A Budget Traveler’s Guide to San José, Costa Rica

Let the backpacking adventure begin
Let the backpacking adventure begin | © Emily Schlick/Flickr
Jenn Parker

Costa Rica is very backpacker friendly, even though Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries to visit and live in Central America. Visitors can either start their journey in San José or Liberia, as that is where the two international airports are located. For those who start in San José, or maybe even end there, there are some great budget options for activities, accommodations, and appetites.

What to do and see

Visit a museum

San José has several worthwhile museums to visit for those interested in the arts and Latin American culture. The Museo de Arte Costarricense (The museum of Costa Rican Art), while small, has a collection of 3,000 pieces from Costa Rican artists, and on Saturdays admission is free. The National Center of Arts and Culture is a complex of museums and performance spaces that offers free admission on Mondays. The Gold Museum and The Jade Museum contain impressive and beautiful pre-Columbian collections. Admissions generally range between $2-$10.

Take a tour

While zip lining and white water rafting tours might be on the more expensive end, there are actually some great tours that are budget-friendly in San José. Costa Rica is famous for its coffee, and the Doka Coffee Tour, Café Britt Tour, or Finca Rosa Blanca Tour are all excellent choices to learn all about this rich export. There are few better ways to truly explore a city and get a deep sense of its history and culture than by taking a walking tour; Barrio Bird is one of the most recommended companies for this affordable activity.

Doka coffee tour

1. Spend some free time outdoors

Spend some free time outdoors

A great and free activity (you might want some spending money though) is to explore the Mercado Central. Here wanderers will find a vast array of fruits, vegetables, local food, coffee, handmade items, and other souvenirs. It is quite a scene at the Mercado Central, especially on the weekends. This is also a great place to buy some items and pack a picnic to take to La Sabana park for the afternoon. The park is a perfect place to people-watch, read a book, play soccer, and enjoy a picnic.

Modern sculpture in La Sabana Park | © Bogdan Migulski/Flickr

Where to eat and drink

2. Local market, local prices

Local market, local prices

El Mercado Central is a block-long, covered market place that was built back in 1880. There are fruit and vegetable stalls, multiple sodas (family-owned little restaurants that serve up traditional Costa Rican food), a few cafés, an ice cream parlor which is over 100 years old, and even a 130-year-old cantina where you can get traditional guaro (national sugarcane liquor) shots. This is a local institution with local prices and a great variety of food options.

El Mercado Central, Central Avenue, San José, Costa Rica +506 2547 6104

Family-owned soda | © Marco Centola/Flickr

3. Over a 100-year-old institution

Over a 100-year-old institution

Chelles is a typical Costa Rican restaurant that has been operating for more than 100 years. This bar and restaurant serves up delicious, typical Costa Rican fare such as casados (beans and rice, salad, plantains, fried cheese, and meat or fish option), arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), sopa mariscos (fish soup), and other must-try tipico (traditional) plates. It’s also a cheap place to grab a beer and people watch, as it is situated on a busy corner in town.

Chelles, Calle 9, San José, Costa Rica, +506 2221 1369

4. Come hungry

Come hungry

Soda Yogui’s is a highly recommended soda by international travelers, especially those who are traveling on a budget. Hungry travelers can indulge in large portions of typical Costa Rican dishes, such as mixed meat platters, empanadas, gallo pinto, BBQ ribs, and more at an incredibly affordable price. The food here definitely tastes like what Grandma would have made. Soda Yogui’s is also open 24 hours.

Soda Yogui’s, Central Avenue, San Pedro, San José, Costa Rica, +506 4030 3361

5. Eat like a local

Eat like a local

La Muni Restaurant and Bar has a totally local vibe. They serve up all of the Costa Rican favorites like chifrijo (fried pork over rice and beans with avocado and pico de gallo), patacones (fried green plantains), and Aztec soup. This is a great choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or drinks, all at a budget-friendly price. Everything is fresh, authentic, and served with a smile. La Muni Restaurant and Bar has received outstanding reviews on Trip Advisor.

La Muni Restaurant and Bar, Avenue 10, Calle 26, San José, Costa Rica, +506 2233 0279

Eggs and gallo pinto or spotted rooster | © Steve Linder/Flickr

Drinking isn’t cheap

Compared to other Central American countries, beer, liquor, and wine isn’t that cheap in Costa Rica. As a traveler on a budget, the best way to go about drinking is to drink local brands such as Pilsen and Imperial, or buy directly from a supermarket instead of at a bar. Some popular drinking establishments are Chelles, El Cuartel de la Boca de Monte, and the Jazz Café. There are little dive bars on most corners in downtown San José too.

Imperial, the official beverage of any Costa Rican vacation

Where to stay

6. Aldea Hostel


Aldea Hostel is conveniently located next to the Tico bus terminal, walking distance to the Mercado Central and downtown San José, and a corner step away from a great pizza place. Shared rooms cost less than $10 a night. This hostel has received excellent reviews from other backpackers. There is even free coffee available every morning.

7. Cost Rica Backpackers

Cost Rica Backpackers

Costa Rica Backpackers is a popular choice for travelers on a budget. This is a hot spot for backpackers from around the globe. There are 31 rooms, free wi-fi, a restaurant and bar, pool, laundry service, daily housekeeping, and free coffee, among other amenities. Costa Rica Backpackers is also conveniently located close to the National Museum, the National Theater, Jade Museum, and National Park. Prices start at just $12 for a shared room, but private rooms are also available.

Costa Rica Backpackers, Avenue 6, Calles 21 and 25, San José, Costa Rica, +506 2221 6191

Take an afternoon dip | © John Barrie/Flickr

8. Selina Hostels

Budget Hotel, Hostel, Apartment

Selina is a cozy, clean, and comfortable budget-friendly choice. There are 46 guest rooms that range from dorm-style to private. There is free wi-fi, a pool, business center, a restaurant, air conditioning, a garden, and a TV in the common area. Selina is located close to the popular museums and national park. The private rooms don’t feel anything like a hostel, but more like a studio apartment. Dorm rooms start at just $14.

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