San Jose Costa Rica: Complete Guide to the Capital City
San Jose Costa Rica is the bustling capital city in the country’s center. It is a great jumping-off point for exploration
The San Jose Costa Rica Vibes
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!
Background Info About San Jose Costa Rica
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
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We’re Thomas (the German) and Sarah (the US-er).
We met in Virginia, moved to Germany, and now live in sunny Costa Rica. It was a spontaneous decision to move here, but it was the best decision!
Map Of San Jose
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is very centrally located in the country. The city is located in the Central Valley, surrounded by rolling hills, mountains, and volcanoes.
Due to its location, San Jose is a great jumping-off point for all your adventures.
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.
The Juan Santamaria International Airport
The Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is often referred to as the San Jose Airport. Technically the airport is actually in the neighboring city, Alajuela.
If you are looking to stay near the airport, we do not suggest booking a hotel in downtown San Jose. Instead, look for places specifically close to the airport or in downtown Alajuela. We get more into hotel suggestions further into this guide.
The reason I say this is because the traffic near the airport can be really bad. I don’t want you to miss your flight if trying to come to the airport from downtown San Jose.
Driving to San Jose
We like renting a car in Costa Rica because it will definitely give you the most flexibility for exploring. In general, you should feel comfortable driving here if you are a somewhat experienced driver.
Our favorite rental car company is a local company called Adobe-Rent-a-Car. They are the most honest, trustworthy, and just overall amazing rental company we have found here.
Because we like them so much we asked if they would like to work together and they said, “yes.”
Yay to saving money!
Even if you are considering renting through another company, please read through our rental car page first. There is mandatory car insurance here that you need to know about.
- 10% discount for Costa Rica Vibes readers
- Free second driver
- 0% deductible on Liability Protection Insurance
- Excellent customer service
- New fleet of well-maintained vehicles
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.
Just note that there are some tolls in the San Jose area. They accept colones or US dollars. We suggest having about $10 of cash on you for these tolls. That will be more than enough.
Also, because San Jose gets so congested, only certain cars are allowed to drive on certain days. This does not apply to rental cars. You can drive on any day with your rental car.
And, one more thing, never leave anything of value in your car if parking it anywhere in San Jose.
You might want a rental car for taking day trips, but 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.
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Hotel Shuttle to San Jose
If you are staying at a hotel near the airport you may be able to get a shuttle provided by your hotel. Some hotels offer this service free of charge while others might charge a small fee.
Your driver will usually be waiting for you with a sign when you exit the airport.
Taxi to San Jose Costa Rica
If you are not planning on renting a car, the best way to get to San Jose from the airport is by taxi.
When you exit the airport there will be a lot of men asking if you need a taxi.
You NEED to make sure that your driver has a red or orange vehicle with a yellow or green triangle on the front and passenger side door. This is a legal taxi driver.You can find out more with our guide to Costa Rica taxis.
Public Bus to San Jose Costa Rica
One of the nice things about San Jose is that it is the central hub for all public buses. It is possible to get from almost anywhere in the country to San Jose by public bus.
A bus runs about every 15 minutes from the airport to downtown San Jose. To get to the bus stop, exit the airport and walk to the main road. You should see the stop.
If you would like to take the bus from another location in the country to downtown San Jose, check out the website The Bus Schedule for all the routes.
Transportation In San Jose
The best way to get around downtown is by walking, taking public buses, or with a taxi.
The city has an extensive bus system, with numerous routes connecting different neighborhoods and attractions.
It is typically not too difficult to hail a taxi in the city.
Walking is a popular option for exploring the downtown area, as many of the main attractions, such as the National Theater and Central Market, are within walking distance of each other.
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San Jose Costa Rica WeatherSAN JOSÉ PROVINCE 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!
San Jose Costa Rica Neighborhoods
San Jose is a decent-sized city with a large metropolitan area, so you might need some help figuring out the best area to stay based on your reason for visiting.
Where to Stay If…
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:
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.
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/ Rohrmoser 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.
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.
All of the main neighborhoods are:
Home to the University of Costa Rica. Barrio San Pedro has a youthful and energetic atmosphere. This is also a great place to go for nightlife.
Located west of downtown, Barrio Rohrmoser is an upscale residential area with modern apartment buildings, luxury homes, and a tranquil vibes.
It is known for its proximity to La Sabana Metropolitan Park, the largest urban park in San Jose.
Barrio Amón: This historic neighborhood is known for its Victorian-style houses and architectural charm. It is home to several museums, art galleries, and boutique hotels.
Located east of downtown, Barrio Escalante is what I would call the hipster area. There are lots of artsy shops, great restaurants, and craft beer options.
Escazu is known for its upscale residential neighborhoods, trendy shopping centers, and a wide range of gourmet restaurants. It is not overly walkable, unlike downtown.
Situated near downtown San Jose, Barrio Otoya is a residential neighborhood known for its parks, including Parque Morazán and Parque España. It is also home to healthcare institutions such as the San Juan de Dios Hospital.
Barrio La California
This is an alternative neighborhood that is known for its street art, music scene, and eclectic mix of shops and eateries. It attracts a diverse crowd and hosts cultural events throughout the year.
Located near the University of Costa Rica, Barrio Córdoba is a student-oriented neighborhood with a lively atmosphere. It offers various amenities and services, including bookstores, cafes, and entertainment options.
Things to Do in San Jose Costa Rica
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 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.
TAKE A 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.
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.
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 San Jose Costa Rica 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.
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 a 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.
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.
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 National Theater 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.
Day Trips From San Jose Costa Rica
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.
You can find out more in our guide to coffee tours.
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.
Or, you can book a tour which includes transportation. We suggest this Poas Volcano tour that also stops at a coffee farm and a unique waterfall garden.
TAKE A DAY TRIP 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).
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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….
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.
L’Olivo – Really 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.
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.
San Jose Costa Rica 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.
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.
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.
Vacation Rentals in San Jose
We always love renting a home or villa for our vacation in Costa Rica. This gives you more privacy and allows you the flexibility to cook your own meals.
Note: We try to only ever suggest places with good cancellation policies, but always double-check before booking.
CASA BRITTO – A beautiful house with eight bedrooms that can sleep up to 20 guests. This house is in the hills outside of the city and features a heated pool, sweeping views of the valley, and a modern interior.
Casa Cristal – A 8 bedroom house that sleeps up to 21 guests. There is a pool, hot tub, and great views of the city.
Easy Living Apartment – A centrally located two bedroom apartment. This place is modern, peaceful, and very clean. There is a full kitchen with everything you would need for cooking.
Chic 1 Bedroom Apartment – A modern one-bedroom apartment located near the city center.
Urban Apartment – Honestly, this place is perfect. The price is really affordable and breakfast is included in the rate. The apartment can sleep up to 3 guests. There is a small kitchenette area. And it is located in the middle of downtown.
Zona Tranquila Apartment – Located in a central part of San Jose, this apartment can sleep up to three guests. There is a full kitchen and nice balcony for you to enjoy.
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.
Packing for San Jose Costa Rica
When walking in downtown San Jose your main concern should be security. We like anti-theft backpacks and money belts here.
The weather doesn’t usually get really hot. You will usually be completely comfortable wearing pants and a t-shirt.
Don’t forget your rain jacket during rainy season and some layers are always good.
Check out our San Jose Packing List on Amazon for all the essentials.
San Jose Costa Rica FAQ
What is there to do in San Jose Costa Rica?
There is so much to do in san Jose from visiting museums to exploring the Central Market. It is also nice to get out of the city and see other nearby volcanoes and coffee farms.
Is San Jose Costa Rica safe?
Petty theft is known to happen here. Never carry large amounts of cash, make sure all your belongings are secure, and don’t flaunt expensive items such as nice cameras.
Is San Jose Costa Rica worth visiting?
With a limited time in Costa Rica it is best to skip San Jose and instead explore the beautiful nature that the country has to offer. If you find yourself with a few days in San Jose, you will find plenty of fun things to do.
Is San José Costa Rica walkable?
The central downtown area is walkable. However, for further distances around the city the best mode of transportation is taking an official taxi.
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You Might Also Like Visiting
Alajuela: A bustling city next to the San Jose Airport and a great jumping-off point for so many fun activities.
Cartago: An area of coffee farms, beautiful views, and volcanoes
San Gerardo de Dota: A remote mountain town that is a great place for hiking and birdwatching
….if none of those appeal to you, check out our Guide to the Central Valley for more ideas of places to visit in this area.