San Jose does not exactly have a reputation as the nicest city in the world. In fact, I don’t really like it (and that is coming from someone that lives there). that being said, if you find yourself with a day or two to kill near the airport, there are definitely some things which are worth a visit.
Also, San Jose tends to get a bad rep as far as safety goes. We’ve been here for two years and have never had anything bad happen to us, but we are pretty cautious and even then you just never know. If you are concerned you can read our Costa Rica safety tips here.
Now on to the rest of the San Jose Costa Rica budget travel guide!
GETTING TO SAN JOSE
No matter where you are in the country you will have no problem getting to San Jose. Almost all buses end in the city.
Pro tip: Download the free app Off the Grid Traveler to see bus connections and schedules to and from everywhere in Costa Rica. It’s seriously a lifesaver.
If you are coming from the airport we suggest getting an Uber to the city center. Uber tends to be about half the price of taxis. There is free wifi at the airport if you need to connect to the Uber app.
We don’t suggest driving in San Jose. We do it, but it’s not enjoyable. There is often a lot of traffic and people drive really crazy.
GETTING AROUND IN SAN JOSE
The best ways to get around in San Jose are by walking or taking Uber. There is a public bus system in the city, but it can be difficult to navigate. We still sometimes get confused after two years of being here.
THINGS TO DO
Visit the National Theater: The National Theater is located in the downtown section of the city and it is beautiful! It is open for you to check out the lobby during the day for free. There is also a really pretty coffee shop in there. If you’d like to see a show you can see their schedule and buy tickets here. We went here one night to see Alica in Wonderland as a ballet. That’s not usually our thing, but it was fun to get dressed up and have a fancy night out. Plus, it was nice to see the inside of the beautiful theater.
Visit Mercado Central: If you need to buy souvenirs you should do it here. 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. The market is located on the foot traffic only street directly in the downtown area.
Have a picnic in the park: There is a large park called La Sabana located close to the downtown area. It is the perfect place to walk around and have a picnic. It’s actually really nice as far as city parks go. The national stadium and Costa Rica Art Museum are also located here if you want to check those out as well.
Go to a concert: One of the things I miss most in Costa Rica is good concerts. The only shows here are usually from local musicians (which can be nice) or very well known musicians who play at the stadium. Sometimes it can be fun to see a musician in Costa Rica just for the experience. I saw Justin Bieber at the stadium just for the experience. Or maybe I have a serious case of Bieber fever 😉
Go to a soccer game: We haven’t done this yet, but definitely, should. 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.
Enjoy the nightlife: Sorry guys, I can’t give you that much insight into the nightlife scene because we are boring. Every time I’ve gon 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.
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 Uber 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 movies are in English. Here is the website for the cinema we like at the Multiplaza so you can check out your options.
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 ike you may be entering a bad area, turn around.
Get out of the city: Not to sound like a total downer, but one of the best places to experience San Jose is from above. The city is basically a valley surrounded by mountains. I suggest driving (or taking an Uber) to the Escazu area of the city and getting as high up as possible. On a clear day you can capture pics like the cover photo for this page.
It’s hard for us to give you guys good hotel suggestions because we’ve actually never stayed in any hotels since we live here. All these suggestions are based on places other people we know have stayed and loved.
Costa Rica Guesthouse: This place is really centrally located and super cute. For about $40 you can stay in a basic double room with a shared bathroom and breakfast included. Oh and they have free parking on site.
Hostel Columbus: We like the location of this place because it is right next to the big park in San Jose, but also easy to get to the central downtown area. For a king room with a private bathroom, you can expect to pay about $45 with breakfast included.
The Garden CR: This place is located in our favorite area of San Jose. There are tons of great restaurants and bars around. Plus it has a super fun vibe. For about $50 a night you can stay in a double room with a shared bathroom. Breakfast is also included.
Upe Hostel: This place is pretty basic, but everything is really new and clean. It’s a great option if you want to be close to the downtown action. You can expect to pay about $30 a night for a double room with a shared bathroom.
Hotel 1492: If you want a cute and homey spot while also being downtown, this is it. For about $40 a night you can stay in a standard double room with a private bathroom. There’s also a cute little garden you can chill in.
Fauna Luxury Hostel: If you are in the Escazu area of San Jose you’ve got to stay here. It is total hostel goals. Check out the pics by clicking the link. For about $15 a night you can stay in your own little pod in the mixed dorm. For about $40 you can stay in a private double room. There is also an outdoor pool, ping pong table, and pool table.
PLACES TO EAT
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….
Mantras Veggie Cafe: Tasty vegetarian and vegan food cafe. The presentation is also completely on point.
Cafe Rojo: Really good healthy food at an affordable price. I love the relaxed cafe vibe here.
Restaurante El Patio del Balmoral: Tasty food and really cool atmosphere right in the downtown area. They are open from 6:00am until 11:00pm so you can go for literally any meal here.
L’Olivo: Really great Italian food. This is not a budget place. You can expect to pay US prices. I’d say it will be about $15 for a quality homemade pasta dish. This is our go-to date night spot in the city so maybe you’ll see us there. 🙂
Embrujo Pizza: You’ll need a car for this one and it’s best to contact them ahead of time (just message them on Facebook) to see if they will be open for pizza. They speak perfect English and are super nice so you don’t need to stress about contacting them in Spanish. They make amazing wood oven pizzas and from their top terrace, you have a great view of the central valley. It’s a very simple place, but a total hidden gem. If you’re up for it you can also take a nice walk or go paintballing on the property. 🙂
ARTICLES ABOUT SAN JOSE