More than 3 million travellers come through San José every year, but many of them bypass the capital and head straight for the beaches. As it happens, Costa Rica’s capital is one of the most important cities in Central America, both commercially and culturally – the centre and surrounding areas are home to almost half of Costa Rica’s population, and it has a great choice of things to do. Get some calories in early doors with a trip to the famous Maza Bistro, an al fresco café which serves North American and Latin-fusion cuisine; if the weather’s good (and it often is) then you can even enjoy a picnic basket service and tuck in across the road at the Parque Nacional. Explore the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and National Museum for a fascinating insight into Costa Rica’s history, and head to the city’s National Theatre, modelled on Paris’s famous opera house, Palais Garnier – take a guided tour and you may end up doing a double take once you’ve seen the Belle Époque-style paintings and sculptures dotted around its interior. San José Central Market is just half a mile west from here, and if you fancy an evening drink then there are plenty of bars to choose from – Bebedero serves custom-made cocktails from tamarind liquors to passion fruit bitters, as well as small dishes including oysters caught fresh from the Nicoya Peninsula.
San José is also a gateway to the country’s jaw-dropping landscapes, making it ideal for day-trips and a popular place to start on a Costa Rica holiday; head to the nearby Central Valley Region for a spectacular contrast to the charming but unmistakably urban feel of the capital. Central Valley is on a high plateau in the centre of Costa Rica, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes and with a cooler and more comfortable year-round climate despite the tropical conditions. Take a two-hour drive from San José and you’ll discover Poás and Irazu, a pair of intricately-carved active volcanoes each in their own designated national park, with eye-catching turquoise-green pools of water. You can also visit the historic colonial town of Cartago, Costa Rica’s original capital, wander picturesque coffee plantations, hike to hidden waterfalls and go whitewater rafting.