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24 Hours in San José

You’re anxious to get to the country’s famous beaches, rainforests, and volcanoes but the Costa Rican capital—long an undesirable stopover—has discovered a deeper charm.

More than three million travelers come through San José, Costa Rica, every year, but most bypass the capital city, which has long been viewed as a run-down and traffic-packed metropolis. A recent renaissance driven by chefs and bartenders is revitalizing the destination’s appeal by connecting long-underappreciated cultural highlights like the Museum of Art and Contemporary Design, the National Theater, and the Central Market with foodie stops in between. Hotels are taking note as well—the Gran Hotel will bring an unprecedented level of luxury to the city when it opens in May. Here’s how to spend a jam-packed day in San José.

9 a.m.: Fuel up at Maza Bistro (506/2248-4824), an alfresco space with mismatched décor and a relaxed atmosphere that encourages lingering. Owned by Canadian transplant Liz Furlong, it’s gained a following among locals and visitors for its lunch and all-day breakfast (a first in the city) featuring dishes that combine Latin and North American ingredients. Order the pupusas (grilled corn masa cakes similar to Mexican gorditas) that come filled with local farmers market cheese, refried black beans, homemade coleslaw, a fried egg, and chicharron. When the weather is good (almost always in San José), take advantage of Maza’s picnic basket service and enjoy your meal in Parque Nacional across the street.

Courtesy Maza Bistro

10 a.m.: The Museum of Art and Contemporary Design, located in a former distillery just off Parque Nacional, feels like a loft gallery in Brooklyn, but its exhibits rival that of any international museum. Along with its permanent collection of some 900 artworks, the four exhibition rooms show a rotating array of Central American-themed presentations.

12 p.m.: The co-owners of Satis.FACTORY Shop, a 15-minute walk from the museum, believe every object can be a piece of art. Started as a pop-up in 2013, the shop settled into its current digs in a pastel clapboard building in the residential Aranjuez neighborhood last year. The Latin America-made inventory, which consists of everything from hand-painted mugs and artwork to quilts and jewelry, changes almost entirely every few months.

2 p.m.: A 20-minute walk east is Silvestre. Since opening last year in the increasingly food-focused Barrio Amón, the restaurant has attracted tourists and locals alike by bringing a new level of refinement to typical Tico dishes. The elegant but casual dining room is set within a home built in 1923, and the menu showcases chef Santiago Fernández Benedetto’s international training—he spent nearly two decades cooking in Spain and Australia—with dishes like trout cured in beetroot with goat cheese cream and leeks and lamb sirloin from the Llano Grande de Cartago area.

4 p.m.: The National Theater, located 10 minutes on foot along Calle 5, was modeled after Palais Garnier, Paris’s famed opera house, and is filled with sculptures, paintings, and furnishings that seem straight out of the golden age of France. Opened in 1897, the theater was built with money generated by a controversial tax on coffee and was initially meant to be enjoyed exclusively by Costa Rica’s elite, all of which is explained during the theater’s popular guided tours.

5 p.m.: Within San Jose’s historic Central Market (506/2547-6104), which occupies an entire block on Avenida Central a half-mile west of the National Theater, you’ll find a stall called La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora (506/2256-5000), which has been scooping out the beloved frozen custard for more than a century. This rich, custardy ice cream tastes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove and is likely to remind you of eggnog. Locals like it even more with cubes of red Jell-O in it.

7 p.m.: Costa Rican chef José González opened Al Mercat, located 12 minutes east by car, in 2014 offering a set—and pricey—tasting menu. Two years later, he switched to a la carte to make his contemporary dishes more accessible to locals, since then leading the sustainable dining wave. Ingredients aren’t just regional; most are from his nearby farm, including mango, hearts of palm, and avocado. This resonates with a largely foreign crowd that packs the sleek, arty space for menu items like pork ribs cooked in tamarind and lime and fish of the day served with patacones, a Central American staple made by cooking, flattening, and frying yucca.

Courtesy Hotel Grano De Oro

9 p.m.: Considered the buzziest bar in San José, Bebedero (506/2221-3815), ten minutes by car from Al Mercat, serves craft cocktails infused with local fruits and herbs like house-made passion fruit bitters and tamarind liquor. Try the Luna Liberiana, made with Fino sherry, lemon balm rum, passion fruit, and sugar cane juice, then settle into a leather chair or sofa and soak up the Mad Men-esque vibe. There’s also a menu of small plates that includes fresh oysters from the Nicoya Peninsula on the country’s western coast.

Where to Stay

San Jose has long been starved for a true luxury hotel, but the 39-room Hotel Grano de Oro (rooms from $160), located 10 minutes by car from Bebedero, comes the closest—that is, until the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, Curio Collection by Hilton (rooms from $200), opens in May, with 79 modern rooms overlooking the National Theater. The Grano de Oro, a Victorian mansion originally built in 1915, was upgraded in 1990 but still retains the original tropical Victorian architecture and décor (antiques, handmade tiling, and hardwood floors can be found in its 21 accommodations). The room to book is the stately Vista de Oro Suite, which features a private entrance, separate living room, and valley views.

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