COSTA RICA  |  San Jose, Costa Rica Travel Guide
Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Sightseeing in San José: 1

A Walking Tour

Avenue 2: Parque Central

Start at Parque Central (Av 2 between Calle Central & 2), the city’s oldest park. We must confess that downtown parks are modest and generally unappealing as recreational attractions, and this park is no different. But it is a good gathering ground, especially on Sundays, and the pavilion in its center, donated by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, once housed a children’s library. The park features popular Sunday concerts and is the hangout of the inventor of a playground game of skill called “Pica Caballo,” who’ll demonstrate the game and offer one for sale.Watch your belongings in the crowds. On one corner street is the Soda Palace, allegedly the restaurant where revolutionary plots were once hatched.

A Cathedral and a Theater

Facing the park is the most important church in Costa Rica, the Metropolitan Cathedral. Built in 1871 after the original was destroyed in an earthquake, the interior is expansive, with elegantly painted columns made of wood. The high altar is under an ornate cupola ceiling. A side chapel, Capilla de Santissimo Sacramento, is decorated with carved painted flowers and leaves.

Across the street on Av 2 is the Melico Salazar Theater, built in the 1920s and named after a famous Italian opera singer who liked Costa Rica so much he moved to San José in 1937.We attended a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra here (they now perform at Teatro Nacional, below). In addition to concerts and special events, it now hosts a folklore ballet.

East on Av 2 is the Gran Hotel, set back from the street in a paved plaza, Costa Rica’s grande dame of accommodations. In the tradition of Central American town planning, the center of a city houses a “grand hotel,” usually the oldest and most prestigious. El Gran has a small, popular casino, and its inside restaurant is quite good. But the outdoor Café Parisien – open 24 hours – is San José’s best place to sit and eat or have a drink while the world passes by your table. That world might include European backpackers, vendors of painted feathers, Cuban cigar sellers, ochorena players, well-dressed theater patrons, provocative prostitutes, young language-school students, lovers young and old, camera-toting tourists, government officials, shoppers, large families, beggars – and you.

If there is one “must-see” site in San José it’s the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), next door to the Gran Hotel. Completed in 1894 at the height of Costa Rica’s coffee and banana wealth, the theater is an ornate, spectacularly beautiful testament to a bygone era – a golden age of opulence. Its neo-classical exterior is impressive, but the baroque décor is breathtaking. The entrance lobby features Italian pink marble and 22-karat gold trim.

As you enter, to the left is the charming Viennese-style café run by Café Britt. This is a wonderful place to have lunch, afternoon tea, or just coffee and dessert. Ferrario Carlo Milano painted the ceiling above your head and the café hangs changing art exhibits by local artists. Admission to tour the theater is about US $3 and worth every colon.

In the impressive horseshoe-shaped grand hall of the Teatro Nacional, which seats over 1,000, the floor was constructed so it could be raised to the level of the stage, creating a ballroom. Velvet-lined luxury box seats rise two levels around the auditorium; the third level is the gallery. If you have the opportunity to see a concert here, don’t miss it. You don’t necessarily need a suit or formal dress, but good casual clothes will suffice.

Up a Carrara marble staircase is Costa Rica’s most famous painting (look up), Una Alegoría, by Milanese artist Aleardo Villa, commissioned in 1897. Reproduced on the colorful five-colones bank note, Villa depicts an idealized coffee harvest with sacks of the grano de oro being loaded onto a sailing ship. Ticos have long ago forgiven Villa for making the coffee bushes too short and the women look like Italian grape pickers.

The second-floor foyer overwhelms the senses with ornate gilding, crystal, statues, paintings, columns, thick carpet, drapes, mirrors, lights and fine furniture. The floor, replaced in 1940, boasts a selection of 10 varieties of local hardwoods.

To the side of the theater is the Plaza de la Cultura. Because of its location along Av Central’s pedestrian walkway, it has become the central meeting place in the downtown, often attracting street performers.

Below the plaza, under a curving arched roof, are the Gold Museum and the Tourism Office (ICT). Tourist info is available Monday through Saturday, 9 to 5. The pre-Columbian gold museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 am to 4:30 pm. Admission for the impressively rich, 2,000-piece exhibit is around US $6. It’s one of Central America’s largest collections.

Last updated November 21, 2007
Posted in   Costa Rica  |  San Jose
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