San José, Capital City of Costa Rica
Most tourists who come to Costa Rica see very little, if anything, of San José and the Central Valley. The country’s main international airport, Juan Santamaria (SJO), is located outside the capital, in the city of Alajuela, and travelers will often arrive and head straight to the rainforests or the beach.
Oftentimes, that's an error, though. San José and the Central Valley are definitely worth more than fleeting glances through the window of a moving car or minibus.
You can certainly spend one or more nights on either end of your vacation and complement your package with time in San José. This can make the entire travel experience more relaxing and feel less rushed.
It also allows you to experience and explore Costa Rica's capital city and cultural center, as well as see some of the stunning countryside around the Central Valley.
Day trips from San José hotels
The Central Valley is also an excellent home base for some great day trips.
The Waterfall Gardens at La Paz in the community of Vara Blanca make for an incredible day out, with all manner of flora and fauna on display plus the chance to enjoy a stunning cloud forest hike jam-packed with waterfalls.
You can combine this trip with a visit to the Poas Volcano.
Here, you'll get up close to the crater and learn all about the country’s volcanoes at the fantastic visitor center in the national park.
The area around La Paz and Poás is farming country, famous for its dairy farms and strawberries. You'll see roadside stalls selling all manner of delicious, fresh products.
It may well be that the beaches, jungles, and volcanoes of Costa Rica are where you wish to spend most of your time. That's perfectly understandable. It would be a mistake, though, to overlook San José and the Central Valley.
Some time spent here will give you great insight into life in beautiful Costa Rica.
The Best Hotels in San José and the Central Valley
There are many hotels available in and around San José and they vary significantly in style and offerings.
The Gran Hotel is a Costa Rican legend, dating from the 1930s and occupying perhaps the best downtown location you can find, right in front of the National Theater. It's now refurbished by the Hilton, adding comfortable and modern amenities to an already iconic hotel.
The Grano de Oro is a Victorian mansion just outside the city center with rooftop garden complete with jacuzzi. This hotel is home to one of the best restaurants in Costa Rica.
Outside the capital, around the Central Valley, you'll find some other great hotels that offer easy access to the city while retaining a more rural feel
You'll love the fabulous gardens at the Hotel Bougainvillea and the rustic luxury of the Peace Lodge in the aforementioned Waterfall Gardens.
Villa Blanca is a little further out, close to San Ramón (this hotel is a perfect place to stay when traveling from San Jose to Arenal), and offers a perfect cloud forest location that's perfect for nature lovers.
Art and coffee enthusiasts will prefer Finca Rosa Blanca in the mountains above Heredia, while the Xandari Resort also offers a luxury hillside escape.
What part of San José should I stay in?
There are many options for you, depending on what you want.
You can stay in the heart of San José, which allows easy access to theaters, restaurants, stores, parks, markets, and museums.
Another option is to stay near the airport in Alajuela, to make it easier for you logistically. A third option is to stay in the Central Valley, in a rural area.
Is it worth staying in San José?
Most people in Costa Rica live in and around San José. So if you want a glimpse into everyday Costa Rican life and culture, San José is worth staying in for at least a day or two. Another good reason to stay in San José is to be close to the airport before your flight home.
How safe is San José?
The touristy parts of San José are safe, but some other areas are not, as in any city. You’ll want to keep an eye on your belongings and stay in populated and well-lit areas. Take the same precautions you would in any large city.
Where should I stay in Costa Rica for the first time?
First-timers should make the most of their trip to Costa Rica by seeing two or three different areas. Popular places to visit are cities, volcanoes, mountains, cloud forests, rainforests, and beaches.