The Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica

The 15 Best Things to do in San José, Costa Rica

San José is a place that should be on everyone’s Costa Rica itinerary. At first, it can seem more like an urban jungle than a tropical rainforest. But the more you explore, you’ll soon discover that San José can be just as enigmatic as anywhere else in the country. 

Take a look around and you’ll see everything from gorgeous historic homes, cute cafes, and one-of-a-kind boutiques just steps away from exotic plants, fascinating wildlife, and some of the most beautiful views you’ve ever seen in your life. 

The center of the city is dedicated to hands-on museums, engrossing art galleries, excellent shopping opportunities, tempting restaurants, and a thrilling nightlife scene. Head toward the outskirts of the city, and you’ll discover all kinds of nature-inspired attractions, such as coffee plantations, butterfly farms, animal rescue centers, waterfalls, and hiking trails.

With so many fun things to see and do, you may not know where to begin. To help you out, we’ve put together a list of the absolute best things to do in San José, Costa Rica. Add these activities and attractions to your San José bucket list, and you’re guaranteed to have an amazing time in the place locals fondly call Chepe! 

15 Fun and Unique Things to do in San José, Costa Rica

1. Get Your Bearings with a City Tour

Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: City Tour

Joining a city tour is one of the first things to do in San José if you’ve never been before. It’s an excellent way of getting to grips with the city and discovering parts of it you’d have completely missed otherwise. 

This tour is one of the best. It takes you past all the most important attractions, so you know where they are later on, as well as some spectacular buildings not everyone gets the chance to see. You’ll drive through the city’s streets in an air-conditioned bus with an expert local who can answer all your questions and give you tips so you can make the most of your vacation. As an added bonus, you’ll also get free entrance into the National Theater and Pre-Columbian Gold Museum.

Cool Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: City Tour

If that doesn’t sound like your thing, consider a San José night tour instead. You’ll get to see the city in a completely different light, when it’s much quieter and less crowded. You’ll also have the chance to dig into a delicious Costa Rican dinner at the end. 


2. Be Amazed by the Costa Rica Art Museum

Unique Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Costa Rica Art Museum

Some of the best sights in San José are hidden away inside the Costa Rica Art Museum. Known locally as the Museo de Arte Costarricense, this museum is a fantastic attraction if you’ve got a small budget because it’s completely free to enter. It contains the most important collection of photos, videos, engravings, sculptures, and paintings in the city.

What makes this art gallery stand out is that it flows indoors and outdoors, making for a unique and memorable experience. Take a look around, and you’ll discover more than 6,000 individual pieces across the permanent and temporary exhibits. 

Even if you’re not particularly interested in art, the sculpture garden is definitely worth checking out. It’s located in the gallery’s garden and features some stunning pieces made by local artists. The art history section on the upper floor of the building is also interesting. It shows incredible pieces, including bas-relief walls and the visuals of pre-Columbian natives.


3. See The Butterflies Inside the National Museum

Fun Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

The city’s National Museum is where you’ll find some of the most interesting things to see in San José, Costa Rica. Known locally as the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, this fascinating place invites you on a journey through the country’s politics, culture, history, and more. The great thing about this attraction is that there are interactive workshops and activities held all the time, so you can get hands-on.

There are several exhibitions in the museum that will appeal to everyone. Although it regularly changes, there are usually two permanent exhibitions and three or four temporary exhibitions. So even if you’ve been before, it’s worth another visit.

San Jose, Costa Rica Bucket List: Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

The permanent exhibitions are fascinating, and you’ll undoubtedly be captivated by the history section. It tells you all about Costa Rica between the 16th and 21st centuries through original objects, remarkable replicas, recreated scenes, and salvaged documents. 

The section that wins most people over is the butterfly garden. It’s the first exhibit you walk through when you enter the museum and is home to 14 species of butterflies, as well as all kinds of nectar-producing plants. 


4. Have Lunch at the Central Market

What to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Central Market

When you need a break from all the San José sightseeing, take a trip to the Central Market. This bustling, maze-like shopping area is made up of more than 200 shops, stalls, and sodas. It has been going strong since 1880, making it one of the oldest San José attractions.

Inside the indoor market, you’ll find everything from traditional souvenirs, clothes, and coffee to traditional herbal medicines, fresh produce, and meat. Don’t worry about the stall owners. The people here are really relaxed and are happy for you to just have a look if you’re not actually interested in buying anything. 

Must do things in San Jose, Costa Rica: Central Market

We definitely recommend you stop at one of the sodas for lunch. This is the name of a traditional Costa Rican restaurant where you can dig into a huge plate of food for less than $3 USD. Soda Tala serves a delicious plate called talapinto made up of rice beans, stewed meat, and tortillas. Afterward, head to Helados de Sobetera and treat yourself to ice cream! 


5. Become Addicted to Patacones

Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Crispy Patacones

Trying patacones is one of the must-do things in San José. This small snack may not look like much, but after the first bite, you’ll be hooked! Patacones are made by slicing up a plantain, smashing each slice so it’s completely flat, then deep-frying each slice twice until it’s perfectly crispy and golden brown. 

Because they’re vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free, patacones are something almost anyone can try. They can be a bit bland on their own. If you want to jazz them up a bit, sprinkle on some sea salt or douse them in hot sauce. Patacones are less about the flavor and more about the incredibly addictive texture. 

San Jose, Costa Rica Things to do: Crispy Patacones

Patacones Con Todo is the best place in San José for patacones. This casual restaurant serves perfectly crispy patacones with a selection of dips and sauces that take the simple snack to the next level. Order the patacones for your appetizer and then opt for one of the casados for your main course. The choice here is the biggest and best we’ve ever found in Costa Rica! 


6. See Big Cats at the Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center

Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center

Not many people expect to have an amazing wildlife encounter in the city but wait until you visit the Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center. One of the coolest things to do in San José, spending time at this nonprofit animal rescue center will allow you to get up close to all kinds of exotic animals from across Costa Rica.

This place is staggeringly large and home to around 2,700 animals that have been rescued. Only 2% of the animals will spend the rest of their lives at the park because they wouldn’t stand a chance in the wild. The rest will be safely released as soon as they’re ready.

As you walk around, you’ll come across large enclosures home to monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and jaguars, as well as all kinds of birds and reptiles. Make sure you watch where you step because the center is covered in giant lizards that free-roam wherever they like! 

A lot of the animals sleep in the early afternoon when the heat sets in, so try and get there early.


7. Celebrate Christmas with Fiestas de Zapote

Cool Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Fiestas de Zapote

Fiestas de Zapote is one of the top San José activities if you’re planning on visiting the city around Christmas. Held each year toward the end of December, this festival is essentially a huge rodeo, with bulls and cowboys from all over the country descending on the capital to compete.

As well as the rodeo, Fiestas de Zapote also features a giant fairground with rollercoasters, Ferris wheels, and every type of high-speed spinning ride you could possibly imagine. So everyone can join in, there are some tamer, child-friendly rides, as well as loads of stalls where you can play a game to win a small prize.

To make the festival even better, food trucks pop up all over the place, selling freshly-cooked meat skewers and refreshing drinks. And to add to the atmosphere, local music is played throughout and live bands sometimes attend. 

It’s great fun to watch the locals showing off their dance moves. The lively event ends with a spectacular fireworks display, so make sure you hang around until it finishes on the last night.   


8. Gaze at the La Paz Waterfalls

Unique Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: La Paz Waterfalls

You’d never guess the city to have natural places of interest, but the La Paz Waterfalls are some of the top San José attractions. Hidden away on the outskirts of the city, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a remarkable place overflowing with peace and tranquility.

The private grounds are home to a number of natural waterfalls, some of which are little more than trickles, while others are powerful and thundering surges of water. There are cleverly-positioned viewpoints throughout, so you can get pretty close to the waterfalls and snap some excellent pictures. There are clearly-marked hiking trails that take you to the viewpoints and other interesting parts of the gardens, too.

The waterfalls aren’t the only thing that attracts people to this beautiful place. La Paz Waterfall Gardens is full of fascinating creatures – from red-eyed tree frogs and camouflaged sloths to dazzling hummingbirds and even big cats.

When you helplessly fall in love with the place, you can even book a room and stay longer. A few hours really isn’t enough time to spend here, and the accommodation is absolutely stunning. 


9. Be Amazed by the Butterfly Gardens

San Jose, Costa Rica Bucket List: Butterfly Gardens

Spending a couple of hours at a butterfly garden is definitely one of the top things to do in San José. Mariposario La Casa de la Morpho Azul is a spellbinding place where you can see an incredible number of butterflies whirling around in the air. This popular attraction started out as a family business in 1994 and has continued to grow and expand ever since.

Today, Mariposario La Casa de la Morpho Azul is home to butterflies from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico. The differences in size, shape, and color are absolutely incredible. 

Fun Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Butterfly Gardens

If you’d like to learn more about the beautiful creatures, you can sign up for one of the butterfly farm’s guided tours. Alternatively, you can explore the farm at your own pace and see how many different butterflies you can spot.

You’ve absolutely got to check out the gift shop before you go. It’s bursting with handmade products that make great mementos and gifts for friends and family. Most of the trinkets have been made with recycled butterfly wings and are entirely unique. 


10. Snack on Empanadas

What to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Empanadas

When you’re feeling hungry but you haven’t got time to sit down and have something to eat, find the nearest place that sells empanadas. This savory snack is hugely popular throughout Latin America, including Costa Rica.

An empanada is a type of individual pastry that’s stuffed with all kinds of weird and wonderful things before being deep-fried to crispy brown perfection. The dough used for empanadas is typically made of seasoned corn – that’s what gives the pastry its vibrant color.

Must do things in San Jose, Costa Rica: Empanadas

Empanadas can be stuffed with all kinds of things, from shredded meat and potato stew to cheese and beans. You can find them at pretty much every single soda in the city, as well as some cafes. 

If you spot “Empanadas Arregladas” on the menu, you’ve got to try it. It’s a special type of empanada filled with fresh and crunchy cabbage salad, ketchup, and mayonnaise. It sounds like a really weird ingredient combination, but it tastes amazing! 

Milholas serves incredible empanadas in San José. Here the pies are baked, but they’re still wonderfully golden brown and crispy. The pizza empanada is delicious! 


11. Eat Your Way through San José on a Food Tour

San Jose, Costa Rica Things to do: Food Tour

If you’re completely unfamiliar with Costa Rican food, one of the most fun things to do in San José is to sign up for a food tour. This is the best way to get to know the local cuisine and find out which dishes you love and which ones you’d rather not try again. Make sure you show up on an empty stomach because you’ll be full to bursting by the end! 

On this small group tour, you’ll venture out into San José’s Central Market with a local expert who knows the very best places to eat in the city. Your guide will teach you all about Costa Rica’s culture and food scene while you’re walking around the market, seeking out the best treats.

Exactly what you get to eat depends on what is available that day, but most people who sign up for the tour get to try cheese tortillas, empanadas, tamales, pork rinds, artisanal coffee, and ice cream. Because you’re at the market, you’ll also have the chance to buy souvenirs and anything else that catches your eye. 

Delight Your Palate with Costa Rican Food


12. Sip Local Craft Beer

Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Sip Local Craft Beer

When you need a break from all the hectic sightseeing, one of the best things to do in San José is to stop by a bar or restaurant that offers craft beer and get sipping. The Costa Rica Beer Factory is hugely popular among locals and travelers. This amazing place is about as close as you’ll get to a beer hall without visiting Germany. 

The Costa Rica Beer Factory serves a huge number of craft beers for pretty reasonable prices. The bar brews its own beer and is the most-awarded brewery in all of Costa Rica! If you’d like to find out more about how beer is made, you can even sign up for one of their beer school classes. 

If you’d rather take things a little more slowly, you can simply grab a chair and enjoy your drink. Don’t worry if you’re traveling with someone who isn’t a craft beer fan. There are plenty of other drinks available, too. There’s also an amazing food menu with local and international bar-style food. 

Experience Costa Rica’s Craft Beer


13. Take a Selfie with a Giant Hand

Grab your hiking shoes and get ready for one of the most unique things to do in Costa Rica – snapping a picture of you standing on a giant wooden hand! You can get to this one-of-a-kind attraction by following a hiking trail through the La Chimba Coffee Plantation

There are two hikes to choose between – a 3-mile hike and a 5.5-mile hike. It doesn’t matter which one you pick because they both lead to the amazing viewpoint and giant hand. Both trails are pretty easy for most people to follow, although they can be muddy and slippery during the rainy season. There’s a slight incline, but nothing that you shouldn’t be able to handle. 

Make sure you time your hike right. The plantation opens early at 5:30 am, but it also closes super early at 2 pm.

The giant hand isn’t the only attraction here. You can take a tour around the coffee plantation, enjoy a delicious lunch at the restaurant surrounded by hummingbirds, or even sign up for a ziplining adventure. 


14. Escape to Tortuga Island

Best Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Tortuga Island

Experience paradise firsthand by signing up for a tour to Tortuga Island. This magical place is only accessible by boat and is the stuff dreams are made of. Soft white sand, gentle aquamarine waves, and thick palm tree forests will make you think you’re walking in an AI-created image – but this place is real!

This tour picks you up from your hotel in San José and whisks you away on a speedboat down the Pacific Coast until you reach Tortuga Island. Even the boat journey is spectacular – keep an eye out and you could spot whales, dolphins, and turtles on the way.

Cool Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Tortuga Island

When you arrive on the idyllic island, you can do whatever you please. Relax and soak up the sunshine, go swimming in the wonderfully warm sea, or be a little more adventurous by going on a hike, signing up for a canopy zipline tour, renting a kayak, trying stand-up paddleboarding, or renting a jet ski. 

Don’t worry about packing a picnic. There are plenty of places on the island where you can buy food and drinks. 


15. Dig into Chifrijo

Unique Things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica: Chifrijo

If you want to experience the city like a Tico, one of the best things to do in San José is to order chifrijo. This popular dish is eaten as both a snack and a full meal and can be found all over the place, from festivals and farmers’ markets to sodas and restaurants. The interesting name comes from the two main ingredients – chicharrones and frijoles.

Chicharrones are fried pork rinds and frijoles are beans. These ingredients are mixed together with rice and scooped into a bowl. Extras, such as corn tortillas, tortilla chips, pico de gallo, and avocado are usually added for different flavors and textures. 

Restaurante Nuestra Tierra is a fantastic place to go for chifrijo. This restaurant serves authentic Costa Rican cuisine, including generous servings of chifrijo. Here the dish comes with loads of tortilla chips and is topped with pico de gallo and guacamole. It’s like Costa Rican nachos! 

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in San José, Costa Rica. What’s your favorite thing to do in San José? 


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Author

  • Nicola Quinn

    Nicola is a freelance writer with an insatiable hunger for travel. She swapped her home in the UK for the sunny Canary Islands when she was just 11 and she has been based there ever since.

    From crawling on her hands and knees inside pyramids in Egypt to swimming with baby sharks in Bali and searching (fruitlessly!) for the Northern Lights in Iceland, Nicola takes every chance she gets to explore new places.

    The incredible experiences she has around the world fuels her writing and inspires her to plan even more adventures for the future.

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