A local's guide to San José, Costa Rica

Local expert and Insight Guides trip planner for Costa Rica Alain shares his insider knowledge on San José, to help you see the authentic side of Costa Rica's capital city
Fish stall at Mercado Central in San Jose. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA
Fish stall at Mercado Central in San Jose. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

Fish stall at Mercado Central in San Jose. Photo: Corrie Wingate/APA

When should we plan our holiday to San José and why?

Costa Rica's weather varies from month to month, and sometimes it depends where you are travelling and what for (eg. wildlife watching, surfing, hiking), as to what time of year you should visit. If you want dry, sunny weather suitable for beach-breaks and sunbathing, visit from December to April. 

Personally, I think the best two weeks of the year fall in the first half of May. This is still sunny season but we start to see the transition into the rainy season. May to August are officially the wetter months, however, days are still bright, sunny and the landscapes are luscious and green. 

If you're planning to visit the Caribbean coast, consider September and October; these months provide sunny days on that side of the country.

Where would you recommend we stay?

In downtown San José, I'd suggest definitely the Presidente Hotel, which is on the Central Avenue. Alternatively, on the outskirts of town but still within walking distance is a cute bed and breakfast called the Aranjuez Hotel, where you'll find a lush tropical garden too. Another great option is Grano de Oro, which is included on Insight Guides' Tropical Costa Rica itinerary. Close to Paseo Colon, it's slightly more expensive but so beautiful.

Where is a great place for dinner in the capital city?

In downtown San José there are several options for dinner. If you're looking to taste Argentinian beef, there are two very good Argentinian restaurants: La Esquina Buenos Aires, a bit expensive but absolutely worth it, and Tenedor Argentino, which has a unique style and a view of the National Theater. 

If you're looking for international cuisine, you'll enjoy the Grano de Oro Restaurant (close to Paseo Colon), the beautiful Café Mundo in Barrio Amon, and El Patio on the Central Avenue in downtown San José.

And, of course, there is Barrio Escalante. This classy old neighbourhood has developed into a great place where you can find several restaurants, pubs, live music bars and much more. It is really nice, and there are some great restaurants. My personal favorites are Kalu and Olio.

Costa Rican Olla de Carne. Photo: ShutterstockCosta Rican Olla de Carne. Photo: Shutterstock

Is there a ‘must-try’ dish while we’re in the city?

The fruits! There are so many delicious fruits in Costa Rica. There is a soup with meat and vegetables called Olla de Carne. In it you may find some of the usual Costa Rican tubers and vegetables, carrying things like yuca, ñampi, tacacos, potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash (chayotes).

Guanabana, zapote, caimito, mamones and jocotes, are a few of the slightly weirder-sounding ones. Check out our guide to Costa Rican fruit here

Is there an ‘unmissable’ experience while we’re in San José too?

Almost every day you'll find exciting plays, dance performances and more across the city. However, activities that you should add to your trip itinerary include: Enamorate de tu Ciudad in the Morazán and España Parks. Here you'll find local foods, dancing, public yoga classes, hula hoop classes and traditional games for children and parents.

Another great experience, on every first Wednesday of the month, is the Art City Tour. From 5pm all museums and galleries in town are free, and there are free rides between each site on public transport.

Both experiences above can be added to our trip itineraries to Costa Rica: browse my suggested holidays online or submit a trip request and I'll create your holiday from scratch

Night scene of the square in front of the famous National Theater of Costa Rica in San Jose. Photo: Shutterstock

Where can we hang out with locals?

There are two places I'd recommend: the central market, where you can find many different products, fruits, flowers, meals, souvenirs and more. And then, on Saturdays, the Francia Park in Barrio Escalante, where families gather, make picnics and play music. It is a wonderful experience and an insight into daily life in San José. There are also some great pubs in Barrio Amon like Stiefel Pub, and in Escalante Costa Rica Beer Factory is a must.

Do you have any additional ‘insider’ tips?

Sit for a while in the coffee shop inside the National Theater at a table near a window and watch the people pass by. If you go out at night, avoid the San José streets after 9pm; this is the time when the on-street police go, and only the police cars remain.

What souvenir should we bring home from our trip?

Without a doubt, it has to be coffee. Try to get peaberry beans, a special deformed coffee bean that has an intense, rich and deep flavour, aroma, and body. You can get them in a place called El Tostador, right on Central Avenue and 2nd Street.

Ready to take your trip to Costa Rica with Insight Guides?

Browse available suggested itineraries or submit a trip request for Alain today

Need a little more information?

The best beaches in Costa Rica

5 fabulous reasons to go to Costa Rica

In-depth: Costa Rican cuisine and Tico cooking