Introduction to San José
Sprawling and chaotic at first sight, San José is nonetheless a vibrant capital with plenty to see and do. All international flights to Costa Rica touchdown at the city’s airport, and as you fly into the high central valley where San José sits, you’ll see the city stretching out before you between green volcanic mountain ranges, while its suburbs cling to the gentle foothills. San José is more or less laid out on a grid system, but even so, the city adheres to the standard Costa Rica address system of locating buildings in relation to the nearest landmark. When someone invites you to visit and tells you their address is 0.03 miles (50m) south of the San Patricia Church, for example, don’t be too surprised, this is as precise as things get in Costa Rica.
Once upon a time San José was a small, elegant city catering to the needs of the surrounding agricultural enterprises. However, when capitalism really kicked in, the city, and its population, skyrocketed, and continued to do so throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Skyscrapers sprung up, development powered on unchecked and many of the city´s original buildings were lost in the scrum. However, there are still pockets of colonial gems around San José and some very fine museums and green spaces, as well as a lively cultural scene. Urban migration has been such that today over a third of all Costa Ricans live in the capital, so if you do want to experience the true, modern-day face of Costa Rica, you shouldn’t pass up a visit.
What not to miss in San José
The Mercado Central is a colorful labyrinth of organized chaos. Drop by to soak up the atmosphere and spend an afternoon grazing on some of Costa Rica’s best local cuisine. Costa Ricans love to snack, and here you will find anything from green mango slices with chili or salt and lime to, delicious fish soups or cinnamon ice cream.
Visit a coffee farm to learn about the secrets of planting, harvesting, washing and drying the world-renowned Golden Coffee Bean of Costa Rica.
The Poas Volcano is considered the largest active crater in the world, about 1 mile (1.6km) wide and 1050 ft. (320m) deep, with frequent geyser-like eruptions. You’ll go right up to the edge, standing at the frontier of the billowing smoke, listening to the hiss of sulfur and steam that pour out of the huge abyss below.
La Paz Waterfalls Gardens
In the La Paz Waterfall Gardens you can walk along the numerous nature trails that all lead you to beautiful hidden waterfalls. You can also visit the largest butterfly observatory in the country, a hummingbird garden, serpentarium, tropical bird house, frog’s exhibit and an area for rescued wild cats.
Plaza de la Cultura
The Plaza de la Cultura is a small, but perfectly formed square in central San José. The impressive Teatro Nacional is on its southern side and it´s a great spot to enjoy a moment of calm and a little people watching.
What you need to know
When to go
Despite the altitude (3770 ft./1253m), San José’s weather is generally warm and breezy year round. The rainy season runs from mid-April to December with August to October seeing the most rainfall and is a great time to beat the crowds and find some good deals. The city’s climate is considerably cooler than on the coasts with daytime temperatures generally varying between 70°F and 80°F (21°C to 27°C). Evening temperatures in Costa Rica’s capital can get a little chilly so you’ll want to make sure you wrap up warm. San Jose can be visited and enjoyed at any time of year but our favorite time is around the Christmas holidays, when the local festive cheer reaches its height with the Festival de la Luz and Las Fiestas de Zapote
How to get there
San Jose’s airport, Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (SJO), handles all international and Nature Air domestic arrivals and departures in its main terminal. Domestic flights on Sansa also arrive and depart from SJO but from the Sansa terminal.
The smaller Aeropuerto Tobías Bolaños in San José’s suburb of Pavas, services private charter and a few national flights.
Where to stay
From simple but comfortable B&Bs to luxurious boutique hotels and lodges, San Jose has a wide range of accommodation offerings. Many of the hotels downtown are housed in converted and beautifully restored old mansions. Staying in San Jose puts you at the center of the action and close to all the city’s museums, restaurants, cafes and the best nightlife spots.
If you’re flying into or out of Costa Rica from San Jose, Alajuela near to Costa Rica’s capital is a lovely town just minutes from the international airport.
In San Jose, red taxis can be hailed on the street day or night, or you can have your hotel call one for you. Uber has also become a popular form of transport in the city.
We don’t recommend renting a car just to drive around San Jose as the traffic can be heavy, the streets are narrow and the deep curbside gutters make parking nerve-wracking.