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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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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.

Hotel Milvia

About 3km (1.8 miles) east of downtown San José, but connected by convenient bus service, is the university town of San Pedro. Tucked away on a quiet side street, you’ll find this sunny, immaculate B&B, with lovely gardens, big balconies, and cheerful common areas decorated in outstanding paintings and sculptures. Sleek lines and bright colours give the 90-year-old former plantation house a clean European feel, and breakfast is outstanding.

Hotel Aranjuez

Hidden away in Barrio Aranjuez, a historic residential neighbourhood about 15 minutes from downtown on foot (take taxis at night) is San José’s best bargain. The rambling, old structure has relaxed sitting areas, polished wooden rooms ranging from basic to almost palatial, and wonderful, shady gardens you could easily get lost in. Make reservations in advance, particularly for the cheaper rooms, as the hotel is popular with Costa Ricans.

Hostel Bekuo

This festive, mosaic-tiled hostel is in Barrio Los Yoses, located about halfway between downtown San José and San Pedro’s student nightlife district, Calle de la Amargura. A dozen other great bars, clubs, and restaurants are within stumbling distance. The simple spot has lots of tourist information, Wi-Fi, movies, open kitchen, a game room, and nice gardens out back, making it a fine place to enjoy San José.

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