My stock advice to tourists is to get in and out of San José as quickly as possible. In most cases, this remains good counsel. Still, San José is the country’s only major urban center, with varied and active restaurant and nightlife scenes, several museums and galleries worth visiting, and a steady stream of theater, concerts, and other cultural events that you won’t find elsewhere in the country.

At first blush, San José comes across as little more than a chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people. The central downtown section of the city exists in a near-constant state of gridlock. Antiquated buses spewing diesel fumes and a lack of emission controls have created a brown cloud over the city’s sky. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and claustrophobic, and street crime is a serious problem. Most visitors quickly seek the sanctuary of their hotel room and the first chance to escape the city.

Founded in 1737, San José was a forgotten backwater of the Spanish empire until the late 19th century, when it boomed with the coffee business. At 1,125m (3,690 ft.) above sea level, San José enjoys springlike temperatures year-round and its location in the Central Valley—the lush Talamanca Mountains rise to the south, the Poás, Barva, and Irazú volcanoes to the north—makes it both stunning and convenient as a base of exploration

The Best San José Experiences

Taking In the Riches at the Gold Museum: With more than 2,000 pieces spread over three floors, the Gold Museum provides a fascinating look into the pre-Columbian artistry that inspired colonial-era quests, conquests, and excesses.

Catching a Show at the National Theater: Completed in 1897, and fronting the downtown Plaza de la Cultura, the National Theater is a beautiful and well-preserved turn-of-the-20th-century theater. It features a stunning marble entryway, a series of marble sculptures, and intricate paintings and murals throughout. It also hosts concerts, theater performances, and special events.

Basking in Tropical Opulence at a Boutique Hotel: Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, newly rich coffee barons built beautiful mansions around downtown San José. Today, many of these have been converted into charming boutique hotels.

Visiting the Costa Rican Art Museum and La Sabana Park: Inhabiting the country’s first airport terminal building, the Costa Rican Art Museum houses the country’s greatest art collection—from colonial times to the present. Just outside its doors lies La Sabana Park, where you can spend the afternoon relaxing in the grass or practicing any number of sports and activities, alongside some newly made Tico friends.

Getting out on the Dance Floor: San José is teeming with dance clubs, and most nights the city’s dance floors are packed to overflowing. Choose between an old-school salsa dance hall with a live band, or a more contemporary club blasting the latest electronica.