San José, the nation’s capital, squats on the floor of the Meseta Central, a fertile upland basin 1,150 meters (3,773 feet) above sea level in the heart of Costa Rica. Surrounded by mountains, it’s a magnificent setting. The city’s central position makes it an ideal base for forays into the countryside, applying the hub-and-spoke system of travel—almost every part of the country is within a four-hour drive.
San José—or “Chepe,” as Ticos call it—is congested and bustling, and dominates national life. Two-thirds of the nation’s urban population lives in greater (or metropolitan) San José, whose population of 1.4 million represents 30 percent of the nation’s total. San José is congested, bustling, and noisy. Its commercial center is dominated by hotels, offices, ugly modern high-rises, and shops.
Though the city is not without its share of homeless people and beggars, there are few of the tugurios (slums) that scar the hillsides of so many other Latin American cities. The modest working-class barrios (neighborhoods) are mostly clean and well ordered, and the tranquil residential districts are blessed with gracious houses with green lawns and high metal fences.
The city’s chaos of architectural styles is part Spanish, part Moorish, and many streets in the older neighborhoods are still lined with one- or two-story houses made of wood or even adobe, with ornamental grillwork. What few older structures remain are of modest interest, however: The city is almost wholly lacking the grand colonial structures of, say, Havana or Mexico City. If it’s colonial quaintness you’re seeking, skip San José.
Nonetheless, the city offers several first-rate museums and galleries. Despite its working-class tenor, the city is large enough, and its middle-class component cosmopolitan enough in outlook, to support a vital cultural milieu.
And the city has scores of accommodations  for every budget, including backpackers’ hostels and one of the world’s preeminent boutique hotels. The restaurant scene  is impressive, with dozens of globe-spanning eateries, including some exciting nouvelle options. And night owls will appreciate San José’s vivacious nightlife , from modest casinos to raging discos with Latin music hot enough to cook the pork.