A lot of people dream of going to Costa Rica. This country is famous for its laidback atmosphere, amazing natural scenery, and incredible beaches. In fact, if you’re looking for places to visit in Costa Rica, you’ll be spoiled for choice no matter what type of activities you like to do when you’re on vacation.
Costa Rica may be a dream destination, but it isn’t always easy to travel there. It’s a huge country, and people who prefer more established travel destinations may struggle to plan a trip there. That’s why we’ve created this guide to Costa Rica, so you can work out exactly what you want to see while you’re there and how to get the most from your trip.
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The Best Places to Stay in Costa Rica
When you travel to Costa Rica, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation. There’s a huge variety of hotel options at every price point in this country, which is why we’ve given you some recommendations. All these options are located within San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica and located in the country’s center. This makes it a great place to base yourself for explorations into other parts.
Best Hostel in Costa Rica: Stray Cat Hostel
There are a lot of great options to choose from when you’re deciding where to stay in Costa Rica. The Stray Cat Hostel is located in San Jose, which is a great base for your explorations and offers comfortable and friendly accommodations and amenities. It’s close to the best neighborhoods in Costa Rica for travelers and within walking distance of bus stations for long and short haul trips around the country, parks, cultural attractions, and the center of the city.View on HostelWorld
Best Airbnb in Costa Rica: Brand New Condo
This place is right in the middle of Costa Rica’s biggest metropolitan. This condo makes you feel right at home, and safe with 24-hour security. It’s so clean, and the bed is freaking heavenly. It also has everything you need from laundry to the kitchen. Oh, and if you walk a block away, you’ll find sweet bars and lounges.View on Airbnb
Best Budget Hotel in Costa Rica: Hotel Novo
Hotel Novo is in the center of San Jose, just a few minutes’ walk from some of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica. This also makes it close to all the neighborhoods in Costa Rica that you’ll want to see. It boasts a restaurant, 24-hour front desk, private bathrooms, and a bar, and is within walking distance of several dining options. This is what makes it one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica for convenience at a price that won’t stretch your budget.View on Booking.com View on HotelsCombined
Best Luxury Hotel in Costa Rica: Studio Hotel
The Studio Hotel is one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica for convenience and luxury. It offers a rooftop swimming pool, elegant and comfortable rooms with a view of Central Valley, and is eco-friendly with an a la carte restaurant on site. This boutique hotel includes a bar and an airport shuttle for your convenience. All of these features make it a great choice when you’re deciding where to stay in Costa Rica.View on Booking.com View on HotelsCombined
Need a place quick? Here’s the best neighbourhood in Costa Rica:
- Explore the Ruinas de Ujarras.
- See a performance or take a tour of the elegant Teatro Nacional Costa Rica.
- Take a stroll through Parque Central.
These are the BEST Places to Visit in Costa Rica!
#1 – Arenal
A very cool place in Costa Rica to go for a day
• This active volcano is one of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica.
• If you enjoy outdoor activities, you’ll like them even more on the side of the volcano!
Why it’s so awesome: Arenal is an active volcano that soars more than 1,600 meters above the jungles of Alajuela. It’s located just outside of San Jose and is one of the most popular points of interest in Costa Rica. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, the entire area also offers a range of outdoor activities and sites including waterfalls, hiking trails, bridle paths, and animal encounters.
What to do there: You’ll need a reasonable level of physical fitness to get the most from this destination, but there’s something for everyone there. If you want to explore on foot, then try the hiking trails that crisscross the landscapes. You can also do white water rafting on the river rapids, explore the jungle on swinging wire bridges, or go horse-riding. Just remember that the volcano is still active, which just adds a touch of excitement to the experience!
#2 – Territorio de Zaguates
• A mountainside dog sanctuary where you can interact with hundreds of man’s best friends.
• If you want to combine your trip with a good deed, then interacting with these animals and helping them get used to humans again is a worthy way to do it.
Why it’s so awesome: This mountainside sanctuary otherwise known as the Land of Strays has been saving the stray dogs of Costa Rica for years. Over the years, it’s taken in thousands of animals from the more than a million strays in the country, and visitors are an important part of the animals’ rehabilitation.
What to do there: If you like dogs, then you’ll enjoy taking the two-mile hike through the park. You’ll have the company of hundreds of dogs of all kinds, shapes and sizes, and playing with the friendly crowd will probably be one of the highlights of your trip. It also helps get the dogs used to being among humans again so they can be adopted. And this means that you’ll walk away with the amazing feeling of making the world better, one pat at a time!
#3 – Rio Celeste
• Probably one of the most beautiful and startling looking rivers in the world.
• You can’t swim in the park, but the river does meander out of it to make natural hot springs where the locals enjoy taking a dip.
Why it’s so awesome: This is an absolutely beautiful looking river that looks unbelievable in pictures, so make sure you bring your camera with you. The color comes from the place where two clearwater rivers combine and their minerals create an optical illusion at a point called El Tenidero or the Dyer. The river itself is located in the Tenorio Volcano National Park, but it curves outside of the park at certain points.
What to do there: People who see photos of this river usually think that it’s been photoshopped, but the truth is that it’s really that bright, clear color. The best way to see it is to hike to Laguna Azul and then head back towards the waterfall. You can’t swim inside of the national park but ask the locals about the places where the river curves out of the park. They tend to use these sections as hot springs, so you can take a dip for a small fee in these sections.
#4 – Witch’s Rock
An unknown (but awesome!) place to see in Costa Rica!
• A rock called Roca Bruja was hurled into the water by a volcano at this spot and has created some of the best surfing in the world.
• No matter how good you are on a board, the waves here are suitable for almost every level.
Why it’s so awesome: If you enjoy surfing, then you should try it in this area. Located just off Playa Naranjo and close to surf Mecca Tamarindo, this area was made famous in the surf film The Endless Summer II and for good reason. The rock is positioned perfectly to create world-class waves that are suitable for almost every surfer, and as an added bonus it’s also away from the crowds at better-known surf spots!
What to do there: You can paddle out to the break but it’s easier if you take a boat out there. This is the perfect place to go surfing no matter how good you are on the board, so just show up and work on your skills!
#5 – San Lucas Island Prison
• This was once one of Costa Rica’s most brutal prisons and is now a wildlife refuge.
• If you want to learn more about the darker side of this tropical paradise, then this is definitely the place to come.
• The prison and the tour aren’t for kids.
Why it’s so awesome: For more than a century, this island housed Costa Rica’s most brutal prison. The prisoners endured conditions that are hard to imagine now. However, you can experience a small part of their suffering through the artworks they left behind, often etched in blood.
What to do there: If you have a strong stomach, then take the tour for the best experience. The artwork is often carved out in blood, whether the artist’s or someone else’s, and depicts naked women, religious imagery, and detailed images of the brutality and hopelessness experienced by those interred there. Definitely not for children or for the sensitive.
#6 – Teatro Nacional
• This beautiful building is a Costa Rica must see.
• Within the building is a museum and theater that explores the artwork and culture of the country.
Why it’s so awesome: This is one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, which is why it must be on your Costa Rica itinerary. It was opened in 1897 and features a neoclassical façade and ornate, gilded interior which have made it a cultural icon and source of national pride. Some of the best plays, concerts, operas and musical events are held at this venue and there’s also a museum with exhibits based on Italian artworks and sculptures.
What to do there: When you’re planning to travel to Costa Rica, find out what’s on at this venue while you’re there and make sure you take in a show. You can also take a great tour of the building that will teach you about the building’s design features and finishes in the café for a drink or snack.
#7 – Parque Francisco Alvarado
One of the more unique places to visit in Costa Rica!
• A surreal garden located in Zarcero with some of the most extraordinary garden sculptures you’ll ever see.
• This is the life’s work of artist Evangelisto Blanco who has been working on the garden since the 1960s.
Why it’s so awesome: This garden is one of the most stunning in the world, which is why it’s also one of the most popular landmarks in Costa Rica. Created by a single artist, the hedges and shrubs offer the otherworldly experience of walking amongst dinosaurs, religious figures, and abstract human figures. It’s truly a masterpiece and deserves all the attention it gets.
What to do there: Take a few hours to explore this garden and the genius of its creator. Make sure that you have your camera with you too, so you can get lots of photos to remember your trip by. And make sure that you don’t miss the series of sculptured tree arches that have been positioned to form a naturally grown tunnel.
Quick Note – Staying Safe in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a developing nation and it does experience some of the same problems that afflict this part of the world such as poverty, crimes and drug trafficking. However, this country is one of the safest in Central and South America and most tourists have a trouble free and peaceful trip to this part of the world.
It’s important that you stay vigilant when you’re traveling in Costa Rica. Pickpocketing and muggings in and around tourist areas are common, so exercise common sense and stay out of isolated areas. It’s also important that you stay in a good hotel or hostel in San Jose to avoid trouble spots.
Gang-related crime is on the rise as well, mostly in San Jose, so ask other travelers and hotel staff for advice on areas and locations that you should stay away from. Also, make sure that you always listen to your gut when visiting this country, and if you feel like something is wrong then listen to your instincts and get out of there.
No destination is perfect – check out our Costa Rica safety guide here and learn about this destination’s unique problems.
Don’t forget to sort your travel insurance! We’ve put together a roundup of the best travel insurance for backpackers, or if you’re low on time, get a quote from World Nomads now, our favourite travel insurance provider.
#8 – Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes
• A quiet church located in the city of Grecia.
• At first glance, this church is pretty but normal looking, but when you look closer, you’ll work out what makes it special.
Why it’s so awesome: This church was constructed in the 1890s and was a technological marvel at the time. It’s made entirely of Belgian steel and still remains the most metal church in the world today. For a long time, people wondered why Belgian steel was used in its construction, though the reason turned out to be fairly ordinary. But today, it’s just a visually arresting church that’s painted red and white and is definitely more than it seems.
What to do there: This church is one of the most unusual in the world, which is why it’s a Costa Rica must see. Have a look at the unique construction, marvel at how it was made and put together, and make sure you take pictures to silence the skeptics back home.
#9 – Puerto Viejo
A great place to visit in Costa Rica if you are alone/traveling solo
• Located on the Caribbean Coast, this area is popular amongst backpacker for its surfing and nightlife.
• This is a lively town that’s one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica along the Caribbean Coast.
Why it’s so awesome: If you’re looking for a place with a great nightlife and amazing beach scene, then this small town is for you. It’s a lively place where backpackers congregate to swim, surf, and party, but there are also several beach resorts in the area if you want to enjoy the beach without the noise. There’s also a jaguar rescue center nearby where wildlife is rehabilitated and returned to the wild.
What to do there: This is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica if you want to enjoy some great nightlife. There’s always something going on at night in this area and during the day is just as lively because of the vibrant beach scene. You should also spend some time at the jaguar rescue center to support the important work done to protect and safeguard Costa Rica’s wildlife. There are also loads of great hostels in Puerto Viejo so finding somewhere to stay won’t be an issue.
#10 – Sloth Sanctuary
• An entire sanctuary dedicated to the world’s cutest and slowest animal.
• This sanctuary is known worldwide for the work it does protecting these adorable animals.
Why it’s so awesome: if you’ve ever seen the movie Ice Age and want to see a sloth close up, you’ll have plenty of chances at this sanctuary. Since its opening in 1992, the volunteers have raised more than 700 orphaned sloths, doing their part to protect and support this endangered animal. This is what makes this location one of the best Costa Rica vacation ideas you’ll have.
What to do there: You can take the tour through this sloth sanctuary and explore it with the help of some very enthusiastic volunteers. The tour includes the learning center and enclosures so you can see the animals up close and learn about the very real threats to the two indigenous sloth breeds in Costa Rica. You can also adopt one of the sloths, though this doesn’t mean you can take it home.
#11 – Playa des los Artistas
One of the most romantic places to visit in Costa Rica!
• This restaurant is said to be one of the best in Costa Rica.
• If you enjoy fresh seafood, then you’ll enjoy your meal at this restaurant.
Why it’s so awesome: Located on the outskirts of Montezuma, this restaurant was founded in 1994 and focuses on seafood with a Mediterranean twist. It’s one of the best places to eat in Costa Rica and is tucked away between the beach and the jungle in what might be one of the most romantic locations in the world.
What to do there: This is the perfect place for a romantic date with your partner. It’s an incredibly atmospheric spot where you can sit at a rickety wooden table and dine by candlelight. You’ll also be able to eat some of the best and freshest seafood dishes of your life, so make sure that you’re hungry!
#12 – Torteguero
A beautiful and scenic place to check out in Costa Rica
• The Costa Rican version of the Amazon rainforest.
• This is a massive area that dominates the northern coast and offers a huge range of animal encounters.
Why it’s so awesome: When you’re visiting this country, you absolutely must have as many animal encounters as possible and this is one of the best places in Costa Rica to do that. It stretches across a massive area and includes rivers and canals that crisscross the dense jungle. It’s also a known turtle nesting area, so if you’re there in the right season then make sure you check out this amazing sight!
What to do there: This area includes the Tortuguero National Park, which is one of the most well-known hotspots in Costa Rica for animals. If you’re in the area between April and May, make sure you visit the turtle nesting areas to experience this amazing spectacle. But even if you visit at other times of the year, you can also go hiking, take a canal cruise, or look for the other animals that live in this remarkable area.
#13 – Corcovado National Park
A nice non-touristy place to visit in Costa Rica
• One of the biggest and remote national parks where you’ll be able to enjoy nature without all the crowds.
• This is a more rugged park, so you’ll need a good level of physical fitness to make it around.
Why it’s so awesome: located in Southwestern Costa Rica on the Osa Peninsula, this park was established in 1975 and covers 424 square kilometers, which makes it the largest park in the country. It’s a more off-the-beaten-path park than the others because it’s a little harder to get to. However, once you’re there you’ll be treated to deserted beaches, amazing hikes, lots of wildlife and marine life.
What to do there: This park is a Costa Rica must do if you enjoy nature without all the tourists. Whatever you enjoy doing in nature, whether it’s hiking, camping, relaxing on the beach or looking for animals in the ocean, you’ll be able to do it in this park without fighting the crowds. This kind of peace and quiet is what makes this park so attractive to travelers and one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica!
#14 – Manuel Antonio
• One of the most popular beach destinations in Costa Rica.
• If you love white sand and warm blue waters, this is the best place to visit in Costa Rica.
Why it’s so awesome: This beach area draws people by the thousands to enjoy the warm waters and white sands but there’s more. Manuel Antonio is close to a national park that’s home to secluded beaches, hiking trails, and is the home of three types of native monkeys. It’s a fairly busy park that gets over 150,000 visitors annually, so expect some crowds if you choose to experience this area. There are some nearby hostels in Manuel Antonio but do book in advance.
What to do there: You absolutely must spend some time at the beach when you’re in this part of Costa Rica. There’s nothing like swimming in clear blue, warm waters and enjoying the sunshine and white sands. But you can also get some physical activity in as well. The hiking is amazing in this area, and who doesn’t like seeing monkeys in their natural habitat?
#15 – Monteverde
• Costa Rica’s best cloud forest.
• This is the home of the elusive quetzal bird and most people travel to this forest in search of this rare sight.
Why it’s so awesome: Monteverde is one of the most popular eco-friendly tourism hubs in the country, which is why over 250,000 people visit there every year. This location is right on the continental divide and experiences high winds and unusual weather patterns, which is why it’s an incredibly verdant area. This climate makes it stunningly beautiful and draws in nature lovers from all walks of life. There are some great hostels in Monteverde.
What to do there: Go on a tour looking for the quetzal bird or explore on your own on foot or via zip line. The zip lines are a very popular option and will allow you to explore the area in the most exciting way possible. There are also a number of sky bridges in the area that you should visit as well.
#16 – Poas Volcano
One of the most amazing places in Costa Rica!
• This is a great day trip from San Jose.
• Poas Volcano is an active volcano with twin calderas that are so still they look painted on.
Why it’s so awesome: This is a remarkable scenic place that looks absolutely incredible in photos. It’s an active volcano with twin calderas that are filled with sulfur lakes. You obviously can’t swim, but in pictures, the colors look so still that you’ll think they were painted on. The volcanos are very active and last erupted in 2017. In fact, they’ve erupted 40 times since 1828, so be alert for more!
What to do there: You need to visit this site early in the morning to avoid the crowds and before the clouds block the view. Take your camera and make sure you get lots of photos of the famous lakes before exploring the area in more depth. There are small trails around the area that are easy to navigate and will give you lots of vantage points for sightseeing and pictures.
#17 – Santa Theresa
A nice quiet place to see in Costa Rica
• A small, hippie town at the bottom of the Nicoya Coast.
• This town has a relaxed town that’s based on surfing, yoga, and food rather than partying.
Why it’s so awesome: If you’re tired of cities and don’t want to party then you’ll love this small town. It’s a haven for hippie backpackers and is the perfect place to kick back and relax with some surfing and great food. The famously relaxed vibe in this area is addictive and people tend to stay much longer than they planned when they visit Santa Theresa as part of their Costa Rica itinerary.
What to do there: This town is basically a road that’s lined with yoga retreats, eateries, surf shops, and hostels. There really isn’t much to do besides relax, surf, and eat amazing food. There isn’t much nightlife in this area because most people like to get up early and hit the waves, which is why it’s the perfect place to recover if you’ve had a busy travel schedule. So, just show up, enjoy the beach, do some yoga, and have leisurely meals to the sounds of the waves.
#18 – Iglesia de San José de Orosi
One of the most underrated places to see in Costa Rica
• This cathedral is located in a peaceful mountain town around 22 miles outside of San Jose.
• The climate in this area is incredibly pleasant, which is why this area is said to produce the best coffee in the world.
Why it’s so awesome: Located in Orosi, this is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica if you’re interested in architecture as well as a more authentic way of life. It’s Costa Rica’s oldest church still in use and was inspired by Spanish-colonial architecture. There’s also a small museum and garden attached to the church that are worth exploring.
What to do there: Big cities are great, but sometimes it’s nice to visit a small town and get a glimpse of regular, everyday life. And if you visit this church, you’ll get the chance to do just that. So, make sure you admire the church and check out the museum with its interesting art and artifacts. Spend some time exploring the garden, and then get a coffee. This area is rumored to produce the best coffee in town because of the rich soil, so have a cup and make up your own mind.
#19 – The Winchester Mystery House
Quite the quirky place in Costa Rica!
• This is a very strange house that’s a maze of random rooms and alcoves.
• According to the legends, this house was under construction for 38 years until the owner’s death.
Why it’s so awesome: Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, a gun magnate and after his death, she constructed this strange house. She inherited a lot of money, which is why she was able to keep up the construction work for over 38 years until her death and the result is a very strange house that seems almost completely random. Located in San Jose, this is now one of the most popular landmarks in Costa Rica!
What to do there: The gardens at the Winchester house are open daily and they’re an awesome place to explore and take in some more of the strangeness of this location. They’re created in the Victorian style that includes cherry laurels, box hedges, and statues of mythological creatures. There’s also a firearm museum on site, with lots of vintage rifles, and onsite activities such as arcade games and a shooting range.
#20 – Tech Museum of Innovation
Awesome place to visit in Costa Rica with kids!
• A very popular museum that teaches kids of all ages how to improve the world!
• If you want to inspire your kids to be more engaged with technology, this is a great way to do it.
Why it’s so awesome: This museum was originally located in a garage, but it proved so popular that it was moved into a larger facility after its first 8 years. The museum gives visitors a glimpse of Silicon Valley with the aim of inspiring people to improve the world of the future through technology.
What to do there: Take the kids along for an educational day out that will enthrall everyone. It will take you a couple of hours to explore this place, but it’s worth it to learn more about technology and where the future might take us.
#21 – The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
A fascinating educational place to visit in Costa Rica
• A museum in San Jose that’s dedicated to the fascinating world of the ancient Egyptians.
• It contains the largest collection of items from Ancient Egypt in the western US.
Why it’s so awesome: The building that houses this museum is designed in the architectural style of the Ancient Egyptians, which adds to the experience and makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. The museum itself contains the largest collection of items in the western US including a stone figure of Cleopatra.
What to do there: If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the ancient Egyptians, you probably didn’t think you could do that in Costa Rica. But you can, and this is what makes this building one of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica. So, take a couple of hours to explore. Make sure you check out the statue of Taweret and of Cleopatra VII, two of the most notable items in the exhibit.
#22 – The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles
One of the most religious places to see in Costa Rica
• One of the most important religious monuments in Costa Rica.
• This basilica is located in Cartago and is the home of the relic La Negrita, which is one of the most important religious objects in Costa Rica.
Why it’s so awesome: If you’re in Cartago, then you must visit this stunning basilica. It was inspired by Byzantine architecture and is heavily ornate, with amazing stained glass windows, hand-painted interiors and wooden alters that were carved with exquisite care. It’s also one of the most important religious landmarks in Costa Rica, with thousands of locals making the journey there to pray every year on August 2.
What to do there: If you’re in the country in August, then take the opportunity to be part of the religious pilgrimage to this basilica. It’s the home of the relic La Negrita, a small black rock that holds the image of the Virgin Mary. La Negrita is the patron saint of Costa Rica, and locals travel there every year to pray on August 2. But if you’re there at any other time of year, just take the time to explore this building with its stunning detail work and decoration.
#23 – The Diquís Spheres
• Mysterious spheres that were created by a civilization that has since been lost to time.
• These spheres can now be found all over Costa Rica and are usually used as lawn ornaments.
Why it’s so awesome: You might be forgiven for thinking that these spheres are simply a strange trend in Costa Rican lawn ornaments. But the truth is that they have a much longer history than that. They were found in the 1930s when workers were clearing land and unexpectedly dug up huge numbers of perfectly round stone spheres. No one knows where they came from and now, they can be found on lawns all over Costa Rica.
What to do there: This history and purpose of these spheres is unknown. They likely belonged to an extinct civilization that has since been lost, but they’ve become an accepted part of modern Costa Rican life. Looking for them throughout the country is one of the most unusual things to do in Costa Rica. As a little hint, you’ll find six of them in the courtyard of Costa Rica’s National Museum in San Jose, but they can be found all over the country.
#24 – La Oveja Negra
A must-see for foodies!
• The best place in Costa Rica to enjoy authentic Costa Rican food.
• This restaurant is located in San Jose and offers a relaxed atmosphere along with the traditional foods.
Why it’s so awesome: You probably don’t think about Costa Rica in connection with food. This is a shame because exploring a country’s native dishes is one of the best things about traveling. If you want to try some authentic Costa Rican food, then you need to have a meal at La Oveja Negra.
What to do there: This is the perfect place to kick back and enjoy foods you’ve probably never heard of before. The restaurant is relaxed and rustic, no need to dress to the nines here, and the food is delicious and homey. One of the best dishes on the menu is the classic chifrijo with pork, rice, beans and lemon, but everything else is good too. And the restaurant offers a range of locally made beers that will delight your tongue if you’re a beer drinker too.
Get insured for your trip to Costa Rica!
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Final Thoughts on the Coolest Places to Visit in Costa Rica
People who visit Costa Rica rave about the natural scenery, the friendly people, and the beaches and you will too after a trip. This tropical paradise is popular with all different types of travelers and exploring this country there isn’t as intimidating as you may think. With our help and guidance, you’ll be able to find all the best places to visit in Costa Rica with a minimum of trouble. And you’ll come away with some of the best and most beautiful travel memories possible.
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Need More Inspiration?
- Backpacking Costa Rica – Maps, Travel Tips, Itineraries, and Things to Do
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Writer and Editor, Ana Pereira is a California native, inspired by Earth exploration and introspection. Recently, she spent several months exploring Africa and South Asia. She spends most of her “down-time” out in the wilderness, climbing, hiking, and beyond, and is feverishly passionate about travel and health.