Many travellers skip over San Jose as they make their way to Costa Rica’s beaches and natural attractions like volcanoes and cloud forests, but the vibrant city is more than a pitstop. Even if you just have 24 hours to squeeze in a visit, you can get a good sense of what makes San Jose tick. From museums and markets, to cute cafés, leafy parks and an ever-expanding culinary scene, San Jose is worth a visit. Make the most of a short trip with the help of our local San Jose tour guides, who have put together the ultimate itinerary for 24 hours in San Jose.
Start your day in San Jose with a hearty breakfast in a central location. Tortillería Y Café offers your pick of traditional dishes like plates of gallo pinto with homemade tortillas, eggs and sweet plantains. Wash it all down with an excellent cup of coffee, made using a chorreador, a traditional device for brewing coffee in Costa Rica. A cloth filter hanging from a wooden stand is filled with very finely ground coffee and hot water is poured through. It’s simple — but it’s been working for over 200 years.
Ease into the rest of the morning with a slow meander to Parque Nacional, one of the nicest green spaces in the city and a favourite spot among locals. Depending on your speed, it’s about a 12 to 15-minute walk from breakfast.
Once you’ve strolled through the shady Parque Nacional and snapped a few photos of local life, make your way to the nearby Museum of Art and Contemporary Design (open at 9:30am and just a few minutes’ walk from the park). Founded in 1994, the lofty space is housed in a former distillery and showcases contemporary art and design from Central America and around the world. Depending on how long you spend taking in the exhibits, there might also be time to stop into the National Museum of Costa Rica (about a five-minute walk), which offers a chance to learn more about the country’s history and culture from pre-Columbian times all the way to the present.
Put a pause on sightseeing and make your way to Maza Bistro, just off Parque Nacional. This charming spot serves up a variety of dishes that combine Latin and North American ingredients (much of which is local) in a relaxed setting. There are lots of good options here, but give the cheese-stuffed pupusas a try — served with refried beans, a fried egg, pico de gallo and avocado. If you feel like a drink, try the bloody Mary.
After lunch, take the 15-minute walk back towards Parque Nacional to make a stop at the National Theatre of Costa Rica. This neoclassical building is one of the most beautiful in San Jose and houses a worthwhile art collection, including the impressive marble lobby and auditorium lined with paintings. Depending on when you’re there, take a guided tour of the theatre, offered hourly from 9am to 4pm.
Close to the theatre (about a five-minute stroll), you’ll find Mercado Central, the city’s main and largest market. Browse the typical assortment of souvenirs and trinkets, but also check out the local coffees, handcrafted leather goods and snacks on hand in the maze of busy stalls.
Finding a place for a good meal in San Jose is getting increasingly easier thanks to an abundance of high-quality restaurants serving cuisines from around the world. A short walk from Mercado Central, two good options for dinner include La Esquina de Buenos Aires for authentic Argentinian food in a cosy setting, and Sapore Trattoria for homey Italian fare. A little further from the first two options (five minutes in a taxi) is Restaurante Silvestre, serving locally inspired, artfully plated dishes made with seasonal ingredients.
End your evening in San Jose at popular craft beer bar, Stiefel Pub. Popular with visitors and locals alike, this is where to come for some local microbrews, of which there are many on tap.
For travellers on a short visit, we recommend having a layover that will allow you to spend two hours in the city centre, and another hour for travelling to and from the airport.
The best way to get from the airport to the sites is by taking a taxi, which can take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on traffic.
If you want to see San Jose in two hours in the morning or afternoon, head straight downtown to check some of San Jose’s cultural attractions off your list. The National Museum of Costa Rica, Jade Museum and National Theatre are all within close proximity to one another.
If you’re in San Jose for an evening or nighttime layover, make your way to the architecturally impressive Barrio Amón neighbourhood for an evening stroll among historic buildings. There are many restaurants here, so it should be easy to find a spot for a pre-flight meal or drink.