Is San Jose, Costa Rica worth visiting?

Is San José, Costa Rica worth visiting? (2023)

Wondering if San José, Costa Rica is worth visiting? You’re in the right place. San Jose is very different from the more touristy regions of Costa Rica, but it offers a unique experience from the rest of the country.

We were personally glad that we carved out some time to see Costa Rica’s capital while in Costa Rica. As a family who travels often to Costa Rica, we believe San Jose makes for a good visit for solo travellers, or families, for a few reasons: for one, it has great museums, parks, historical buildings, a famous food market, shopping, things to do with kids, and also some great nightlife. It also makes for a good home base while you’re exploring Costa Rica, because of its central location.

San Jose, Costa Rica

Being a big city of about 1.5 million, San Jose is not the typical beach destination or rainforest village that most think of when visiting Costa Rica. But, based on my time in Costa Rica, I do believe San Jose makes for a good 1-2 days during your trip to Costa Rica.

So, let’s jump in – everything you need to know to decide if San Jose, Costa Rica is worth visiting!

What You Should Know About San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica
  • San José is safe during the day. It is generally not recommend to walk around at night past 9pm, or especially down any poorly lit streets. However, if you’re only going to be walking during the day, there aren’t huge safety concerns.
  • People are generally kind and helpful, and those who work in the touristy areas speak English
  • The downtown core is very flat, walkable, (and stroller friendly if you happen to be in Costa Rica with a toddler or baby.)We pushed my 8-month old in a stroller around the downtown and found it easy to get around on foot

Things to Do in San José, Costa Rica

Here are the best things to do in San Jose with your family

1. Talk a walk through El Mercado Central (Central Market)

El Mercado Central meaning “Central Market” in English is a must-see in Costa Rica. Its one of the most popular attractions in San Jose, for locals and tourists. If you’ve ever been to a food market (such as the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto), then you know that there’s a lot to look around and admire as you walk around exploring the aisles and vendor stands.

Mercado Central San Jose Costa Rica
Mercado Central San Jose Costa Rica

We didn’t buy anything in the Mercado Central, but you can find produce, baked goods, coffee, clothing, Costa Rican souvenirs and a lot of different kinds of of nik-naks in the market. The Mercado is open from 6am – 6pm, Monday through Saturday.

Good to Know: If you’re planning to buy anything, be sure to bring some cash because not all of the vendors have debit machines

2. Walk around Plaza de La Cultura

Plaza de La Cultura is the main square in San Jose, popular for both locals and tourists. Its a great place to walk around and get a feel for San Jose. There’s a fountain, some artistic monuments, shaded areas, eateries and cafés and of course pigeons to feed. Its a stone’s throw from shopping and plenty of restaurant options.

Downtown San Jose with kids

The Plaza de La Cultura is also very well situated to other attractions in San Jose – its within walking distance to the Mercado Central, and to a few different museums. In fact, right underneath the plaza is the underground museum, El Museo de Oro (Ancient Gold Museum of Costa Rica)

3. Museo de Oro (Gold Museum)

The Museo de Oro is owned and operated by Costa Rica’s national bank, and it has gold artifacts and jewelry dating back from 300 to 400 BC to 1550 AD. Its located underground, underneath the Plaza de Cultura. You can learn a lot about the social structure of the pre-Columbian people who occupied what is now known as Costa Rica.

Museo de Oro

The Museo de Oro is open daily from 9:15 to 4:30pm. One hour should be enough time to see almost everything. Afterwards, head to the Alma de Café (inside the National Theatre – 4 minute walk from the gold museum) for some coffee and sweet treats.

Good to Know: The museum has a lot of English translations, but some exhibits do not. If you don’t speak Spanish, it might be worth it to have Google Translate, or a translation app with you.

4. Explore the foodie scene

San José may not have the beaches that draw millions of tourists a year, but its known for being the city with some of the best restaurants and food scene in the country. Chefs come here from all over the globe, and there are a lot of ‘fusion’ restaurants with a variety of options. So whether you’re looking for traditional Costa Rican food, or some international flairs, you can find it in San José.

Food in Costa Rica

There are some good Argentian restaurants downtown ( La Esquina de Buenos Aires) some upscale, fancy ones (Restaurante de Grano de Oro -perfect for a date night) and some good Asian food – Tin Jo Asian Restaurant. Also, don’t forget to sample Costa Rican beer while you’re in the city.

Try this walking food tour of San José with a guide who introduces you to local foods, flavours and teaches you about Costa Rican culture

5. Get Photos in front of the San Jose sign

When you’re in the Plaza de La Cultura, don’t forget to take photos in front of the city sign that says “SJO Vive.” ( SJO is the code of the San José airport.) This sign was specifically branded and built to bring pride to San Jose locals, and also to help encourage tourists to visit San José. The mayor of San José said, “San José must be more of a destination than a pathway”.

San Jose Costa Rica

San Jose is trying to rebrand and bring more tourists, and this sign is part of that push to welcome visitors to San José’s capital.

6. Visit the Butterfly Garden

Yes, there is a butterfly garden not far from San Jose, and its a great chance to escape the city, enjoy some nature, and explore butterflies and beautiful plants in their natural habitat. Spirogyra Butterfly Garden is called the un pulmon en la ciudad, “a lung in the city” of San Jose, because its one of the remaining forests in the area.

Butterfly in Costa Rica

Spirogyra Butterfly Garden is located in San Francisco, Costa Rica which is about a 10 minute walk from downtown San Jose. Give yourself about an hour to spend at the indoor exhibit, as well as the trail through a small forested area beside the building.

Good to Know: Spirogyra is open on weekends until 2pm, and on weekdays until 1pm.

7. Spot the wildlife in San Jose

Although San José is the largest city in Costa Rica, there is still a lot of wildlife that call the city home. Most people travel to places like Monteverde or La Fortuna to see wildlife in Costa Rica, because they’re surrounded by tropical rainforest.

Costa Rica bird

While San José has less rainforest than the rest of the Central Valley, there is still nature and wildlife around the city – you can find tropical birds, insects, small lizards, and you may even see some sloths high in the trees.

This 2.5-hour kid-friendly tour includes binoculars and a guide to show you sloths, birds, and other wildlife to see in the San José.

8. Take a day trip to a lesser-known cloud forest

Braulio Carillo National Park is located about 30 mins northeast of San Jose. Its home to 500 species of birds, and over 150 species of mammals, including monkeys and sloths. Some parts of Braulio Carillo rainforests are cloud forests, which is a rare ecosystem. (Costa Rica is one of the few places in the world that still has cloud forests.)

hanging bridge through the rainforest in Costa Rica

Like a few other rainforests in Costa Rica, Braulio is known for his hanging suspension bridges, which give you a bird’s eye view of the jungle. There is a highway that runs through Braulio that allows you to see it by driving through, or you can do a guided or self-guided tour.

This tour from San José includes taking a tram through Braulio Carillo National Park.

9. Visit El Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

What better way to take advantage of being in Costa Rica’s capital than to visit the national museum? El Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum of Costa Rica) includes some information about the gold and jade history, as well as human history and how societies developed in Costa Rica.

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

Its located in a historic building called the Bellavista Fortress, and right across from the Legislative Assembly. There’s a little butterfly garden just outside of it so you can enjoy some time outdoors admiring the flora and fauna as well.

10. Relax in Morazán Park

Morazán Park is a short walk from the main square in town, Plaza de Cultura. It has trees, gardens, a lot of statues and sculptures. Its a nice place to escape the sun, enjoy some shade and take a break on a bench with an ice cream cone.

13. Make your own chocolate from scratch

There’s a chocolate store in the centre of San José called “La Casa de Cocoa” (House of Chocolate.) You can visit the store to buy chocolate store, or you can register for workshops to make your own chocolate from scratch sourced with local ingredients.

The cocoa used to make the chocolate comes from sustainable Costa Rican chocolate from nearby farms, so you’re supporting sustainable farming as well as the small shop in San José. In addition, of course, bring home your own handmade chocolate!

The chocolate making workshop is $30 per adults and $20 for kids. Visit their website to book a chocolate-making workshop or to arrange a visit.

12. Visit El Museo de Los Ninos (Children’s Museum)

El Museo de Los Niños is a must while visiting San Jose with kids. Its a hands-on play area that looks like a castle from the outside. There is a small art gallery inside for adults, and some history about the museum; and for kids, there are different interactive exhibits.

dinosaur exhibit

Some of the activities you’ll find are a exhibits on dinosaurs, human anatomy, astronauts, and an outdoor playground. Give yourself at least 2 hours to spend at the Museo de Los Niños, but I would set aside a little bit more, just in case your kids get very absorbed and don’t want to leave right away.

Day Trips from San José, Costa Rica

San José is used as a home-base for many tourists during their trips to Costa Rica. Because of its central location, you can day drips to beaches, rainforests, hot springs, volcanos and other things to see.

1. Poás Volcano

Poás Volcano (pictured below) is an active volcano about 2 hours norths of San José. It also has one of the largest craters in the world, at 950 feet wide.

Poas Volcano

San José is the main place that they do tours to Poás from, so its worth it to visit this volcano from San José if you can.

This day trip from San José includes Poas Volcano, a coffee farm and the beautiful Paz Waterfall.

2. Hot springs and Arenal Volcano

If La Fortuna wasn’t already somewhere you visited in Costa Rica, then you have lots of great opportunity to experience this quaint town surrounded by lush rainforest and the Arenal volcano. La Fortuna is about 2.5 hour drive from San José, and there are many reputable tours that head there daily, so its doable to see the best of it in a day.

Driving in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

This day trip to the Arenal region from San Jose includes zip-lining, hot-springs, and delicious Costa Rican coffee.

Great Places to Stay in San José, Costa Rica

Here are some places to stay in San José that are known for being safe, are relatively close to some of the main attractions, and have good amenities for whether you’re on your own or with family

  • Budget: Hotel Casa 69 just a short walk from the Central Market and the National Museum, this small hotel serves a superb breakfast to wake up to in the morning
  • Mid-Range: La Sabana Hotel Suites Apartment 24 hour front desk support, a swimming pool, great breakfast and other amenities to make for a comfortable stay
  • Luxury: Grano de Oro Hotel is a 10 minute walk from all of San José’s major attractions, they have a famous restaurant that serves gourmet Costa Rican and European cuisine

Travelling to Costa Rica with kids? Read my post on the best family-friendly hotels in Costa Rica.

Streets of San Jose

Getting Around San José, Costa Rica

If you stay somewhere central (such as one of the hotels mentioned above, or at least close-by) then you will be able to get around to most of the attractions, restaurants and shopping on foot. There are a few attractions that are located just outside the city, and require a car to get to. Uber is widely available in Costa Rica and can be used in San José.

Is San Jose, Costa Rica worth a visit?: FAQs

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about visiting San Jose, Costa Rica as a family

Is San Jose Costa Rica a walkable city?

Yes, we found San Jose to be a walkable city, even with a stroller. There are squares, parks, pedestrian-only streets, and also -its very flat, making it easy to get around on foot. Driving in Costa Rica is a popular way for tourists to get around, but I wouldn’t recommend driving around San Jose, because of the one-way streets.

Is San Jose Costa Rica worth staying?

San Jose is worth either a stop, or as a home base during your trip. In San Jose, you can get to know a different side to Costa Rica that isn’t always explored by tourists. There are some national museums, the large food market, a butterfly sanctuaty, a central square, and specifically for families: an interactive children’s museum. San Jose is also relatively close to places that you could do day trips to, such as Poas Volcano, or Braulio Carillo National Park (30 minutes away.)

What is the best month to visit San Jose Costa Rica?

The best times to visit Costa Rica are generally between the months of December and April, because its the ‘dry season’ when there’s more sun, and less rain. However, these are also the most popular times to visit Costa Rica, so expect some crowds and many other tourists at some of the attractions. March in particular, is the most popular month to visit Costa Rica.

San Jose, Costa Rica

Is San Jose Costa Rica worth visiting?: Conclusion

By now, you probably have a pretty good idea of whether or not you’re interested in spending any time in San José. So, is San José Costa Rica worth visiting? I have to admit is not the most picturesque place in Costa Rica, in the sense of the lush green or stunning beaches that you’ll find elsewhere. But its a nice city framed with the mountains in the distance, generally friendly people and lots of things to do for people of all ages.

While San José wasn’t my favourite place to see in Costa Rica, I was glad that my family and I got to see it, to get a feel for the Costa Rica and a deeper understanding of its culture. I enjoy exploring countries when I visit, and seeing San Jose allowed us to experience another element to Costa Rica that is often skipped by tourists.