When I was planning my trip to Costa Rica last month, I tried to find information about what to do in San Jose, Costa Rica – the capital and the transportation hub of the country, and came up with almost nothing.
Most people who I spoke to that had been to Costa Rica before told me to skip San Jose. They told me it was grungy, that there was nothing to see, and that they didn’t even feel safe there.
For me, that’s like a dare.
So I decided to spend two full days of my 14 days in the country in San Jose figuring out what there is to do.
I should probably preface this by saying, I kind of love cities that are a little grungy, that have little to see or do, and that people claim aren’t all that nice.
Phnom Penh is one of my favorite cities in South East Asia. I live in Mexico City, which may be shirking its old reputation, but is still a pretty grungy place (I say this with love and affection).
I find myself drawn to cities like these. There’s something about their honesty and how exposed they are that I really love. For some reason still unknown to me, I feel at home in cities that are a little bit rough around the edges.
So I wasn’t all that surprised to fall for San Jose.
A Guide to San Jose Costa Rica
Where to Stay in San Jose
There are tons of really great hotels in San Jose as well as hostels and Airbnb places that I loved. Where you stay depends a lot on what amount of time you’ll be staying in the city, what you want to be near, and what level of luxury you’re looking for.
Best Central Location
On my first night, I stayed in a hotel right in the center of the city called Hotel Colonial. I loved the location and I loved the pool. The breakfast was great too – Gallo Pinto (rice and beans), toast, eggs, unlimited coffee, and a bowl of fruit. It was filling and fresh and included in the price of the room. If you want a centrally located place – this one is perfect.
Book a stay at Hotel Colonial here.
On my second night in San Jose, I stayed in a hostel called Hostel Urbano. I wrote a review of that hotel which you can read here. I loved this location. It was in a suburb called Los Yoses which had tons of awesome restaurants and craft beer bars. If you want a budget spot, Hostel Urbano is clean, close to the center, and has a small breakfast included in the room price.
I also stayed in San Jose two other nights during my trip – once when I was going from Manual Antonio to Puerto Viejo, and once just before I flew back to Mexico. These were quick stays where I basically just needed a place to rest my head.
Best Priced Airbnb
One of those nights I stayed in an Airbnb which was only $12 a night. I got my own room and my own bathroom and it was located right next to the bus station where you can get the bus to Manual Antonio. If you don’t like dogs, this place isn’t for you, but if you love cute pups and a cheap night, you can check out the Airbnb listing here.
If you’ve never used Airbnb before, get up to $40 off your first booking by signing up with this link.
My Top Pick
The last place I want to recommend is probably my favorite place that we stayed during our trip to San Jose and it is one that I would look at staying in again if I ever passed through San Jose again. It’s a hotel in Los Yoses called Hotel Casa Blanca 506. For $36 I got a massive king size bed with private bathroom, a huge dinner of chicken, rice, beans, salad, soup, and bread, AND a huge buffet breakfast with rice and beans, egg, coffee, and fresh juice. That was the price for TWO people!
If you are looking for a hotel with massive value for money in a great location, I highly recommend staying at Hotel Casa Blanca.
You can book a night at Hotel Casa Blanca here.
Uber in San Jose
Uber is in San Jose! I’m a massive Uber lover and use it wherever I can because it’s trustworthy, safe, and almost always cheaper than taking a local taxi.
The legality of it all seems a bit blurred, but mostly because the local taxis hate Uber, as you can imagine. My boyfriend Luke and I used Uber to go to and from the airport and in both instances, the Uber drivers asked one of us to sit in the front seat so that we didn’t look like we were taking an Uber.
Instead of the quoted $30 each way for a taxi, we were able to get to and from the airport using Uber for only $12 each way. I’ll happily sit in the front seat for savings like that!
If you’ve never used Uber before, get a couple dollars off of your first two rides with this code: laurab18897ue
What to Do in San Jose
There isn’t a whole lot to “do” in San Jose. It’s a city where people live and work, so if you’re looking for action packed days that are full of activity, San Jose probably isn’t going to spark a fire within you.
If, however, you enjoy wandering through city parks, snapping photos of street art, sitting in cozy cafes, and eating tons of really delicious food (and the odd craft beer), you’ll be easily entertained in San Jose.
National Museum of Costa Rica
Confession: I didn’t actually go inside this museum. I only had two days in the city and I didn’t want to spend the sunny part of my days inside a museum. I am kind of bummed I didn’t make time during my stay for it and I think if you have three days in Costa Rica, you should definitely check out the history of the country.
There’s a tropical garden, a butterfly exhibit, and even some Mayan history, too. I had no idea there were Mayans all the way down in Costa Rica!
The outside of the museum is really pretty and the park surrounding it is worth exploring. The whole neighborhood around there is pretty cool in fact.
Museum of Contemporary Art and Design
This museum is really cool if you’re into contemporary Art. The inside of the museum itself is worth a wander if you like design, too – it’s a beautiful space.
La Sabana Metropolitan Park
This park to the west of the city is easy to walk to from the center or catch a bus (or an Uber!). It’s the biggest park in the city and makes you feel like you’re nowhere near a bustling metropolis. There’s plenty of paths for walking and a lake that was really nice on a sunny day.
If you’re a sports fan it’s also where the national stadium is, which is always cool to see.
I didn’t see a show here, although there are shows almost every night of the week. It is, however, a really beautiful building to explore, both inside and out. If I had more time in the city it would have been so nice to see a show here.
Where to Eat in San Jose
One of my favorite things to do in San Jose was eat. I tried to do it as often as possible.
A few things to note about eating out in Costa Rica – if you eat inside a restaurant you will incur a 13% tax and an additional 10% service fee. Just something to think about when considering going to a restaurant – you’re going to pay 23% extra than the prices listed on the menu.
If you’re looking for cheap places to eat – looks for places called “Sodas.” These are basically cheap cafe style restaurants that don’t usually include these extra fees (at least not the service fee). These places are where you’ll find local cuisine at a reasonable price all over the country.
The central market is by far my favorite place to eat Costa Rican food. There are tons of little restaurants inside the market where you can have casados, gallo pinto, arreglado (a delicious sandwich I highly recommend trying), and strong Costa Rican Coffee.
Calle 33, Los Yoses
This street is where you’ll find all of the best burger joints, craft beer bars, and cute cafes. My favorite place for burgers is Aguizotes Gastro Pub. The decor is funky and the beer selection is vast. The burgers were seriously amazing. The only let down – they serve the burgers with potato chips, not french fries.
Pandeli is a great cafe and bakery. I had a really awesome cup of coffee there and they have a few different milk options for all of my fellow lactose-averse readers out there.
For really nice produce, craft beers to take home, and an all around great grocery store, Fresh Market is worth stopping into. It’s more expensive than the chain supermarkets nearby, but the selection was really excellent and their fresh bread was delectable.
Late Night Fried Chicken Shops
The city center seems to shut down after about 7 p.m. When I stayed in the city center on my first night and went out to find some places to have a cheap dinner, I was pretty surprised to find almost nothing open. Except, that is, tons and tons of fried chicken shops. When in Rome, right?
The fried chicken quality varies, but usually, an order comes with tortillas and salsa. If you take it “to-go” you won’t pay any additional fees. If you sit in, you may have to pay the tax and service charges that I mentioned above.
Where to Drink in San Jose
One of the main reasons I wanted to stay in Los Yoses on my last night in San Jose was so that I could be near all of the cool craft beer bars. Be warned – the prices are pretty high. The average craft beer in a bar around Costa Rica usually costs between $6 and $8 and sometimes that’s not even for a pint, but for a smaller glass or just for a bottle.
Costa Rica Beer Factory
This is a really funky bar and restaurant. It could easily be on the “where to eat” list above, but the awesome selection of beer pushed it onto this list for me. The menu is one of the most beautiful menus I’ve ever seen in my life. They have a huge selection of Costa Rican and international craft beers as well as their own brewery selection. I recommend having a flight to try the different options before selecting a pint of anything.
Wilk Craft Beer
If I had to choose a favorite brewery bar in all of Costa Rica (we sampled a few around the country), this one would have to be number one. The whole bar is just cool. The interior is all beer merchandise, beer quotes, and windows where you can look into their brewery. The selection is vast, the staff are friendly, and there’s a pretty large food menu to choose from, too.
Another great craft beer bar in the Los Yoses neighborhood. They brew a few of their own beers and then serve up tons of other Costa Rican craft beers on draught. They’ve got a pub-grub menu with seriously amazing potato wedges. The staff are really knowledgeable and the beers were some of the more reasonably priced in the area.
Is San Jose Safe?
I want to preface this section by saying that I was only in San Jose for a total of four days. I don’t know what it’s like to live in the city, I avoided most neighborhoods besides the central and Los Yoses areas.
That being said – I walked everywhere at different times of day and night. I walked to all of the different bus stations that I needed to get into and out of the city. I went out at night in the center and in Los Yoses and I always felt very safe.
If you’re coming to San Jose as a tourist, I really wouldn’t let concerns about safety stop you from enjoying the city. Like any large metropolis you have to be aware of your surroundings and your stuff, especially in busy places like markets and bus stations, but otherwise, it’s a really cool city that deserves more tourism.
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Monday 14th of August 2017
Well you've convinced me! Those pictures are enticing me to book a flight right now!
Tuesday 29th of August 2017
Awesome! San Jose is such a great place :)