That doesn’t mean you’re free from risk of other crimes like petty theft and muggings. In that respect, I would say exercise the same caution you would in all big cities – don’t roam around alone in unfamiliar areas at night. Take licensed taxis or Uber (I’ve written about Uber safety here) at night and don’t flash your cash.
Travel Insurance: Don’t get Screwed by the Small Print
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12 Quick Things To Do in San Jose Costa Rica
1. Shop at Central Market
How to do it: I ate and drank at Aguizotes Gastro Pub, which was great.
How to do it: again, see my list of the best tours in San Jose.
This is the start of a series of posts about my time in Costa Rica and further afield. I’ll link below as I post more or you can sign up to my newsletter here. Until then, here are some of my older posts from my first trip to Central America.
What to order when you get to a soda? Well, order what you want but the popular local choice (and great value option) is a casado. Casado is a bulging plate typically comprising a choice of chicken, pork, beef or fish, accompanied with sides of rice, salad, beans and plantain or fried banana. I usually manage to get two meals out of one plate making it even better value. Swap your protein for veggies if you don’t eat meat.
I’m a book nerd so I rarely leave home without a travel guide. I’ve visited Central America and Costa Rica a few times and here are the guides I’ve found very helpful for planning my trip.
2. Understand Costa Rica at the Jade Museum
If the National Theatre surprised you enough to make you want to uncover the other bits of architectural gold in San Jose, here are a few of the other highlights to track down.
Most people shoot through San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica and I get it – with sprawling concrete and growling traffic, it’s a far cry from the rainforests and beaches you came to Central America to see. And if you’re on a short trip, there are definitely better places to visit in this nature-packed country.
Food and Culture Small Group Night Tour – Markets, monuments and, of course, dinner are on offer in this small-group tour. Oh, and three glasses of wine are included, so that’s very nice.
3. Be dazzled at the Gold Museum
I love a big city sign (and not just because it’s fun to see people in all their individual photo poses). The bubbly San Juan sign is located in Plaza de la Cultural. Here, you’ll also find the Jade and Gold museums and Central Avenue. You’re also a short walk from Central Market so it’s a great hub spot.
You’ll find my guide to what to do in Manuel Antonio here.
Wait? What? Let me explain. Soda is a word you’ll meet a lot in Costa Rica so you may as well get acquainted early. Also, San Jose has some of the tastiest, most authentic and cheapest sodas in Costa Rica. What is a soda? Basically a locally-run restaurant. It’s not a place to sit and get coke floats or other sugary drinks (though drinks are, of course, available).
4. Admire the beauty of the National Theatre
*Gran Hotel Curio Collection – if you want a blend of familiarity and luxury, Hilton’s Curio Collection is one of the best hotels in San Jose. It has a wonderful location overlooking the National Theatre.
In Spanish: Teatro Nacional.
And South America here if you’re on a longer trip
And if you want even more, you can have a look inside and there might even be a performance on while you’re there.
Whether it’s your first time in Central America or family and friends have terrified you with tales about San Jose being a horror-show of dangers, it’s tempting to stay in your hotel room. An alternative is to take a local guide for the day or half a day. Not only will they navigate you around the city safely, easing your nerves, they often know bits of the city that no guide book (or Costa Rica travel blog) does.
- Correos Telegraphos – i.e. the old post office building. I don’t know why this beautiful building near Central Market doesn’t make it onto most lists of things to do in San Jose Costa Rica but it should do and it’s making it onto my list.
- Casa Amarilla – translated as the yellow house, this bright yellow mansion with a big orange roof is easy to spot.
- Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) – if you’ve not been to or at least passed a cathedral, have you even been to Latin America?
- Museo Nacional de Costa Rica – Costa Rica’s National Museum is located really close to the jade and gold museums, but this museum has the exterior edge in that it has photogenic turrets. Go on, you know you want to.
5. See the San Jose sign in Cultural Plaza
I had an entirely safe stay in San Jose and all of Costa Rica as a solo female travellers and believe you can too if you stay street-smart.
DK Eye Witness Costa Rica – I especially enjoy the 3D images and finer details in the DK Guides.
6. Catch local life and home comforts on Central Avenue
How to do it: Check out my map at the end of this post.
I’ve included a map at the end of this post so you can plot your route to help you explore San Jose most efficiently. I’ve also included the Spanish names in case you’re navigating using a local printed map you’ve grabbed from your hotel.
Manuel Antonio National Park – Manuel Antonio National Park is teeming with wildlife from the super slow but ultra adorable sloths to some pretty intelligent monkeys (hide your snacks). See the park with a guide and you’ll spot things you’d never see on your own. At the end of it all, take a short stroll to a wild beach only accessible through the park.
How to do it? Every post on the best sodas in San Jose will send you to Soda Tapia. I didn’t eat there – the place I visited was one of the oldest in the city when I visited but sadly didn’t survive the pandemic and is now closed for good. Can you please go to Soda Tapia and let me know if it’s worth it on my next visit.
You don’t have to spend your evening tucked inside your hotel. San Jose has a great nightlife and Barrio Escalante is a great place to enjoy it. With gastro pubs and craft beer, it’s easy to think you’re in Manhattan in this swanky, trendy part of Costa Rica’s capital.
In Spanish: Museo de los Niños.
7. See the dinosaurs at the children’s museum
Food and Sightseeing Tour – I like that this tour is affordable and ‘certified’, meaning someone from the tour website has been, tried it and certified it as authentic and good enough to earn a certification.
How to do it: You can find out more about how to visit Teatro Nacional here.
8. Catch your breath in Metropolitan Park
But that’s not all that’s on offer – Central Avenue is great for people watching and the chains are interspersed with local eateries adding some cultural context.
If you have time for only one museum in San Jose, I’d suggest the Jade Museum. If you have two visits to San Jose (when you land and when you leave), definitely visit this one first as it explains more about Costa Rican culture.
More commonly visited than the Jade Museum, the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum is a museums of lots of…well, gold. For me it was a bit static with lots of similar displays. As I’ve said, if you only have time for one museum in San Jose, go to the Jade Museum. However, all that gold is pretty impressive so you won’t be disappointed.
9. Dine at a soda
InSpanish: Mercado Central.
If you are worried, take a guided tour (suggestions above). Sitting in your hotel or hostel, too scared to explore isn’t fun and or necessary.
10. Enjoy the nightlife in Barrio Escalante
Night City Tour and Dinner – whether you’re busy during the day or a little bit nervous of venturing out for dinner by yourself, this tour and dinner combo tour has you covered. You’ll see the main highlights like the National Theatre and the price of your dinner is included.
Also a book nerd? You might like my posts about how to read more books and the best travel books.
Travelling solo? You might like my posts about feeling lonely when you’re travelling alone and how to dine out solo.
11. Take a guided tour of San Jose
Arenal Volcano, Hot Springs and Zip Lining – Zip lining was one of the best things I did in Costa Rica (in fact, in all of my travels to nearly 70 countries). There is an alternative option of a rainforest walk if zip-lining isn’t for you. Arenal Town is both staggering with a volcano towering over it but also very cute, and all of this is without mentioning the hot springs.
What’s in this post
12. Go on a day trip from San Jose
How to do it: Check out my list of the best tours in San Jose below.
*Exe Hotel – you can’t beat this place for location – a safe and short walk to Plaza de La Cultura (where you’ll find the museums and lots of cafes and restaurants), and Central Market. If you’re staying a night of two, I’d recommend Exe.
Best tours in San Jose
Guided tours of San Jose
How to do it: You can find out more about visiting the Museo de Los Ninos here.
Banged Up In A Panama Prison (True Story)
This is a very quick thing to do in San Jose because it’s basically just a stroll past. What it does give you is a different view of San Jose, which is very often depicted in concrete block architecture. The National Theatre, by contrast has a stunning neoclassical frontage with grand columns flanked by palm trees.
Lonely Planet Experience: Food Tour – speaking of food, taking a food tour is one of my favourite ways to explore a new country and this tour is packed with culture (walking tour, central market, a local mask masking visit and a trip to the old part of the city) as well as food.
Day Trips from San Jose
In Spanish: Avenida Central.
If you’ve got kids with you in San Jose (or not!), the dinosaurs and other exhibits inside the children’s museum will pass the time. Otherwise, the castle-themed museum is fun for photos and has a great hilltop location with views over the city.
Guide To Tortuguero National Park Costa Rica
There are some excellent one-day excursions to some of Costa Rica’s highlights. You can expect a long day but if you can’t otherwise cram these favourite spots into your itinerary for a few night, you can still visit on a day trip from San Jose.
*Stray Cat Hostel – great vibe, great rooms and, of course, a stray cat that wanders around. There are a few local sodas (restaurants) nearby if you don’t want to walk the 15 minutes into the centre at night. As well as the hostel, there is a sister hotel over the road if you prefer to sleep more privately than in a dorm.
San Jose Trip Planning Guide
Where to stay in San Jose
Lonely Planet Costa Rica– heavy on detail, light on pictures. Invaluable if you’re on a longer trip or planning as you go.
Whether San Jose is on your itinerary because of flight scheduling or you’re genuinely intrigued, in this post I’ll share 12 quick things to do in San Jose Costa Rica so you can wring as much fun and culture out of the city on a short visit. Who knows, like me, you might be back for more.
However, don’t be too quick to write off Costa Rica’s capital. There’s enough to occupy a night or even two and there isn’t a better place to get under the skin of Tico (Costa Rican) life than.
I know that Fodor’s and Moon are popular amongst my lovely USA readers – let me know in the comments if you’ve used these books and think they’re good.
Is San Jose Costa Rica safe to visit?
How to do it: You’ll find Central Avenue on my map below.
It felt very safe in Barrio Escalante but do get a taxi or Uber there and back as the surrounding neighbourhoods aren’t good for a late-night drunk stroll home.
101 Tips for Cheap Flights
In Spanish: Museo del Oro Colombino (part of Museo del Banco Central).
My favourite San Jose guide books
How to do it: You can find out more details about the Gold Museum here.
In Spanish: Plaza de la Cultura
10 Essential Things To Do In Manuel Antonio
My favourite part is the many food stalls where you can sit or get a take-away order of the local food. Intimidated? Empanadas are an easy place to start (and an easy word to say).
Sure, San Jose can be grimy, ugly and traffic choked in parts. Ok, in most parts. But that doesn’t mean it’s flat-out dangerous. It can be hard to properly quantify safety – there are crime stats and a very ‘handy’ list of the cities with the highest rates of homicides in the world. And Costa Rica, let alone San Jose, doesn’t feature on the list once (meanwhile four cities in the USA are listed).
Cultural moment: get the earplugs ready. The shops in San Jose like to attract customers with very loud music pumping out on old, crackling speakers. If you’re really lucky, there will be someone yelling into a microphone.
Map of things to do in San Jose
This interactive museum is part display of Jade, a stone native to Costa Rica, and part walk through of Pre-Colombian tribal life. Although the Gold Museum regularly pops up at the top of the list of museums and things to do in San Jose Costa Rica, I preferred the Jade Museum. Probably because it was more interactive and informative.
More of My Central America Blog Posts
You can find my Google map of all the things to do in San Jose Costa Rica here.
If you want a photo of Costa Rica’s capital that says ‘it’s not as ugly as you think’, this is the place to get it. (See main image above).
In Spanish: Starbucks (see what I did there?)
How to do it: Located about 1km from Central market, you can walk to the park. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the city or jet-lagged, just grab an Uber or taxi.
Quick tip: if time is your goal and you want to visit one museum, the Gold Museum is less immersive so you can probably race around it a bit quicker.
If you’re in San Jose under protest (bad flight timing and there’s no way to escape a stay in the city), why not go and see the city’s greenery? It’s been dubbed the Central Park of San Jose and is the place to be if you want to breathe air that’s not thick with traffic fumes. Better than sitting in your hotel room all afternoon, right? Also, take an empanada – that usually improves most experiences.
What to expect? Central Market has grown to accommodate different kinds of customers. It is still very much a functioning local market (think tropical fruit, local veg, meat, fish and spices). However, with a regular supply of tourists, there are plenty of souvenirs on sale too.
How NOT To Visit Semuc Champey
Blog posts to help you plan (and pack for) your trip
From Semuc Champey to Flores by Chicken Bus
In Spanish: Parque Metropolitain La Sabana.
Lonely Planet’s Best of Central America – more aspirational with more images and less detail, this is the book to whet your appetite and pick up the highlights of the region if you’re planning a broader trip through Central America. And this is the more detailed Lonly Planet if you want more info.
A stop at Central Market is a must if you want a quick injection of local life in San Jose. And, in fact, if you have a very short amount of time, I’d say this is one of the best things to do in San Jose Costa Rica.