Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, isn’t my favorite spot to visit in the country. It’s kind of gritty, grimy, and only good for a few days. There are a few things to do to keep you busy before you move on to nicer parts of the country. There are some great museums, cool parks, pretty funky hostels with pools, a theater, and some kick-ass restaurants, but this city is a place for you to get your bearing 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.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in San Jose
1. Explore Poas Volcano
2. See the La Paz Waterfall Gardens
3. Visit the 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 is 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 1,700 CRC ($3 USD) per person and is free on Mondays.
2. Take a canopy tour
Costa Rica is covered in dense rainforest terrain, 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 wire and is an exhilarating experience that offers you the rare chance to see the most active part of the rainforest – the upper tenth of the trees. Expect to pay around 50,945 CRC ($89 USD) 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 and has the world’s largest collection of Pre-Columbian jade, with pieces dating from 500 BC-800 AD. The translucent jade carvings of fertility goddesses and animals are some of the most impressive pieces. The museum also offers an excellent view of San José and the Central Valley. Adult admission is 8,585 CRC ($15 USD).
4. Explore the Mercado Central
The Central Market is in a bright yellow building on the Avenue Central – you can’t miss it. Buy your souvenirs or check out local food among the hundreds of colorful stalls. I don’t like the shopping here, but if you want to eat delicious, local food, you can’t leave this city without visiting it. Make sure you know Spanish if you want to bargain, or you won’t get any deals. It’s open every day except Sundays from early in the morning to late afternoon.
5. 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 will give you great exposure to the rainforest environment. Pack well, and be prepared for unexpected weather conditions. Visitors require an entrance permit, which costs 10,305 CRC ($18 USD) per person. A three-day hiking trip with a local guide will cost about 220,380 CRC ($385 USD).
6. Hang out on Central Avenue
Central Avenue is the heartbeat of San Jose, and it’s full of shops, restaurants, and bars. The street becomes busiest between 4-5 PM 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!
7. Take a beer tour
The craft beer scene in Costa Rica has taken off in recent years, and a Carpe Chepe Craft Beer Tour through San Jose is a fun way to get acquainted with the local beer (and the city). You’ll visit four bars, sample beers, and food, and learn some interesting history about the city’s unique neighborhoods. Tours start from 45,220 CRC ($79 USD).
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 with Strawberry Tours or Carpe Chepe. You’ll hear all about “ticos” culture, visit some secret spots where the locals hang out and see some street art along the way. Don’t forget to tip!
San Jose Travel Costs
Hostel prices – During peak season, a bed in an 8+ bed room will cost about 5,725 CRC ($10 USD) per night anywhere in the city. For a room with four to six beds, expect to pay between 8,780-11,450 CRC ($15-20 USD). Prices are the same during the off-season.
A basic private room with a shared bathroom costs from 20,035 CRC ($35 USD) per night during peak season. If you want an ensuite bathroom, it’ll cost about 25,760 CRC ($45 USD) per night. In the off-season, you can find rooms as cheap as 14,310 CRC ($25 USD) per night.
Budget hotel prices – Nightly rates for a budget two or three-star hotel room in the city center cost between 25,760-31,485 CRC ($45-55 USD) in peak season. In the off-season, budget rooms start from 22,895 CRC ($40 USD).
San Jose has lots of Airbnb options. A shared room (like a bed in a dorm) averages about 11,705 CRC ($20 USD) per night, while a private room is about 20,035 CRC ($35 USD) per night. A full apartment averages about 28,620 CRC ($50 USD) per night.
Average cost of food – You’ll find lots of affordable street food vendors and fast-food places around San Jose. You can get personal pizzas for 3,900 CRC ($7 USD), salads and casado for 1,500 CRC ($3 USD), or tacos for about 1,145 CRC ($2 USD) each. A meal at McDonald’s will cost about 3,900 CRC ($7 USD). Taco Bell is also really popular here, and you can get a combo meal for 3,150 CRC ($5.50 USD).
At mid-range restaurants, you can get meat dishes from about 10,500 CRC ($15 USD), while vegetarian dishes start from about 6,800 CRC ($12 USD). Beers are about 2,400 CRC ($4 USD).
Higher-end restaurants will have six-course menus starting from 30,000 CRC ($52 USD); otherwise, entrees like steak cost about 19,700 CRC ($34 USD). Seafood dishes are from about 12,700 CRC ($22 USD). A glass of wine or sangria is from 4,095 CRC ($7 USD).
If you cook for yourself, you’ll spend between 17,175-20,000 CRC ($30-35 USD) on groceries per week. This will get you basics like meat, bread, eggs, cheese, some veggies, and fruit.
Backpacking San Jose Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking San Jose, expect to spend about 28,620 CRC ($50 USD) per day. This budget will cover a hostel dorm, lots of bus rides, street food and cheap local eats, entry to Poas Volcano, museum admissions, and free activities. This budget is pretty consistent year-round.
A mid-range budget of about 65,825 CRC ($116 USD) will cover staying in a private hostel room or an Airbnb room, eating out for all of your meals, a daily tour, bus rides, an occasional Uber ride, and some drinks. If you travel during the shoulder season, you can reduce your budget by up to 5,725-11,450 CRC ($10-20 USD) per day.
On a luxury budget of about 111,620 CRC ($195 USD) or more per day, you can get a nice four-star hotel, any meal you want, drinks, tours, and lots of taxi rides. The sky is the limit!
If you come in the low season, you’ll pay about 20% less for accommodations.
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 USD.
San Jose Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
San Jose is affordable year around, with accommodation and food prices being lower here than elsewhere in Costa Rica. Nonetheless, here are some suggested ways to save money in San Jose:
- Student cards – 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 tourists off 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 delicious. You can find meals starting at only 1,500 CRC ($3 USD).
- Avoid the high season – Prices during the summer (and around the holidays) will be much higher than the rest of the year so visit during the low season to get the best prices.
- Stay with a local by Couchsurfing – This is one of the few cities in the country where you’ll have an easy time staying with a local as there are a decent number of hosts on the website. 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. The Uber Pool option is where can you share a ride to get even better savings (though you can get your own car too). You can save $15 off your first Uber ride with this code: jlx6v.
- Take a free walking tour – Get to know the city and its history by taking a free walking tour with a company like Strawberry Tours or 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 2,925 CRC ($5 USD) including a drink. 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 ($49.99).
Where To Stay in San Jose
There are lots of cheap hostel and hotel options in San Jose, including plenty near the city center. Here are some of my suggested places to stay in San Jose:
For more hostel suggestions, be sure to check out my list of the best hostels in San Jose!
How to Get Around San Jose
Bus – The public bus is the cheapest way to get around San Jose, with fares costing between 200-630 CRC ($0.35-1.10 USD) 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 ($0.95 USD) 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 740 CRC ($1.30 USD) per kilometer; you can use this rate to determine about how much your taxi should be.
Uber – Uber is available all over San Jose. You can save $15 off your first Uber ride with this code: jlx6v.
When to Go to San Jose
San Jose typically serves as the gateway city to the rest of Costa Rica, so there’s no real bad time to visit — it depends on where you’re headed next. The dry season is from mid-December to April, and the warm, sunny days make this time the most ideal for visiting the city’s attractions.
December to April is peak season overall in Costa Rica, with lots of people escaping the cold winter up north. This means San Jose is also busiest during this time as people fly in and out, so book your accommodations well in advance. Prices also tend to be inflated slightly during this time.
The rainy season lasts 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 temperature of 63°F (17°C). April has the hottest temperatures averaging about 86°F (30°C) each day.
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 some level of caution. Petty theft (including bag snatching) is one of the most common types of crime here, especially on public buses. Keep your bag containing valuables and identification 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 Coca-Cola 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).
Avoid doing drugs or taking part in sex tourism.
Stay away from that stuff, and you’ll be fine. People are friendly and helpful, and you’re unlikely to get into trouble.
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.
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.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- 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!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or 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
- 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 natural 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 had 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 witty tale comes from Nadine Pisani, who shares her story of quitting her job to forge a new life in sunny Costa Rica. 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: