Is San Jose worth visiting? This guide aims to explore all the best things that the first city of Central America’s favorite ecotourism destination has to offer. We’ll show you seven reasons why San Jose shouldn’t be missed on your Costa Rican itinerary.
Located in the middle of the Central Valley, one of the main rifts between the mountain ranges and volcanos in the west-central part of the country, San Jose is the capital of stunning Costa Rica. It’s surrounded on each side by jagged mountains and lush forests, canyons, and even cloud forests. Moreover, it’s packed with museums, nightlife areas, good restaurants, and bars, so there sure is loads to do.
However, even with all the amazing things on the go, it’s still the case that most travelers leave before they even get to see it. Too desperate to hit the beaches and the surf, they make a beeline straight for the coast or the mountains and miss all the culture, heritage, and parties. Can we tempt you not to join them straight away?
It’s the gateway to the beaches and national parks
San Jose is the main arrival and departure hub for most foreign travelers heading into Costa Rica. The truth is that many visitors will skip staying in San Jose altogether, and head straight to what this green and biodiverse land is famous for – the outdoors.
The central location of San Jose makes it a fantastic gateway to lots of amazing beaches and national parks, some of which are among the most spectacular in Central America as a whole. You’ll have loads to head out and see the moment you touchdown on the tarmac. Some of the best beach resorts and national parks within a short drive from San Jose include:
- • Jaco (60 miles west, less than 2-hour drive) – A stunning beach resort famous for surfing and remote beaches, with a touch of nightlife on the side.
- • Braulio Carrillo National Park (12 miles northeast, 35-minute drive) – The closest national park to San Jose. A primary and secondary rainforest oozing with wildlife, including the black-crowned antpitta and the resplendent quetzal, Costa Rica’s most famous bird.
- • Tapantí Macizo de la Muerte National Park (32 miles southeast, 1.5-hour drive) – The wettest national park in Costa Rica, covering 225 square miles of land just to the southeast of city limits. It has loads of waterfalls and rivers but is most famed for its level of endemic bird species (more than 50% are native to the region).
- • Los Quetzales National Park (48.5 miles south, less than a 2-hour drive) – A high-altitude park comprising of jagged peaks and crystal-clear lakes, this is the youngest national park in the country. It’s a fantastic place for bird spotting and covers some incredibly biodiverse cloud forest habitats.
- • Playa Mantas (55 miles west, less than 1.5-hour drive) – One of the first beaches you’ll come to on the Pacific as you head down the 34 highway to the south of Costa Rica from San Jose, Playa Mantas is a good place to get a feel for the tropical vibes of the CR coastline in less than 1.5 hours’ drive.
Is San Jose worth visiting for the museums? We think so! Although San Jose is not a very old city, it has the most incredible museums in the country. Most museums are located in downtown San Jose, so it’s worth staying in the area if you want to soak up some history and art.
The most popular museum of all is the Museo de Oro Precolombino – a Pre-Columbian Gold Museum with a collection of over 3,500 artifacts. From gold to ceramics, there are plenty of amazing pieces to see, some of which date back over 2,300 years. One of the coolest things to see there is El Guerrero – a life-size gold warrior figure set in a replica village.
And that’s not the end of the museum in San Jose, either. There are plenty of other amazing collections that should be included on your San Jose itinerary if you come here in search of history. They include:
- • Museo del Jade Marco Fidel Tristán Castro – Home to the largest collection of American jade, this very impressive building was constructed to resemble a cut jade stone. It was specially designed to house one of the country’s best collections of precious gems
- • Museo Nacional – If you’re interested in Costa Rica’s history and culture you should totally pay a visit to the Museo Nacional. It has a brutally honest exhibition on the country’s colonial history and plenty more local heritage, traditional costumes, and insights into local crafts and art.
Is San Jose worth visiting for nightlife? If you’re into clubbing, you’ll find no better place in the country! Unlike the tourist-orientated beach resorts, San Jose has a well-established party scene. From craft beer breweries and beer gardens through to cocktail bars and dance clubs, you’ll find all sorts.
One of the coolest drinking areas in town is the student district of San Pedro. Filled with bars and late-night discos, the area has become one of the hippest parts of the city in recent years. It’s located on the eastern edge of the town, opening in lots of little lanes where jazz bars and craft beer joints line up side by side. Places usually start getting lively early on, especially on the weekend, but will almost always go on until late. (Just be wary of the area near the university after dark, as it’s not the safest.)
Another option is to head down to Barrio La California, a rocking part of town just off Central Ave. It’s a mix of rock clubs and alt venues that is great for those in search of some heavy metal. There is also El Pueblo. That’s a full-on shopping mall by day, but a dance mecca by night.
San Jose Central Market
One of the best introductions to local culture in San Jose is a visit to the bustling Central Market. It’s a great place to mingle with locals and try some tasty food and drinks. Located in downtown San Jose, the Central Market was one of the first landmarks constructed in Costa Rica after independence was gained in 1821. It’s open from Monday to Sunday, between 8 am and 6 pm.
The Central Market is a complex of narrow, maze-like alleys filled with shops, stalls, restaurants, and cafes. The market stalls sell delicious treats like salty mango strips with lime, fresh seafood, and fish soup served from giant pots that broil and bubble. There are also plenty of snack bars called sodas where you’ll find cheap and tasty bites. More than that, we’d say that the market is just an all-round fantastic place to sit down with your coffee and watch the local life go by.
Bear in mind that this market can get very crowded, so it’s not a place for everyone. Make sure to keep an eye on your belongings as there have been occasions of minor thefts. What’s more, the early hours tend to be the best times to go, as you can rest assured that all sellers will be open.
Costa Rican cuisine is known for its mild flavors and fresh ingredients, especially an overload of naturally harvested stuff like fruit and vegetables. And where, if not the capital city, can you find the best places to try the national dishes? For sure, San Jose is filled with restaurants, snack bars, and bustling street stalls that are sure to have something to tempt the gourmands.
Some of the tastiest treats to try when visiting San Jose include:
- • Gallo pinto – A breakfast dish of rice and beans, this one’s also considered to be the national dish of Costa Rica. If you only have time to try one thing – try this!
- • Casado – One of the most traditional Costa Rican dishes, the cascade is a mix of different foods like rice, meat, beans, salad, tortilla, and plantain.
- • Arroz con Leche – A dessert made of rice and milk.
- • Sopa negra – A black bean soup that’s long been a favorite with Costa Rican locals.
Apart from traditional Costa Rican restaurants, there are lots of places serving flavors from all over the world. This is the capital, remember? That means you can grab a pizza if you like, drop into a curry house, and even get a taste of the Far East in one of the surprisingly common San Jose Chinese restaurants.
There’s no question that some of the best things about San Jose are its surroundings. In fact, most travelers choose to head out of the city the moment they touchdown in the airport. Not because the city is bad, per se, but more because there’s so much to see behind the lush and rugged hills to the north, east, south, and west.
To begin, there are two breathtaking volcanoes within a relatively short drive from the capital. A day trip to either one is a great idea for those looking for a break from the hustles and bustles of the city.
The smallest of the pair is Poás, one of the most popular volcanoes in all of Costa Rica among adventure travelers. Standing at 8,885 feet above sea level, it’s surrounded by beautiful, virgin rainforest. There are lots of hiking trails within the park. At the end of one trail, you will find Lake Botos, an azure crater lake that fills the cap of an old cinder cone. The park is also home to lots of species of cloud-forest birds like hummingbirds and quetzals. Poás Volcano National Park is only a 1.5-hour drive away from San Jose. It’s open to visitors daily from 7 am to 2 pm.
The second amazing volcano, and the highest of the two, is Irazú. This is the tallest active volcano in the country, counting an elevation of 11,260 feet. Although the walk to the top can be a push, it is worth the challenge. You’ll be rewarded with a stunning green lake and, if you’re lucky, views stretching to the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts!
Is San Jose worth visiting for the hiking? We definitely think so! And it’s not only about the volcanoes, either. There are loads of incredible hiking destinations dotted in and around the city, and some are even within easy reach of the downtown.
If you don’t want to stray too far from your hotel in the city center, check out the walk to the top of the Cerro Rabo de Mico. Past hikers have labeled it the “perfect practice hike” for getting started in this volcano-covered country. The trailhead starts in the district of Escazu on the southern end of town. From there, it passes the lush forests on the edge of the metropolis, before breaking into high-altitude ridges that offer wide-angle views of the Cerros de Escazú range and the capital in the distance. You’ll have to be relatively fit to do it, as the path is rated as challenging, but the way is well-marked and easy to find.
Those who are up for going a little further from their accommodation in San Jose could check out the waterfall hike, Catarata del Toro. You will need to plan a 2-hour transfer to reach the base of the mountain to get started. But there are some prizes for rising early and doing that. First, you will get to see a stunning waterfall that clocks up heights of 400 feet. Second, there are gorgeous rainforests in the area that open into deep, green canyons filled with birds and monkeys.
Is San Jose, Costa Rica, worth visiting?
Most travelers can’t really avoid visiting San Jose if they are going to Costa Rica. That’s just because it’s where most of the international arrivals come into. The question is if they will stay, and if so, how long. We’d recommend taking 24-48 hours to wander and explore the historical museums and the various neighborhoods, but only if you have the time. There are lovely beaches and cloud forest parks to get stuck into nearby, so they should take priority. Still, though, San Jose has some nice treats of its own.
Is San Jose Costa Rica safe to visit?
San Jose is generally safe to visit. However, the situation is the same as in any major city around the world in that you should always be wary of certain areas after dark and always keep one eye on your valuables. The neighborhoods of Los Guido, El Carmen, and Desamparados are worth being extra careful in or avoiding altogether.
How many days should I spend in San Jose?
Just a couple of days is probably enough to experience San Jose. San Jose is by no means the main attraction in Costa Rica. Most of the best things flow from Mother Nature, so why not spend 48 hours seeing the museums and then head out to the beaches and the rainforests?
What is San Jose famous for?
San Jose is most famous for being the entryway into Costa Rica. The country’s largest airport is here, and so the vast majority of travelers to CR come in and out of there. In addition, San Jose has some wonderful museums (especially the gold museum) and perhaps the best nightlife in the country.