Selina’s Top 20 Best Things To Do in San Jose, Costa Rica
By David Bolaños on Jun 13, 2022
Despite the tons of things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, most of its visitors only use it as a jumping-off point to other parts of this Central American country. But if you dare give it a chance, you’ll discover that Chepe- as most Ticas and Ticos call it- is actually one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
This magical capital city is a mix of worthwhile historical, cultural and modern attractions, some of which make up the most unique things to do in Costa Rica. And we’ve made this travel guide of San Jose, Costa Rica, things to do to prove just that!
Read on if you’re curious about what to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, where to stay and how much you should expect to spend.
San Jose, Costa Rica at a Glance
Costa Rica’s capital, the sprawling and bustling metropolis of San Jose, is a magical city smack-dab in the heart of El Valle Central (or the Central Valley).
The Central Valley is a strikingly beautiful plateau in the middle of Costa Rica. This plateau sits 3800 ft above sea level and is ringed on all sides by encompassing mountains, majestic volcanoes and green hills. The Central Valley is home to more than two-thirds of Costa Ricans. It covers this country’s main cities and towns, including San Jose, Cartago, Heredia, Alajuela, Palmares and Naranjo.
Climate and Average Weather
San Jose is a tropical paradise. Like other parts of Costa Rica, this Capital City has two major seasons: the dry/peak season (Dec-April) and the rainy/green season (May-November). Although it’s hot year-round, San Jose enjoys an average temperature range of 27°C (80°F) to 30°C (86°F), which is quite cold for a tropical climate. No wonder this city is said to have the best weather in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s Central Valley has been a major attraction for American settlers since 4000 BC. But without gold, silver or water, tiny San Jose remained isolated from the rest of the villages and not many people wanted to stay there.
In 1736, San Jose started as a tobacco-growing town with a mouthful name: Villanueva de la Boca del Monte del Valle de Abra (New Village of the Mountain’s Mouth in the Open Valley). The town obtained the title of “city” in 1813. Ten years later- in 1823- San Jose fought its neighboring cities to become the Capital City of Costa Rica, snatching the title from Cartago.
Types of Attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose is relatively youthful compared to other cities in Latin America. However, a closer inspection of this city reveals many historical landmarks and monuments honoring its sweet-and-sour history of struggles and successes.
Within its borders, this 44.62 km2 (17.23 sq mi) city boasts museums, theaters, cathedrals, green parks and flea and street markets, making it a fantastic attraction for all travelers. The surrounding suburbs of Cartago, Alajuela and Heredia, plus the spectacular ring of volcanoes and mountains that guard this city, make for exciting day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica.
San Jose has it all, whether you’re visiting Costa Rica for its cultural and historical attractions or natural beauty. And if you’re chasing a hip urban vibe, this city is often likened to East London, thanks to its vibrant creative scene, trendy hangouts, and unique restaurants and bars.
San Jose is home to one of Costa Rica’s international airports- the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO). Its position as the country’s central transportation hub also makes this city the entry point to Costa Rica and a key take-off point to other destinations.
Cost of Visiting San Jose, Costa Rica
You should plan to spend around $57 on average to enjoy most of the tourist attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica. However, this city also has plenty of free things if you’re looking to save every colon.
A free walking tour from downtown San Jose, for instance, is an easy way to get an inside scoop on this city’s historic buildings and monuments for free- although the guides appreciate tips.
You can also go on a self-guided tour of the city’s gorgeous architecture and its green parks, some of which have statues, pavilions, arts and, on some occasions, performances or rehearsals.
And if you love reading, the National Library should top your list of must-visit attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica. This multistoried 19th-century building close to the National Park has special collections for everything, including every book ever published in Costa Rica.
Where to Stay in San Jose, Costa Rica
As the country’s main transportation hub, getting accommodation in San Jose is usually not a problem. True to visiting tourist destinations, downtown San Jose is the best neighborhood to stay in for your first visit.
Staying at or near the heart of this Capital City means that most tourist attractions and fun areas are either a stone’s throw away or generally easy peasy to access. This part of the town allows you to try the local cuisine, interact with the locals and pick up souvenirs from the local market. Accommodation near Downtown San Jose is also ideal if you plan to visit other areas of Costa Rica, such as Monteverde, Manuel Antonio and La Fortuna.
Looking for accommodation in San Jose City Center? Check out Selina San Jose Costa Rica Hotel. This pet-friendly property, in the historic neighborhood of Barrio Otoya, is only a few minutes away from the best places to visit in San Jose, Costa Rica, including the National Museum of Costa Rica, the National Theater and the Parque Morazan.
Barely a mile from Jade Museum, Selina San Jose hostel offers all the amenities Selina properties are known for: various accommodation options, coworking space with high-speed internet, yoga lessons, a bar, a movie room and a shared kitchen, among others.
Selina’s Top 20 Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica
Visit National Theater
The Teatro Nacional Costa Rica is among the top tourist attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica, thanks to its mesmerizing art and architectural sophistication. Since its inauguration in 1897, this neo-classical masterpiece has been the grand display of Costa Rica’s high degree of the fine arts scene.
The National Theater of Costa Rica in San Jose was designed to attract rich and influential visitors. You can tell this by its magnificent atmosphere, lavish antique furnishing, intricate wall detailing, gorgeous gold decorations and delicately carved statues.
There’s an option to visit the National Theater in San Jose on a guided tour. But going on your own will allow you adequate time to take all it has to offer, including opera, stage plays, classical concerts and Latin American music, among other performances.
The National Theater in San Jose is located in the city center at Plaza de la Cultura (Culture Square). It opens Monday-Friday from 8 AM to 5 PM, and tickets cost $10 for tourists.
Tour the National Museum
If you love history, the National Museum will be one of the top things to see in San Jose, Costa Rica. It gives you a solid sampling of this country’s history dating back to the pre-Columbian and colonial periods. Visitors to this museum are treated to Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian artifacts, such as pottery, musical instruments and recreated tombs. You’ll also find items from the colonial era, including antique furniture, paintings, dioramas and paintings.
The Museo Nacional De Costa Rica is located in the Bellavista Fortress at Calle 17 between the second and central avenue. The Bellavista Fortress is a historic building and an iconic landmark to the Costa Ricans. This is where Don Pepe finally stopped Costa Rica’s war-torn past and abolished the army for good. This former military barracks still bears bullet holes as a vivid reminder of this country’s civil war of 1948.
The National Museum opens Tuesday to Saturday from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and 9 AM to 4:30 PM on Sundays. It does not open on Mondays. Tickets cost $11 or $8 if you have a student’s ID card.
Explore the Jade Museum
Another must-see for history buffs, the Jade (pronounced ‘ha-day’ in Spanish) Museum is home to the largest collection of American Jade in the world. This archaeological museum is housed in a hard-to-miss building along Central Avenue and displays 1000+ years’ worth of Costa Rica’s history dating back from 500 BC.
In its 5-floor exhibition space, the Museo del Jade y de la Cultura Precolombina safeguards almost 7000 pieces of archaeological artifacts from pre-Columbian Jade to ceramics waiting to be explored.
One of the best places to visit in San Jose, Costa Rica, for families, the Jade Museum also has a cafe, Grano Verde, which serves coffee, sandwiches, salads and smoothies.
The Jade Museum is a walkable distance from the National Museum, the National Theater and the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. This makes it possible to include it in a day’s sightseeing tour of San Jose, Costa Rica attractions.
The Jade Museum opens from 8 AM to 5 PM every day. Admission tickets to the museum cost $15 for adults. Children five years and below enjoy free entry to the museum.
Admire Gold Artifacts at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
Gold working was a major practice in Costa Rica long before the sixteenth-century Spanish invasion. This country held impressive gold jewelry items that Columbus named it the Rich Coast (Costa Rica).
Although most gold items have been shipped out of Costa Rica over the years, there’s still a considerable collection on display at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum.
The Museo del Oro Precolombino is located in a historic building near the Plaza de la Cultura. This museum boasts the world’s largest and finest collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts, including 1586 gold objects, 1922 ceramic pieces, 46 stone items and other jade and glass objects.
You only need an hour or two to explore all there is in the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum in San Jose. The museum opens daily from 9:30 AM to 5 PM. The admission fee is $14. Students pay $10, while children 12 years and below get free admission.
You’d think that a coffee field wouldn’t feature in the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica guide. But a visit to La Chimba Coffee Farm is not to be missed if you’re looking for the best place to hike near San Jose.
La Chimba coffee farm is a 30-minutes drive away from San Jose. It offers an easy way to immerse yourself into Costa Rica’s wonderful countryside and experience nature and culture as the locals do.
A guided tour to La Chimba comprises coffee tasting, canopy ziplining, high rope courses and hiking the 9-kilometer Mantra trail. The Mantra hiking leads to the Hacienda La Chimba- an IG-worthy hand sculpture and viewpoint crafted from cane wood with green rolling hills backdropping it.
La Chimba coffee farm opens every day from 6 AM to 7 PM, and admission tickets cost around $10. We recommend bringing comfortable hiking shoes, a lot of water and a camera.
Take a Tour of the Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture Museum
As a nation, Costa Rica is a vibrant blend of indigenous, Spanish, Chinese, Jamaican and other immigrant cultures. And one of the best places to experience this country’s cultural wonders is exploring the Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture.
The Centro Costarricense de la Ciencia y la Cultura is a museum in Cartago. This museum is situated in a fortress-like complex that served as a penitentiary from 1910 to 1979. It comprises several institutions, including the National Gallery, the National Auditorium and the Kid’s Museum.
Known as one of the best places to visit in San Jose, Costa Rica, with family and kids, this science and culture museum opens from 8 AM to 4:30 PM from Tuesday to Friday and 9:30 AM to 5 PM on weekends. It remains closed on Mondays. The cost of admission to the Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture Museum is around $3.
Explore the Museum of Costa Rican Art
The Museum of Costa Rican Art is another real find for art lovers looking for top attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica. This beautiful art gallery is located at Calle 17 in La Sabana Metropolitan Park.
The Museo de Arte Costarricense is situated in what was originally the control tower of the 1940 La Sabana International Airport. This is in line with Costa Rica’s knack for converting its quaint architectural relics into decent places of attraction.
The Museum of Costa Rican Art has indoor and outdoor exhibits and showcases the works of big-name contemporary artists from Costa Rica and Latin America. On display is a permanent collection of over 6000 pieces of art from renowned artists, including Max Jiménez, Lola Fernández, Francisco Amighetti and Juan Manuel Sánchez.
The Museum of Costa Rican art opens from 8 AM to 4 PM every day, except Monday, when it remains closed. Admission is free.
Haggle at the Central Market
Before 1880, Costa Rica’s Central Market was a mere open space where the locals met to trade commodities, grab a bite and socialize. In 1880, however, a permanent building covering an entire block of Central Avenue was erected. Mercado Central hasn’t changed a lot since and invites you to take a walk back into San Jose’s beautiful history.
Today, this indoor market is one of the trendiest tourist attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica, thanks to its timeless vibe and authenticity. Once inside, you get lost in a maze of narrow corridors lined with tiny stalls selling all sorts of products, including jewelry, apparel, souvenirs, herbs, coffee, nigüentas and meats.
The narrow pathways lead to restaurants in the middle of this building. These restaurants offer a good place to mingle with the locals as you savor traditional Costa Rican dishes.
The Central Market in San Jose, Costa Rica, opens Monday-Sat from 6 AM to 6:30 PM. It’s closed on Sundays.
Unwind at a Butterfly Garden
You can’t run short of fun things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica. But when all you need is some time to relax and unwind, this city has several green spots where you can escape the urban sprawl and find your bearing.
There are a ton of butterfly gardens in Central Valley, Costa Rica. But Spirogyra Jardín de Mariposas (or Spirogyra) is the most popular garden, especially if you’re staying in or near downtown San Jose. This butterfly garden is located just across from El Pueblo Shopping Center. It’s home to 1200+ species of butterflies, over 1000 moth species and five hummingbird species.
The best way to experience Spirogyra Butterfly Garden in San Jose is on a self-guided tour. The garden is open Monday–Friday 9 AM– 2 PM, Saturday–Sunday 9 AM–3 PM. Admission tickets cost $7 (adults) and $5 (children aged 12 and under).
Sail Away to Tortuga Island<
Isla Tortuga is a 156 sq. km slice of paradise in the Gulf of Nicoya. Complete with white-sand beaches and a lush green forest, this island is among the top destinations for day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica.
Thanks to its geographic location, Tortuga Island has turquoise waters that make an idyllic environment for all sorts of fun aquatic activities, including swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and water biking.
Its hilly landscape also offers the perfect location for hiking, ziplining and nature walks. Adventure junkies into scuba diving are also free to explore three sunken shipwrecks off the island’s coast.
The easiest way to experience this island is to book a tour from San Jose. Tortuga Island tour packages from San Jose often include pickup from your hotel, land and water transportation, meals and snacks and beach beds.
If you wish to visit Tortuga Island independently, you’ll need to catch a bus from San Jose to Puntarenas. The journey takes two and a half hours, and tickets cost around $5. At Puntarenas, you can take a glass-bottom boat, ferry or charter a private plane to Tortuga Island.
Visit Wildlife Rescue Center
Wildlife watching tops Costa Rica’s tourist attractions. Though it covers only .03% of the earth’s landmass, Costa Rica is home to over five percent of the earth’s biodiversity. Sometimes these animals find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, including cruelty, habitat loss and abandonment.
Luckily, several wildlife rescue centers in and near San Jose are dedicated to giving these animals a second chance at life. Besides government funding, most of these organizations rely on donations and admission fees to raise the necessary funds to care for these vulnerable animals.
If you wish to be a part of this cause, Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center is a good place to start. This urban park and rescue center is located in La Garita, Alajuela, 40 minutes away from San Jose. The park has beautiful botanical gardens and is home to more than 800 wild animals, including rare birds, sloths, monkeys and jaguars.
El Centro de Rescate de Fauna Silvestre in San Jose is open Sunday to Saturday, 8:45 AM to 4:45 PM. Park tickets cost $30 per adult.
Stroll, Jog or Relax at La Sabana Metropolitan Park
Peaceful and quiet, La Sabana is where you go to cool off after a day of ticking off the top things to do in San Jose. This park sits on 178 acres, making it the largest urban park in the country. But it’s the green spaces with trees, lakes, hiking trails and shaded benches that make it an oasis in the middle of chaos.
Aptly considered the “lungs of San Jose,” Parque Metropolitano La Sabana was established almost 200 years ago. It has served as San Jose’s lungs all along, except for 1940-1955, when it was converted into an international airport.
Today, La Sabana Metropolitan Park offers the perfect environment for walking, jogging, hiking and roller skating. This park also has a variety of amenities, including soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts and baseball diamonds, where you can break a sweat as you interact with the locals. Its leafy areas, shaded benches and ice-cream parlors also make it a perfect spot for picnics and reading.
La Sabana Metropolitan Park in San Jose, Costa Rica, is open 24 hours, but it’s advisable to visit during daytime hours. There’s no admission fee.
Buy a Cherished Souvenir at Galeria Namu
Galeria Namu is a must-visit for the most authentic souvenirs in San Jose, Costa Rica. This fair trade art gallery was established in 1998 to offer local and indigenous artists a place to showcase their ethnic artwork.
Located in downtown San Jose, just a stone’s throw from the Jade Museum, Galeria Namu brings unique works from various Costa Rican tribes, including Boruca, Wounaan, Guaymí dolls and Bribrí. Galeria Namu is just the spot for souvenirs, home decoration items, and unique gifts, from handwoven baskets to canoes, reed mats and original paintings.
Galeria Namu Souvenir Shop in San Jose, Costa Rica, opens Monday to Saturday, 9 AM to 6:30 PM.
Check Out Barrio Escalante
London has Camden. New York City has Chelsea. San Jose has Barrio Escalante. Previously a mere residential enclave, Barrio Escalante is now one of the trendiest spots in this city and among the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Understanding how Barrio Escalante has morphed into the most popular neighborhood in San Jose is just as exciting as visiting it. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the people of Barrio Escalante started a project aimed at converting the neighborhood’s nineteenth-century houses into diverse spaces that guests can marvel at.
This move, coupled with an influx of expat chefs, resulted in a vibrant and safe neighborhood now famed for its food and craft beer scene. The modern Barrio Escalante is an international amalgamation of authentic Mediterranean, Spanish, Italian and European cuisines.
Experience Costa Rican Night at El Pueblo
Costa Rica’s Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio and Quepos towns may be the mecca for beach fun. But none of these have anything on San Jose in terms of nightlife, especially if you have El Pueblo in mind.
El Pueblo is a Spanish colonial-style complex where bars, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and souvenir shops mingle. Also known as The Village, El Pueblo is a shopping center during the day and a madhouse with over 50 bars and disco venues at night. So, if you’re looking for fun things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, ensure you hit up El Pueblo.
El Pueblo is located north of central downtown San Jose just across the river. It’s open every day. But it gets even crazier on Fridays and Saturdays.
Explore San Jose on a Walking Tour
Due to its relatively small size, most of the best places to visit in San Jose, Costa Rica, are within walking distance of each other. This makes it possible to fit in most fun activities within a tight budget and time frame.
There are three ways of exploring San Jose, Costa Rica, on foot. The first option is to join a Free Walking Tour in downtown San Jose. Though they don’t have an established rate, it’s only sensible to appreciate the guides after the tour.
The second option is to join a paid walking tour. Most of these companies charge $30 to $90 per person for a three-hour city tour.
A self-guided San Jose, Costa Rica sightseeing walking tour is another option if you feel adventurous.
Experience San Jose on a Night Tour
If you have only one evening to spend in San Jose, then a night tour will be the best way to discover its hidden delights. Most night tours in San Jose, Costa Rica, revolve around this city’s culture, historical architecture and food scene.
Depending on your preference, the tour may be on foot or by bus and may last 2-6 hours. Bus night tours often start with free pickup from your hotel, dinner, beverages, food tasting and exploration of significant city buildings.
Chinese migration to Costa Rica dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century. But it was only in 2012 when the government decided to dedicate a part of the city to the Chinese. Though this project was received with criticism from the Ticos, it’s slowly but surely becoming one of the top attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica and Central America.
Barrio Chino (China Town) is a pedestrian-oriented city extending from the second to the fourteenth avenue. The main entrance is located along avenue two, around 400 meters east of the National Theater.
Standing 10 meters tall and 15 meters wide, this gate- with the typical Chinese style arch and red and yellow signs- is the most notable monument in Costa Rica’s Chinatown. Other unmissable attractions here include the 1738 Catholic Church of Our Lady of Solitude and the statues of John Lennon and Confucius.
The Chinese Cultural Center is another must-visit in Chinatown if you’re looking for an authentic Chinese culture experience.
Walk Across Hanging Bridges
Walking across swaying bridges is one of the best ways of soaking up Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems. There are different places where you can have this experience in Costa Rica. If you’re staying in San Jose, Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park will be the best spot.
Mistico Park is situated in La Fortuna, around 114 kilometers from San Jose. This park features a series of high-hanging bridges, one of which (weather permitting) offers scenic views of the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal.
During the 90 minutes of hiking the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Trail, the guide will also be explaining fascinating facts about the rainforest and the wildlife that calls it home. Mistico Arenal Park is home to various animal and bird species, including rare tapirs, pumas, jaguars, sloths and the eyelash pit viper.
Explore the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design
You can’t list the top things to see in San Jose, Costa Rica, without mentioning the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. This museum was opened in 1994 to spark creativity and promote young emerging artists.
Almost three decades since its inauguration, Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo features modern wonders from all over the world. This building houses more than 900 pieces of art, ranging from unique paintings and etchings to sculptures and photography.
The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Costa Rica is located in downtown San Jose along Avenue 3. You only need two to three hours to explore it fully, so it’s convenient to include it in your itinerary of the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in San Jose, Costa Rica, opens 10 AM- 6 PM Tuesday to Saturday and 2 PM to 6 PM on Mondays.
San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, has awakened, and it’s no longer the ‘get-in-get-out’ jumping-off point that tourists knew. It’s relatively small compared to most cities in the US. But that also means that most of the attractions and fun activities in San Jose, Costa Rica, are pretty easy to access.
Whether you’re eyeing its architectural history, culture, gastronomic scene or diverse ecosystem, we hope you now know what to do in San Jose, Costa Rica. And if your itinerary is taking you to other top destinations around this country, be sure to check out other Selina Costa Rica Hotels.
San Jose Costa Rica FAQs
Is San Jose, Costa Rica, worth visiting?
Definitely! San Jose has something for everyone, from museums to historical architecture and an immensely eclectic food scene.
What should I avoid in San Jose, Costa Rica?
San Jose is relatively safe to visit. However, it’s advisable to avoid the parks at night. You’ll also be wise to stay away from the neighborhoods of Pavas, Leon XIII, Los Guido and Desamparados because they are considered dangerous for tourists.
How many days do I need in San José, Costa Rica?
Given its small size, a two-day itinerary will guarantee you enough time to hit all the attractions in San Jose, Costa Rica.
What is San José, Costa Rica, famous for?
The largest city in Costa Rica, San Jose, is popular for its historic architecture, hip urban vibe, dense culture and friendly locals.