It would be disingenuous of us to claim that San Jose is Costa Rica’s biggest tourist draw. Most people see it as a necessary pit stop either before or after arriving at the airport. And it’s true that first impressions are of a sprawling, choking, chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings and people. The city centre exists in a near-constant state of gridlock. A cloud of exhaust fumes hangs over the city. Pavements are terrible and the noise can be overwhelming.
So, what’s to like? Well actually, considerably more than meets the eye. If you know where to look there are historic spots and sights that make San Jose well worth a day or two of anyone’s time. There are beautiful buildings, memorable museums and peaceful parks that connect the city to its coffee-boom heyday in the late 19th century. Until that time, from its foundation in 1737, San Jose was a forgotten backwater of the Spanish empire – wide dirt roads, simple adobe buildings and spindly telegraph poles. First with tobacco and then even more so with coffee came prosperity and growth. All the trappings of a wealthy bourgeoisie rapidly appeared – landscaped parks, leafy boulevards and the grand mansions built by the newly rich finqueros (coffee barons). Much of the architecture had a strong European and especially French influence, with delicate ironwork, Moorish lattices, dark wood interiors and colourful exteriors. The apotheosis of this style and opulence was realised in San Jose’s most iconic and revered building, the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre). Completed in 1897, every ounce of material and all of the craftsmen who built it came from Europe. It is jaw-droppingly splendid to look at, both inside and out, from its colonnaded facade to the lavish marble lobby and auditorium lined with extraordinary paintings.
San Jose has some of the best and most modern museums in Central America. The standout attractions are the Museo de Oro, featuring over 2,000 artefacts of pre-Columbian gold; the Museo del Jade, an incredible collection of Jade pieces; and the Museo de Arte Costarricense, located in the Costa Rica’s first airport terminal building and housing the country’s greatest art collection from colonial times to the present. Adjacent to this museum is La Sabana Park, where locals spend time out just relaxing on the grass or playing all manner of sports.
Most of San Jose’s best bits are centrally located. The centre itself is really a collection of distinct neighbourhoods (barrios), where residents seem to know each other in a friendly small-town way. Barrio Amon and Barrio Otoya are the most pleasing on the eye, lined with many of the baronial mansions of the coffee magnates (more than a few of which are now either art galleries or boutique hotels). Most of the fine embassy buildings are in the western barrios of La California and Los Yoses. And just east of the city centre in the San Pedro barrio is the University of Costa Rica, bringing with it the lively student lifestyle of cafes, bars and music.
So forget those first impressions of San Jose and discover the delights of this “big small town”