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The capital of Costa Rica is an elegant city, cradled by soaring mountains and within easy reach of beaches and pristine rainforest reserves. It's the ideal place to mix nature trips with urban attractions.
If all you'd like to do is take in musical performances, tour museums, shop for jade craft items, or dance until dawn, San Jose is a wonderful urban destination. But it's more than just another attractive, historical capital city.
Tour operators can take you to the turtle reserves of Tortuguero, you can hike to the summit of awe-inspiring volcanoes, or head into the forest with companies like Rain Forest Tours to world-famous sites of astonishing natural diversity like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world to visit well-managed rainforest habitats, and there are plenty of tour operators in San Jose. You can join buses to Sarapiquí or La Selva and see gorgeous birds like the Great Green Macaw, as well as iguanas, monkeys, and crocodiles.
Costa Rica is also famous for its artisans who work with jade, a rich green gemstone. You can find out everything you need to know about jade production at the Jade Museum, then pick up souvenirs from the masters at Galería Namu, which is just around the corner.
The center of town is packed with elegant buildings like the Metal School, the Castillo Azul, and the Teatro Nacional, which is a wonderful place to watch an opera, classical concert, or ballet.
San Jose has Costa Rica's best nightlife, with vibrant dance clubs in San Pedro, rock music venues in Barrio La California, and lively bars and restaurants in the central El Pueblo neighborhood. It's the kind of place where everyone seems to dance, whether it's to reggaeton, salsa, rock, or merengue.
From ziplines that speed through the rainforest canopy at Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí to climbing Mount Irazú, seeing endangered turtles at Tortuguero, and relaxing on the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, there are plenty of outdoor opportunities near the Costa Rican capital.
The best time to visit San Jose is definitely during Costa Rica's dry season, which lasts from December through to April. However, that's also peak tourist season. If you want to save money and avoid crowded tours, try May or November, although you may encounter a downpour or two.
Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is about 15 miles west of the city center and has regular flights from many American cities. Catching a city bus is the cheapest route into town (around ₡500 for a single). However, taxis are much cheaper and more convenient. Expect the fare to come to around ₡15,000.
A few tourists might also think about heading into San Jose from other parts of Costa Rica like Heredia, and these services all run into the Estación del Atlántico, just to the east of the city center. You could also catch a train from Belén, a short taxi ride south of the airport.
If you choose to rent a car at the airport, you'll find plenty of options, with rental companies including Hertz and Budget. Getting into the city is fairly simple. Just follow Route 1 directly into downtown San Jose.
San Jose has connections to major cities all over Central America, including places as far north as Mexico City, so many travelers choose to arrive by bus. If you do so, companies include Tica Bus, Transnica, and King Quality. There's no central bus terminal, so it's best to plan a route into town before boarding your bus.
There are two excellent accommodation options in San Jose. The first is to stay at city center hotels like Hotel Grano De Oro or the Hotel Don Carlos, which offer a high-quality service in elegant surroundings. The alternative is to stay at resorts or hotels on the outskirts and drive into town. Hotels like Finca Rosa Blanca are set in beautiful gardens, while the Hotel Villas Corcovado has a stunning seafront location.
Chepe - also referred to as "el Centro", Chepe is San Jose's downtown neighborhood. It's the nerve center of the whole nation and features institutions like the Teatro Nacional and the Jade Museum.
Barrio Amón - slightly north of Chepe, Barrio Amón is a historic neighborhood that is ideally suited to vacationers. You can shop at stores like the Costa Rica Cigar Store, enjoy gourmet chili at Bar Poas and stay at B&Bs like the Hemingway Inn, which also offers eco-tours of the rainforests.
San Pedro - with a large student population, San Pedro is the liveliest part of town and is the place to go if you fancy dancing all night long. There are also quirky attractions like the Insect Museum along with the Mall San Pedro, San Jose's premier shopping destination.
There is an extensive bus network across the San Jose region, which reaches as far as San Pedro, the airport, and the eastern suburbs. You won't find schedules at bus stops, but the destination is shown on the front of every bus. Fares vary by routes (expect to pay between ₡150-400), and you need to pay on board (drivers should give change if needed).
If you have to find your way back from San Pedro late at night, a taxi will be essential, but they tend to be expensive. The meter drop is ₡640, then around ₡1,000 per mile.
Renting a car is a great way to visit coastal attractions like Tortuguero or the beaches of Punta Arenas. Outlets in the city center include Avis, Sixt, and Budget, and rates will be around ₡16,000 per day, which is fairly reasonable.
If you are looking to stock up on jade necklaces or finely woven baskets for the folks back home, try the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías in the city center, where you'll find stands selling almost any kind of handicraft, as well as handy items like shoes and hammocks. For a conventional shopping experience, head to San Pedro Mall, where you'll find a multiplex cinema, and global labels alongside Costa Rican fashion brands.
If you need to shop for groceries in San Jose, the best options are supermarkets like Automercado (which stocks a wide range of US brands) and Walmart, which is very similar to the American variety. Expect to pay about ₡3,000 for a gallon of milk and ₡1,800 for 12 eggs.
Costa Rican food can be absolutely delicious (and healthy), with plenty of seafood dishes like ceviche or fish soup and mouthwatering chili con carne. Head to Café de los Deseos for superbly made tortillas or Olio for a Mediterranean-influenced gastro-pub meal. But Al Mercat is the best place to visit. Always sourcing its ingredients fresh from the central market, the menu constantly changes and offers a new window into Costa Rican cuisine. Expect a sit down meal to cost around ₡30,000, and street food meals to come to ₡10,000 or less.