Viva the new San José: how Costa Rica’s capital became cool

A good part of this article is courtesy of Lonley Planet

My son sent me this article the other day. It gives foreign retirees an idea of a few of the many interesting activities that can be found in and around the city of San José. Many people are not aware that areas of the city like Barrio Amón are experiencing a type of cultural Renaissance. Unfortunately many gringo retirees in places like Alajuela, San Ramón, Atenas and Grecia, live a cloistered existence and don’t really know what they are missing by not venturing into the city more often.

There you are, playing table tennis with a stranger in the middle of a park. All around you loom primeval trees festooned with vines. Around noon, you amble over to the century-old National Theater for a free performance of the National Symphony Orchestra. Feeling famished, you visit a posh new gastropub to sample their gourmet sliders, followed by pints of craft beer. By 10pm, you’re watching a local indie band perform in three languages.

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Can this really be San José? When did the dark, rainy, confusing capital of Costa Rica become so cool? For years, “Chepe” has been a backpackers’ purgatory; a necessary layover before hopping a bus to greener destinations. Oh, San José is still gritty and a world apart from Costa Rica’s beaches and cloud forests. But in recent years the city has experienced a slow renaissance. Forgotten barrios are blossoming. At long last, urban Ticos are starting to feel a tinge of pride.

Expat retirees shouldn’t write off San José just yet.

Orientation

The throbbing heart of San José is its downtown area, a hodgepodge of tiny neighborhoods that are walkable and well connected by buses and taxis. Note that neighborhoods are poorly marked and seem to overlap, and street addresses are useless. Barrio Amón is a sloped, historic neighborhood with galleries, cafés, and novelty shops. Barrio Escalante has wide streets and rows of stately houses and inventive restaurants. San Pedro is home to the University of Costa Rica and a thriving party scene. Paseo Colón is named after a long avenue that leads to La Sabana Park, which offers a mix of hostels, chain restaurants and exciting new pubs. At first glance, Los Yoses seems to be just a highway connecting downtown San José to San Pedro, but a stroll down its back streets reveals some of the most popular venues in the city.

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Food and drink renaissance

Venture down the right thoroughfare and you’ll find a cornucopia of new options. For a luxurious lunch, try Kalú (Barrio Escalante, a brightly lit bistro serving up gourmet coffee, elaborate pasta bowls and salads, combined with a boutique shop hawking ceramic plates. Café Rojo (Barrio Amón, is built into an old house, with hardwood floors and bossa nova on the stereo; the rotating menu has permanent delights like hibiscus tea and deli sandwiches on artisanal bread.

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Costa Rica’s craft beer revolution is creating quite a buzz about town, with an explosion of new breweries like Perro Vida, Treintaycinco, and the Costa Rica Craft Brewing Co providing new ammunition for a San José night out.

A clutch of new hotspots are making it their business to help you sample this rapidly evolving beer scene. Try Stiefel Pub (Barrio Amón, a two-story dive with tile floors and tables decorated in pop art, or El Gaff (Los Yoses), an expansive eatery with multiple patios and complex pizzas. Because San José is such a condensed city, all these places are an inexpensive taxi ride away from any downtown hostel. Bars generally close between midnight and 2am, when cabs are strongly recommended.

Free art and entertainment

Upbeat municipal events are becoming popular in San José, thanks to a new generation of ambitious bohemians and their stubborn love for the city. The quarterly Art City Tour has become one of the most popular civic events in Costa Rica. During the tour, which is completely free, local museums and galleries open their doors to the public and free shuttles transport patrons from one cultural hub to the next. Organized by GAM Cultural, Art City floods San José with energetic youths, culminating in free concerts and block parties.

Art City

This event is the best way to enjoy San José’s full range of art venues: Jade Museum or Museo de Jade , a newly expanded four-story colossus that houses one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian art and jade in the world.

Another curious cultural phenomenon is Enamorate de tu Ciudad (Fall in Love with Your City), an ongoing series of workshops and performances in urban parks hosted by the Culture Ministry. Enamorate events are also public and free. (For a calendar of events, visit. During weekends, La Sabana Park comes alive with pickup soccer games, jogging groups and massive zumba classes involving hundreds of people. Just wander around San José’s version of Central Park and ask to join any activity that strikes your fancy.

Music revolution

Sure, you can still find salsa clubs and dive bars with disco floors in San José, but if you’re after something more eclectic or discerning the new San José may surprise you. Music fans will gravitate toward the newly expanded Hoxton Pub (Los Yoses, , which has the air of a private mansion overrun by hipsters. You can usually catch a singer-songwriter at the gypsy-style Café de los Deseos (Barrio Carmen, . Big and famous bands, like Tico superstars Sonámbulo Psicotropical, usually play at places like Mundo Loco El Chante or Jazz Café (San Pedro. Hard-to-find El Steinvorth is hidden in a loft that could have been designed by Andy Warhol, with live bands, DJs, strobe lights, hardwood floors, and wildly fashionable people.

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