Tourist bars are concentrated in “Gringo Gulch” (Calles 5/9, Avenidas Central/3) but many are salacious, and muggings on the street are frequent. Bars in San Pedro are more bohemian, catering to the university crowd and upscale Ticos. Most of the other class acts are in the suburb Escazú, about seven kilometers west of San José . Avoid the spit-and-sawdust working-class bars, where patrons often fight. Alas, smoking in bars is still permitted.
Housed in a remodeled colonial building, Bar Morazán (Avenida 3, Calle 9, tel. 506/2221-9527, 11 a.m.–2:30 a.m. Mon.–Fri., 5 p.m.–3 a.m. Sat.) draws an eclectic crowd for its warm ambience within redbrick walls adorned with traffic signs. It has a jukebox and serves meals. The house drink is a guaro melón—guaro (sugarcane liquor) with fruit juice. Che Guevara drank here in the 1950s, apparently.
Catercorner, the slightly salacious Key Largo (Calle 7, Avenidas 1/3, tel. 506/2221-0277, 11 a.m.–3 a.m. daily) draws a Latin clientele with live music (Tues., Wed., and Fri. is pop, Thurs. is tropical music, and Sat. has the greatest hits of the 1960s) and dancing. Local prostitutes have always been an abiding presence.
Local bohemians prefer the laid-back El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte (Avenida 1, Calles 21/23, tel. 506/2221-0327, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 6 p.m.–2 a.m. Mon.–Fri. and 4 p.m.–2 a.m. Sat.–Sun., $4 for men, free for women), a popular hangout for young Josefinos and the late-night, post-theater set. The brick-walled bar is famous for its 152 inventive cocktails, often served to wild ceremony and applause. It has live music on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It doesn’t get in the groove until around 10 p.m.
Around the corner from El Cuartel, El Observatorio (Calle 23, Avenidas Central/1, tel. 506/2223-0725, www.elobservatorio.tv , 6 p.m.–2 a.m. Mon.–Sat.) plays up the movie theme (the Cine Magaly is across the road), with movie posters and occasional screenings. High ceilings lend an airy ambience. It has live music most nights, with something for every taste.
The liveliest spot among gringos is the 24-hour Blue Marlin Bar (Calle 9, Avenida 1, tel. 506/2257-7800), in the Hotel Del Rey. Fishermen gather here to trawl for a good time with the working girls. The Blue Marlin screens U.S. sports, as does the more upscale yet similarly inclined Sportsmens Lodge (Calle 13, Avenidas 9/11, tel. 506/2221-2533, www.sportsmenscr.com ), which has a great pool room.
West of Downtown
The Shakespeare Bar (Avenida 2, Calle 28, tel. 506/2258-6787, noon–midnight daily) serves an intellectual crowd, drawn to the adjoining Teatro Laurence Olivier and Sala Garbo cinema. It has a piano bar and sometimes hosts live jazz. On Sabana Sur, Mac’s (tel. 506/2231-3145, 9 a.m.–2 a.m. daily) is a TV bar popular with gringos. There’s a pool table upstairs.
Rapsodia (Paseo Colón, Calle 40, tel. 506/2248-1720, 5 p.m.–2:45 a.m. Tues.–Sat.) is one of the chicest lounge bars in the city with its minimalist decor and retro lava-lamp videos, although the dining here disappoints.
East of Downtown
Río (tel. 506/2225-8371, noon–midnight Tues–Sun.), on Avenida Central in Los Yoses, is a lively place with TVs showing music videos. A hip young crowd gathers, especially for occasional all-day musical events when the street outside is closed and the party spills out onto the road. It’s often open until the last guest goes home.
Calles Central, 3 (also known as Calle de Amargura), and 5, north of Avenida Central in San Pedro, are lined with student bars that serve the university crowd.
Fancy a pint of Guinness? Then head to Stan’s Irish Pub (tel. 506/2253-4360, www.irishpubcostarica.com , 4 p.m.–2 a.m. Mon.–Fri., 4 p.m.–3 a.m. Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Sun.), 125 meters west of the Casa Presidencial, in the southeasterly district of Zapote. Owner Stanley Salas sells more than 60 beers from around the world. Look for daily specials, plus live music on Tuesday and an open mike on Saturday.
San José  now has a pair of Hooters (tel. 506/2225-1303, 11 a.m.–1 a.m. daily). The second one (the original is in Escazú) opened in June 2010 in Barrio Dent south of the Rotonda de la Bandera. Good beer, good cheer, and a classy contemporary ambience. What’s not to like? It’s a hoot! And it gets packed. Warm up here, then head to ChiChi’s (tel. 506/2225-4320, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. daily), one block north in Plaza Antares, a sophisticated sports bar with glass walls and a super-chic decor.
Jürgen’s (tel. 506/2283-2239, noon–2:30 p.m. and 6–10 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 6–11 p.m. Sat.) has a tasteful cigar lounge with leather seats.
Downtown at the risqué Hotel Little Havana is The Cigar Bar (Avenida 9, Calle 5 bis, tel. 506/2257-8624, www.hotellittlehavana.com , 24 hours), which aims for an upscale clientele with its classy humidor, games room, sumptuous suites, and female “accompaniment.”
The in-vogue dance spot is El Tobogán (tel. 506/2223-8920, 8 p.m.–2 a.m. Fri.–Sat., 4–9 p.m. Sun., $5), 200 meters north of La República office, off the Guápiles highway. Patrons dance to sizzling hot Latin tunes beneath a huge palenque (thatched roof).
In 2010, the city got its largest disco, Club 212 (tel. 506/2265-1079, 8 p.m.–2:30 a.m. Fri.–Sat.), with a fantastic light system and space for 2,500 patrons to dance to techno and salsa. It’s in San Joaquín de Flores, north of the city center.
El Pueblo (9 p.m.–2 a.m. daily), in Barrio Tournón, boasts a fistful of discos plus a dozen shoulder-to-shoulder bars tucked into a warren of alleyways and featuring everything from salsa to Bolivian folk music. The most sophisticated disco is Ebony 56 (tel. 506/2223-2195, 8 p.m.–4 a.m. Thurs.–Sun.), which revs things up with two dance floors and live bands on weekdays.
Next door is Twister (tel. 506/2222-5749, 7 p.m.–4 a.m. Tues.–Sat.), with a choice of three dance floors playing salsa, rock, and Latin sounds. Bongo’s (tel. 506/2222-5746, 5 p.m.–4 a.m. nightly) has Latin dancers on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Salsa 54 (Calle 3, Avenida 1/3, tel. 506/2223-3814, 7 p.m.–4 a.m. Mon.–Sat., 2–9 p.m. Sun., $3) draws dance aficionados for salsa. DJs also spin yesteryear hits, reggae, and more. A younger crowd heads upstairs to Salidas Orbital 2000 (tel. 506/2233-3814, 7 p.m.–4 a.m. Fri.–Sat.). Live bands sometimes perform, and there’s always the Model Revue, with scantily clad male and female dancers.
For electronica, techno, and rave-style partying, hit Vértigo (tel. 506/2257-8424, 8 p.m.–4 a.m. Mon.–Sat.), in Edificio Colón on Paseo Colón. It has high ceilings and a classy VIP section.
San José  has no shortage of gentlemen’s strip clubs. Many are sleazy. Even the most respectable clubs, such as Elite (Paseo Colón) and Hollywood Gold (Sabana Norte), are prone to ripping off patrons with exorbitant charges and strong-arm tactics. Caveat emptor!
Many major tourist hotels have a casino where the familiar sounds of roulette, craps, and blackjack continue until dawn. Rummy (a form of blackjack), canasta (a form of roulette, but with a basket containing balls replacing the roulette wheel), craps, and tute (a local variant of poker) are the casino games of choice. House rules and payoffs are stacked far more heavily in the house’s favor than they are in the United States. Hotel casino operations are restricted to 6 p.m.–2 a.m.
The most upscale are Club Colonial (Avenida 1, Calles 9/11, tel. 506/2258-2807, www.casinoclubcolonial.com ); Horseshoe Casino (Avenida 1, Calle 9, tel. 506/2233-4383, www.horseshoecr.com ); and the casinos in Aurola Holiday Inn, Hotel Clarion Amón Plaza, Barceló San José Palacio, Best Western Hotel Irazú, Centro Colón, and Radisson Europa Hotel.