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San Jose Travel Guide

About San Jose

Nestled in Costa Rica’s Central Valley and surrounded by green hills and dramatic volcanoes, modest San José is one of Central America’s most laid-back, safest and pleasant capital cities.

The fact that this city so often gets overlooked by visitors is not its fault. Its high-rise hotels, spectacular setting, and cheerfully chaotic markets, all combine to create a vibrant urban centre, and make it a pleasant place to hang out and relax.

But none of that can compete with the pristine rainforest and wildlife-filled national parks that lie within easy reach of the city. They’d put any metropolis in the shade, even one where flocks of parrots compete with the pigeons for scraps in the numerous downtown plazas.

Those who come here will find that ‘Chepe’ (as the locals fondly call their capital city) is not only the political and transportation hub of the country, but also a cultural centre worth stopping to see in its own right.

Don’t miss the National Museum of Costa Rica, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold and the Museum of Costa Rican Art. Between them they give a good overview of how the Costa Rican inhabitants have shaped their country, and how the country has shaped the Costa Ricans.

At meal times, there are plenty of international restaurants across the city, and while Costa Rican cuisine is not spicy, it is tasty, easy to come by and cheap. The national dishes of gallo pinto (fried rice and black beans, usually eaten for breakfast) and casado (rice, beans and meat, served with salad, fried plantain and tortillas) are served at small eateries called sodas across the city.

With many museums and the nation’s best dining and nightlife, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in San José. And it lies within a few hours’ drive of national parks, beaches, hot springs and more, giving you the best of all worlds.

Key facts

Population:
350,000 (San Jose); metropolitan area 1.4 million (2009).
Latitude:
9.924862
Longitude:
-84.078074

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Hotel Grano de Oro

The luxurious grand dame of San José’s hotel scene is named for the “Grain of Gold,” an old Tico (Costa Rican) nickname for coffee. Though this world-class boutique hotel offers every modern comfort, the style is that of Costa Rica’s caffeinated heyday, the boom years between the 19th and 20th centuries. The Victorian exterior’s soaring lobby, with a renowned restaurant, serves 34 excellent rooms, each beautifully designed and decorated.

Hotel Posada del Museo

Rising from the hustle and bustle of San José’s political district, this rambling, antique-filled 1928 mansion is a treasure. Accommodations are simple but well decorated, and more expensive rooms are considerably larger, with better views. The polished tropical hardwood construction lends a warm glow to the hotel, but also squeaks a bit at night. Attached Café de la Posada is outstanding, the perfect place for quiche, coffee, and the best people-watching in town.

Hostel Pangea

This popular hostel in the fashionable Barrio Amón district has long been a top stop on the Gringo Trail. Amenities include a swimming pool, rooftop bar, breakfast, internet access, private rooms, and shuttles to well maintained partner hostels all over the country. It’s a great place to meet other travellers and plan your further adventures, and is surrounded by several other cheap San José hotels if it doesn’t suit you.

Marriott San José

Though more international luxury hotels in San José are opening, this venerable five-star resort, wrapped in lush gardens and coffee plantations just 7km (four miles) from the city centre is still one of the best. The flawless Spanish colonial theme includes wonderful antique furnishings and a tiny, Mission-style Catholic chapel onsite. Guests enjoy modern amenities, however, such as several pools, fine dining restaurants, flawless rooms, spa treatments, and more.

Xandari Resort & Spa

Overlooking the international airport from the jungled slopes of Poás Volcano is remarkable Xandari Resort. Created by an artist and architect the spacious modern award-winning suites are an exercise in stylish luxury. Elaborately landscaped sculpture-strewn gardens surround the swimming pools but give way to wilder rainforest with trails past several waterfalls. Enjoy the view over the sparkling Central Valley night from your private patio or at the good restaurant worth a visit even if you can’t stay.

Hotel 1492

This 10-room gem among boutique hotels is about ten minutes east of downtown, on a pleasant residential side street. The original home was handcrafted over four decades by its artistic original owner, Amalia Jimenez Volio. Her eye-catching Portuguese tiles, original mosaics, murals, and sculptures decorate the living areas and soothing interior gardens, a nice compliment to the hotel's rather retro furnishings. Amenities include Wi-Fi.