San Jose, Costa Rica

The bustling capital city of costa rica

The San Jose Vibe

San Jose Costa Rica does not exactly have a reputation as the nicest city in the world. However, it definitely has its charms.

We live in the city and although it wasn’t our choice to live here over another town in the country (we moved to Costa Rica because Thomas got a job in San Jose), the city has grown on us. 

If you find yourself with a day or two near the San Jose airport, there are plenty of places that are worth a visit.

This area is home to great restaurants, museums, historic buildings, green spaces, and plenty of day trip options. You won’t get bored!

There are a lot of different neighborhoods and all have a different feel to them. 

Now on to the rest of the travel guide!

san jose map

Map Of San Jose

San Jose is very centrally located in the country. It is a valley surrounded by rolling hills, mountains, and volcanoes.

Due to its location San Jose is a great jumping off point for all your adventures. 

San Jose at a Glance

Nearest International Airport

Juan Santamaria International Airport

Popular Things to Do

coffee tours, city tours, museums, volcano visits

Best Way to Get Around

Rental car, walking or taxis in the downtown area

Best Time of Year to Visit

Dry season is from late December until mid-April

 

Getting to San Jose

Flights to Costa Rica

The easiest way of getting to San Jose is by flying in to the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) located on the edge of San Jose near Alajuela.

For flight booking we suggest Skyscanner. They are our go-to flight booking site for great rates.

 


 

By Rental Car

By rental car, it will take you twenty minutes to an hour to get to downtown San Jose.

Traffic gets really bad, especially around rush hour.

We suggest renting your car with Adobe. They are a local company that will go above and beyond to make sure your rental car process goes smoothly. 

If you book your car through us you will get a 10% discount plus several other great perks!

car rental

 

By Public Bus

If you are going to the downtown area from the airport there are buses that run almost every 20 minutes into the city center.

The bus stop is located on the main road in front of the airport. You do not need to cross the main road, you are already on the correct side.

I suggest following along on Google maps and just getting off at the stop closest to your hotel.

Also, note that the main bus terminal in San Jose is called “Coca Cola” so if you ask for directions and someone says something about coca-cola they are not asking if you’re thirsty. 😉 

The Bus Schedule and the Centro Casting website are great tools for figuring out all your bus needs. 

 

By Taxi

sjo arrival

If you opt to take a taxi from the San Jose Airport to downtown San Jose you need to make sure that you are taking a registered taxi.

You can recognize a registered taxi because it will be orange with a white triangle on the driver and passenger-side door or red with a yellow triangle.

DO NOT take any taxi that is not registered. These pirate taxi drivers will drastically overcharge you. 

A legal taxi to the city center will cost about $30.

 

By Shuttle

Some hotels offer an airport shuttle for free or for an extra fee. 

If possible, this is usually going to be the most stress-free transportation option.

Usually, the driver will have a sign with your name on it as you exit the airport and you can just hop in the shuttle and be on your way.

Getting Around in San Jose

We don’t suggest driving in downtown San Jose. People drive like crazy and the roads are sometimes extremely confusing. 

The best way to get around is by walking or taking a taxi.

There is a public bus system in the city, but it can be difficult to navigate. We still sometimes get confused after many years of being here.

Book Your Transportation

San Jose Weather

We may be partial because we live in San Jose, but the weather here is the best in the country.

It is almost always warm but usually doesn’t get so hot that it is unbearable. 

From mid-December until April there is almost no rain.

The weather from December until February tends to be a bit cooler and windy. People here love it. But I find the wind to be annoying. 

From February until the start of the rainy season it can be hot during the day and cools off a bit more at night.

During the rainy season, it is difficult to predict. Typically it is sunny and nice until about 2 pm. The rain will then roll in for a few hours.

Sometimes these storms are scary with crazy lightning strikes. The evenings are typically dry.

You just never really know here though. Sometimes we will have rain all day and other times we will have several days of no rain during the rainy season.

We suggest getting up early and enjoying the mornings. It is so nice!

Grab a free copy of our Costa Rica guide

(with great San Jose tips)

San Jose Neighborhoods

San Jose is a decent-sized city, so you might need some help figuring out the best area to stay in based on your reason for visiting.

Airport Visit

If you are planning to stay in San Jose the night after you arrive or before you leave, we suggest staying as close to the airport as possible. Traffic gets really bad around here.

Do not stay in downtown San Jose unless you plan on giving yourself a ton of time to get to the airport the next day.

You are actually better off to stay in downtown Alajuela.

For hotels with a free shuttle near the airport, we suggest:

Costa Rica Marriott (high end) and Casa Maria Aeropuerto (mid-range).

If you need a late-night or early morning meal, your best option is the nearby Denny’s. It is open 6:00am until midnight every day. 

Medical Tourism

Most medical tourism in Costa Rica takes place in the Escazu area of San Jose at or near the CIMA hospital.

Escazu is the most upscale of San Jose neighborhoods. There are plenty of nice restaurants, multiple malls, and nice hotels. 

Just note that this area is not very walkable unlike the downtown area. You will likely need a rental car or depend on taxis to get around.

For hotels we suggest:

Residence Inn by Marriott (high end)

AC Hotel Escazu (high end)

Courtyard by Marriott (lower high end)

Esters Place (mid-range)

US Embassy Visit

The United States Embassy is located in the Pavas area. 

This area has a few nice parks, but there isn’t much to see or explore.

For a hotel, we suggest Hotel Isla Verde. There is a good Chinese restaurant attached to the hotel and you can walk to the US Embassy in about five minutes. 

Downtown Exploring

The downtown area of the city is very walkable. You can really stay anywhere in the central area and easily get to all the downtown sights.

Our personal favorite neighborhood is Barrio Escalante. This area has a bit of a hipster vibe with great restaurants and breweries. 

San Jose Hotels

High-End Hotels

Residence Inn by Marriot– Located in the Escazu area of the city, this hotel is great to stay if you are coming to Costa Rica to go to CIMA hospital for medical tourism purposes. There are also plenty of great restaurants and shops nearby. 

Gran Hotel– Located in downtown San Jose, this hotel went through a complete remodel a few years ago and is absolutely beautiful!

AC Hotel– Another great option if staying in Escazu for medical tourism. This hotel is super modern and beautiful. There is a delicious Spanish restaurant and gym on-site.

Grano de Oro Hotel– Luxury hotel located in downtown San Jose. This place is absolutely stunning. There is a delicious restaurant and pool on-site. 

Mid-Range Hotels

Isla Verde Hotel Located a bit out of the downtown area down the street from the US Embassy. We love this place! Everything was recently updated, the staff is great, and they have a good Chinese restaurant on-site. 

Studio Hotel Boutique Nice hotel located in the Santa Ana area of the city (out of the downtown area). This hotel features a restaurant, pool, and fitness center. 

La Sabana Hotel Suites– Cute hotel located near Sabana (the big park in San Jose). This hotel has an outdoor pool and breakfast is included.

Budget Hotels

Hotel Sura: This place is located right downtown in San Jose. They offer private rooms at a really fair rate. 

Hostel del Paseo– Nice hostel in downtown San Jose. There is a shared kitchen and private parking for guests on-site. This hostel features dorms and private rooms. 

Things to Do in San Jose

san jose

Visit the National Theater

The National Theater (also known as Teatro Nacional) is located in the downtown section of the city.

This is where the national symphony and many foreign composers perform. 

It is open for you to check out the lobby during the day for free or you can opt to take a guided tour of the theater for about $8. 

In our experience, it has always been fine to just show up and get a tour. However, if you want to be sure, you can always pre-book your tour here

If you’d like to see a show you can see their schedule and buy tickets here.

Visit Mercado Central

If you need to buy souvenirs you should do it at this central market

Picture a large indoor market of tiny little alleyways and people selling everything you could ever possibly want.

I always feel like I’m in a Bourne movie in here. It would be a great place for a crazy chase scene!

Anyway, feel free to try to haggle, but Costa Ricans don’t do well with confrontation so if they won’t budge on the price just leave it at that.

Visit Irazu Volcano

Irazu volcano is located about one hour from downtown San Jose in Cartago. We like this volcano because you can get very close to the crater. Just be aware that this is one of the highest points of elevation in the country.

For more info, check out our guide to Irazu Volcano.

If you will not have a car and would like a guided tour option, we suggest this half-day tour which includes transportation and a visit to the most famous church in the area. 

Tour a Coffee Farm

The Central Valley area of Costa Rica is filled with large coffee farms. Visiting a coffee farm for a guided tour of the production process is the perfect day trip from the city.

Our two top coffee farm choices are Doka Estates and Britt Coffee. Doka is a bit more personal and shows more of the growth process. The Britt tour is more interesting for groups with younger kids. 

You can find out more in our guide to coffee tours

If you would like to book a tour with transportation from your San Jose hotel we suggest this tour to Doka Estates or this one to Britt

Visit Poas Volcano

Poas Volcano is an active volcano located north of Alajuela city.

Just note that it has been active in recent years so sometimes it is not open. Check out our full Poas Volcano guide for the most recent info. 

Also, it is such a pain to pre-book tickets on the Costa Rica national park website. 

I suggest pre-booking via Viator. It is a few dollars more but will make your life easier. 

Or, you can book a tour which includes transportation. We suggest this one that also stops at a coffee farm and a unique waterfall garden

Enjoy a Cultural Experience

It is always nice to get a taste for the culture while visiting a new area. We find that one of the best ways to do this is with a cultural tour. 

One of our favorite options in San Jose is taking a Pura Vida experience tour with Angel

On this tour, you will drive in to the hills near San Jose to learn about traditional masks from a family that creates these masks. You will also enjoy a traditional meal.

Angel is a great guide who knows so much about history and culture here. 

Go on a Brewery Tour

There are a few different brewery tour options in San Jose, or you can even just make your own tour. We visited a bunch of breweries in the city and found the best ones for you. Yes, it was a very hard day of work 😉 . You can read all about it in our guide to beer in Costa Rica. 

Enjoy the Nightlife

I can’t give you that much insight into the San Jose nightlife scene because we are boring. Every time we’ve gone out partying it has been in San Pedro (the university area). There are TONS of bars and clubs there which are all packed on the weekends.

My favorite area is Barrio Escalante. This is a nice area with cute bars (think craft beer, hipster feel).

I don’t recommend walking around San Jose at night but I’ve always felt safe here especially if it is a night with a lot of people out.

If you would like a more curated experience we highly suggest taking a pub crawl with a guide. This is so fun and a great way to meet fellow travelers. 

Have a Picnic in the Park

La Sabana Park is the main central park in the city. It’s the perfect large green space to walk around, have a picnic, and people watch.

The national stadium and Costa Rica Art Museum are also located here if you want to check those out as well.

Check out a Museum

The downtown area of the city is filled with great tourist attractions such as plenty of museums. The most popular museums are; the Jade Museum, Gold Museum, the Children’s Museum and the National Museum.

Check out a Farmers Market

There are always fruit and veggie vendors selling produce on the side of the road in downtown San Jose. Definitely, stop and try some fruits you’ve never seen before.

If you want a full-on farmers market you should ask at your hotel. Different areas of the city have their farmer’s markets on different days.

Go Shopping

There are tons of places to do some shopping in the city! In the downtown area, there is a road just for pedestrians with tons of shops.

If you want a more US-ish experience, grab an taxi to MultiPlaza. This is the largest mall in Central America and has all the stores from home.

See a Movie

I know, you didn’t travel all the way to Costa Rica to see a movie, BUT sometimes there are rainy afternoons and seeing a movie is your best option.

We actually go to the cinema often here because it’s not too expensive and almost all the movies are available in English.

Here is the website for the cinema we like at the Multiplaza so you can check out your options.

Just make sure if it is a movie from the US it says “sub” next to it. That means subtitles with original language speaking.

Go to a Soccer Game

At the national stadium, you can see the Costa Rica national team play. How fun would that be to experience? The tickets are usually pretty reasonably priced as well.

Hang out in Barrio Escalante

Barrio Escalante is our favorite neighborhood in the city (as we mentioned before). It’s a nice spot to spend an afternoon at a cafe, do some bar hopping, and check out the cute shops. 

Just Walk

During the day I sometimes just walk the downtown area of the city and see where I end up. I’ve come across some cute parks and amazing architecture during these walks.

Just please be aware of your surroundings and if you start feeling like you may be entering a bad area, turn around.

Guide City Tours

There are so many great guided city tours in San Jose. Personally, I think this is a great way to really get a feel for a city and learn about the history/ culture. A few of our favorite guided tours in San Jose are:

San Jose Walking & Bus Tour – A great tour for people of all ages. There is some walking but it is not too strenuous, you can sit in a comfortable bus while learning about the city, and lunch is included. 

San Jose Night Food Tour & Dinner – One of my absolute favorite tours in San Jose (because…food). This is a great way to learn about the San Jose sights and food culture. Your tour ends with a delicious authentic three-course meal. 

Walking & Food Tour – Walk with a small group and dedicated guide through San Jose to learn about the culture and cuisine. Food samples are included. 

Bites & Bike Tour – A fun way to experience Costa Rica with a knowledgeable guide. Bikes and helmets are provided. 

San Jose ART Tour – This is a chance to see impressive graffiti, visit indigenous art galleries, see local furniture styles and more with an experienced guide. 

Day Trips Out of the City

There are plenty of options for day trips to the beach or jungle from San Jose. Typically we would say that you should try to visit the jungle and beach for a few days while in Costa Rica, but if you are short on time, a day trip with an experienced guide is always a good option.

Just be aware that you will spend a few hours in a comfortable van for transportation.

Some tours we like are:

Arenal Full Day Trip – This is the ultimate full day of fun. You will see two waterfalls, go zip lining, relax in a hot spring, learn about coffee production, see wildlife, and more.

Lunch, dinner, and transportation from and to your hotel are included. 

Manuel Antonio National Park Trip – Spend the day seeing crocodiles, enjoying impressive Pacific coast viewpoints, and visiting Manuel Antonio National Park with a wildlife guide. 

This tour includes breakfast, lunch, and transportation.

6 in 1 Rainforest Adventure – Head to Braulio Carrillo National Park for six fun activities (zip-lining, aerial tram, butterfly garden, orchid garden, terrarium, and nature walk). 

 

San Jose Restaurants

There are a million food options in San Jose so it was pretty hard to narrow down our list, but here are a few of our faves….

Fine Dining

Furca – Our go-to dinner date spot for steak. The service, food, and presentation is excellent.

Restaurant Grano de Oro – Located in the Grano de Oro hotel, this restaurant is beautiful! I always end up getting fish here, but they have a wide variety of delicious options.

La Divina Comida – Delicious Peruvian fusion restaurant located in Escazu. The meat here is amazing.

La Terreasa French Cuisine – The most perfect little French restaurant located downtown. It really feels like you’ve entered a Parisian bistro. Oh, and the food is incredible.

The Park Cafe – Such a cute place with really great high-quality food. On a nice day you can eat in their cozy garden.

Mid-Range

L’OlivoReally great Italian food. This is our go-to date night spot in the city (I’m addicted to Italian food) so maybe you’ll see us there. 🙂

La Esquina de Buenos Aires –  Amazing Argentinian restaurant in downtown San Jose. Just a warning though, the portions are massive.

Arbol de Seda – Delicious vegetarian restaurant located in Barrio Escalente. We like this place for lunch.

Budget-Friendly

Cafe Rojo –  Really good healthy food at an affordable price. I love the relaxed cafe vibe here.

Falafel House – You can never go wrong with some tasty falafel…at least that is how I feel. This is my go-to lunch spot downtown. 

La Muny – Our top budget choice for typical Costa Rican food. Everything is good here.

 

Digital Nomads in San Jose

If you plan on working while in San Jose there are a few things you should know.

– In general the internet is usually decent, but it’s always a good idea to ask about the internet speed before booking a place.

– A lot of high-end hotels have some type of business center area if you prefer to work there instead of in your room. 

– If you need a co-working space there are TONS of options downtown. 

Packing for San Jose

Bug Spray – The second the sun goes down the mosquitos come out in full force. Don’t forget, aerosol cans are not allowed in luggage, so bring spray in a normal spray bottle. 

Sun Protection – Costa Rica is not too far from the equator. The UV index here is high! We suggest bringing a wide brimmed hat, UV protecting shirts, and of course high SPF sunscreen.

A Rain Jacket – If traveling during the rainy season you might have some rainy afternoons. We like to bring a lightweight jacket because even when it rains it stays hot!

…for more packing tips check out our complete packing list for women and our packing list for men.

us in tamarindo
san jose costa rica

San Jose Travel Tips

– San Jose has a reputation as being dangerous. We have never had any problems, but please do not walk around with large amounts of cash, do not flash expensive objects, and please do not walk at night.

Always get a taxi. Safety needs to be your number one concern in San Jose.

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