San José is the capital and largest city of Costa Rica, located in the mountainous central region of the country. The first impression of San José is not usually favorable – traffic jams, mundane office buildings, obstructive billboards, brown clouds of smog, run-down sidewalks, odor-emitting potholes, and petty street crime. The city is definitely a rough, unsightly mess when compared to the incredible beauty of the rest of the country. Nevertheless, San José is the cosmopolitan center of Costa Rica and the home of myriad international businesses. Any visit of Costa Rica almost always requires a stop at San José, which for all of its shortcomings, serves as a great base for exploring the rest of the country with its myriad nice hotels and restaurants. And San José is not all rough and tumble, offering a few cultural and historical sites, lively plazas, pretty parks, and charming cobblestone streets.
San José was founded in 1737 and was only a small village for its first hundred years or so of existence. In 1823, it replaced Cartago as the capital of Costa Rica shortly after the country had attained independence from Spain in 1821. San José grew rapidly after becoming the new capital, eventually sprawling into the Central Valley. The area around San José is extremely conducive to coffee production and brings in hefty profits that have been used to finance San José’s city growth. Most of San José’s construction of its modern concrete buildings came after WWII, when many of its old colonial structures were razed and replaced. Today, the city is an important industrial, government, diplomatic, and agri-business headquarters for many companies.
Most of the liveliness and major attractions of the city is located in downtown San José, a noisy and congested area. The Mercado Central (Central Market) is one of these attractions; it is a market center full of stands and stalls, selling spices, fruits, flowers, pets, handicrafts, and some souvenirs. There are a number of cheap restaurants and snack and dessert stands at Mercado Central.
Several blocks east of Mercado Central, you’ll find the other hot spot of San José, the Plaza de la Cultura. The plaza is dominated by the Teatro Nacional, an iconic and ornate building of San José. The Plaza de la Cultura, and especially by the Teatro Nacional, is a favorite meeting spot for locals and foreigners alike and considered by some as the heart of the city. The plaza is filled with street performers, marimba bands, jugglers, clowns, and street musicians.
Unlike the rest of Costa Rica, San José actually has a number of fine museums. Most impressive perhaps is the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum) located underneath the Plaza de la Cultura. This is a modern museum of gold, containing the largest pre-Columbian gold jewelry collection in Central America, a collection that includes gold shaman figurines. The collection is owned by the Banco Central and showcased for all to see.
Equally impressive jewelry-wise is the Museo del Jade (Museum of Jade), the world’s largest collection of American jade. The jewelry displayed at this museum were all crafted in pre-Columbian times, with most of the jade dating as far back as 2,500 years ago.
Rounding out the museums are the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art) and the Museo Nacional (National Museum). The Museum of Costa Rican Art showcases a collection of 19th and 20th century Costa Rican art, including murals depicting the country’s history. The National Museum is located in an impressive 19th century white Bellavista Fortress and is an exhibit on Costa Rican culture, past and present. You’ll find many artifacts, antiques, art, and other objects, even ones that are pre-Columbian.
Some of the more notable architecture and monuments of San José are actually found at its parks. The Parque España, for example, has a nice bronze statue of Costa Rica’s founder, Juan Vásquez de Coronado, above the park’s fountain. The Casa Amarilla, which is Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry building, is an interesting yellow colonial structure built in 1912. In front of the Parque Central (Central Park), you’ll also find the city’s cathedral. An interesting spider-like orange gazebo is also located at the center of the park.
Nightlife in San José is one of the most vibrant in all of Central America. There are several bars, discos, gay and lesbian venues, karaoke spots, and late night restaurants. Most of the bars and discos are in the Centro Comercial El Pueblo complex and in the Barrios La California and Escalante area in the central part of town.
San José is known in Central America for its theater, orchestras, musicals, and dance performances. The baroque Teatro Nacional, Teatro Popular Melico Salazar, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater all have a full calendar of different performances.
Petty crime against tourists has increased in recent years as a result of the city’s population growth. In some areas of downtown, there are working pick-pocketers as well as gangs who target tourists for robbery. It is not advisable to walk in San José or carry credit cards or valuables.