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San Jose, Costa Rica

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Main Post Office

Main Post Office

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San Jose at Night

San Jose at Night

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Bird's Eye View of San Jose

Bird's Eye View of San Jose

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San José is the center of all that is Costa Rica, and, to the Tico in the countryside, it glitters every bit as much as New York City does. True to developing-country patterns, everything—politics, business, art, cuisine, nightlife, and culture—converges here. The capital may not be the center of your trip to Costa Rica, though—those rain forests and volcanoes have your name written on them—but the city is worth a day or two as a way to ease into Costa Rica at the start of a visit or to wrap things up with a well-deserved dose of civilization.Amid the noise and traffic, shady parks, well-maintained museums, lively plazas, terrific restaurants, and great hotels do exist. Further, the city makes a great base for day trips: from downtown it's a mere 30- to 40-minute drive to the tranquil countryside and myriad outdoor activities of the surrounding Central Valley.You'd never know San José is as old as it is—given the complete absence of colonial architecture—but settlers migrating from then-provincial-capital Cartago founded the city in 1737. After independence in 1821, San José cemented its position as the new nation's capital after struggles and a brief civil war with fellow Central Valley cities Cartago, Alajuela, and Heredia. Revenues from the coffee and banana industries financed the construction of stately homes, theaters, and a trolley system (later abandoned and now visible only in old sepia photographs).As recently as the mid-1900s, San José was no larger than the present-day downtown area; old-timers remember the vast coffee and cane plantations that extended beyond its borders. The city began to mushroom only after World War II, when old buildings were razed to make room for concrete monstrosities. The sprawl eventually connected the capital with nearby cities.It has attracted people from all over Costa Rica, yet it remains, in many ways, a collection of distinct neighborhoods where residents maintain friendly small-town ways. For you, this might mean the driver you're following will decide to abruptly stop his vehicle to buy a lottery ticket or chat with a friend on the street. Or it might mean you have to navigate a maze of fruit-vendor stands on a crowded sidewalk. But this is part of what keeps San José a big small town.

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Things You Can't Miss

Place
A Cache That Predates Columbus
A Cache That Predates Columbus

Gaze at more than 1,500 treasures at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. In the trove: animal and religious artifacts dating from A.D. 500 to 1500.

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Image Credit

age fotostock / Alamy

Place
Meals Worthy of Mention
Meals Worthy of Mention

Luring locals and tourists, lovely Restaurante Grano de Oro serves all day, melding Costa Rican cuisine (plantains, palm-fruit soup) with Anglo eats.

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Image Credit

Restaurante Grano de Oro

Place
A Day at the Beach
A Day at the Beach

Discerning travelers skip tacky, rocky Jaco Beach south of San José in favor of sandy stretches at Manuel Antonio. Watch out for thieving monkeys!

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Image Credit

iStockphoto/Getty Images

Place
Smoking-Hot Attraction
Smoking-Hot Attraction

Costa Rica is known for natural wonders. At Poás Volcano National Park, one of the country’s active volcanoes steams. Climb close to the main crater.

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Image Credit

Tina Bizaj / Getty Images

Place
Cathedrals and Farms and Snakes, Oh My!
Cathedrals and Farms and Snakes, Oh My!

In rural Grecia you’ll find a red metal Cathedral de la Mercedes, brought piece by piece from Belgium in the 1800s, and fascinating World of Snakes.

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Image Credit

Buddy Mays / Alamy

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