San José in a Day
If you have only a day to spend in San José, the must-see stops are the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) and the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum). It's easy to accomplish this because they sit on the same block.
With more time, take in the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum) and Museo Nacional (National Museum). The Museo de los Niños (Children's Museum), north of downtown, is a kid pleaser. It's in a dicey part of the barrio El Carmen, more north of downtown than actually in downtown; take a taxi.
Bypass San José?
San José isn't necessarily the Costa Rica you came to see. Those beaches and rain forests beckon, after all. If that is, indeed, the case, you can avoid the city altogether.
The international airport actually lies just outside the city of Alajuela, about 30 minutes northwest of the capital. Look for lodgings in Alajuela, San Antonio de Belén, Escazú, or Santa Ana—all within striking distance of the airport. Or head west.
Few international flights arrive in the morning, but they do exist, especially via Miami. Get here early and you can head out of town immediately.
Another option is to join the growing number of visitors flying into Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, where Costa Rica's northern and western reaches (including the North Pacific) are nearby.
Day Trips from the Capital
The capital sits smack-dab in the middle of the country in the fertile Central Valley. Although a day trip to either coast would be grueling—despite Costa Rica's small size, it takes longer than you think to get from place to place—you can easily pop out to the Central Valley's major sights and be back in the city in time for dinner. Several of these attractions provide pickup service in San José, some for a nominal additional cost. Alternatively, tour operators include many of these attractions on their itineraries.