San Jose & Central Valley
Questions abound but don’t worry, we’ve got answers.
When is the best time to visit? Where should I eat? What are the best places to stay and the best things to do while visiting?
Why Visit San José?
San José is the cultural heart of Costa Rica. There are museums, volcanos, traditional markets, and sophisticated gastronomical tours available. Don’t forget to try the local coffee. Delicious! Two-thirds of Costa Ricans live in the Central Valley. Ever wonder what their lives are like? Spend some time people-watching in the city and then wildlife watching not too far from there.
From exceptional, not-to-be missed properties and bucket-list experiences, here are our favorite reasons to explore San José:
- See the “real” Costa Rica, where the vast majority of “Ticos” live. See a day in the life through your own eyes. Check out the market they shop at (and pick up some souvenirs while you’re there) then eat at a local favorite.
- You might take a guided tour to see the colonial buildings and cobblestone streets and make a few stops at museums and theaters. The options to experience local and international culture are endless.
- Start the day with a “gallo pinto” and end it with authentic Argentinian, Mediterranean, Indian, or Chinese food. If you happen to be here around Christmas, you’ll see more Christmas decorations than you’ve seen anywhere else. It’s beautifully festive in San José.
- The Central Valley is, well, central! It’s near volcanoes, hiking trails, white water rafting, coffee plantations, national monuments, national parks, shopping malls, and the airport.
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Best Time to Travel to San José
San José is a good place to stay your first or last night in Costa Rica if you have a late arrival or an early departure. San José is most popular for tourists from January to March, yet it’s dry season from the middle of November to the middle of April. Keep in mind that Easter week is very crowded and should be avoided, if possible.
San José Weather
San José has pleasant temperatures year-round. Average daytime temperatures are in the mid-70s but it gets colder at night. The drier season in San José runs from mid-November to mid-April. The months with the most rainfall are September and October. During the rainy season, expect afternoon showers but not enough rain to ruin your trip.
Safety: Is San José Safe?
Of course, we only recommend hotels and tours that we know are safe. Still, San José is like any other city in the world meaning you should keep valuables out of sight, pay attention to your surroundings, and stay in well-lit, populated areas. Our clients have very much enjoyed getting to know San José. Read more on safety in Costa Rica here.
Guide to Top Restaurants in San José
San Jose offers a buffet of restaurants and nightlife, arguably the country’s best–or, at least, the most diverse. Find everything from street side ‘sodas’—Costa Rica’s version of a diner, to Michelin-awarded chefs.
If you enjoy ethnic foods, the city serves up authentic Chinese dim sum, succulent sushi, Argentinean churrasco, tasty Lebanese (plus hookah bars), and so much more. Nightlife swings from techno to live rock music and everything in between. San Jose also has several gay bars, popular for drinks and dancing.
Fine Dining & International Cuisine
Park Cafe, International, European (Sabana Norte)
Park Cafe is quite probably the most progressive restaurant in Costa Rica. Run by head chef and two-Michelin star winner, Richard Neat, the restaurant has an inventive tasting menu with wine pairings and serves tapas style dishes. Each tapa is intentionally and delicately prepared, with the most delicious pairing of flavors. The food is matched only by the ambiance, a wonderful antique shop that makes you feel like you are dining in a period mansion, but somehow with the comforts of being in a good friends home The restaurant is only open for dinner but is a must for any serious food lover.
La Esquina de Buenos Aires, Steakhouse, Argentinean (San Jose Downtown)
There are quite a few Argentinian Restaurants in San Jose. Any Top Restaurants in San Jose list will always feature La Esquina. And for a good reason. One could say: More Buenos Aires, than many in Buenos Aires. Old-school setting with white tablecloths, white napkins… Always packed bar, low-key music, floor-to-ceiling black and white photos of movie stars and celebrities.
Furca, Steakhouse (Rohrmoser)
Understated, upscale restaurant with chic atmosphere. While pricey, you absolutely get what you pay for, from several cuts of steak, to homemade bread, to homegrown vegetables. The menu also has a great variety of fish for those who are not big on steak. Fresh produce is bought from local organic producers, and with vegetables harvested from their own garden If you’re too early, try out the wide range of cocktails whipped up by a masterful mixologist, at next door’s Nunc.
Saga Restaurant, Seafood, International (Escazu)
Saga Restaurant is spectacular and elegant. I recommend the corvina as a main dish but don’t skip dessert. Have you ever heard of pecan cannolis?
Bacchus, Italian, European (Santa Ana)
Beautiful open air patio, excellent service, unusual and traditional dishes that are phenomenal.
Tin Jo, Asian (San Jose Downtown)
Tin Jo features a number of Asian flavors, from Thailand, India, China, Indonesia, and Japan. My favorite vegetarian option is the samosa plate, with the tastes of tamarind, curry, potatoes, and peas. Friends I ate with raved about the Mongolian Beef.
Sikwa, Costa Rican Native (Barrio Escalante)
Part of the El Espíritu de América Latina 2020 selection of restaurants (put together with the help of the chefs and friends of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants) chef Pablo Bonilla at Sikwa has made an amazing job at researching and recovering the most ancient Costa Rican indigenous cuisine. Truly unique dining experience of the degustation menu is brought to life through storytelling with each plate. A restaurant focused on native cuisine is a rare find across the country, and—we’re so glad to say—a complete success in case of Sikwa! https://www.facebook.com/sikwarestaurante.cr/
Soda Tala, Costa Rican Traditional (Central Market)
Soda Tala, in the central market, serves each dish on a tamale leaf. A tortilla covers sausage on top of pinto on top of egg. Don’t forget to order a tropical juice, too. I recommend the “cas” juice. Keep in mind there are multiple sodas in the “mercado,” or market, so keep an eye out for Soda Tala, by far the best.
Maxi by Ricky, Caribbean, Jamaican (Santa Ana)
Manzanillo born and raised chef Ricky, transplanted the Caribbean vibe with the Reggae and casual feel to Santa Ana where he opened Maxi by Ricky, casual soul food restaurant. It’s a cool, big house with a sand yard, and porch, groovy colors and art. Reggae music, good service, warm and friendly people—a little piece of Caribbean.
Sports & Wings
Chubbs, Sports Bar (Escazu)
Chubbs is the most famous place for wings. The BBQ chicken sandwich rivals the amazing wings. Why not get both? A great place to chill and watch your team of choice.
C Lounge, Sports Bar, Gastropub (Cariari, Heredia)
Great wings and beer. Lots of fun, live music on occasions, many screens for sport lovers to follow the sport events, you can literally watch any game that’s happening around the world! Big events for major sport games.
Hooligan’s, Sports Bar (Escazu)
Hooligan’s sports bar is an American style hangout with great angus burgers and honey mustard wings to die for.
Breakfast & Coffee
Alma de Café, Bistro (San Jose Downtown)
Alma de Café is inside the National Theater, so take a camera. It has quality coffee, light fare, like sandwiches and pastries, and desserts, including some beautiful cakes.
Grano de Oro, International (Barrio Dent)
Brunch is great at the Restaurante Grano de Oro. You’ll find French, Latin, and vegetarian options. Take your time, take in the ambiance, and taste everything!
Cafeoteca, Coffee Shop (Barrio Escalante)
Coffee connoisseurs rejoice! If hauling back home freshly baked coffee from small plantations is your idea of souvenirs, this is THE shop to visit, as Cafeoteca is featuring more than 20 different coffees from eight different regions of Costa Rica. And while you’re there, enjoy some specialty brews, for this coffee experience
Hotel Sheraton offers happy hour on the rooftop with a 360 degree view. Try the specialty cocktail of the night. At some point before leaving Costa Rica, try both Imperial and Pilsen beers and choose your side on the everlasting debate about which is best.
Tintos y Blancos, Italian (Escazu)
Tintos y Blancos is the place to go if your ideal happy hour includes wine or sangria.
Vegan, Vegetarian & Plant-based
Luv Burger, Central-American Vegan (Barrio Dent)
All vegan except for a couple of recipes where honey is used. The food is delicious, the portions are large and the service is excellent. Arguably best tasting vegan burger you will have, topped with some coconut bacon chippies (recipe is a well kept secret) and a side of sweet potato fries, yum!
Arbol de Seda, Vegetarian Fusion (Barrio Escalante)
Lots of vegan or gluten-free options at this vegetarian restaurant. In one meal you can have Moroccan, Caribbean, Tico, Asian as well as traditional comfort food options. Really unique take on Central American staples, like Huevos Rancheros, Enyucados Quesosos, or Quesadilla. Click here to see more.
Tin Jo, as mentioned above. SAMOSAS, samosas, samosas! You’ll likely eat here multiple times.
A visit to the Falafel House isn’t complete without Green Tea Cake after your falafel pita. Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds!
Cafe Rojo, Vietnamese (Barrio Amon)
At Café Rojo you can build your perfect bowl. Choose your base and vegetables. Add in shrimp, pork, anything you’d like. It’s vietnamese inspired cuisine and highly customizable to your preferences. It’s also one of the few places that sells iced coffee and tea, a staple of mine.
La Terrasse, French (Barrio Toya)
This ‘Closed Doors’ restaurant is a real French treat. Executive Chef Patricia Richer, along with her husband has turned their 1920’s Costa Rican house into a gourmet heaven. Sitting a maximum of only 10 people this delightful French restaurant serves exciting dishes all prepared by Patricia. Everything from the entrée to the dessert and wine is purely French. Make sure to reserve well in advance to avoid disappointment and payment is made pay cash or bank transfer only. (San Jose; Phone: 2221-5742)
Experiences / Things to Do in San José
Wander where the Locals Go
Wander around on your own or take a guided walking tour around the city to see the bustling downtown area, remnants of colonial life, churches, plazas, parks, shops, cafes, restaurants, monuments, souvenir stops, and architectural gems, both modern and historical. Ask your guide to point out the best nightlife spots too.
Make a Day of Great Coffee and Museums
Spend a few hours in museums, like the Children’s Museum, the Museum of Jade, and the Museum of Pre-Colombian Gold. The National Theater, just across the street from the gold museum, is beautiful too. There’s a cafe inside, with really nice pastries and aromatic coffee. Honestly, you have to see the bathrooms. Only in a National Theater are the bathrooms photo worthy! Don’t forget to look at the ceilings on your tour of the theater. The artwork will leave you speechless.
Great Day Trips from San José
Take a day trip. Volcano visits are doable from San José. There’s Barva, Irazú, and Poás. Another option is a coffee tour at the Doka or Britt Coffee Estates. You could go rafting down the Pacuare or Reventazon river, or check out the Braulio Carrillo National Park. Then there’s a waterfall garden, a botanical garden, and a wildlife rescue center. All of these are within an hour of San José.
If you have the luxury of time, devote a few days to the city and her countryside. If you don’t, try to earmark at least an overnight to explore the verdant valleys that most Costa Ricans call home.Most of San Jose’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, check out these awesome asides:
- Guayabo National Monument: Costa Rica’s most important indigenous ruins.
Lancaster 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.
- Zoo Ave: a must for animal lovers, the Zoo rescues illegal pets and injured wildlife, rehabilitates whenever possible and provides a safe haven for the animals that can’t live in the wild. It also runs a successful macaw breeding program.
Best Places to Stay
The Hampton Inn & Suites
This is perfect if you’re in San José to catch a flight, as it’s right across from the airport, offers a free airport shuttle, and comes with the comfort and convenience that the brand is known for.
Grano de Oro
This historical mansion is in the heart of downtown and has a rooftop garden with awesome views of the city and mountains.
Finca Rosa Blanca is a destination resort on a working coffee plantation and is 100% eco-sustainable.
The Peace Lodge, with onsite waterfall gardens, has a stone fireplace and waterfall shower in each room, and offers so much right there, such as a monkey house, jungle cat sanctuary, and a nocturnal frog pond visit.
Strategically positioned in the middle of the valley is San José, a rapidly growing Latin American capital that’s become synonymous with cosmopolitan development. Because of this, the Juan Santamaría International Airport is also quickly becoming a popular hub for worldwide flights.
The Central Valley is the most culturally exciting area in Costa Rica, with countless museums, art galleries, theaters as well as colonial structures spread evenly across the cities.
For example, the National Theater in the heart of San José was inspired by French architecture, and is one of the most visited in Latin America.
In the same way, Cartago is famous for its colonial churches, with some jokingly saying that “there is one church per block”.
The Basilica de los Ángeles is the most famous, as it’s home to the Virgin of the Angels, the patron saint of Costa Rica. Each year around 1 million people–a quarter of the country’s population–make a pilgrimage to the church.
In addition to harboring the only completely urban spaces in the country, the Central Valley is also surrounded by natural beauties such as the volcanoes of Poás, Irazu, Turrialba, and Barva.
They all have adjacent parks, reserves, or other cultural or adventure experiences. Visiting the coffee plantations near Poas Volcano or going whitewater rafting in a day trip.
San Jose: Costa Rica’s Capital
San Jose 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.
San Jose only recently started to get rid of the 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 Jose and its suburbs, evidenced by the bustling streets, honking horns, and dense buildings that greet you.
During Spanish rule, San Jose 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 Jose is more modern than colonial, although several adobe facades and cobblestone streets remain.
There is something for everyone and every budget in San Jose, from $5 hostel beds to ultra-luxe suites in buildings dating back to colonial times. If you’re staying in San Jose Costa Rica as merely a stopover for the airport, you may want to consider staying overnight in Alajuela or Heredia.
San Jose Shopping
Souvenirs, crafts, clothes, accessories, and even the ultimate designer outfits can be found in San Jose. There are infinite places to shop, all depending on what you’re looking for in experience and products. Even so, the top 6 places to visit in the Metropolitan Area of Costa Rica are:
San Jose’s Main Boulevard
The boulevard is full of eateries and all kinds of shops including the Central Market and la Casona, two great places to purchase souvenirs.The avenue is near San Jose’s main attractions such as the National Theatre and the Democracy Plaza.
This new shopping center unites some of the most exclusive stores in the country with other services, such as real state agencies, medical services, car dealerships, and more. The design is also appealing for enjoying open-air spaces and contemplating the featured art pieces, sculptures, and fountains that garnish the facilities.
Located in the west of San Jose province, this is a modern mall that provides customers with the top trends and brands from around the globe, including luxury and designer brands. Here you can also find casual restaurants, fast food chains, cinemas and cafeterias.
City Mall, Alajuela
Last but not least, the City Mall is now the largest mall in Central America. To accommodate the influx of people, roads around the mall were widened and pedestrian walkways added.
If you find yourself on the east side of the capital, Lincoln Plaza might be the best option to visit. This shopping center also provides the best chains stores and eateries in the country, and is the main hub for the newest stores arriving to Costa Rica.
With 330 storefronts and an extensive kids’ zone you will likely be able to find anything you’re looking for here. Located just minutes from the San Jose airport, it’s an easy stop on your way into or out of the country.
Paseo de las Flores
Located to the North in the Heredia province, Paseo de las Flores is another large shopping mall worth visiting.
It has the same profile as the others listed here, but it has an interesting design that combines the historical roots of the province with beautiful outdoor spaces. At night and during soccer games it can be quite lively as it is close to several large universities, with many bars and restaurants that stay open late.
Home to the economic, cultural and political centers of Costa Rica, the Central Valley is also the most populated region in the country. It has more than a third of the country’s entire population living in the area, which covers Alajuela, Heredia, San José, and Cartago.