There’s a joke, in tourism circles at least, that says, “San Jose: It’s only 45 minutes from Costa Rica!” The bustling, modern metro area of almost 2 million people is indeed a far cry from the pristine rainforests and palm-fringed beaches for which the nation is better known. But in a way, San Jose—or “Chepe,” as it is lovingly called—is a most authentically Tico (Costa Rican) destination, the seat of government, culture, and commerce in the cool mountains of the Central Valley.
More to the point, you’ll almost certainly be spending some time here in the capital, so why not enjoy it?
Start at the Plaza de la Cultura, at the heart of downtown surrounded by busy pedestrian walkways and shopping centers. Most of the city’s best museums are within a few blocks. Don’t miss the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) right beneath the plaza, a glittering expanse of pre-Columbian gold and among the finest museums of its type in the world. Also well worth visiting is the elegant and elaborately neoclassical 1891 National Theater, built at the height of Costa Rica’s “Coffee Boom.”
If you’re interested in enjoying more of the architectural frills of the Coffee Boom era, head to Barrio Amón, once the city’s poshest neighborhood a few blocks north of the plaza. Today, its eclectic collection of mansions are filled with some of the city’s best restaurants and boutique hotels, a fine place for a stroll.
If more museums are to your tastes, other outstanding offerings include the Museo Nacional (National Museum), with excellent exhibits featuring pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial artifacts, as well as a butterfly garden in the courtyard, all housed in an old military base, Fortaleza Buena Vista; and Museo de los Ninos (Children’s Museum with scores of interesting, interactive exhibits for kids, in a beautifully preserved old Spanish prison that resembles a castle.
For an inexpensive and atmospheric meal, head to the Mercado Central, just west of the Cathedral, with more than a dozen little restaurants serving freshly made “casados,” the typical Costa Rican lunch of rice, beans, a couple of side salads and your choice of meat entrée. This is also a good spot to stock up on groceries and souvenirs.
Of course, San Jose really is about 45 minutes from any number of natural attractions and makes a very comfortable base for exploring the country. Your hotel or any tour operator can arrange an array of day trips that take in hot springs, volcanoes, beaches and/or the adorable little towns of the Central Valley, such as Sarchí, the handicraft capital of the country. Outdoorsy types could opt for a day of whitewater rafting, or tour to Poas Volcano, with magnificent views over an active caldera. On a budget? Catch a bus to the town of Orosí, a pretty coffee-growing town with Costa Rica’s oldest church and some of the cheapest hot springs (well, warm springs) in the country, a bargain at US$3 per visit.
But be sure to get back to the capital in time to enjoy the city’s nightlife. Keep in mind that prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, and the area right around Parque Morazon downtown is ground zero for the industry; it’s a predictably seedy scene, though the enormous, pink Hotel and Casino Del Rey has become something of an attraction even for travelers who just want a look. More traditional nightlife is centered on El Pueblo, a commercial center just north of downtown. Crime can be an issue, especially at night, so be sure to take a metered cab after dark!