San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica, yet it’s not usually the first destination of choice for visitors. Many Costa Rican vacations begin by flying into the airport in San Jose (the airport is actually located in Alejuela). Depending on what time you land, you might spend a night there, then move on to your intended destination the next day, often coming back to spend the last night near the airport to make sure you don’t miss your plane home. There are some lovely hotels near San Jose, and lots of things to do there as well.
Here’s my advice: If you’re just spending a night here to be close to the airport, don’t stay in one of those chain hotels right next to the airport. To be stuck in one of those hotels surrounded by cement and fast food is just so depressing, when you could be at the lovely Xandari, Hotel Bougainvillea, or Finca Rosa Blanca, all destinations in themselves and within 30-minutes of the airport. These hotels are actually worth staying more than one night. (Separate reviews of these hotels are coming.) I do not recommend staying in downtown San Jose. Costa Rican friends have all told me NOT to go to the city by myself, and to only go with a guide or someone who knows the area. However, I went on a really nice half-day guided city tour, and have been there for lunch and a night out with Costa Rican friends. The downtown is not the most beautiful part of Costa Rica, and some parts are rough, but there are some worthwhile places to visit. I’d say a half-day in the downtown is enough time there.
Things to Do in San Jose
- Visit the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. This is sort of a gigantic vault in the Central Bank, and it has a fascinating collection of pre-columbian gold objects as well as other objects and a look at what life was like before Columbus showed up.
- Visit the National Theater. The beauty of this theater and opera house rivals those of Europe. It’s simply gorgeous. There’s a pretty good cafeteria if you want to have lunch here.
- Visit the National Museum. Learn about the history of Costa Rica in this museum, which located in a fortress built in 1917. There are still bullets lodged in the walls!
- Visit the Jade Museum. I have not been to the jade museum yet, but it’s a highly rated attraction, as it houses the largest collection of American jade.
I recommend taking a half-day guided tour. Many combine visits to the gold museum, national theater, and a park or some other combination.
Things to Do Near San Jose
Visit INBioparque! This is my favorite tour near San Jose (it’s an hour’s drive from the airport). Don’t do the self tour — get a guide. I promise you it is worth it. INBioparque is the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, which is dedicated to scientific research and conservation. They have created a tremendous park that contains all of the various micro-climates in Costa Rica, complete with actual species. The tour is approximately two hours, and you’ll walk along a trail with your guide, who will point out various animals and plants. You will see a lot and learn a lot. At the time of this writing, the park is only open from Friday – Sunday, so plan accordingly.
Take a Coffee Tour
Visit a coffee plantation and learn all about one of the world’s favorite beverages. There are a few options, but all need reservations in advance:
Hotel Finca Rosa Blanca sits on a coffee plantation and is approximately 30 minutes from the airport. I’ve been to this lovely hotel a few times, but have not taken the coffee tour yet. The food is very good if you want to have lunch there, and the hotel is lovely (and expensive) if you need a place to stay.
Cafe Britt Coffee Tour. This one is located about 40 minutes from the airport. If you have kids with you, this one might keep them the most entertained, as they do a live show and try to make it funny. You’ll walk through the coffee fields, see a play (silly but fun) and end up in a large gift shop.
Naranjo Coffee & Town Experience. You can book this one through Chayote Lodge, about 50 minutes from the San Jose airport. This tour is a bit more expensive, but it’s more of a local experience than the others and includes a coffee tour in the small town of Naranjo, followed by a visit to a market with fresh meats and produce, lunch, and a visit to the Basilica of the Lady of Piedades, a lovely byzantine-style church with a lot of history. I was fascinated by the wall of medals representing body parts that people bring to the Virgin to be healed. Chayote Lodge is fairly new and has excellent food, amazing views, and very interesting rustic-chic accommodations if you need a place to stay in this area. The location is great if you’re heading out to Arenal/La Fortuna.
Doka Coffee Estate. Doka is in the Poas region, about 1 hour and 20 minutes from the airport. (You can combine this with a visit to the Poas Volcano.) This coffee tour is very professional, and they’ll walk you through all the stages, from little sapling plants until it’s ready to go into your cup. You’ll learn a lot. Ends in a small gift shop so you can take some home with you.
Visit Poas Volcano
If you have the time, you might want to drive into the mountains to see the Poas Volcano National Park. It’s about and hour and 10 minutes from the airport. Poas is an active, crater-type volcano, meaning you will look down into it to see the volcanic lake. I must tell you that I’ve been there at least four times, and I’ve never seen the lake because it has been completely covered by clouds every time. Poas is in the cloud forest, and it’s often cool and misty there, so bring a rain jacket. If you’re in the area, you can also visit the Doka Coffee Estate I mentioned above. There’s zip-lining in the area as well. If you want to stay in Poas, Poas Volcano Lodge is a good option with beautiful views, but I warn you that it is very, very cold at night, so pack accordingly. I stayed there not knowing it would be so cold and I did not have enough warm clothes, and the space heaters in the room didn’t help. While we were enjoying dinner in the cozy lodge with a wood-burning stove, the staff slipped a hot water bottle under the sheets in our bed, which was a warm, welcome surprise. I recommend not washing your hair there. I washed mine, and the hairdryer was not powerful enough to dry my hair, leaving me freezing cold with wet hair. I would have really enjoyed this place if I had warm clothes with me. (Ditto for Bosque del Paz in Bajos del Toro. I showed up there for a 2-night stay in super lightweight clothes and nearly froze to death. I had to leave a day early, which was a shame as they had good food and a nice staff. I just didn’t realize at the time that there were actually cold places in Costa Rica, but these can be refreshing if you need a vacation from high temperatures.) Another option is to stay at Xandari and make the 45-minute drive to Poas. Xandari is a beautiful hotel and spa located in Alejuela, close to the airport. The climate there is like southern California: warm days and cool, but not cold, nights.
Sarchi is a small town known for making furniture and wooden crafts. It’s about an hour from the airport. You can tour the ox cart factory to watch the artisans create their beautiful, colorful masterpieces, then you can shop for hand-crafted souvenirs and have lunch at Don Lolo’s. The leather rocking chairs pictured above are incredibly comfortable, and they can pack them in a flat box if you want to take one home!
Get a spa treatment
A lot of hotels offer spa treatments, but the nicest one close to the airport that is actually a spa, and not just someone who comes to your room, is at Xandari. This little bit of heaven is located about 20 minutes from the airport. Make your appointment in advance. I’ve had a few wonderful treatments here, but my favorite was a facial and reflexology combination. One person did the facial and another did the feet at the same time. Afterward, I met my friend, Susan, who also had some kind of heavenly treatment, and we could barely speak. We just smiled and laughed. It was like we were drunk or drugged, but in a very good way! Xandari is a lovely place to stay as well.
Visit a Butterfly Garden
My go-to butterfly garden is now out of business, but Spirogyra Butterfly Garden gets good reviews. It’s located about 35 minutes from the airport.
There are lots of opportunities to do zip lining, and the best approach is to find a place that is near your destination. Most hotels and tour operators can arrange this for you. There are zip lines near Poas, but be aware that some zip lines could be a 2-hour drive or more each way, which would eat up a lot of your day. It’s good to ask how far away it is in advance before you sign up.
Things NOT to do near San Jose
- If your plans are anywhere near San Jose, do NOT fly into Liberia, even if there is a sale. Flights to San Jose are generally less expensive than flights to Liberia anyway, but Liberia is a long, bumpy four-hour drive to San Jose. Trust me, you do not want to get off your flight and do this. It’s much better to fly into San Jose and begin having fun right away. Liberia airport is for vacations in Guanacaste.
- If you are staying at a hotel near San Jose, don’t sign up for a day tour to Guanacaste, Arenal, Tortuga Island, or any place that is a long drive. The guides will be happy to take you anywhere, but trust me, you will not be happy to spend a total of 8 hours or more driving in one day and having a rushed experience. If you want to see Arenal, go there and stay a few days. Ditto for the other places. Don’t spend your precious vacation time looking out the window of a car or bus. Experience it! Note that white-water rafting tours are more than 2 hours from San Jose, as are some zip line tours, so just be aware.
- As mentioned earlier, don’t go to downtown San Jose alone, especially at night. It’s best to go with someone who knows the area.