When you read about San Jose in Costa Rica, you don’t get very excited in general. At least, that’s the case for me. It is obviously not possible to compare this city with bustling capitals such Lima, Quito, Mexico City or Buenos Aires. Costa Rica has no colonial center with beautiful churches and monasteries for example. Yet it is worth spending a day or two in the capital. Especially at the beginning of your trip, to take in the Costa Rican city vibes, to visit one of the many museums and to eat in nice restaurants. In this article, I’ll tell you more about the best things to do in San Jose in Costa Rica, including travel tips for restaurants, neighborhoods and hotels. To help you get the most out of your visit.
- What to do in San Jose Costa Rica – Travel tips and places to visit
- Mini travel guide San Jose Costa Rica
- More about Costa Rica
What to do in San Jose Costa Rica – Travel tips and places to visit
San Jose in Costa Rica is a city that I visited many times, as it is always the beginning and ending of a trip through the country. I like being in the city for a day or two to discover a new restaurant or visit an exhibition. In this article you will read my personal tips for things to do in San Jose in Costa Rica: From characteristic buildings to nice neighborhoods, inspiring art and cute boutique stores.
San Jose is for most people the start of a trip through the country. Do you want to read more about what to do in Costa Rica with things to do and tips? Check out my comprehensive Costa Rica travel guide.
Admire Teatro Nacional
The National Theater is one of the most beautiful buildings that San Jose in Costa Rica has to offer. It was built in the 19th century after a foreign actress mentioned that she did not want to perform in San Jose due to a lack of good theaters. Today, you can take hourly tours. The highlight is the Italian ceiling painting that can also be seen on old Costa Rican banknotes. You can also have a drink in the beautiful theater cafe. Highly recommended if you are interested in theater and architecture!
Stroll around the butterfly garden Spirogyra
Do you want to take great pictures of butterflies? Then one of the best things to do in San Jose Costa Rica is to visit to the butterfly garden: Jardín de Mariposas Spirogyra. Here you will find 30 different species of butterflies with amazing colors. It is also possible to take a short walk to the river. You have to go up and down a bit, but it is a nice walk. The entire garden is a pretty place in the center of a chaotic city!
Travel tips – It is best to visit the butterfly garden in San Jose Costa Rica in the morning. That is when the butterflies warm up in the sun and the time to take pictures.
Best neighborhood of San Jose Costa Rica – Barrio Escalante
In every city you have nice neighborhoods: Barrio Escalante in San Jose Costa Rica has a large number of good restaurants, cafes and things to do. For example, on Avenida 3 (and calle 29) along the railroad tracks, you’ll find nice street art to observe. Sendero Escalante consists of several small exhibition spaces and stores. Nice to just walk in and have a look. In the evening, Calle 33 is the place to be, with many lively bars and restaurants.
Visit Museo de Jade and Museo de Oro
Both museums are among the best things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica, because of the large collections of gold and jade. Personally, I am very impressed with the Jade Museum with jade from pre-Columbian times. The collection includes ceremonial pieces, jewelry and utensils, all beautifully displayed with interesting information. In the gold museum you can admire fascinating gold objects. There is also information about indigenous peoples such as the Chorotegas and Boruca.
Get inspired by modern art
I always enjoy looking for modern art abroad. One of the best things to do to find modern art in San Jose Costa Rica is to visit the MAC. This museum is located in the former airport, at the Parque La Sabana. It is free to enter and offers an interesting collection of modern artworks. Well worth walking in and getting inspired.
On weekends, it is nice to walk around the Parque La Sabana and observe the local life. This is where Costa Rican families and groups of friends gather for a picnic or drink.
Another museum that focuses on modern art is the MADC – Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporaneo, located in the Otoya district. There are changing exhibitions, so it is recommended to check the website in advance.
Stroll around the Mercado Central
El Mercado Central in Costa Rica consists of a few blocks with countless products: Vegetables, fruits, meat and household products, you name it. There is also a section with souvenirs. But the real reason to visit the market is to observe local life. All type of people get together at this place. Be careful of your belongings though.
Find interesting buildings
San Jose is a Latin American city with many low-rise and gray buildings. Two buildings stand out immediately. On the corner of Calle 2 and Avenida 1 you will find the old post office, which today is a museum of philately. It is especially the architecture (the neoclassical style) on the outside that makes the building worth visiting. The Teatro Melico Salazar is also nice to admire from the outside. The theater was built in the early 20th century and is listed as an official monument in Costa Rica. It regularly hosts dance and theatre performances.
Also in the Otoya district, along street Avenida 7, you will find some more interesting buildings. Also pay attention to the street art you encounter along the way. There are quite beautiful works among them.
Visit the Museo Nacional
You can hardly miss this yellow building. This former 19th century fortress now houses the National Museum. One of the things to do in San Jose, if you are interested in the history of Costa Rica. You will be taken on a journey through the country: From the first civilizations that lived in Costa Rica to present-day.
Discover nice concept stores
A nice boutique store in the Otoya district is Eñe. This little shop is full with clothes, bags and souvenirs from local designers. Just something different than the souvenirs you find in regular stores.
Hola Lola Costa Rican design
Another nice Costa Rican brand is Hola Lola by designer Priscilla Aguirres. Her work can be found in several boutique store around the world. But in San Jose you can visit her own store, with bags, cards, posters, notebooks and mugs. All with cool prints about Costa Rica.
Mini travel guide San Jose Costa Rica
San Jose Costa Rica – travel tips for restaurants
Otoya is one of the nicest cafes and restaurants in San Jose downtown. Inside it is nicely decorated and outside there are a few tables and chairs. It is the perfect place for lunch (delicious sandwiches and salads), coffee or drinks. Otoya is also open for dinner.
In the Escalante district you will find Kalú Cafe. A nice place with a large indoor garden where you can enjoy lunch. There are sandwiches, salads, pastas, fresh fruit juices and sweets.
Jardín de Lolita
Jardín de Lolita is a gathering place of different bars and restaurants. There are wine bars, local beers, places with sushi, pizza and pasta. Very cozy, especially in the evening. You can order something from anywhere and take it to your place.
San Jose Costa Rica – 2 travel hotels tips
San Jose is a large city with numerous hotels. Herewith two tips for hotels in San Jose Costa Rica, centrally located within walking distance of the different things to do.
Are you looking for a simple but nice place to stay in busy San Jose? I myself stayed several times in Casa 69. This colonial-style hotel is a 10-minute walk from the National Museum and surrounding things to do in San Jose Costa Rica. The rooms are simple but neat and the staff is very helpful. Some rooms have balconies or small patios. Restaurants, bars and supermarkets are within easy reach.
Grano de Oro
Are you looking for more luxury? Then check out the Grano de Oro hotel, centrally located, also within walking distance of the sights in San Jose in Costa Rica. All rooms are stylish and decorated with nice materials. And the Vista de Oro suite is an absolute highlight, with extensive use of wood, antiques, tiles and plants. A visit to the classic accompanying restaurant is also not to be missed. The cuisine consists of a mix of Costa Rican and European dishes with great attention to service and quality. Try to get a seat in the courtyard garden. A little fairy tale when everything is lit up in the evening!
How to get around in San Jose Costa Rica
In downtown San Jose in Costa Rica, all the sights and things to do are within walking distance. The MAC and the Escalante district are located a little outside the center. Personally, I like to walk on a nice day but you can also take a taxi. In the evening it is always recommended to travel by taxi around downtown San Jose. This is for safety reasons. You will notice that the atmosphere changes in some places, especially after sunset.
More about Costa Rica
San Jose is for most people the start of a trip through the country. Do you want to read more about things to do in Costa Rica? Check out my other Costa Rica articles.
Curious about other destinations in Central America? Read more in the next articles.
This article may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of our links, we may receive a commission at no extra cost to you, which helps us keep this blog alive. Thank you for your support! Please see our disclosures for more information.