The first thing you need to know is that when I speak of San Jose, or the city, I am actually referring to all the Great Metropolitan Area, which includes all of San Jose and a part of Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago. The most common place to stay of course, is San José, but if you are visiting family, you could end up on another part of the city. Knowing this, if you are on a business trip, sport tournament trip, or just visiting family, this will be a great guide for making your stay pleasant and avoid wasting your precious time in our country! If you just want to visit the city, you can go ahead and do it, but honestly, there are better places to visit (so don’t stay here long)! If you are travelling to San Jose to take some Spanish lessons, my recommendation, don’t. I mean, I am sure you can find other language academies on a beach or rainforest where the view is better.
What to do
- If you like culture, the must when coming to the city is walking around Central San Jose, thoughout the main streets, visit the Central Market, the National Theatre, the Basilica Church, the Jade and Gold Museums, the ancient airport which is now the Costa Rican art Museum, the sabana, the National Stadium, The Morazán Park, our small Chinese town, etc. The Central Market is a great place to buy some souvenirs.
- Another nice thing to do is taking some typical food cooking lessons. I know a guy that cooks delicious and offers some lessons (telephone number soon), and I know in Trip Advisor you can find plenty of tours of the city, and some of them include cooking lessons as well.
- The best thing to do when staying in San Jose, is making day trips to close places (see the Day Trips section below)
- If you are staying here for a long time, consider taking some Spanish lessons, for example with CRLA (but it is kind of expensive).
- If you understand Spanish, consider going to a theater in the night, they offer really funny comedies!
- I asked my sister what she does when someone visits her, and she said she takes them to the mall. Not my favourite recommendation, but if you feel attracted to it, Multiplaza de Escazú is the biggest and more complete mall in Costa Rica.
There are actually tons of short distance or how I like to call them, one day trips, to do when staying in SJO. To get to this places, the best option is driving, and using Waze as your guide:
Poás Volcano: Its gonna be approximately a 2h drive from San Jose, and the place could be chilli but it is usually sunny so it isn’t. The volcano is epiroclastic so you can’t see its shape, but you can visit its crater and, if you ant to walk a bit, its lagoon. Its really nice, the crater is usually blue, and right now, its sort of active so you see smoke coming out of it. I’ve never been to the lagoon but I guess its nice as well. When you go there, make sure you stop at Fresas del Volcán and buy some Palmito Cheese (I love it!!!) And, for lunch, you can make a stop in Chubascos for a typical food meal, and have some of their tortillas with cheese. Whatever you do, don’t have the empanadas, because they serve them cold.
Irazú Volcano and Prusia: The Irazu is a pyroclastic volcano and the second largest peak in Costa Rica, which means it is usually cold there. Its about a 2 hour drive from San Jose, and you pass though a lot of nice sceneries around Cartago. While you are there, take a moment to enjoy the crater, which usually has green coloured water, and a view of the Turrialba Volcano (which is currently very active), the Chirripo Peak, and basically all of San Jose and even the sea. Another interesting thing to see, are the layers on the ground, product of ancient eruptions! After visiting the volcano, you can head out to Prusia, a nice forest to walk through, or to camp at. There is also a farm you can go in and talk some photos with tons of yellow flowers if you want to. At last, for lunch, I would recommend eating at 1986 Restaurant, a really good typical food restaurant.
Barva Volcano’s Lagoon: If you like walking, this is a great option. Again, after a 2 hour drive from San Jose. You have to make sure you carry with you everything you need, because nobody sells anything there, but on the way you do find mini restaurants and kiosk selling food (in fact, buy palmito cheese in a kiosk, its awesome!). On the lagoon, you can enjoy a wonderful view and tons of wildlife around you… you even have high possibility of seeing a tapir.
Hule Lagoon: This is a place where you will probably walk, and it can be slippery, so make sure you bring good walking shoes and a rain jacket as well. If you just want to enjoy a good view, but not walk, you can stay at the restaurant on the entrance (they have the best view of the lagoon!). Also, while you are enjoying the view on the restaurant, you better buy some water, beer and food, because when you are down there, you will find nothing else. Now, you can go all the way to the lagoon if you are driving a really good 4×4 wheel drive car, but if you have or want to make a walk, better take note of this: There are 2 different paths, one leads you to a small “beach”, where people camp out at, but there not much to see, so don’t lose your time there. The other path leads you to two areas of the lagoon where you can go swimming on it. If there is no sun, it can be cold.
Guayabo National Park: If you are into culture and history, being a national monument, this is an interesting place to appreciate the arts of our ancestor indigenous people, their history, and meet some of the few still living ones. While you are in Cartago, you can visit Orosi as well, and the Basilica de Cartago, the main church of the province, where our virgin, called “La negrita” is.
Rafting: I love to go river rafting! We have lots of rivers to go to, and the tours usually start by picking you up at some hotel in San Jose. My favourite river to raft is Pacuare River, and, you should do level 4-4.5 (it is more fun and its manageable for non pros). The best recommendation I can give you, it to go to yuplon.com, and check if there is an offer on a rafting tour (same goes for canopy tours).
Turrialba Volcano: Another pyroclastic volcano, but this one is so active right now, that you can’t really visit it entirely. There are some official trails, and some that aren’t, and they are all really nice. If you go to Turrialba, there is an ecological farm called Finca ____ where they give you a small tour around and take you to a soil slide that is really funny!
Lookouts: I know some really good places to enjoy a view of San Jose. First I will tell you about and the most accesible ones. Tiquicia, located in Escazu, is actually a typical restaurant with a great view (but not a very good one). If you are okay with driving a little farther, RamLuna is also a typical restaurant with a great view, but with good food as well, and in the night, sometimes they do Cimarronas which is a typical costume in Costa Rica.
If you prefer a place more natural, where you can picnic while enjoying the view, I know two really good places, but they are only accesible with a 4×4 wheel drive car, or after walking uphill for a while. This are the Eolic Park in Santana, and La Ventolera, in Escazu. They both have great views on a great day (it is really important to choose the day right). If you ask me, I prefer the Ventolera, because not many people know about it. It is a cow farm, but it is opened so that the people can enter to see the view.
Coronado: This place is about 30 min away from San Jose. Here, you can see a beautiful church and nice lookouts. To do so, just drive towards Las Nubes de Coronado. Just keep driving till you find a nice view of San Jose, and park on the street (it is really safe). When you are going down, make sure you stop in El Molino Central and try their tortillas! And an ice-cream from Helados de Mari (I love those!).
Others: I haven’t visit this places, but I really want to, maybe you can tell me about them if you visit!
- Los chorros in Grecia
- The waterfall in Toro Amarillo
- The climbing wall at Cachi
- Pico Blanco in Escazú
Depending on what kind of night life you are looking for, this is are your best options:
- La California: This is an old neighbourhood, that has now developed into a bar area. It is sort of though (not chic), but we really like it there, especially El Mercadito on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, and El Cuartel, on Monday.
- Escalante: Another old neighbourhood, but this one developed into an eating area. You find all kinds of restaurants and pubs here. We love to go there, almost every day. My favourite places are Lupulus (for a burger and beer), Delirio (to see my friends), Apotecario (to eat), and well, actually every place is good, so you will be okay basically going anywhere.
- Antik: A little bit more chic, but not entirely. This is a nice bar to go dancing, with 3 floors, one with electronic, one with no light music, where you can talk and sit down, and one with spanish music.
- Bar Amon: Great place is you like dancing, and Charanga music!
- Central Pub: Great for eating, and listening to some rock classics.
- El Mestizo: Same concept as the Mercadito, but developed in a newer place, and there are no other bars around.
- Home: This is as chic as it gets, but it is for young people, maybe around 18-22 years old.
Well, I will definitely recommend you try our Typical Food. You can do so, at La Casona de Laly in San Pedro (try the patacones and chifrijo). Or when visiting Cartago, at Bocadito de cielo (try the Jalapeños Empanizados and the cheese tortillas). Another good place for tipical food in Cartago, is Restaurante 1910, and in San Jose Doña Lela (but the first two I mentioned are better). In Heredia, you can go to Chubascos (try the cheese tortillas) and in any other rural place, going to any “Soda” is usually a cheap and great choice for eating typical food.
If you are into Organic food, every Saturday, there is a Green Fair in the Polideportivo de Aranjuez (San Pedro), and the food there is great! Consider going there for breakfast! If it isn’t Saturday, I like going to Bulali in Avenida Escazú.
If you want a good Meat Restaurant, the best places in the city are La Esquina de Buenos Aires (the best one, but you have to make a reservation in the morning to eat at night), Donde Carlos, La Cascada, El Novillo Alegre (this one is a franchise)-if you go here, try the passionfruit mousse or Dulce de Leche ice cream for dessert!, and the cheapest-good place is Don Fernando (another franchise).
We have a lot of Fast Food restaurants, like McDonalds, KFC, Popeyes, Burger King, Carl’s Junior, etc… my favorite is Cosi, although it expensive here.
If you like Oriental Food, Tin Jo, in central San Jose, is one of the most famous in our country. Also you can try Pho if you want Vietnamese food, or Matsuri for sushi. Also, I heard Tsunami Sushi is good and sometimes gives good prices.
For Italian Food, Il Pomodoro, in San Pedro, is one of my favourites (specially because of the homemade papardelle pasta), as well as Italia en casa in Granadilla (you have to try the homemade Burrata Ravioli). Other good italian restaurants are Andiamo Là, in Tres Ríos, and L’Ancora in Escalante.
If you are a Burger Fan, in Escalante, you find a place called Lupulus, which is really good and one of my favourites. But there are other good places, like Hamburguesia and the Market, where you choose your ingredients, Porkys (has tons of options), Taphouse, Madburgers and Panda’s.
On the other hand, if you are craving for Wings, I would recommend trying the buffalo wings of Capitan Wings, Hooligans, Buffalo Joe’s or the onces from the Indoor Karting restaurant.
For Sea Food, I have to confess I don’t eat it… but I know GoFish and Prahia are really popular, Product Sea is environmental friendly, and if you want something low budget but good, El Balcón del Marisco is your best option. Also, I heard Pescatore has a great octopus, but drinks are expensive.
For Mexican Food, Las Catrinas in San Pedro is great, el Fogoncito in Pavas and Huateque in Tres Ríos are my favourites.
Other good restaurants are Alma de Amon if you like cuban food, for french cuisine try the Lil de France, and for nicaraguan food, which is really similar to our typical food, try Rostipollos.
If you are looking for a nice place, with lots of good restaurants to choose from, and people walking by, then consider going to Barrio Escalante. This is an old neighbourhood in the middle of the capital, that evolved into a night place, and now you find all kinds of pubs and restaurants, with a really nice atmosphere (this is actually where we usually hang out). Another place with plenty of food choices is El Mestizo in Escazú, or for food truck food, El Mercadito, which is actually a place to hang out at night.
If you are staying in the Intercontinental Hotel, The Market is really good, specially the burgers and salads.
Last but not least, for dessert, you have to try the Trits Ice Cream from Dos Pinos – THE BEST (found in every supermarket). And, a classic, the Churchilleta from Los Paleteros (found on malls and in Escalante).
To move around in the centre of the city, your best choice is Uber or taxi, since it is hard to find parking spaces or you have to pay a lot on a parking lot. If you park on the street, there are usually “Wachis” that are men who watch over the cars, and they charge you… they will certainly ask you for more money than they should, so you better know that 500-1000 colones is more than okay. Just keep a watch for places that ask for a parking ticket, because then you do have to pay for your time there, and if a “wachi” gives you a ticket, pay him half at the beginning and half at the end, which also applies to when its not a parking ticket zone.