If you are visiting Costa Rica, you will most likely fly into the country’s largest airport, which is in San José. While many travelers claim that the city isn’t worth spending more than a day in, I wanted to give it the chance it deserves.
As it happens, I loved San José. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I can appreciate a good amount of grit in a place. Because I think it’s a destination that you shouldn’t skip over, here’s my take on how to have an awesome time in the country’s capital:
1. Explore Spirogyra Butterfly Garden
The Spirogyra Butterfly Garden is truly magical, and I still can’t believe it exists in such a busy, urban center. It calls itself the lungs of the city, and for good reason. Besides having an enclosed butterfly garden with dozens of species flying around, the property encompasses a dense piece of jungle right on the Río Torres.
The organizers of Spirogyra are working hard to conserve native butterfly species and keep the river free of contamination. Their efforts are evident as soon as you step onto the footpath. It feels like you’ve completely left San José and are immersed in the Costa Rican jungle, all while still being in the heart of the city.
It costs 3,600 colones ($5 USD) to visit Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, which includes access to the entire property. Definitely prepare for mosquitos and a muddy trail if visiting in the rainy season!
2. Head to Simón Bolivar Zoo and Botanical Garden
I sadly wasn’t able to see the inside of Simón Bolivar Zoo and Botanical Garden, because it wasn’t open when I visited. However, from the park’s website, it looks like a real treat, and it’s just around the block from Spirogyra. Here you’ll find an impressive botanical garden featuring a variety of ferns, orchids, and other native plant species. There’s also a variety of animals, which is a cool way to start your trip in Costa Rica, as many of them you might only be able see in the wild.
3. Visit Hacienda La Chimba
If you adore coffee as much as I do, don’t pass up the opportunity to check out Hacienda La Chimba while you’re in San José. Here you’ll find 65 hectares of nature trails and coffee fields, and an entire museum dedicated to everything Costa Rican coffee. The Mantra Trail has an awesome viewpoint where you can walk out onto a huge wooden hand. I wanted to explore the trails, but unfortunately there was a gigantic downpour right when I arrived.
Even with the rain, I enjoyed visiting La Chimba. The coffee was spectacular, and the scenery even more so. There are also many activities you can take part in, including zip-lining and going on a coffee-related tour; it seemed quite expensive, at around $25 for just an hour, so I skipped it and explored on my own instead. If you were to visit during the harvesting and processing season for the coffee plantation in September, however, the tour might be worth it as you’d be able to actually see the place in action.
4. Learn about Costa Rican history at Mercado Borbón
If you want to learn about a Latin American city and its people in the quickest way possible, go to the biggest fruit and vegetable market in town Mercado Borbón. Here you’ll also find a mind-blowing variety of fruits and vegetables, some that look like they belong on another planet!
There are also several areas of Mercado Borbón that hold an important place in the history and culture of San José, like the banana stand above. The market’s history is one of resistance and resilience, a story that paints a colorful picture of Costa Rican grit. This specific banana vendor was one of the first in Costa Rica to sell bananas autonomously, without the control of multinational companies.
I visited the market on a food and sightseeing tour. I was lucky enough to be the only person who signed up that day, so my guide, a San José native, was happy to answer all of my questions.
5. Enjoy the sights, smells, and tastes of the Mercado Central
Mercado Central is definitely more well-known than Mercado Borbón, which is evident in how packed it gets in the mornings. Here you’ll see locals doing their fruit and vegetable shopping, tourists checking out the souvenirs, and business people grabbing a quick empanada before work. My guide explained that Mercado Central is the beating heart of San José, and I can see why!
This sprawling market has everything you can imagine, from exotic fruits to herbal remedy stands to small coffee shops, and much more. It’s also home to Costa Rica’s first and most famous ice cream spot: La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora.
6. Take a stroll through the Museum of Costa Rican Art…
The Museum of Costa Rican Art is small but mighty, featuring paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media pieces by Costa Rica’s most famous artists. There are both indoor and outdoor spaces, with a wide range of works that demonstrate the country’s artistic diversity.
The museum is free, which was a huge draw for me, considering that others in San José can cost up to $20 to visit. I only spent about an hour there, as it’s quite small, but it’s right next to Parque La Sabana so you can hit up both places if you’d like.
7. …and don’t forget to check out the Gold Room
I almost missed this, because I didn’t see at first that the museum had a second level. Up the winding staircase you’ll find signs pointing to the “Salon de Oro.” The room has 360-degree golden mural depicting quotidian scenes from Costa Rica’s past. It was once an airport lounge, as the present-day La Sabana park next door was the site of San José’s airport until the late 1940s. It’s quite impressive and worth taking a lap around to see the mural’s small details.
8. Venture out to Lankester Botanical Garden
Lankester Botanical Garden, part of the University of Costa Rica, is well worth the hour-long drive from the center of San José. Here you can find a mind-boggling collection of orchids, many of which I had never seen before and looked like magnificent works of art. There’s also a serene Japanese garden, which includes a traditional tea and meditation room replica and Zen garden.
There are tours available, which you have to schedule ahead of time. This would be great if you’re especially enthusiastic about plants, but I enjoyed simply roaming around the gardens and observing on my own.
9. Take a day trip to Cartago, Costa Rica’s old capital city
Bathe yourself in Costa Rican history by visiting the country’s first capital city, Cartago. The city is just a 40-minute bus ride from San José and is the place to learn about Costa Rica’s past.
Immediately upon arrival, I felt the stark contrast between Cartago and San José. Where the latter has tall buildings and an urban edge, the former has a mix of old and new, with the most central part of the city featuring the so-called ruins of an unfinished cathedral. They are as mysterious as they are photogenic, but they are only the beginning of the historical gems you’ll find here.
Head to the Cartago Municipal Museum and browse for free. I went there looking for a mural that depicts the history of Costa Rica and was blown away by its size, detail, and imagery.
I suggest visiting Cartago in the morning, grabbing a quick meal in the Municipal Market, and exploring on foot. From there, you can also easily Uber to the abovementioned Lankester Botanical Garden to round out an awesome day trip.
10. Admire the city’s street art
Like many Latin American cities, San José has street art on just about every block. Besides simply decorating the city with vibrant colors, these murals also serve to tell San José’s story. While I was able to stumble upon plenty of murals simply by walking around Barrio Amón, Barrio Bird, and the city center, a more efficient way to learn about these murals is by taking a tour like this one offered by Barrio Bird Walking Tours.
Where to Stay in San José
I honestly got very lucky with my accommodations in San José, because I can’t image a better neighborhood to stay in than Barrio Amón, one of the city’s oldest and safest neighborhoods. There are plenty of other areas, including downtown San José, that I wouldn’t recommend. If you’re visiting for the first time and want to stay somewhere central, quiet, and safe, choose Barrio Amón or Barrio Escalante.
I adored my Airbnb in Barrio Amón. The location made it easy to walk everywhere, plus it was in a safe area with plenty of restaurants and cafés nearby. If you’re backpacking or just want to meet other travelers, Selina is a great option, and it was just down the street from where I stayed.
Staying Safe in San José
Like many Central American cities, San José has a reputation for not being the safest place to visit. Pickpocketing is common, especially in crowded areas and at night. As a solo female traveler, I have to admit that there were a few moments during my short time in town when I felt my danger radar ping. However, I still think this city is a decent one for travelers like me.
That said, I don’t recommend walking anywhere alone at night in San José, period. Uber is affordable here, so if you have to walk more than a couple blocks, just grab one. I also don’t recommend walking with your wallet or phone in your hand or pockets at any time of day. Instead, keep them in a fanny pack or an inside pocket of a backpack worn on the front of your body. Even locals do this, so don’t feel silly about doing likewise.
I also don’t recommend wandering around neighborhoods you aren’t familiar with. Besides the downtown walking streets in Barrio Amón and Barrio Escalante, I didn’t do a whole lot of exploring on foot here. That’s because when I walked from my Airbnb to a restaurant only 15 minutes away, I found myself in a neighborhood I didn’t feel entirely safe in. In order to not have a repeat of that moment, I decided to plan my routes before heading out from then on, and took Ubers if there was more than a 10-minute walk through a neighborhood I wasn’t familiar with yet.
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Before visiting San José, I wasn’t so sure how much I’d enjoy a Costa Rican concrete jungle, as opposed to the lush green ones that most people flock to. However, I found that there were some enchanting pockets that proved wrong most of the negative things I’d read about San José being filthy and unappealing. I stand by giving it a chance and having an open mind, as there’s so much to love about this vibrant city.