What to Do on a Budget in San José, Costa Rica

Coffee at Poas Volcano

 Margarita Almpanezou/Getty Images

Costa Rica’s capital city San José is full of things to do if you don’t have much money to spend. If you are traveling to San José on a budget, but still want to see all the important metropolitan sites, here are some ideas of how to spend a morning or afternoon in the city.

01 of 10

Wander the Central Market

Restaurant in Mercado Central

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There are few things cooler than discovering new fruits and vegetables. And Costa Rica, which holds 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, is a great place to find them. Ever had a rambutan (or a mamon chino as they are known in Costa Rica)? What about the squash-like pejibaye? Depending on the season, you’ll find these edible treats and more in the Central Market, which is open from sunrise to dusk; Monday to Saturday. Be careful when walking around, as there are many pickpocketers. The farmers’ market in Escazú on Saturday or in Santa Ana on Sunday are worth checking out. Early mornings you can also find farmers’ selling their crops next​ to the municipal building in San José

Estimated Cost: $5 in fruits and veggies 

02 of 10

Visit a Museum

San José and National Museum

Andy Rusch/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

For a small country, Costa Rica has an impressive selection of museums. Some favorites are the Children and Gold Museums. The Children’s Museum has dozens of interactive displays and provides a simple and fun insight into Costa Rican culture. The Gold Museum has a notable display of intricately worked gold pieces, carved with the primitive tools of the Pre-Colombian era. 

Estimated Cost:$210

03 of 10

Explore the Simon Bolivar Zoo

Parque Zoológico Simón Bolivar
Bobjgalindo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Some exhibits in this neglected zoo will make animal lovers’ cringe in guilt, but watching monkeys swing through a jungle gym and turtles stream through pools can make the $4.50 entrance fee and a few spare hours worth-the-while. The park is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After visiting the zoo, plan on stopping in one of the local coffee shops or browsing the art galleries, which have flourished in this area. 

Estimated Cost: $4.50

04 of 10

Photograph a Butterfly Garden

Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly bush
Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Best seen on sunny days, the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden is a perfect place to watch many species of local butterflies spread their wings. See the morpho, owl, Dutchman's pipe and passion flower butterflies in this shaded retreat in a corner part of the crowded capital city. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (3 p.m. on weekends). Tel: 2222-2937.

Estimated cost: $7

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05 of 10

Picnic in La Sabana

La Sabana Park

Bogdan Migulski/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

On Saturdays and Sundays, this large park in downtown San José fills with local families picnicking, playing soccer and riding bikes. With a large anomalously shaped pond, the National Stadium, a running track, a rollerblading rink, tennis and basketball courts; this park has all the ingredients of a family-friendly outdoor space. Buy some picnic foods at a local store—known as a pulpería here—and join the locals in this pastime. You might also stop in the Costa Rican Art Museum, which used to be the airport terminal when La Sabana Park was the country’s main airport.

Estimated cost: $1020 in picnic foods

06 of 10

Take a Coffee Tour

People walking through a coffee plantation

TripSavvy / Kathleen Messmer

Much of Costa Rica's history can be told through coffee. The most popular coffee tour in San José is the Café Britt Tour, which is accessible by public transportation and a taxi ride. Both Doka Estates and Finca Rosa Blanca also offer tours.

Estimated Cost: $2535

07 of 10

Get a Cup of Coffee in the Historic National Theatre

Teatro Nacional, Costa Rica

Andres Alvarez/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

San José’s prized National Theatre was built with money from a coffee tax. What better place to enjoy a cappuccino, but within this celebrated treasure of the coffee community. The National Theatre is open to the public and includes a coffee shop. For a full schedule, visit the National Theatre website.

Estimated Cost: $35

08 of 10

Take a Walking Tour

Walking in San José, Costa Rica

 Germania Rodriguez/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

There’s no better way to orient yourself to the city than with an experienced guide. You’ll learn fun facts like which building was used as the old army barracks back when Costa Rica had an army and how Paseo de las Damas got its name. Most tour companies can connect you with a walking tour or look for Barrio Bird (Tel: 8926-9867), which offers a comprehensive two-hour tour for $15.

Estimated cost: $1530

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09 of 10

Explore Local Crafts, Books, and Art

Drummer on the street in Costa Rica

The LEAF Project/CC0 1.0/Flickr

If shopping is your aim, head first to the artisan market in front of the National Museum, where there’s a wealth of souvenirs and crafts made by local artists. If this doesn’t meet your fancy, you might try Galeria Namu, located behind the Holiday Inn in Barrio Amón, where you’ll find more unique, high-end crafts. On the way, you can stop in the 7th Street Books, where you can pass time listening to local musicians or leaf through the pages of books on Costa Rica.

10 of 10

Go for a Hike

Poas Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Take a bus to the last stop at San Antonio de Escazú or Barrio Corazon de Jesus and just start walking up. There are no trail signs or marked hiking paths, but eventually, you will climb onto a dirt road and then trail. Here you’ll find breathtaking views of the Central Valley, patches of pastures and isolated estates. We would recommend taking a friend as it’s uncommon to see foreigners walking alone. Other places to hike include the mountains behind Heredia and Braulio Carrillo. 

Estimated cost: $.75 bus fare 

Further afield: If you have a full day in San José, you might consider a trip to the Poas Volcano National Park, Cartago or the artisan town of Grecia.