Planning Your Day in San José
Although founded in 1737, San José wasn’t named Costa Rica’s capital city until nearly 100 years later, after the Spanish left their Central American colonies behind. In the 19th century, San José grew and blossomed, especially once coffee became the country’s prized crop. This history gives the city a unique origin story that many visitors miss.
Most travelers fly into San José and only stay for a night as they prepare to explore different regions of Costa Rica. Although this typical itinerary makes perfect sense, kimkim recommends spending a little more time in this buzzy and historical capital, with at least enough time for a quick city tour of San José. Even just setting aside 24 hours in San José is enough to give you a great sense of the city and its history.
Luckily, San José’s downtown historic core is relatively compact. You’ll find most of the city’s museums, parks, markets, churches, and other historical sites, all within walking distance from one another. For example, strolling from the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and past the Museo de Jade to the National Museum of Costa Rica requires less than 10 minutes of your time! Other nearby and walkable sites include the Museo de la Democracia, the MADC contemporary art museum, the National Theater, San José Central Market, and the Municipal Craft Market.
Below you’ll find kimkim’s suggestion for 24 hours in San José. Of course, you can use this as a general guideline and cater the day to your interests, but make time for delicious local food, mingling with the locals, and learning about the city’s (and country’s) history.
8:00 am: Start with a Traditional Breakfast
Many of the best hotels in San José include complimentary breakfast in the room rate, or you can venture outside your accommodation to a nearby restaurant or café. Regardless of where you choose to fuel yourself for the day, consider joining the locals with a traditional Costa Rican breakfast, Gallo Pinto. This hearty and beloved dish includes a mix of rice and black beans, scrambled eggs, fried plantains, and sour cream. Pair your meal with fresh tortillas or bread and, of course, a cup of coffee or fruit juice.
9:30 am: Head to the Museums
Our ultimate guide to San José must include the city's famed museums, most conveniently located in the historic downtown district. And because they’re all just a few blocks from one another, it’s easy to visit more than just one. The most popular museums include the Jade Museum, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the National Museum of Costa Rica.
If you’re envisioning green hues as you approach the Museo de Jade, you might be surprised at the building’s distinct exterior—but you shouldn’t be! The building is meant to look like a block of raw jade stone. The interior, by contrast, offers an entirely different aesthetic.
Jade is a semi-precious stone beloved by ancient and indigenous peoples throughout Mesoamerica. You’ll find over 7,000 displayed artifacts dating back to 500 BCE, such as artwork and jewelry offering images of animals and societal norms. The museum also educates visitors on the precious stone's history and cultural and economic significance. Extracting and shaping jade into such intricate pieces requires an incredible amount of skill.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
Step back in time more than 1,500 years and observe gold artifacts from Costa Rica’s Pre-Columbian era. You’ll find treasures such as the Media Escudo (the country’s first coin), plus animal figurines, jewelry, religious icons, and more. As you pass through the museum, you’ll also observe how different techniques of making these goods evolved.
National Museum of Costa Rica
Dive into the cultural and natural history of Costa Ricans by visiting the National Museum. The exhibits stretch from Pre-Columbian times to present and exhibit national history, natural history, and archeology to its visitors. Highlights of the museum include its butterfly garden with 14 different butterfly species; the 19th- and 20th-century architecture and interiors at the Houses of the Commanders; and the history room detailing nearly 600 years of daily, political, and social life in Costa Rica.
Note: The National Museum is closed on Mondays and on certain holidays.
12:00 pm: Lunch at San José Central Market
Where to eat in San José? Leave the quiet museums behind and head to the lively San José Central Market for lunch. We recommend Soda Tala #1 for a delicious and traditional meal. Soda Tala was founded within a famous diner in 1893 and has been serving devoted locals hearty meals ever since. Try the talapinto: a thin egg omelet with chives at the base, a hefty portion of pinto, and a couple of slices of fried salchichón (sausage) on top.
Keep the buffet going by stopping at a few other food stalls and tasting more local and regional gastronomy. The Mercado is a caldron of different cuisines from across Costa Rica, and few are featured as prominently as the marisquerías (fish shop) from the Pacific Coast. Seek out the arroz con camarones (stir-fried rice with shrimp) at the Marisquería Costa Rica, fish soup at Marisquería San José, or fried sea bass at Soda Cristal.
Finish up with dessert at the famous La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora, known for serving sorbetera (artisanal ice cream) since 1910. “Sorbetera” is the Costa Rican-Spanish word for the hand-crank ice cream maker. Lolo Mora serves only one flavor: spiced vanilla ice cream with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. The Mora family has crafted this beloved scoop for more than a century, so although there's only one flavor, it's a must-try.
After lunch, stroll around the market and savor the authentic energy. You can find just about anything for sale here, from pots and pans and household goods to cuts of meat, fresh produce, imported goods, and everything in between.
2:00 pm: Visit the National Theater
Next, make your way to the National Theater. Upon arrival, perhaps the first thing you’ll notice are the two statues at the entrance: one of Pedro Calderón de la Barca and the other of Ludwig van Beethoven. Enter inside and look up to observe the beautiful architecture and Aleardo Villa’s painting Allegory of Coffee and Bananas.
Take a guided tour through the theater to learn more about the building’s history, significance, and importance. Find out why it took so long to build and which Italian architect had to lend a hand.
Tours operate every day on the hour, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. A guided tour takes you inside the theater, and if you’re lucky, you might see performers practicing their art. After the tour, relax in the café just outside the theater and enjoy a fresh fruit smoothie or a slice of cake.
4:30 pm: Shop at the Mercado de Artesania
San José is a great place to find a piece of Costa Rica to take home with you, as the city is brimming with different markets. The Mercado de Artesania (Municipal Arts & Crafts Market) is a favorite, where Costa Rican artisans exhibit and sell mostly handmade crafts. Browse the beautiful jewelry, candies, bags, leather items, paintings, framed flowers and butterflies, coffee cups, traditional Costa Rican carretas (oxen carts), choreadores (coffee makers), T-shirts, caps, and much more.
Undoubtedly, many of these decorative items will remind you of your trip to Costa Rica once you’re back home. The most famous Costa Rican handcrafted items are colorful hammocks and rocking chairs. The vendors accept both USD and Colones and expect friendly bargaining, so don’t be shy!
5:30 pm: Enjoy a Pre-Dinner Empanada
After a long day exploring the city, perhaps you’re feeling a bit hungry. In that case, there’s no better pre-dinner snack to tide you over than the most beloved empanadas in the city. Join the line at El Fronton Empanadas, which has been serving empanadas since 1948. Regardless of the time of the day, there’s always a line of locals waiting patiently for the famous dish, so you know it’s a winner!
6:30 pm: Aperitif at Gran Hotel
Head to the Gran Hotel restaurant for a drink as the sun begins to set. The restaurant sits on the 5th floor of one of the most beautiful boutique and luxury hotels in San José and offers a stunning view overlooking the Plaza de la Cultura, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the National Theater. If you’re feeling settled, opt to stay for dinner. Otherwise, venture a bit more to find a spot to fill your belly.
7:30 pm: Enjoy Dinner in the Escalante Neighborhood
San José’s Escalante neighborhood, known as “Zona Rosa,” offers some of the best restaurants in the city. We recommend the following restaurants:
Sikwa Restaurante. Dig into Costa Rica’s authentic flavors at Sikwa, a Bribri word that means “foreigner.” The chef and team at Sikwa (as well as its sister restaurant Francisca) are on a mission to preserve the culture and heritage of the country’s indigenous populations with authentic cuisines. Using unique combinations, fresh ingredients, and traditional recipes, even the residents of San José may feel like a “foreigner” as they explore these flavors. Try the tamales filled with breadnut and pejibaye (peach palm), gallina con chilate (a purple corn porridge with chicken and plantains), or the michilá ice cream (caramelized banana and a cocoa seed base).
Costa Rica Beer Factory. It seems that nearly every country is hopping on the craft beer train, and Costa Rica is no exception. If you’re looking for that artisanal beer fix, Costa Rica Beer Factory is the place to find it, as much of the country sticks to the country’s standard lager, Imperial. You can choose among 100 different craft and artisanal beers, plus an assortment of traditional foods. You’ll also find classic burgers and pizza on the menu, but with a local twist.
Olio. Set in a 100-year-old building with exposed-brick walls and quirky decor, this is one of the hippest restaurants in the city. Trendy and lively, Olio is a tapas restaurant where you’ll find a mix of Spanish, Italian, Lebanese, and Mediterranean dishes to taste and share. Olio is also a great choice if you’d like to enjoy a cocktail featuring local ingredients, such as fruit like pineapple and watermelon.
Silvestre. If San José isn’t already a foodie city, Silvestre certainly put it on the map. Located in a beautiful old manor, the restaurant serves Costa Rican fusion food, so you get a mix of traditional flavors within trendy and contemporary dishes. The menu is varied with seasonal and vegan options, and Silvestre is the place to go for wine pairings or sip cava on a summer evening.
After dinner, enjoy a stroll through the city back to your accommodation and settle in for the night. Most likely, you’ll head out bright and early the following day to start your tour of Costa Rica! If you need some trip inspiration, past kimkim travelers have enjoyed the following itineraries that pair San José with other regions of the country, plus give you a better idea of how many days to spend in Costa Rica: