Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, isn’t my favorite spot to visit in the country. It’s kind of gritty and only good for a few days.
On the plus side, there are a few things to do to keep you busy before you move on to nicer parts of the country. The city has some great museums, cool parks, funky hostels with pools, a theater, and some kick-ass restaurants. It’s a good place for a quick visit to get your bearings before you move on to other parts of the country.
If you spend three days here, you’ve been here too long.
This travel guide to San Jose will give you the low down on everything you need to know to plan your visit and save money.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in San Jose
1. Explore Poas Volcano
2. See the La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park
3. Visit the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum
4. Take the Doka Coffee Tour
5. Admire Costa Rica’s art
Other Things to See and Do in San Jose
1. Visit the National Center of Art & Culture
This sprawling museum occupies an entire block. It’s home to the offices of the Cultural Ministry, several performing arts centers, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, where you can see the work of cutting edge Costa Rican and Central American artists. This is also the place to see contemporary dance and theater. Admission is 1,850 CRC per person and is free on Mondays.
2. Take a canopy tour
Costa Rica is covered in dense rainforest terrain (51% of the country is rainforest), and seeing it from the treetop canopy is a unique way to experience it up close. A canopy tour involves gliding over the trees on a zip line, giving you chance to see the most active part of the rainforest – the upper tenth of the trees. Expect to pay around 62,500 CRC per person with a company like San Luis Canopy Tour.
3. Visit Jade Museum
The Jade Museum is located on the 11th floor of the National Insurance Building. It has the world’s largest collection of Pre-Columbian jade, with pieces dating from 500 BC-800 BCE. The translucent jade carvings of fertility goddesses and animals are some of the collection’s most impressive pieces. The museum also offers an excellent view of San José and the Central Valley. Admission is 9,600 CRC.
4. Take a beer tour
The craft beer scene in Costa Rica has taken off in recent years. Carpe Chepe Craft Beer Tour is a fun way to get acquainted with the local beer scene (and the city at large). You’ll visit four bars, sample beers, learn how they’re made, try some local food, and learn some interesting history about the city’s unique neighborhoods. Tours start from 50,500 CRC.
5. Explore the Mercado Central
The Central Market is a good place to buy souvenirs, browse colorful market stalls, and check out the local food scene. I don’t like shopping here, but if you want to eat delicious, local food, you can’t leave this city without visiting. Make sure you know Spanish if you want to haggle, or you won’t get any deals. It’s open every day except Sundays from early in the morning to late afternoon.
6. Hike through Chirripo National Park
If you’re an avid hiker or up for a challenge, consider booking a multi-day trek through Chirripo National Park. This park lies in the middle of the Talamanca mountain range and includes a huge swath of dense, lush rainforest. Pack well, and be prepared for unexpected weather conditions. Visitors require an entrance permit, which costs 11,100 CRC per person. A three-day hiking trip with a local guide costs around 235,000 CRC.
7. Hang out on Central Avenue
Central Avenue is the heartbeat of San Jose. It’s full of shops, restaurants, and bars. The street is busiest between 4-5pm every day as the locals get off work and come here to hang out, eat, and listen to live music. There are also vendors everywhere selling local goods, so it’s a great place to do some souvenir shopping and people watching.
8. Take a free walking tour
If you want to learn more about the history of San Jose while taking in the sights, take a free walking tour. You’ll hear all about “ticos” culture, visit some secret spots where the locals hang out and see some street art along the way. Carpe Chepe runs free walking tours —just don’t forget to tip your guide at the end!
For more information on other destinations in the country, check out these guides:
San Jose Travel Costs
Hostel prices – A bed in an 8-12-bed dorm costs around 7,000 CRC per night. For a room with 4-6 beds, expect to pay between 8,500-11,500 CRC. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels have self-catering facilities. Many include free breakfast. A private room with an ensuite bathroom costs 30,000 CRC. Prices are roughly the same all year.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels cost between 34,000-40,000 CRC. Expect basic amenities like AC, a TV, and a tea/coffee maker.
Airbnb is a budget-friendly option here and is plentiful around the city. Private rooms start at 18,500 CRC per night while entire homes/apartments average closer to 35,000 CRC.
Average cost of food – Costa Rican cuisine is centered around rice and beans, which are usually eaten for every meal. Potatoes, plantain, pork, and beef are also popular. Gallo pinto (rice and bean stir-fry) is the national dish. You’ll find it mixed with eggs for breakfast. Other popular meals include fried plantain and chicken and rice. Generally, the food here is quite mild.
You’ll find lots of affordable street food vendors and fast-food places around San Jose. You can get personal pizzas for 4,500 CRC while salads and casado (a typical Costa Rican set meal) cost 3,000 CRC. A fast food combo at McDonald’s costs about 4,500 CRC.
Higher-end restaurants will have six-course menus starting from 30,000 CRC; otherwise, entrees like steak cost about 19,700 CRC and seafood dishes start from about 15,000 CRC. A glass of wine or sangria is around 3,500 CRC.
Beer is 2,500 CRC while a latte/cappuccino is 1,500 CRC. Bottled water is 840 CRC.
If you cook for yourself, you’ll spend around 19,000-25,000 CRC on groceries per week, which gets you basics staples like rice, pasta, bread, veggies, and some meat.
Backpacking San Jose Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking San Jose, expect to spend about 30,000 CRC per day. This budget covers a hostel dorm, public transportation, cooking your own food, and a couple of cheap activities like a walking tour or museum visit. If you plan on drinking, add another 2,500-5,000 CRC per day.
A mid-range budget of about 70,000 CRC covers staying in a private hostel room or Airbnb, eating out for all of your meals at cheap street stalls and restaurants serving local cuisine, using public transportation and taking the occasional taxi, a few drinks out at the bar, and some more paid activities like visiting Poas Volcano or the Waterfall Garden.
On a “luxury” budget of about 170,000 CRC or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals anywhere you want, take taxis everywhere, do day trips outside the city, and drink as much as you like. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in CRC.
San Jose Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Like the rest of Costa Rica, San Jose is affordable all year around. Nonetheless, it never hurts to save money! Here are some suggested ways to save money during your visit to San Jose:
- Show your student card – Many attractions offer reduced admission rates for students with a valid student card. If you are a student, make sure you bring yours to take advantage of the deals.
- Skip taxis – Downtown San Jose is very walkable — even parts on the edge aren’t more than a 30-minute walk. The taxis are overpriced and they often rip off tourists so skip them!
- Eat at the Mercado Central – If you want to save money on food, eat at the central market. The food is cheaper than most other places in the city center and it’s delicious.
- Stay with a local – Couchsurfing connects you with a local who can host you for free. Not only will you save money but you’ll get some insight from someone who lives in the area!
- Save money on rideshares – Uber is way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to wait for a bus or pay for a taxi.
- Take a free walking tour – Get to know the city and its history by taking a free walking tour with a company Carpe Chepe. Just don’t forget to tip!
- Eat at the sodas – “Sodas” are small family run restaurants which specialize in inexpensive local meals, usually costing around 3,500 CRC. These hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer the best value in the city.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will help you save money and thousands of plastic bottles by purifying the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw.
Where to Stay in San Jose
There are lots of cheap hostels in San Jose, including plenty near the city center. Here are some of my suggested places to stay:
For more hostel suggestions, be sure to check out my list of the best hostels in San Jose!
How to Get Around San Jose
Public transportation – The public bus is the cheapest way to get around San Jose, with fares costing between 200-630 CRC depending on where you’re going. You’re most likely to use the buses running along Avenida 2 and 3, or the Sabana/Cementerio bus from Parque La Sabana to downtown.
The bus between Alajuela/San José and the airport costs about 540 CRC one way.
Taxi – You’ll have no trouble hailing a taxi in San Jose, although drivers sometimes refuse to turn on the meters if they know you’re a foreigner. Official rates start at 700 CRC per kilometer. Just make sure your driver turns on their meter before you begin.
Ridesharing – Uber is available all over San Jose and is generally cheaper than taxis.
Car rental – Rentals cost around 13,500 CRC per day for a multi-day car rental. That said, driving in San Jose isn’t ideal due to the poorly maintained roads, aggressive drivers, lack of road rules/signage, and risk of break-ins. I’d skip the rental here.
Bike rentals – San Jose isn’t a great city to explore by bike as rentals are super pricey and it’s not super safe for cyclists. If you do want to bike, expect to pay upwards of 18,000 CRC per day for a rental but I wouldn’t recommend it.
When to Go to San Jose
San Jose typically serves as the gateway city to the rest of Costa Rica, so there’s no bad time to visit. The dry season is from mid-December to April and daily highs average about 30°C (86°F). This is the most ideal to visit. It’s also the busiest time to visit so book your accommodation in advance.
The rainy season is from May to November, but rainfall usually only occurs in short spurts throughout the day. January is the coldest month, with an average daily low of 17°C (63°F).
If you’re planning on exploring the area around Poas Volcano, the dry season is the best time to do so because visibility is the best.
How to Stay Safe in San Jose
While Costa Rica is one of the safest countries for traveling and backpacking in Central America, you’ll still need to exercise caution. Petty theft (including bag snatching) is one of the most common crimes here, especially on public buses. Keep your bag on your lap and stay vigilant.
Don’t wander around by yourself after dark. Downtown San Jose can be especially sketchy, with reports of armed muggings on the rise. Also, be cautious around the bus terminal and Parque Central. South of the park is the red-light district, which is another area you want to avoid completely at night (even if you’re with someone else).
If you rent a car, do not leave any valuables in it overnight as break-ins are common. If cycling, always wear a helmet as the roads here are terrible and the drivers are aggressive.
Before you take a taxi, make sure your driver turns on the meter or negotiate a price before getting in. It’s common for drivers to overcharge foreigners in San Jose.
Avoid doing drugs or taking part in sex tourism. Stay away from that stuff, and you’ll be fine. Overall, the people are friendly and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble.
If you need emergency services, the number to dial is 911.
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about the 14 travel scams to avoid right here.
Remember: always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
For more in-depth coverage of how to stay safe in Costa Rica, check out this post we wrote that answers some frequently asked questions and concerns.
And be sure to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
San Jose Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Costa Rica. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and, overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Costa Rica, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, and boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
San Jose Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
San Jose Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica, by Jack Ewing
This book gives a fascinating overview of how animals, plants, and people interact with one another in Costa Rica’s rainforests. It’s written by Jack Ewing, a naturalist and born storyteller. Here, he shares a treasure trove of observations and stories gathered for more than 30 years of living in the country. Chances are, you’re coming to Costa Rica to discover some of the country’s amazing ecosystems. This book will get you excited about it.
In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road, by Allan Weisbecker
In 1996, Allan Weisbecker sold all his worldly possessions and set out in search of his long-time surfing friend, Patrick, who went missing somewhere in Central America. Traveling with only his dog, his surfboards, and his truck, Allan’s journey from Mexico to Costa Rica is a memorable one, filled with scarier moments (like evading bandits) and warmer ones (like befriending the locals). It’s really the tale of ultimate friendship.
Happier Than a Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week, by Nadine Hays Pisani
It’s the classic travel tale — overworked professional realizes that the 9-5 to grind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sets out to seek greener pastures. This is a nice, light read for when you’re just flaking out on the beach or by the pool. But, along the way, you’ll learn why Costa Rica is one of the happiest places on earth.
San Jose Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Costa Rica travel and continue planning your trip: