Visiting San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and found in the Central Valley. It has become a modern, cosmopolitan city and is presently home a third of the country’s entire population. This Latin American city is a pleasant place to live, and many foreigners have settled in the neighboring areas and suburbs. Popular places to live include Escazu and Santa Ana, on the west side of the city. Many also choose to live in Heredia, a suburb located in the mountains where it is evidently cooler and rainier.
Home to the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), San Jose is also a great landing point for tourists. Many even choose to stay and explore the many museums, cultural spots and exciting bars and restaurants that the city has to offer.
Plaza de la Cultura
The city of San Jose grew around its main plaza, La Plaza de la Cultura. The plaza is always busy with Ticos heading to and from work or shopping on Central Avenue. The Gold Museum, National Museum, Jade Museum and the National Theater are located within walking distance of the plaza.
Close to Plaza de la Cultura you will find Avenida Central which is a pedestrian shopping street that eventually leads to the Central Market. You will see venders and street performers everywhere. Walk down the avenue and buy unique indigenous herbs and remedies, souvenirs, and typical food.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
Found underneath Plaza de la Cultura, the Gold Museum is home to over 1600 pre-columbian pieces of art dating back to 500 AD. An ethnographic collection of over 100 objects can also be found, including textiles. Near the end of the exhibit, you can also learn about the history of money in Costa Rica and see historical coins and bills.
The National Museum is located inside the Bellavista Fortress, built in 1917. The museum is full of exhibits and you’ll spend hours exploring and learning about Costa Rica’s colonial, archeological, geological, religious and modern history. Finish your tour at the top of the museum where you get a great view of the entire city.
With over 7000 pieces to see, the Jade Museum contains the largest collection of pre-columbian jade artifacts in the world. The museum is split into six exhibits that show the history of jade and its cultural, economic and religious uses throughout history. The museum is easy to find from Central Avenue. Bring your Spanish-English dictionary, most of the displays are in Spanish.
Lankester Botanical Garden
Located on the eastern side of the city, the Lancaster Botanical Gardens are owned by the University of Costa Rica and used for orchid research in Central America. It is open to the public and you’ll find tourists, locals and photographers alike taking photos of the beautiful orchids inside. You’ll also find 3000 species of other plants during your tour.
From casinos to dance clubs to high-end roof-top bars, to breweries to sports bars, you can find it all in San Jose. Try Barrio Escalante, near down town San Jose for great artisanal drinks and unique eateries. For a younger party scene you can try Barrio California. Don’t forget to try a Chiliguaro!
There is no shortage of great shopping in San Jose. Try Avenida Central (Central Avenue) for traditional Costa Rican souvenirs, local “ferias” (farmer’s markets) for fresh produce and Avenida Escazu for more high-end shopping or any of the several multi-plazas for clothes, food, sports gear and even movie tickets.
Only an hour and half from San Jose, visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens which feature 5 different waterfalls, bird watching, hiking through the rainforest and butterfly observatory. La Paz is a great day trip from San Jose before you head to the coasts or mountains.
Visit one of the many nearby volcanos during your stay in San Jose include the Poas, Irazu, Barva and Turrialba Volcanos, all of which are within two hours of the city. Most are easily accessible and offer easy to moderate hikes. Check the weather before you go so you can be sure to get a clear view!
Visit December-April: You’ll find the best, spring-like weather in San Jose between December and April.
Use Uber or official taxis: Uber is a great, affordable way to get around San Jose. If you are using taxis, make sure to use the official red taxis with yellow triangles.
Take a city tour: Sign up for a San Jose city tour to see all the major highlights in one afternoon.
Watch for pick-pockets: Keep you belongings close to you, don’t carry large amounts of cash or valuables when walking around the town.
Dress like a local: Don’t wear beach clothes in the city and walk in close-toed shoes. Beach clothing like shorts and flip-flops make you stand out as a tourist and open-toed shoes can be dangerous on the city sidewalks.
Don’t walk alone at night: San Jose is considered one of the safest cities in Latin America, but it is still a large city. Take an Uber or a taxi at night.
Closest International Airport: Juan Santamaria (SJO)
Getting to San Jose from the Juan Santamaria airport is quick and easy. You can chose private transfer, shuttle or rental car. The center of the city is only about 30 minutes away!
With restaurants that feature flavors from all over the world, you’ll have no problem finding delicious places to eat in San Jose. For higher-end dining, we recommend Escazu or Santa Ana. There you can find exquisite restaurants like Andiamo La (Italian food, Santa Ana) or La Divina Comida (Latin food, Escazu).
For a younger, gastronomic vibe, visit Barrio Escalante. You’ll find everything from traditional Costa Rican casados to unique Latin-Asian fusion.
For your breakfast, make sure to try Gallo Pinto! The delicious, national dish of Costa Rica.
Where to Stay
Whether you’re looking for an affordable, quiet lodge or an extravagant, all-inclusive resort, San Jose has any type of hotel you need.
The western suburbs of Santa Ana and Belen are where you can find some of the most luxurious hotels like the Marriot, Real InterContinental, and Hotel Doubletree Cariari. If you prefer to stay in the center of town, you have many options. For example, the Holiday Inn Aurola Hotel and the Barcelo San Jose Palacio. All-inclusive resorts include the Hotel Grano de Oro, the Hotel Don Carlos, or the Hotel Alta in Santa Ana.