10 Best Cities to visit in Costa Rica - Ultimate Sightseeing Guide for 2021
Costa Rica is known for its numerous cloud forests, wildlife, beautiful sandy beaches, and gigantic volcanoes. If you want to go on a classic cultural and city trip, Costa Rica will certainly not be the first thing that comes to your mind. A city trip to Costa Rica is something very special because you have the opportunity to get to know the Costa Rican flair, the locals, their culture, and at the same time the breathtaking environment of the small towns. Besides the metropolis San José, there are many smaller towns that are very diverse and worth visiting. In many cases, Costa Rican cities simply are the perfect starting point for excursions into nature. In order to give you a better overview, we have marked the best cities of Costa Rica on the map below.
To be honest, it is quite impossible to visit all the cities in one trip, although Costa Rica is a rather small country. That’s because you can discover so many things in each place! But the good news is that you can get from city to city super easily and quickly. On top of that, you’ll find very diverse and unique experiences in each place. To help you decide, we have listed our 10 Best Cities to visit in Costa Rica and summed up the ultimate sightseeing guide for 2021. You’ll also find useful information about popular activities, special accommodations, beautiful national parks, volcanoes, and beaches.
To enjoy your city trip to Costa Rica to the fullest, good planning is essential. This way you can save time and money. Therefore, we have prepared our top 5 travel gadgets for your next city adventure. With these, you can’t go wrong!
If you’re looking for more tips for your Costa Rica trip, check out our Must-Have Costa Rica Packing List.
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1. San José
Are you looking for the perfect place to start your Costa Rica travels? This is San José, the capital and largest city of Costa Rica! It is located in the Central Valley, surrounded by majestic volcanoes and green national parks. Many of Costa Rica’s roads run through San José, providing extremely good access to the country’s fascinating natural sites. In addition, the city has an international airport, so travelers from all over the world can visit the green country.
What can you do and see in San José?
There are many museums, such as the “Museo del Jade”, where you can admire old and new art, as well as buildings in the Spanish colonial style, such as the beautiful historic National Theater in the heart of the city. For those interested in history and culture, the Museo Nacional, located in an old fortress, is a must-see and provides information about the history of Costa Rica. If museums don’t appeal to you, how about a colorful graffiti tour through the different neighborhoods of San José? Or try the fresh fruits, herbs and really good coffee at the “Mercado Central”. Furthermore, you have the possibility to make many excursions to famous volcanoes like Poás and Arenal and to the breathtaking national parks like Tortuguero and Manuel Antonio. If you would like to have more tips about the most beautiful volcanoes, beaches, and national parks in Costa Rica, you can find more information in our Costa Rica Volcano Guide.
Finally, we would like to share with you a few words about safety in the city. During the day, there are police officers on every corner of the city to keep things in order. San José is by far not as dangerous as it is sometimes said to be. Nevertheless, we recommend that you keep an eye on your valuables, as in all larger cities, because thefts do happen. When it is dark, you should avoid the outlying areas of the city and take a cab. However, there is hardly anywhere else where you will come into contact with the “Ticos”, the locals, and learn everything about the country and its people as quickly as in San José. All in all, San José is one of the best cities in Costa Rica for us!
The city of flowers, as Heredia is often called, is located only 12 km from the capital San José. The manageable city has some beautiful parks where exotic plants, palms, and mango trees bloom and invite you to linger there. The cityscape is characterized by the colonial era. You can see this, for example, in the old mansions and the church “La Inmaculada Concepción” near the green Parque Central. The landmark of the city is the watchtower “Fortín de Heredia” with the amphitheater next to it – definitely worth a visit! At the markets “Mercado Florense” and “Mercado Central” you can buy fresh fruits and souvenirs. In the streets of Heredia, you will also meet many students studying at the Universidad Nacional.
Heredia is a good destination to start some excursions. The volcanoes Barva and Poas can be reached quickly from the city. The waterfall gardens of La Paz and the Braulio Carrillo National Park are also close by and make excellent day trips.
Coffee tours, farmers’ markets, waterfalls, and a wildlife rescue center – you’ll find all this in the small town of Atenas, which has its own special magic. The town has become a popular vacation and retirement spot for North Americans and Europeans but fortunately is not yet crowded with tourists.
Wondering why so many people make their new homes here and why Atenas is one of the best towns in Costa Rica? It’s probably because you can reach any place in a short time, whether it’s the spectacular capital San José or the breathtaking nature. In addition, there is a wonderful climate in the city. The people of Atenas claim to offer the best climate in the world, as the humidity and temperatures of 20-25°C are very pleasant and stable all year round, even during the rainy season.
So if you are looking for a small pretty town from where you can easily get everywhere, Atenas is perfect. Visit the beautiful waterfalls, fantastic natural pools, and the old gold mine in Desmonte. Take a coffee tour at El Toledo organic coffee farm. Buy delicious fruits, vegetables, and local produce at the local farmer’s market and visit the Zoo Ave wildlife park, which is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife. And if all that isn’t enough for you, you have the option of driving to neighboring San José and taking a side trip to Poas Volcano.
The mountain village of Monteverde is located 1,400 meters above sea level in the middle of the rainforest. The whole area around Monteverde is especially popular with nature lovers, hikers, and adventurers because of its numerous activities. One thing is for sure: you will not get bored! When people talk about Monteverde today, they usually mean not only the small village but the whole area including the village of Santa Elena and the adjacent cloud forests. Therefore, don’t let the name confuse you.
The most popular activities in Monteverde are the suspension bridge trails and canopy tours. The spectacular suspension bridges span canyons and rivers and allow you to explore the rainforest at the treetop level. Thereby you have the chance to discover the absolutely species-rich world of birds, breathtaking! Canopy or ziplining in the trees is also offered. If you are not afraid of heights, then we can recommend this experience to you, because the views are fantastic and it is also a lot of fun. Other great activities you can experience in Monteverde are guided night hikes to get to know the wildlife, visits to the coffee plantations, forest bathing, and chocolate tours for those with a sweet tooth. Sounds like one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica, don’t you think?
The rather less touristy city of Liberia is the capital of the province of Guanacaste. It is home to Costa Rica’s second international airport, which is mainly served by flights from major U.S. cities. Unfortunately, there is not much to see in Liberia – a few historic colonial buildings, a Caribbean-style church, souvenir stores selling painted wooden jewelry, murals, and typical souvenirs.
However, due to its central location, Liberia is a very good place to start excursions to the surrounding area and is, therefore, one of the best places in Costa Rica to see and experience as much as possible in a short time. If you are in the mood for an extensive beach day, you should definitely visit the paradise beaches Playas del Coco and Playa Flamingo. Enjoy the view of the shimmering sea while sipping a fruity cocktail.
In the neighboring Rincón de la Vieja National Park you can admire fascinating waterfalls, bubbling mud holes, and geysers of the volcano of the same name or bathe in the hot springs during your tour through the jungle. Starting from Liberia, you can even take a second volcano tour to Tenorio Volcano National Park, through which the famous turquoise Rio Celeste flows.
In the evening, after the exciting excursions of the day, enjoy a good steak, for which Liberia is known due to the many surrounding ranchos. Ceviche, casados, and delicious coffee specialties can be found at Café Liberia. The café is housed in a beautiful colonial house with original furnishings and is a real insider tip.
You want to combine surfing, beach vacation, national parks, and action on your Costa Rica trip? Then the former fishing village Tamarindo is the right place for you! The small town is located directly on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in the province of Guanacaste on the Nicoya Peninsula and is surrounded by mountains and national parks. Tamarindo has a local airport, making it easy to get to the town from San José International Airport.
The coast is a true mecca for surfers, who can enjoy the turquoise blue waves. The waves can reach up to 3.5 meters in the surf spots Pico Pequeno and El Estero during the months of November and December. On weekends, the coastal towns are usually very crowded. Therefore, it is best to stop by during the week or visit the lesser-known surf beach Playa Langoste south of Tamarindo. Other water activities such as snorkeling, diving, and canoeing are also very popular.
Near Tamarindo, you also have the opportunity to discover beautiful green national parks with a huge variety of species. Don’t miss Tenorio Volcano National Park, where you can see the volcano of the same name, the Celeste River, and animals like monkeys, sloths, and iguanas in the treetops. It’s best to leave early in the morning so you have plenty of time to explore the park. There is so much to discover! Las Paulas National Marine Park is another fantastic national park that has something very special for animal lovers: the world’s largest breeding colony of leatherback sea turtles on Playa Grande. Watch the cute baby turtles hatch from April to September.
Jaco is different! There is no rainforest, no national park, and not many animals in the coastal city in the province of Puntarenas. Jaco is more like Miami Beach in the USA or Cancun in Mexico and is not really typical for Costa Rica. Even from a distance, you can see the high-rise buildings on the beach and it is clear: there are probably no monkeys swinging on lianas through the jungle here. For the locals, however, that is exactly what is so beautiful about Jaco.
So if, like the Ticos, you want to take a break from the rainforest, Jaco might be just what you’re looking for. The city invites you to relax, party, and sunbathe on the beach. Water sports enthusiasts like surfers and beach walkers will get their money’s worth here. In addition, Jaco has countless bars and restaurants that are open until late at night. You should not miss the spectacular sunsets, best in a nice beach bar with a cool drink. If you feel like some action in nature, the Carara National Park and the Rio Tarcoles, where you can see crocodiles, are nearby.
About 20 km southeast of San José is the old capital of Costa Rica, Cartago. It is the oldest city in the country and is located in the central highlands at 1,400 meters. It offers you a “cool” place in hot Costa Rica and also some other fascinating sights, which makes it one of the most beautiful and best cities in Costa Rica.
The most famous sight of Cartago is definitely the Basilica “Nuestra Senora de los Angeles”, decorated with angel figures, which attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the country every year on August 2nd. The reason for this is the black Madonna “La Negrita”, which is located inside the basilica. According to legend, she has healing powers, which is why many Ticos place their diseased organs in model form in the basilica’s display cases so that they can get well. Not far from the basilica, you will also find the ruined church “Las Ruinas de la Parroquia de Santiago Apóstol”, which was repeatedly destroyed by many earthquakes, so that the inhabitants decided not to rebuild the church.
In addition, the city museum “Museo Municipal de Cartago”, which is located in the former prison of the city, and the traditional country house of the former Costa Rican president are very worth seeing.
Furthermore, Cartago offers itself as a starting point for various excursions into the surrounding area. How about a trip to the highest volcano in the country, the Irazu? Also, a trip to the Orosi Valley, where the oldest church in Costa Rica is located, is highly recommended. For all adrenaline junkies, paragliding is offered in Cartago. Since the city is not very touristy so far, you will also find many authentic restaurants in Cartago with typical dishes of the country.
The small and beautiful student town of Turrialba is located about 30 minutes drive from San José. The area around the city is one of the most diverse landscapes in Costa Rica and you can do many activities and excursions into nature. The volcano of the same name is within sight and invites you to beautiful hikes through the fascinating rainforest and coffee plantations. In the middle of the jungle is also the archaeological site of Guayabo, which is a popular destination especially for those interested in culture.
The highlight of Turrialba is the white water rafting on the Rio Pacuare and the other rivers in the area. If you decide to stop in town, rafting is definitely a must! Rafting tours of one or more days are offered at different levels of difficulty.
Thanks to the short distances to the volcanoes, rivers, and national parks, Turrialba offers you a huge choice of excursions. And in the evening you can end the day in one of the cozy bars. Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?
10. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Puerto Viejo is a small town on the Caribbean coast in the province of Limón near the border with Panama. The town is a paradise for surfers and beach lovers. It is especially popular with backpackers because the hotels, hostels, and bungalows are quite cheap.
On the beach, there are many coral reefs, rocks, and dense rainforests, which is why the adjacent beach is unfortunately not very bathing-friendly. But this is not a problem, because there are many nearby very nice beaches like Punta Uva, Playa Negra, and Manzanillo, where you can swim as you like. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is one of the best places in Costa Rica to enjoy nature and related activities such as surfing, hiking, and snorkeling. We definitely recommend you to take a surf lesson at Cocles Beach. The famous wave Salsa Brava is a paradise for beginners and professionals.
Another highlight is a trip to Cahuita National Park, which you can easily reach by bus or cab from Puerto Viejo. The national park is home to a jungle with many palm trees and at the same time a coastal section of the Caribbean. In the sea, you can admire the impressive schools of fish and reefs and on land, you will meet iguanas and monkeys. Absolutely dreamlike!
If you are an animal lover, there is a sloth sanctuary in Puerto Viejo, the “Jaguar Rescue Center”. The name is a bit confusing because you won’t find jaguars there, but primarily sloths and all kinds of injured and orphaned wild animals, which are lovingly cared for.
5 great Travel Gadgets for your next city adventure
In the current time with Covid-19, we have noticed how important a small bottle of disinfectant is. You can easily fill these little bottles with disinfectant and clip them to your daypack to feel a little safer. When you’re out and about in the city, you’re definitely going to touch a lot of surfaces that have bacteria on them. Therefore, a small amount of disinfectant is always advisable.
In addition to your backpacking backpack or suitcase, it is advisable to pack a small, lightweight backpack with enough space for a water bottle, valuables, rain, and sun protection. It will be much more comfortable and easier on your back than a handbag or shoulder bag during your city tour, as well as for those trips to the rainforest and the beach. This daypack also has adjustable, breathable straps and folds down to sandwich size. So it will fit in any luggage!
A water bottle should not be missing on your city trip, because you will surely get thirsty after some time in the heat and with your water bottle you do not have to buy unnecessary plastic bottles. This is neither good for your health nor for the environment. Since tap water is not necessarily recommended in Costa Rica, it’s best to take a lightweight water bottle with a filter like the ones from LifeStraw – absolutely practical, don’t you think?
Of course, good sun protection is one of the most important things. Costa Rica is very close to the equator, so the sun is even more dangerous. So always make sure that you protect yourself well at all times. Sunscreen lotion is very expensive in Costa Rica, which is why you should definitely pack yours yourself. This one also has an exotic scent.
Anyone going to Costa Rica should have some basic knowledge of Spanish. The majority of the population speaks only Spanish and no English. In order to be able to communicate well, Lonely Planet provides you with the Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary, a wonderful assistance. But don’t worry: if that doesn’t work, the Ticos are also extremely hospitable and understanding. They will talk to you with hands and feet 🙂
Would you like to learn about other useful travel gadgets for your next Costa Rica trip? Then check out our great Costa Rica packing list. Feel free to leave us feedback if you like it or if you are missing something 🙂
Paradise Beaches for perfect relaxation
You have hiked through the green rainforest, climbed the volcanoes and now you want to spend some relaxing time on the Costa Rican beach? We have listed the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica for you. It is time for you to enjoy some pure relaxation away from the hustle and bustle!
1. Manzanillo Beach (Southern Caribbean Coast)
Playa Manzanillo is only 12 kilometers from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and therefore quite easy to reach by bike. This Caribbean beauty is especially popular for locals and snorkeling fans and offers its visitors a 4km long bicolor (beige and black) sandy beach. There are excellent snorkeling conditions at Playa Manzanillo, as the water is really clean. Visibility is at least 10 meters. You can also book dolphin tours from the village.
2. Jaco Beach (Puntarenas)
Jaco is known as an absolute party hotspot in Costa Rica. There are many bars and clubs. This is exactly why the coastal town is also a popular destination for young people and backpackers because here you can combine partying until sunrise with recovering from a hangover on the beach. The waves at Playa Jacó are perfect for surfing. But remember that it gets really hot in Jacó and bring enough sunscreen! Jumping into the water there is a real treat.
3. Punta Uva (Southern Caribbean Coast)
Between the villages of Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo is the gorgeous Caribbean beach of Punta Uva! Punta Uva looks like it was painted: clear blue water, white sand, and lots of palm trees. Monkeys often play in the trees, completing the tropical feel. The beach is also known for its amazing butterfly gardens.
Budget flights to Costa Rica
Stunning Volcanoes for your Volcano Tour
A trip to Costa Rica without climbing one of the many spectacular volcanoes that have shaped the topography of this small country is unthinkable. During your journey of discovery in Costa Rica, be sure to enjoy the breathtaking panorama from the top of a volcano! Here are our top volcanoes that you should visit.
The rather unknown volcano Tenorio is located in the north of Costa Rica near Liberia and has two craters. The surroundings of the volcano, the so-called Tenorio Volcano National Park, are the real highlight there. It is still a little insider tip. The rainforest is incredibly beautiful and is home to the gorgeous Rio Celeste and its waterfall, which has a great turquoise color due to the sulfur of the volcano. The national park has fascinating flora and fauna.
Turrialba volcano is the most eastern active volcano in Costa Rica and is often in the shadow of its big famous brother Irazú. It is located near the cities of San José, Cartago, and Turrialba and has three summit craters that are still very active. If you want to do a volcano tour with beautiful views and few tourists, Turrialba is our recommendation, because it is one of the least visited volcanoes in Costa Rica and this is definitely not because of its beauty! On the contrary, at the summit, Turrialba offers a view of the Irazú, Poás, and Barva volcanoes, the Caribbean Sea, and the tropical rainforest – a breathtaking 360° panoramic view!
North of Monteverde you find the beautiful 1.670m high volcano Arenal. It is probably the most popular volcano in Costa Rica because it has a symmetrical cone shape and really looks like a volcano out of a picture book. Arenal is still active and is considered one of the most unpredictable volcanoes in Costa Rica. During your volcano tour, you can see smoke rising from the crater. Directly at the Arenal Volcano, there are numerous hiking trails that will lead you through old lava fields and the multifaceted nature of Costa Rica. A very special experience is the Mistico Arenal suspension bridge park in the surrounding rainforest – not for the faint-hearted!
Would you like to learn more about Costa Rica’s breathtaking volcanoes? Then check out our list of Costa Rica’s most beautiful & active volcanoes. You will also find valuable information for your next volcano tour!
Best National Parks to discover in Costa Rica
If you want to enjoy natural landscapes, active volcanoes, and the endless variety of flora and fauna, Costa Rica is the right place for you. Find out in which national parks you can experience the feeling of the real jungle in our top national parks in Costa Rica.
1. Corcovado National Park
In the southwest of the Osa Peninsula, a true natural wonder awaits you: Corcovado National Park is considered one of the most biodiverse areas in Costa Rica and even in the world! Spend unforgettable days of your trip in the untouched tropical wilderness. In Corcovado National Park, often described as the Amazon of Costa Rica due to its enormous biodiversity, you will discover rare animals and plants. Seeing a sloth, tapir or even a puma in the wild is entirely possible in Corcovado National Park. Multi-faceted biodiversity and untouched landscapes are just waiting to be explored by you!
Where to stay: LagunaVista Villas
2. Carara National Park
The Carara National Park is located right next to the coastal town of Jaco and is also easily accessible from San José in about an hour’s drive. You will find rainforests and dry forests and many watercourses in the national park, where crocodiles, which also give the national park its name, are at home on the banks of the Rio Tarcoles. In addition, Carara National Park is famous for the endangered bright red macaws, which have their main nesting place there. Visit the national park best in the morning hours to explore the fascinating wildlife!
Where to stay: Hotel Cerro Lodge
3. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
The biodiverse Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve offers breathtaking views of the cloud forests and countless hiking trails among tropical plants – you can’t get enough of it! Look out for colorful quetzals, monkeys, and even jaguars, and walk across the suspension bridges at treetop level! Chocolate tours are also available for those with a sweet tooth. Experience a world, unlike anything you’ve ever known before!
Where to stay: Rainbow Valley Lodge
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