San Jose at a Glance
- Coffee tours
- Live theater
- Whitewater rafting
- Souvenir shopping
- Poás Volcano National Park
- Irazú Volcano National Park
- Barva Volcano
San José is an oft-ignored stopover for the international airport, but Costa Rica’s capital city is an excellent base for adventures into surrounding mountains, volcanoes and the nation’s famed coffee country.
Region: San Jose & Central Valley
Closest Airports: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO)
Altitude: 3,800 feet (1,160 meters) Above Sea Level
Average Temperature: 65-78º F (18-26º C)
San José, the capital of Costa Rica, gets a bad – and undeserved – rap. While it may not be oceanfront or surrounded by rainforest, the nation’s capital is a vibrant city home to rich cultural offerings, lively nightlife, and some of the country’s greatest grub. The city pulsates with life, and for good reason: approximately two-thirds of Costa Ricans live in San José and its suburbs, evidenced by the bustling streets, honking horns, and dense buildings that greet you.
During Spanish rule, San José emerged as a small colonial city, with stately churches and clay-roofed mansions to prove it. Over time, serious earthquakes destroyed many of these architectural gems; today, San José is more modern than colonial, although several adobe facades and cobblestone streets remain. But what the capital lacks in historic charm it makes up for in amenities and convenience: San José offers the country’s best museums and live theater, and is the perfect base for tours into the surrounding mountains.
Attractions & Places to See
San José may not be the beachfront capital you expect, but Costa Rica’s capital city is the cradle of the nation’s culture. Here, you’ll find excellent museums – delve into indigenous jade, pre-Columbian gold, Costa Rica’s history, and more – and ornate theaters, complete with live concerts, ballet and plays. Take to the hillsides to explore active volcanoes and tour coffee plantations. There is much to see in and around San José:
- Poás Volcano National Park
- Irazú Volcano National Park
- Barva Volcano (within Braulio Carrillo National Park)
- Doka & Britt Coffee Estates
- La Paz Waterfall Gardens
- Botanical Orchid Gardens
- Zoo Ave Rescue Center
Activities & Things to Do
From the exhilaration of conquering your first Class V whitewater rapid to the challenging hike to an active volcanic crater, San José is a wonderland of things to do. If you have the luxury of time, devote a few days to the city and her countryside; and if you don’t, try to earmark at least an overnight to explore the verdant valleys that most Costa Ricans call home. There’s always something – many somethings, in fact – to fill your day:
Go whitewater rafting down the Pacuare and Reventazón Rivers.
Hike up Barva Volcano, Poás Volcano, and Irazú Volcanoes.
Sip the nation’s best brews on a coffee tour.
Take an aerial tram through dense rainforest adjacent to Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Snag great souvenirs at great prices, at San José’s open-air markets.
Most of San José’s attractions are located within an hour of the city – perfect side trips, even if you’re here for just a day. If you have a little more time though, check out these awesome asides:
Guayabo National Monument, Costa Rica’s most important indigenous ruins.
Lankaster Gardens, one of the world’s most spectacular botanical gardens with more than 3,000 plant species!
Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica’s second-largest park and home to a startling array of scenery and animals.
Wildlife & Nature
Admittedly, San José is not a haven for wildlife, at least not in nature. That said, the nearby Zoo Ave is a must for animal lovers: the Zoo rescues illegal pets and injured wildlife, rehabilitates whenever possible and provides a safe haven for animals too injured or ill equipped to live in the wild. Zoo Ave also runs a successful macaw breeding program.
Best Time to Visit
Visit San José year-round; there’s always something to do! The green season runs mid-May through November, with the most rain in September and October. The Christmas season is especially charming, when the city hosts a Festival of Lights, The Nutcracker plays at the National Theater, and it seems the entire valley is decorated for the holiday.
Where to Stay
There is something for everyone and every budget in San José, from $5 hostel beds to ultra-luxe suites in buildings dating back to colonial times. If you’re staying in San José as merely a stopover for the airport, you may want to consider staying overnight in Alajuela or Heredia.
Restaurants and Nightlife
San José offers a buffet of restaurants and nightlife, arguably the country’s best – or, at least, the most diverse. You’ll find everything from streetside sodas, Costa Rica’s version of a diner, to white-tablecloth restaurants in stately old buildings. If you enjoy ethnic foods, the city serves up authentic Chinese dim sum, succulent sushi, Argentinean churrasco, tasty Lebanese (+ hookah bars), and so much more. Nightlife swings from techno to live rock music, and everything in between. San José also has several gay bars, popular for drinks and dancing.
Serviices & Infrastructure
As Costa Rica’s capital city, San José offers almost every amenity you can imagine:
Public transportation: Yes, public buses and an urban train connect all corners of the city
Public amenities: There are plenty of public bathrooms
Shopping: From huge supermarkets to tiny souvenir shops, San José has you covered
ATMs: Yes, there are dozens
Gas stations: Yes
WiFi or Internet cafés: Yes
Cell Phone Reception: Reliable
Restaurants: Yes, there’s something to satiate every palate at every price
Nearest medical facilities: There are many public and private hospitals within San Jose
How To Get There
For most travelers, the Juan Santamaría International Airport is their point of entry to Costa Rica. Despite its airport code (SJO), the international airport is not located in San José: it’s actually in the nearby town of Alajuela, 12 miles west of the the capital. To get to San José from the airport:
Bus: Inexpensive public buses (less than $1) pass by the airport very frequently. Be sure you board a bus bound for San José; many buses are actually arriving from the city, on their way to destinations around the country.
Taxi: Taxis are readily available at the airport. Catch an official orange or red taxi, and always ask that they turn on the meter (maría) for a fair-priced ride. If you have luggage (more than one bag), you’ll probably be better off taking a taxi into town, as bus carge space is often limited.
Car: By car, follow Route 1 east, directly into San José.