check out Barrio Escalante, an area recently voted as one of the Top 50 Coolest Neighborhoods in the World by Time Out, primarily for its fantastic food scene on Paseo Gastronómico. See all hotels in San José.
How to Visit San José
San José has a large international airport, with flights arriving from all over the world. Buses leave every 10 minutes to the center – which is only 30 minutes away.
San José is in the center of Costa Rica, making it a good starting point to travel to other regions. In fact, many exciting places are only a few hours’ drive away, making it the perfect place to begin your Costa Rica road trip!
We recommend to rent a car in Costa Rica through Sunny Cars with free cancellation and insurance included. Book your rental car here.
The center of San José is walkable, with many of the main sites close to each other. However, we do recommend being extra careful at night, making sure to avoid the quieter, unlit streets. Learn more about travel safety here.
Buses are frequent, or you can take a taxi or an Uber. If you’re heading out of town to explore nearby national parks, an organized tour is your best option.
How Much Does San José Cost?
Although Costa Rica is one of the most expensive places to visit in Central America, it is still affordable compared to many places in Europe. For those on a smaller budget, stick to the center. Here, you can easily walk between most sights and go to the central market and local sodas to eat out cheaply.
Best Time to Visit San José
December to March is the best time to visit San José, Costa Rica when it is dry and sunny. If staying in December, don’t miss out on the lively Christmas celebrations throughout the month, kicked off by the incredible Festival of Lights with parades and fireworks shows. End the festive period with the vibrant San José Carnival that takes place just before New Year.
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Thank you for blogging- great tips and I had lunch at cafe Otoya today and it was great!