48 Hours in San José: The Ultimate Itinerary

The National Theatre in San José
John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images

The majority of international flights arrive in Costa Rica’s capital yet many travelers skip the city and head straight for the beaches, rainforests, or mountains the country is famed for. Don’t make the same mistake and miss out on all that San José has to offer. With its ever-evolving culinary options—from indigenous eats to modern rooftop restaurants, multiple markets, and growing craft beer scene, you can spend your entire San José stay tasting your way around town. But you’ll also want to save some room in your schedule (and stomach!) to check out art galleries, shop for handcrafted gifts, and connect with local people, places, and urban spaces to learn some of the history and stories here. Traffic can be challenging, but if you base yourself near the pedestrian boulevard, many of the suggested activities below are walkable. This is the perfect launching pad to your Costa Rica adventure. Here’s how to spend the first 48 hours in San José.

Day 1: Morning

7:45 a.m.: Start your day the Tico (Costa Rican) way with a hearty breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, sweet plantains, and a Costa Rican coffee. On hotel menus, this will typically be listed as the “Tico” option. 

8:45 a.m.: Make your way to the National Theatre, the starting point of your first activity. If you’re staying at Hotel Grano de Oro, a tropical Victorian-style, boutique hotel with a history of service to guests and the community, the National Theatre is a quick cab ride away (less than 10 minutes). You can skip the cab and stay even closer to the action at Gran Hotel Costa Rica, located on the Plaza de la Cultura, with the National Theatre just outside the door.

9 a.m.: Take a tour of the National Theatre. Modeled after the Paris Opera House and funded in part by a special export tax on coffee, this storied building is a point of pride and a must-visit. The interior is decked in gold-leaf, Belgian ironwork, and murals such as the infamous “Allegory of Coffee and Banana” painted by an Italian artist in 1897, and still hosts important events and concerts, including the National Symphonic Orchestra, to this day. Tours led by actor-guides are available on the hour, but call ahead to confirm as Spanish and English tours rotate.   

10 a.m.: Meet your Carpe Chepe guide (a company that offers local tours) in front of the National Theatre for a 2.5-hour free walking tour. The enthusiastic local guide with a deep love and intimate knowledge of the city provides historical and cultural context, little known facts, the occasional food or drink sample, and laughs while leading you to some of the highlights in the heart of the city. The walking tour is offered Monday through Saturday. Bring your camera, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, rain gear, and cash for tips and souvenirs.

Alternatively, if you prefer a half-day guided tour that will take you around the city by foot and public transport and even to meet a local baker and a mask-making family, try Urban Adventures San José Pura Vida Experience. (As this is a four-hour excursion, starting at 11:30 a.m., you can skip to the evening section below.)

Day 1: Afternoon 

12:30 p.m.: Now that you’re familiar with the neighborhood, you know exactly where to find the Mercado Central. Walk down the pedestrian boulevard to this fun, no-frills spot for lunch alongside locals. There are several eateries inside the market and a rule of thumb for selecting a good one: look for a "soda" (small, local restaurant) with a busy counter. If you’re not sure where to start, take a seat at Marisqueria La Ribera. Try the ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice) or a "casado" (a combo plate that typically includes, rice, beans, salad, sweet plantains, and optional meat or fish)—or both. Then, grab a post-lunch pick-me-up at El Unico, a red brick café just steps from Marisqueria La Ribera. 

2 p.m.: Walk or catch a cab to the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art) at Parque La Sabana, about a 10-minute drive from Gran Hotel. This was the site of the city’s first international airport and is now one of the best places to see works by Costa Rican artists.  

3 p.m.: Meet your guide from Sentir Natural for an urban forest bathing experience in La Sabana Park. This is Costa Rica’s largest urban green space, covering almost 180 acres. Although the term “shinrinyoku,” commonly called forest bathing, originated in Japan, Costa Rica has long been an ideal place to connect with nature. The guide will lead you through “invitations” with the overall goal of immersing in the natural environment. Sessions are booked in advance by reservation and can be done in urban parks, forest reserves, and other natural settings. Sentir Natural also hosts events at the University of Peace campus on the outskirts of the city. (During the rainy season, consider moving this activity to the morning of one of your days as it tends to be drier in the morning with rains arriving in the afternoon.)

Day 1: Evening

5 p.m.: Take a cab to the Steinvorth building. If you’re famished, grab a slice of pizza at Cimarrona’s before you head up to the Calle Cimaronna brewery for a tour and tasting of their craft beers. There’s often live music in the courtyard of this building from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays, so you can sit and enjoy it with a craft beer or a Calle Cimarrona kombucha. Alternatively, grab a coffee from La Mancha—brewed in the coffee contraption of your choice before you head back to your room.

8 p.m.: Take a cab to Sikwa restaurant in Barrio Escalante. Choose the Cocina Ancestral tasting menu, and go on a culinary journey through indigenous flavors. The chefs have spent time in indigenous communities in Costa Rica and are working to “rescue” ancient recipes by introducing them to urban restaurant-goers. If you’re up for a post-dinner drink, you’ll find a number of lively bars in the neighborhood, including Aquizotes gastro pub, British-style Sasta Pub, and Selvatica’s rooftop spot. If you prefer to wine down instead, La Uvita Perdida is a popular choice.

Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation
Courtesy of Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation

Day 2: Morning 

8:30 a.m.: Save your appetite for Feria Verde. This organic farmers market in Aranjuez is open every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.. Grab a cab to get there.

9 a.m.: Join the Yoga Verde class at Feria Verde (typically offered at 9 a.m., but check their social media or contact them to confirm) then graze on organic eats. Food and drink stalls sell a variety of beverages, snacks, and meal options, including fresh fruits, smoothies, coffee (try Taza Amarilla—look for the yellow mugs), kombucha, "comida típica," and international fare such as falafel. Stroll around and peruse the personal care, apparel, and jewelry stalls. Everything here is made in Costa Rica, so this is a good place to buy souvenirs.

11 a.m.: Depart for Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation in Heredia. You’ll need to arrange a rental car or cab ahead through your hotel or the folks at Finca Rosa Blanca.

Day 2: Afternoon

12 p.m.: Spend the afternoon at Finca Rosa Blanca’s organic coffee plantation. It’s about 45 minutes (though it can take longer, due to traffic) from the city center and only 20 minutes from the airport, but the forested surroundings and flitting butterflies and birds will have you feeling worlds away. Enjoy lunch from the open-air restaurant overlooking the city. If you’re in need of a snack-size meal, try the chifrijoles, chalupas, or ceviche (vegetarian ceviche is also available). And if you’ve got a bigger appetite, go for a casado, burger, or catch of the day. 

1 p.m.: Take a 2.5-hour guided tour of the coffee plantation where you’ll learn the history and culture of coffee, from seed to sip, as well as the eco-friendly efforts of this particular plantation. The tour culminates in a coffee cupping, a guided tasting where you’ll learn techniques used to identify aromas and flavors like the pros. Reservations are required. During green season, the afternoon tour may be canceled due to rain, so call before departing San José to confirm it’s a go. 

3:30 p.m.: Return to your hotel for a siesta and to freshen up. It’s about an hour (can be longer, due to traffic), so you will arrive around 4:30 p.m. or later.

Day 2: Evening

5:30 p.m.: Walk or cab to El Jardin de Lolita, a trendy, open-air food court—some stalls are made from shipping containers—with a garden in the back. Or book a table at Apotecario. This fun and funky restaurant was created as a place where brewers and beer lovers could connect with consumers to imbibe and explain the stories behind Calle Cimarrona beers and pair them with dishes made from locally sourced ingredients. 

7 p.m.: If you’re thirsty for more, join a guided craft beer tour or a pub crawl to cap off the night. Or check with your hotel, GAM Cultural, and the National Theatre for any cultural events, such as concerts and the once-per-month self-guided Art City Tour that includes galleries and gatherings in the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM—Gran Área Metropolitana).