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Are you looking for things to do in San Jose Costa Rica during your travels?
San José is the vibrant capital city of Costa Rica. It is a treasure trove of cultural experiences, mouthwatering cuisine, and unforgettable sights. Whether it’s bustling markets, historic architecture, or the lively arts scene, there’s something you are bound to enjoy.
We have lived in San José since 2016. We’ve immersed ourselves in the city’s daily life, wandered its streets, frequented the hidden gems, and seen the most widely visited tourist sites as well. So, we feel confident in sharing with you the best things to do in San Jose.
Get ready to embark on a journey with us as we uncover 29 must-do experiences in the large city of San José. Let’s get to it!
Our Choices for Top Things to Do in San Jose
For Nature Lovers: San Jose Walking Nature Tour: Sloths, Birds and Trees
For Foodies: San Jose By Night Tour
For Families: Visit the Childrens Museum
For Nightlife: Bar Crawl Tour
For Something Unique: Get tickets to a national soccer game
For Culture Lovers: See a show at the national theater
1. Visit Mercado Central
Mercado Central, also known as the Central Market, is a bustling market located in downtown San Jose. It’s basically a central cultural and commercial hub that offers a unique and authentic experience for both locals and tourists.
Inside Mercado Central, you’ll find an array of stalls and shops selling a variety of goods.
You can buy anything here including fresh produce, meats and seafood, spices and herbs, and artisan crafts. There are also restaurants and food stalls. It’s a good place to get a taste of local life in the city.
Coming here always makes me think of some crazy chase scene in a Bourne movie. It’s easy to get lost in here and find something different around every corner.
2. Take a San Jose Walking and Bus City Tour
As a child my parents were somewhat anti bus tour in new cities. For some reason I always thought they must have been not worth the price. But, Thomas got me into taking city bus tours when we are in a new city, and now I’m hooked.
This San Jose bus and walking tour is the perfect way to get a good overview of the city center from an informative guide.
Highlights of this San Jose city tour include a visit to these tourist attractions:
Teatro Nacional Costa Rica: Step into the elegant lobby of this iconic theater! Spend 20 minutes absorbing the artistic atmosphere.
Central Market (Mercado Central): Immerse yourself in the bustling vibes of local shopping! Spend 25 minutes exploring unique finds and experiencing the local culture.
Plaza de la Libertad Electoral: Eexplor this national monument, and gain insight into the nation’s electoral heritage.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Pass By): Enjoy a fascinating walking tour by the Gold Museum, delving into the rich pre-Columbian history showcased in the gold room.
Museo de Arte: Uncover the diverse artistic treasures of Costa Rican art museum, and be inspired by the vibrant creativity on display.
3. Visit the National Theater
The National Theater (also known as Teatro Nacional) is a historic building located in the downtown section of the city.
This is where the national symphony and many foreign composers perform.
The interior of the theater is beautiful! We have been here a few times for orchestra and ballet performances. It always makes a nice date night event.
If you would like to see a show, you can check out the upcoming schedule and purchase tickets on the national theater website.
If you are unable to get tickets to see a show at the national theater, you can still visit.
The National Theater provides guided tour services in both Spanish and English.
Guided tours are available every day of the week, Monday to Sunday, from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, with tours starting every hour.
If you don’t want to take a tour, you can still enter the building and visit the small cafe. Here you can enjoy a tea, coffee, sandwich, wrap, etc. Its a nice spot!
4. San Jose By Night Tour: Farm-to-Table Dinner & Cocktails
We LOVE this tour!
You will kick off your journey at the Central Market with your local guide. You guide will unveil the secrets of roots, herbs, and fruits that are used to craft a Costa Rican dinner.
You will then meander through the Central Avenue and the National Theatre. Then, savor inventive cocktails at Mr. Sloth Coffee Shop.
Your tour will wrap up with a unique dining experience at a cozy, art-filled establishment, offering an insanely good menu.
This tour includes a delicious three-course gourmet dinner with wine pairings, plus some treats along the way.
We highly recommend this tour. It is really well done, a good value, informative, and FUN!
5. Take a Bites and Sites Walking Tour
Dive deep into the heart of Costa Rica with this walking food tour of San Jose.
You’ll get to experience authentic Costa Rican flavors, all while soaking up the rich cultural heritage.
You’ll visit Mercado Central and Mercado Borbón, where you can shop for the freshest fruits and veggies. Then, it’s off to the National Theater and the charming La Laguna Plaza with plenty of treats along the way.
Food is all included in the price! So, all you need to bring is your appetite.
6. Visit the Jade Museum
The Jade museum (or Museo de Jade in Spanish) is home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian jade pieces in the Americas.
The main language in the museum is Spanish, but most displays also provide detailed info in English as well. There are also a decent amount of interactive exhibits that kids will enjoy.
There are always changing temporary exhibits to explore, so you might discover something really interesting such as pre-Columbian artifacts while there.
Overall, I think it is a great place to check out as you explore downtown San Jose.
It is open from Monday to Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
7. Go to the Children’s Museum
Explore the captivating Children’s Museum in San Jose!
This building was once a prison with a harsh history. But, this historic building was transformed by a former first lady into a joyful and informative space for kids.
The museum is ideal for kids 8 or under. Most exhibits are in Spanish, but many guides are English-speaking.
8. Chocolate Making and Tasting at a Local Factory
This activity is for all of you with a sweet tooth.
On this chocolate factory tour, you’ll delve into the rich history of cocoa in America.
Don’t worry, you’ll get to taste the seeds at varying stages, nibs, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and delectable chocolate drinks.
You’ll experience different cocoa concentrations and then get hands-on, creating your very own chocolate concoctions. Mix and match with a variety of local ingredients and unleash your creativity!
They also provide eco-friendly materials for you to pack up your delicious creations.
Ready to taste, create, and indulge in a world of chocolate?
9. San Jose Walking Nature Tour: Sloths, Birds and Trees
The “San Jose Walking Nature Tour” offers a unique opportunity to explore Costa Rica’s biodiversity right within the city limits.
This tour is led by a knowledgeable local biologist. Participants get to encounter tropical birds, sloths, and exotic plants in their natural habitat.
Yeap, just because you are in the city it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a decent amount of wildlife!
The tour is limited to just 7 travelers, which we really like.
10. Enjoy Dinner with a Show and View
This activity is located a bit outside of the city, but it includes views of San Jose. Ram Luna Restaurant offers not just a meal, but an unforgettable experience for travelers.
This iconic spot blends traditional Costa Rican cuisine with panoramic views of the Central Valley. Also, they often have live marimba music and dance performances. It’s a fun time!
Unfortunately, this does not include transportation from downtown San Jose. You will either need a rental car or to take a taxi (which might be a bit pricey).
11. Check out the Gold Museum
Deep beneath the “Plaza de la Cultura” in San José, and you’ll discover the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum.
This museum boasts over 3,500 artifacts, showcasing the craftsmanship from the Pre-Columbian era, dating from 300 BC to 1550 AD.
When visiting you’ll have the chance to check out gold pieces, from intricate animal figurines like frogs and jaguars to El Guerrero, a life-sized golden warrior.
You’ll also get to see a replicated pre-Columbian grave, laden with 88 gold artifacts.
12. San Jose Bike & Bites Ride
Discover San José with this fabulous zero-emission bike tour! It’s such a great way to really get up close and personal with the city, breezing past all those cars stuck in traffic.
We like this tour because you’ll see the main sights, but also some off the beaten path places for glimpse into Costa Rican culture.
Plus, there is local food involved. You’ll get to try empanadas and some local coffee.
Your guide will be with you every pedal of the way, sharing all kinds of cool background info and stories about the local highlights.
13. Visit the National Museum
The National Museum of Costa Rica is located in the city center. It has a little bit of everything from Costa Rican history to culture to art.
Visitors can walk through archaeological treasures, indigenous art, colonial relics, and even see bullet holes in the walls from Costa Rica’s 1948 civil war.
We really like the museum’s Butterfly Garden.
So, whether you’re a history buff, an art enthusiast, or a curious traveler, the National Museum most likely has something you’ll enjoy.
14. Explore Barrio Escalante
Barrio Escalante is our favorite neighborhood for craft beers, restaurants with a more organic vibe, and cute artisan-type stores. Basically, its the hipster neighborhood of San Jose.
The neighborhood is located just a short walk away from the downtown area of the city. The atmosphere here is electric, especially during the evenings when the area comes alive with a bustling nightlife.
The neighborhood’s walls are covered with colorful street art, you can sip artisanal coffee, and discover hidden art gems here.
15. Explore Barrio Amón
Barrio Amon is a charming neighborhood that is renowned for its well-preserved colonial architecture, lush greenery, and vibrant cultural scene.
To make the most of your visit, start by strolling along its tree-lined streets, where you’ll encounter elegant mansions adorned with intricate details.
We suggest visiting some of the area’s museums, galleries, and cultural centers that showcase Costa Rican heritage. Also, this is a good area to try some Costa Rican food at one of the many quaint cafes and restaurants.
16. Go to an Event at the National Stadium
The national stadium is used for concerts and soccer games played by the Costa Rican national team.
We have never seen a game here, but I did go to a Justin Beiber concert here once just for the experience lol.
If you would like to see upcoming events, check out the official stadium website.
The stadium is located in the largest city parks, which we will talk about next.
17. Visit La Sabana Park
La Sabana Metropolitan Park is the largest city park and where the national stadium is located. This is a good place to take a long walk, go for a run, or bring a picnic.
The area surrounding the park is somewhat upscale so you can also find decent restaurants here.
18. Visit the Museum of Costa Rican Art
From the colonial era to today, the Museum of Costa Rican art has a bit of everything. Works from many of the country’s greatest artists are kept here, including a comprehensive collection from the prolific Juan Manuel Sanchez.
The museum sits in what used to be the main terminal of San Jose’s original international airport.
Where the tarmac used to be, there’s now a charming sculpture garden you can stroll through.
With entry under $5, it’s a steal! Located on the edge of La Sabana Park, it’s easy to combine experiences for a day filled with culture and nature.
19. Eat Traditional Food
If you would like to try traditional cuisine while in Costa Rica, San Jose is a great place for that. The restaurant scene here is on point. There are places for all budgets and interests.
I suggest going to a small local restaurant (called a soda) and getting what is known as a casado.
This is a traditional meal of rice, beans, a protein (pork, chicken, or beef), a vegetable, and sometimes fried plantains or tortillas.
Its an affordable meal and usually it’s delicious. Often the places that don’t look overly touristy will be the best.
20. Try Some Craft Beers
Visiting a craft beer bar is always a great idea!
There are several craft breweries in San Jose that are worth visiting. Our favorite area for a little craft beer hopping is always Barrio Escalante.
Check out our guide to beer in Costa Rica for a little craft beer walking tour you can do on your own.
21. Enjoy the San Jose Nightlife Scene
I’m not the best to advise you on the San Jose nightlife scene but, I can share a bit! The San Pedro neighborhood is definitely the best partying area. This is the university neighborhood and it is filled with lively bars and night clubs.
If going out on your own seems overwhelming, I suggest taking a bar crawl nightlife tour.
On this tour you will traverse through the renowned bar districts and enjoy alcoholic beverages at three unique pubs!
Expect a backdrop of lively music, a taste of local drinks, and a chance to meet fellow travelers.
22. Walk Down Avenida Central
Avenida Central is the main shopping street in San Jose. It is a pedestrian road, so no need to worry about cars. This road is a cultural hub filled with shops, restaurants, street vendors, and local artists.
Be prepared to experience a lively atmosphere in this area!
The avenue is also flanked by several historical and architectural gems, including theaters and museums.
23. Try Some Unusual Fruits
You will have no trouble finding street vendors selling fresh fruit and produce. We definitely suggest buying a few unusual tropical fruits to try out.
There are probably many fruits you have never even seen before. For example, have you ever eaten a Granadilla? How about Pejibaye?
24. Explore San Jose By Night
On this tour you will embark on a unique evening to see some of San Jose’s hidden gems. Your evening will start with a historical walk through Morazán Park and marveling at iconic landmarks like the Metallic Building and the Yellow House.
You’ll explore the local history and architecture in charming Barrio Escalante.
Cap off your adventure with a delightful 3-course meal, paired with wine or beer, at a gourmet Costa Rican restaurant.
25. Buy Souvenirs
There are so many cute shops to find unique Costa Rica souvenirs in downtown San Jose.
The three best places that we suggest checking out:
- Holalola Gift Shop: Holalola is our favorite print designer in Costa Rica. They make amazing posters, greeting cards. Tote bags, home decor, etc.
- Arteria: Arteria makes tshirt and accessories with famous Costa Rican sayings.
- Mercado Municipal de Artesanías: This is a huge market area filled with artisans and people selling souvenir type goods.
26. Walk through Parque Nacional
Parque Nacional in San José is a relatively compact urban central park, covering an area of approximately 1 square block. It’s not very big, but its significance lies more in its cultural and historical value.
The central feature of the park is the Monumento Nacional. This bronze statue is an homage to the Costa Rica’s victory over the filibuster William Walker. It’s a great spot for history enthusiasts to learn about a pivotal moment in Central American history.
The park offers benches and green spaces where you can sit and relax. It’s a popular spot for locals during lunch breaks or for a brief respite.
27. Look for Unique Grafitti
There is a lot of graffiti in the city, and some of it is really beautiful. We love to walk around and search for the most unique street art.
I’ve been meaning to create a graffiti walking tour for Costa Rica Vibes, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. So, if you find some really amazing graffiti, let us know where it is!
28. Walk Around Multiplaza
Multiplaza is the largest mall in Costa Rica. It is three floors tall and has tons of shopping options. Plus, there is a movie theater in the mall that often plays films in English.
I know, you didn’t come all the way to Costa Rica to walk around a mall and see a movie. But, when you have visited all the museums, on a wet day during rainy season this is not a bad option.
29. Take a Day Trip from San Jose
This list consists entirely of things that you can do within downtown San Jose, or very close by. However, the area around San Jose is definitely worth exploring.
In Alajuela you can visit Poás Volcano up close, go to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, take one of the many coffee tours, and so much more!
In Cartago you can visit Irazu Volcano, check out the most popular church in Costa Rica, visit a coffee plantation, and more!
From San Jose you can also take longer day trips with transportation to places like Manuel Antonio National Park, the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Tortuga Island, and Arenal Volcano National Park in La Fortuna.
That being said, we also created a complete list of the best day trips that you can take from the San Jose area.
This list includes day tours with transportation, off-the-beaten-path spots, and things you will need a rental car to visit.
Helpful Tips for Visiting San Jose
Here is what you need to know before visiting San Jose.
The San Jose Airport
The Juan Santamaria International Airport is the largest international airport in the country. It is located on the outskirts of San Jose in Alajuela (directly to the west of the city).
From the international airport it is possible to get to downtown San Jose within 20 minutes if there is no traffic.
However, there is always traffic.
During rush hour it could take over an hour or longer.
The best way to get around in downtown San Jose is by foot or by official taxi.
Official taxis in Costa Rica are red with a yellow triangle on the drivers and passengers side door. Official taxis coming from the airport are orange with green triangles.
DO NOT take an unofficial taxi. They are known to majorly overcharge people.
There is a public bus system, but it is a bit confusing and I don’t suggest it if you don’t know what you are doing. I still find myself ending up in a different area than I expected sometimes when taking the bus.
As far as rental cars, I do not suggest driving in downtown San Jose.
People drive like crazy.
If you are staying in the downtown area for a few nights after arriving at the airport I suggest taking a taxi or hotel shuttle from the airport to your hotel.
Once you are ready to leave San Jose and explore other areas of the country you can pick up your rental car.
We work exclusively with Adobe Car Rental. They have an office in downtown San Jose and will deliver your car to you for free within 12 miles of their office.
I suggest doing this and having your car delivered on the day you are ready to leave.
- 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
If you are looking for a place to stay after landing at the airport, we do not suggest downtown San Jose. Instead, stay in Alajuela near the airport. This will make it easier for you to hit the road to other destinations after.
Our top airport area hotel choices are:
Check out our guide to airport area hotels for more info.
However, if you would like to spend a few days in downtown San Jose, then yes, book a hotel downtown.
Our top hotel choices are:
Of all places in Costa Rica, San Jose is typically the place you need to be the most cautious. Violent crimes are very unusual, but petty theft is somewhat common downtown, especially in crowds.
We suggest an anti-theft backpack or purse for here. Also, definitely don’t walk around with your phone, camera, or wallet visible.
If possible, dress like you can blend in. Most people wear jeans or pants and a short sleeve shirt. That seems to be the go-to San Jose uniform.
Also, do not walk alone in empty areas at night.
We have never had anything happen to us, but I know we are lucky. We have had a few friends that have been robbed.
Should You Visit San Jose?
Speaking as people who live in San Jose, the downtown area is not our favorite. We live a little outside of the downtown area and find ourselves rarely going downtown except for a visit to the theater, museums, or good restaurants.
That being said, I always take friends and family downtown when they visit, and they enjoy it for the cultural experience.
It is interesting to see and worth spending a day or two in, but I wouldn’t spend more than 3 days here.
This country is so amazing and filled with great natural attractions. Get out of the city and see the Pacific and Caribbean coast, visit the national parks, and explore the jungle.
Tip: Check out our Destination Guides for info on all the best places to visit throughout the country.
You’ll have the best time!
So, yes, stay in San Jose briefly and then get out to the beautiful nature.
Conclusion: Things to Do in San Jose Costa Rica
And there you have it – 29 delightful experiences to make the most of your time in San José!
Costa Rica’s capital city has so much to offer, and I’m confident that with this guide, you’ll fall in love with its charm.
If you have any questions or need further recommendations for visiting the capital of Costa Rica, don’t hesitate to drop a comment below. I’m here to help! And if you’re keen to discover even more about San José, check out some of our other posts below for deeper dives into this vibrant city.
Happy exploring, and pura vida!
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🚗 Should I rent a car in Costa Rica?
Having a rental car will give you the most flexibility when traveling in Costa Rica. This will allow you to visit more off-the-beaten-path destinations and will allow you to take fun day trips on your own.
☀️ Should I buy travel insurance for Costa Rica?
Yes, travel insurance is always a good idea. It is not just for illness or injury, but also lost luggage, delayed trips, and more!
We like Heymondo for Costa Rica travel insurance.
✈️ What is the best way to book a flight?
Usually, we have the best luck finding great prices with Skyscanner. Check for flights to both San Jose Airport (SJO) and Liberia Airport (LIR).
🛏️ What is the best way to book my Costa Rica hotels?
🗣️What is the main language in Costa Rica?
The main language in Costa Rica is Spanish. Most people working in tourism speak at least some English.
💰 What is the currency in Costa Rica?
The currency used in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican colón (CRC). However, the US dollar is widely accepted in most tourist areas
🌴 Is Costa Rica safe?
Generally, Costa Rica is considered safe for tourists. However, like any travel destination, it’s best to use caution and be aware of your surroundings.
🛂 Do you need a passport to go to Costa Rica?
Yes, Costa Rica is its own country. You will need a passport to visit.