San José’s center is arranged in a grid with avenidas (avenues) running east to west and calles (streets) running north to south. Av Central is the nucleus of the downtown area and is a pedestrian mall between Calles 6 and 9. The downtown has several loosely defined barrios (neighborhoods); those of greatest interest to tourists are north and east of Plaza de la Cultura, including Barrio Amón, Barrio Otoya, Barrio Aranjuez, Barrio Escalante and Barrio La California. The central area is home to innumerable businesses, hotels and cultural sites, while the area immediately west of downtown is home to San José's central market and many of its bus terminals.

Slightly further west of downtown is La Sabana, named for its huge and popular park where many josefinos spend their weekends jogging, swimming, picnicking or attending soccer matches.

A few kilometers southwest is the affluent outer suburb of Escazú, really three neighborhoods in one: Escazú Centro with its peaceful central plaza and unhurried Tico ambiance; the US expatriate enclave of San Rafael, dotted with strip malls, top-end car dealerships, tract housing and chain restaurants; and San Antonio, a hillside mix of humble rural homes, sprawling estates and spectacular views. Still further west is the up-and-coming enclave of Santa Ana, another expat favorite with oodles of green space, a fantastically warm and dry climate and new businesses galore.

East (and within walking distance) of the center are the contiguous neighborhoods of Los Yoses and San Pedro, the former a low-key residential area with some nice accommodations, the latter home to the tree-lined campus of the UCR, the country's most prestigious university. Marking the dividing line between Los Yoses and San Pedro is a traffic roundabout graced by a large fountain known as the Fuente de la Hispanidad (a frequently referenced local landmark). North of Los Yoses is Barrio Escalante, home to some of San José's trendiest bars and restaurants.