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Art & Culture of San Jose

Last Updated: Apr 30, 2012

art museum san jose 
 - Costa Rica

San Jose became the capital of Costa Rica in 1838. For more than 250 years, it has been the heart and soul of the country’s arts and culture scene. History lives within the city’s walls – the National Museum is housed in a beautiful Spanish-style building; the National Theater has welcomed some of the world’s best operas and traveling ballets; and the Gold Museum displays the globe’s most valuable collection of pre-Columbian gold.

Melico Salazar Theater

One of San Jose’s most richly storied buildings, the Melico Salazar Theater has served as a municipal tenement, army headquarters, school for boys, and an opera house. It has been rebuilt three times – it was twice leveled by earthquakes and once burned during a Dracula adaptation gone wrong. Home to more than three century’s worth of history, the theater now hosts weekly operas, ballets, and theater shows. Its interior is absolutely spectacular – the intricate staircase, marbled floors, and gorgeous moldings will capture your attention immediately. (2257-4483. San Jose, in front of the central park, at the intersection of Avenida 2 and Calle Central. Free to walk in; shows $4-$60.)

Central Market

If you’ve ever dreamed of haggling for goods or elbowing your way through a lively market, then San Jose’s Central Market is for you. Located in a sprawling building off Central Avenue, the market offers something for everyone, including handmade leather goods, inexpensive home-style meals, carved wood handicrafts, and hundreds of aromatic spices. This is a great place to find offbeat gifts or beautiful souvenirs, and the food is as authentic as it gets. Make sure to order an empanada arreglada (a turnover with all the fixings) and fresh fruit juice. (Downtown San Jose, Avenida Central between Calle 6 and Calle 8. 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon-Sat. Free to browse.)

Jade Museum

Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian cultures were experts at carving jade and gold, and this downtown landmark displays masterpieces made of both materials. The well laid-out museum guides you on a journey through elaborate carvings, stone objects, and jewelry that depicts the life and values of these ancient cultures. Be sure to visit the indigenous village exhibit, which puts all the artifacts into context. (2287-6034. Avenida 7 between Calle 9 and Calle 13; INS Building, Ground Floor. 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Mon-Fri; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sat. $7.)

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum

Reaching three levels beneath the National Theater and Plaza de la Cultura, the Gold Museum is one of San Jose’s most popular attractions. More than 2,600 pieces of gold jewelry and artifacts are on display, coalescing into the world’s most valuable collection of pre-Columbian gold. The museum also features a history of Costa Rica’s economy – including the evolution of the country’s National Mint and currency – and pre-Columbian cultures. One of the museum’s most engaging exhibits explains how raw gold was molded into the incredibly detailed pieces you will see on display. Discover why the pre-Columbian methods of molding gold were both fascinating and ingenious. (2243-4202. Plaza de la Cultura; Calle 5, between Avenida Central and Avenida 2. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon-Sun. $9 adults, $5 students.)

National Museum

By far our favorite downtown museum, the Museo Nacional combines pre-Columbian gold and jade exhibits with modern Costa Rican history and culture. The National Museum is housed in the Bellavista Fortress, a bullet-riddled building that once served as a stronghold during the Civil War. As you work your way around the perimeter, you’ll find yourself traveling through time, beginning with the pre-Columbian era, meandering into the early years of independence, and finally transitioning into modern times. The butterfly garden is a great escape from the big city, but the real highlight is the museum’s panoramic view that stretches out over San Jose and the surrounding mountains. (2257-1433. Calle 17, between Avenida Central and Avenida 2. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tues-Sat; 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sun. $6 adults, $3 students.)

National Arts and Culture Center

Housed in the historic National Liquor Factory, this contemporary art museum doubles-up on arts and cultural heritage. Take a journey through Costa Rica’s history – an old brick courtyard, colonial architecture, and a large amphitheater complement the center’s art galleries, which include the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. In addition to the permanent exhibits, CENAC features visiting artists and other modern art displays that are guaranteed to intrigue the senses. (2257-7202. Avenida 3 between Calle 15 and Calle 17. 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Mon-Sat. $3; Mondays free.)

Plaza de la Cultura (Culture Plaza)

Located in the heart of San Jose, the Plaza de la Cultura is surrounded by the National Theater, shops, and the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. On beautiful days, and especially on the weekends, the plaza comes alive with concerts, live performances, and many family-friendly activities. This is also a good place to go souvenir shopping – talented artists sell paintings and other goods at reasonable prices. (Downtown San Jose, Calle 17, between Avenida Central and Avenida 2 and Calle 3 and Calle 5. Public space; free.) 

National Theater

Known as Costa Rica’s architectural jewel, the National Theater was modeled after the stately and elegant Paris Opera House. The theater was built in 1897 as a testament to Costa Rica’s economic prosperity due to the coffee industry. It is intricately decorated with Belgian ironwork, Baroque and Italian renaissance flourishes, and 22.5-karat gold leaf. The theater is grand, featuring red velvet seats, statuesque balconies, and a stunning ceiling mural.  Our favorite room is the second-floor foyer, decorated in turquoise tones and gold leaf and featuring angelic frescos on the ceilings and walls. (2221-5341. San Jose, Avenida 2 between Calle 3 and Calle 5. Tours hourly, Mon-Sun. $7 guided tour.)

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