Introduction to San José
Situated in the Central Valley, with volcanoes to the north and mountains to the south, San José is a lively launching pad to your Costa Rican adventure. You'll likely start and end your trip here, and international flight schedules often require you spend a day or two in the city. Luckily, there's more than enough interesting activities and eats to fill your time. Each barrio (neighborhood) described below has a distinct personality, and some suburbs—like Santa Ana—even offer golf courses and horseback riding.
Keep in mind that if you're there in the "green season" (read: rainy season) between May and November, you'll want to bring a waterproof jacket and umbrella for walking around. Note that even during the height of the green season in San José, it typically only rains in the afternoons, so you’ll rarely lose an entire day to the weather.
Like many large international cities, San José has its share of crime, so do take the usual precautions: stay alert to avoid petty theft, don’t carry large sums of cash, don’t walk down unlit streets. Consider hiring a local guide who can help you navigate safely and provide historical and cultural context to your walking tour.
The city’s urban center is home to a great deal of history and culture. Pedestrian-friendly Avenida Central is a good place to start exploring, as it connects a variety of shops, parks, museums and outdoor plazas. Stroll these streets to get a sense of the city’s colorful urban culture. Peruse local crafts and shop for souvenirs in the Mercado Nacional de Artesania (National Artisans Market)—recently relocated to a larger, renovated space at Avenida 6 and Calle 5. Pop into the Museo Nacional (National Museum) on Democracy Square to learn some local history and enjoy the brilliant butterfly garden. Then head for Barrio Amón to admire the colonial architecture, taste traditional recipes with a twist at Silvestre Restaurant, and spend a night in a restored historic home.
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San Pedro, Barrio Escalante, and Los Yoses
If it’s nightlife you’re after, the eastern barrios of San Pedro, Barrio Escalante, and Los Yoses are the place to be. A steady stream of students at the University of Costa Rica located in San Pedro fills this neighborhood with a youthful vibe. And where students flock, trendy restaurants, bars, live music and events follow.
Whether you’re on the hunt for a dive bar and affordable hostel or an innovative restaurant and a boutique hotel, you’ll find it here. Craft beer connoisseurs can also get their fix. The microbrew scene in San José has blossomed, with bars and breweries popping up in Barrio Escalante and Los Yoses in particular. Locals love Apotecario in Barrio Escalante. Grab a seat in the beer garden and sample house-made microbrews or kombucha alongside elevated bar bites featuring fresh, local ingredients.
If you prefer creature comforts, a quiet place to rest your head, and easy access to a city without being directly in the action Escazú is an ideal option. Just thirty minutes from the Juan Santamaria International Airport and only ten minutes from downtown San José, the fresh air and mountain vistas from this affluent neighborhood will have you feeling world’s away. High-end hotels and mid-range inns are standard, so this neighborhood is best suited to families, couples, and individual travelers with a comfortable budget. An array of international dining options are available, but if you’re looking for a local soda (casual Costa Rican restaurant) in this area, head for Escazú Centro, a section of the suburb that still retains some of its colorful Tico charm.
If it’s a peaceful night’s sleep and outdoor adventure you seek, Santa Ana awaits. Less than 15 minutes from downtown San José and about 40 minutes from the Juan Santamaria International Airport, this suburb is convenient to the capital city while providing a relaxing respite for the weary traveler. You’ll find a blend of agricultural heritage as well as high-end shopping malls and fine dining restaurants, such as the popular and pricey Italian restaurant Bacchus. Take a swing on a championship golf course, book a horseback riding lesson, or just lay back and enjoy the mountain breezes from your B&B balcony.
Just Outside the City
While many visitors to Costa Rica skip a stay in San José and make a beeline for the beaches, those that take a day or more to explore the capital will discover some gems in the city and surrounding areas.
Only 20 minutes from the Juan Santamaria International Airport, at Finca Rosa Blanca you can tour an organic coffee plantation, learn about the process of these beloved beans, and savor a freshly roasted cup of coffee with a stunning view of the city.
Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy San José’s proximity to not just one, but three volcanoes. Take a day trip to Irazu Volcano, Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, located less than two hours from San José where you can opt to enjoy crater views or hike the local trails with a guide. Poas Volcano—the largest open volcano in the world—can also be reached from San José in under two hours. But be sure to check conditions before departure; Poas is an active volcano and sometimes closed due to activity and sulfur emissions.
If you prefer to avoid the crowds and you’re up to a more challenging hike, take a tip from the locals and head for Barva Volcano, located in the nearby province of Heredia. Barva Volcano is just over an hour from the Juan Santamaria airport and on clear days, offers views of Poas and Irazu from the trail. Bring your binoculars; park officials claim that 515 bird species can be found in the area, including the colorful quetzal. Keep in mind that this trail is not a typical tourist destination and you will need a 4x4 to reach the trailhead, so consider booking a local guide and a ride if you are not an experienced hiker or familiar with the area. Or if you’re more inclined to explore the culture and history of the highlands, book a visit with the traditional Barva mask makers and take a stroll through Heredia Central Market to get a taste of this colonial town.