The centre of all that is Costa Rica probably won't be the centre of your trip to Costa Rica. Most visitors spend two nights in San José—tops. You'll probably head out of town the morning after you arrive, only to return the night before heading home. No, you shouldn't sacrifice precious beach or rain-forest time for a stay in San José. But the city is worth a day or two—as a way to ease into Costa Rica at the start of a visit or as a way of wrapping 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.
New York or London it is not, but for the Tico living out in Tilarán, today's San José glitters every bit as much. 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 pavement. But this is part of what keeps San José a big small town.