San José: A Visitor's Guide to Costa Rica's Capital

People in front of San Jose National Theater
Wittayayu/Getty Images

San José is home to one-third of the population of Costa Rica and is the center of the country—economically, culturally, and geographically. Even in San José’s most urban alleyways, it’s hard to forget you’re in a tropical nation as the steamy air and warbling jungle birds remain.

San José, Costa Rica is located in the country's Central Valley, which was first colonized in the 1500s. The city became Costa Rica’s capital in 1823.

When travelers first arrive at Costa Rica's international airport, San José can seem quite disagreeable: noisy, busy, and even smelly! However, the capital city tends to grow on people. Proof: 250,000 foreigners have settled in San José. Many of them are American expatriates. Most of Costa Rica’s Spanish language schools are located in San José, as well as the University of Costa Rica.

What to Do in Costa Rica's Capital

The best way to experience Costa Rica’s urban culture in San José is by taking a stroll. Dispersed all throughout the city, San José’s public parks, markets, and courtyards serve as daytime meeting places for the city’s friendly locals (called Joséfinos).

Must-see locations in the city include:

  • Mercado Central: The bustling central market is the perfect place to fill your backpack or suitcase’s empty spaces.
  • Avenida Central: Beginning a block beyond the Mercado Central, Central Avenue is a pedestrian-friendly epicenter of shops and restaurants.
  • El Pueblo: San José’s all-night entertainment and nightlife hub. El Pueblo caters to tourists and locals both with restaurants, discos, galleries, and more.
  • Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica: Founded in 1897, San José’s National Theater is one of Costa Rica’s grandest architectural attractions.
  • The Simon Bolivar Zoo: While the zoo showcases a whole host of Costa Rica’s endemic animal species, it’s no match to seeing them in the wild.
  • The San Pedro Mall: One of the largest malls in Central America. Its nine stories and 260 stores offer quality merchandise of every sort, for a price.
  • The Arenal Volcano: Worth the day trip, hike through spectacular views to bathe in thermal pools and hot springs under waterfalls.

Accessing Costa Rica's Best Beaches From San José

One of the early scenes in the film Jurassic Park features a beachfront conversation scene set in “San José, Costa Rica.” However, Costa Rica's best beaches are outside of the landlocked capital city. 

Popular beaches near San Jose are Jaco Beach (less than two hours away) and Manuel Antonio (a little over four hours away). To get to the Nicoya Peninsula’s southern beaches like Montezuma and Mal Pais, take a bus to Puntarenas and ferry across.

When to Go

San José’s rainy season is from April to late November. The city remains relatively warm and humid year-round.

The coolest and most pleasant time of year is in the December holiday season, which draws hordes of locals and travelers. By most accounts, the festivals and other celebrations are worth the hike in accommodations prices.

On even years, San José holds the Festival de Arte, a conflagration of film, music, theatre, and other art forms, in March.

Getting There and Around

Costa Rica’s international airport, Juan Santamaría (SJO), is actually in Alajuela, about twenty minutes from San José.

Taxis are available immediately outside the airport and will transport travelers to the capital for a set rate of approximately $12 USD. Take only licensed range taxis with “Taxi Aeropuerto” on the side. If you prefer to tour the city (and country) independently, you may choose to rent a car at the airport.

A local bus stop also sits outside the airport, the beginning of Costa Rica’s extensive and inexpensive bus system. Buses vary from higher-class, air-conditioned vehicles to hectic chicken buses. Most only accept colones. The main bus terminal in San José is called the Coca Cola Bus Terminal, though times and destinations may vary. Toucan Guides offers a detailed Costa Rica bus schedule on their site.

Taxis are readily available throughout the city, and tourist-class vehicles like minibusses can be booked from numerous tour agencies.

International bus lines Ticabus (+506 221-0006) and King Quality (+506 258-8932) have terminals in San José, for travel to other Central American countries. Book a couple of days early to ensure a seat.

Other Tips

As populations increase, crime is also on the rise in San José. Be on the watch for pickpockets and other petty thieves, especially in crowded places like the Mercado Central. Take taxis at night, even for short distances.

Prostitution is legal among adults in Costa Rica, but HIV is an ever-increasing risk. Most entertainment of the adults-only persuasion is located in San José’s “Zona Rosa”—the Red Light District—north of downtown.

According to the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, San José is the most common name in the world.