San Jose was originally known as Villa Nueva de la Boca del Monte (New Village of the Mouth of the Mountain) when it was founded in 1737. Initially just a few ramshackle buildings, the settlement expanded upon the development of coffee plantations in 1821. That same year, Costa Rica declared its independence from Spain. A short-lived civil war ensued when Mexico attempted to annex Costa Rica, as half of the country (including Cartago, the capital city of the time) was in support of the annexation, while the other half was not (including San Jose). After the independentistas won, the capital was moved from Cartago to San Jose.

San Jose remained a less-than-cosmopolitan city well into the mid-19th century. Influences from Europe led to the construction of buildings inspired by European architecture, including the Teatro Nacional, a building which remains must-see today for those interested in baroque architecture.

Civil war during the mid-twentieth century led Costa Rica to become the democratic and peaceful country it is known around the world as being. As the center of the Costa Rican government, San Jose has developed from a tiny backwater town into the bustling cosmopolitan city that it is today.