Overview

San Jose, Costa Rica, is the country's social, political and commercial center, and it's more cosmopolitan and prosperous than many other cities in Central America. San Jose is a pleasant place to visit, although it has comparatively few colonial structures, and most travelers use it as a stepping stone to somewhere else in the country. Volcanoes and mountains ring the city's barrios and suburbs; cloud forests, beaches, raging rivers and rain forests lie within a few hours' drive.

San Jose has its own attractions worth exploring, however, and these are on the increase. The capital has entered a revitalization period—condos are going up to attract urban dwellers, cultural events are thriving, and older areas have revived thanks to the boom in tourism. Because of a traditional lack of urban planning, San Jose's architecture is a mishmash of historic structures, glass high-rises and run-down buildings. In many ways, this is part of its charm. However, the city's streets are plagued by congestion and pollution in a country renowned for its environmental prowess, though this is thankfully beginning to change.


Amidst it all, the city is blessed with high-quality restaurants, excellent art galleries, museums and boutique-hotels. San Jose's delightful springlike climate is never too hot and never too cold because of the city's location in the Central Valley. The Ticos, as locals are known, provide excellent hospitality.

Geography

Sitting in the middle of the fertile Valle Central (Central Valley), with volcanoes to the north and a rugged tectonic mountain chain to the south, San Jose has grown awkwardly into a metropolitan area of nearly 2 million residents. Its jumble of potholed streets confounds visitors.

Many main roads eventually lead to the intersection of Avenida Central and Calle Central in the heart of downtown. Several of Costa Rica's most famous landmarks lie within a few blocks of this intersection and are clustered around a series of plazas and parks. The congested downtown should be seen on foot, or by one of the many red taxis.

Finding your destination in San Jose can be particularly difficult, as there are almost no street signs, and street numbers are even rarer. Addresses are referred to by the nearest street junction (for example, Avenida 2 between Calle 3 and Calle 5, expressed in shorthand as A2, C3/5). And to make things even more confusing, residents usually give directions by referring to distances and compass directions from common landmarks (some of which no longer exist). Many Ticos don't even know the name or number of the street they live on.

Several upscale neighborhoods circle the center of downtown. Affluent Escazu and Santa Ana are perched on a hillside and are popular areas for retired expats. The 19th-century barrios Amon and Otoya to the north are both recently gentrified, and several turn-of-the-20th-century mansions have been converted into hotels and restaurants. San Pedro to the east is home to the University of Costa Rica, along with trendy cafes and nightspots. The western edge of downtown, the La Sabana district, surrounds the largest metropolitan park and extends west to Rohrmoser, home to foreign embassies.

The international airport is in Alajuela, a separate town about 12 mi/19 km west of San Jose. Between the two, the area of Ciudad Colon has several modern hotels that cater to leisure, business and convention travelers. Many hotels, ranging from luxury to budget, are in this area.

History

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica in the early 16th century, there were some 400,000 indigenous people inhabiting the region. Their cultures were not as sophisticated as those of the ancient Maya and Aztecs to the north, but they had developed agriculture, metallurgy, animistic religious beliefs and a hierarchical system of government.

By 1564, when the Spanish established their colonial capital at Cartago, near present-day San Jose, there were only about 120,000 indigenous people left in Costa Rica. This population decline was a result of diseases and forced labor inflicted by the Spanish. By 1611, that number had shrunk to 10,000.

Attracted by the Central Valley's rich soil and temperate climate, Spanish settlers founded San Jose in 1737. By the time the competing city factions that fought for Costa Rica's independence designated the city as the capital in 1823, the coffee industry was prospering and bringing wealth to what had been a dusty little town. San Jose became the commercial center for the booming coffee-export business in the mid-1800s, and coffee barons built handsome mansions featuring European designs and furnishings.

The city's cultural elite also funded construction of the neoclassic Teatro Nacional, which opened in 1897 as an opera house. Early-20th-century San Jose was a cosmopolitan city and one of the first electrified cities in the world, with electric trolleys ferrying office workers and residents to well-ordered neighborhoods.

A short civil war in 1948 tore the city apart (bullet holes from the battles are visible in the walls of the Museo Nacional). The war led to the establishment of Costa Rica's constitution and the abolishment of the military in 1949. The country became an oasis of peace amid Central America's wars and revolutions, assisted by the government's commitment to, and guarantees in, health and education.

San Jose became an important financial and political hub for the entire country and benefited from a large influx of foreign investment, most recently in the high-tech and pharmaceutical industries. Major international companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola have built assembly plants outside of the city.

Costa Rica never entered into the military conflicts that plagued its neighbors, and its former president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for brokering peace among the Central American nations. In 2005, President Arias successfully lobbied for a repeal on the one-term restriction for presidents and the following year became the first Costa Rican president elected to a second term.

Sightseeing

Most of San Jose's important attractions are located within easy walking distance of each other around downtown, which is best navigated on foot. Begin your exploration with a tour of the National Museum, the repository of the country's history.

Move on to the Museo de Oro Precolumbino and the adjacent National Theater, then take a break for coffee and people-watching at the Plaza de la Cultura and tour the adjacent National Theater. From there, pay a visit to the Jade Museum in the Amon district.

Once you've hit all the highlights, stroll the back streets of barrios Amon and Otoya, where handsome old coffee-baron mansions now house trendy cafes and boutique-hotels.

Whether you pack sightseeing into a short amount of time or stretch it out over a few days, be sure to take time to appreciate the town's atmosphere. San Jose is not particularly noted for its attractions, but more for its lifestyle and nightlife. Weekends are the time to experience downtown at its best; the notorious traffic is somewhat less congested than during the week, and Ticos have a more casual attitude as they stroll the streets and congregate in the city's many parks to chat and relax.

Nightlife

San Jose has a vibrant nightlife scene—Ticos love to dance. Clubs featuring salsa, merengue, cumbia and other Latin music are located all over downtown. You'll find that most nightclubs don't really get busy until midnight, and some have a nominal cover charge, especially if there's live music. Many bars serve bocas, which are appetizers similar to the tapas served in Spain. Most bars technically close at 2 am, but people usually keep partying. Bars rarely close completely until 4 am on the weekend. However, many bars close at midnight during the week.

El Pueblo in Barrio Tournon is home to two wildly popular discos. San Pedro, the university district, has alternative clubs featuring jazz, rock and blues music on weekends, as well as the popular Calle Amargura, full of bars, restaurants and cafes. The bar scene in the Escazu area also is hopping and tends to draw a more upscale crowd. Consult with the front-desk personnel at your hotel or look in the English-language newspaper, The Tico Times, for your best bets.

Dining

Until a few years ago, visitors to San Jose were hard-pressed to find alternatives to the local menu of rice and beans combined with beef, fish or chicken. The most familiar regional dish has long been gallo pinto, a blend of black beans, white rice and spices typically served at breakfast (Ticos often eat massive quantities of food at the morning meal). Many visitors become fond of it and request gallo pinto at all meals.

Casados, set-price bargain meals combining rice, beans and chicken, fish or beef, are the standard entrees at lunch and dinner. Casado plates usually include a shredded vegetable salad and fried plantains or yucca. For an inexpensive and filling meal, stop at one of the sodas—small dinerlike cafes where a casado and coffee generally cost less than 3,500 CRC. You'll find sodas in nearly every neighborhood. (You'll also have no trouble finding U.S. fast-food restaurants.)

Tropical fruits play an important role in local cuisine, and everyone should try the country's home-grown pineapples, papayas, mangoes and melons in fruit plates, juices and ice creams. Other must-try exotic fruits include cas and guanabana. We recommend a batido—a fruit shake—as a perfect way to beat the heat. Vegetables are less varied and often consist of boiled squash, carrots and potatoes. Appetizers, called bocas, include flaky empanadas and patacones (refried plantain patties).

Most restaurants in San Jose rely on time-honored standards, but an increasing number are catering to more discerning diners. The city has several excellent Italian restaurants, thanks to the large number of Costa Ricans of Italian ancestry. Asian restaurants thrive also, including sushi bars. Meanwhile, chefs from around the world are designing menus in hotel and restaurant kitchens, drawing on local ingredients and foreign techniques. Sophisticated cafes are attracting a chic urban crowd, and historic mansions are now elegant restaurants. The most exciting restaurants are clustered in the fashionable and hip neighborhoods—Amon, Otoya, La Sabana and San Pedro. There are also some excellent restaurants in Escazu.

For most Ticos, dinner begins around 7:30 pm. Although some restaurants do serve food into the night, it can be difficult to find food after 10 pm.

The following is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 5,000 CRC; $$ = 5,000-10,000 CRC; $$$ = more than 10,000 CRC.

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