Most visitors flock to the city’s downtown, negotiating the bustling urban gridiron, using the pedestrian-only Central Avenue (Avenida Central) for reference.
Culture Plaza (Plaza de la Cultura) provides an ideal location to begin exploring the city’s urban attractions, although is not of much interest in itself. The plaza is a central meeting point for locals and foreigners alike. Ongoing street acts provide for great public entertainment, amidst the park’s overall tranquility. Nearby National Theater, Gold Museum, and the Tourism Information Office (ICT) are the main reason for stopping by.
South of the plaza is the National Theater (Teatro Nacional), considered by most to be San José’s most remarkable edifice. Constructed in the 1890’s, the theater is a prominent center of tico culture. Support for a grand opera house was galvanized following the refusal of Italian opera singer Adelina Patti to perform in Costa Rica, which the prima donna attributed to poor facilities. Irate coffee barons lobbied for a tax on coffee exports to fund the construction of a new venue.
The exterior of the National Theater is stylish, yet somewhat lacking in inspiration. However, the building’s interior is quite spectacular—the marble staircases, golden ceilings, and patterned wood floors alone are worth the visit.
Below Culture Plaza, in the basement of ICT, lies the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Precolombino) that houses a collection of ancient gold pieces and trinkets. Also of interest is the attached Numismatic Museum (Museo Numismático), which displays pre-Columbian currencies from centuries past.
Between Avenida 2 and 4 on Calle Central is the bustling Central Park (Parque Central) where city dwellers rendezvous and socialize. To the north is the prominent Melico Salazar Theater—named after the famous Costa Rican tenor—and Soda Palace, a lively 24-hour restaurant that is frequented by local intellectuals. East of Parque Central is the unremarkable neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropólitano), built in 1871.
Northeast of Central Park is Morazán Park (Parque Morazán), which encompasses four city blocks. The dome-shaped Temple of Music lies at the park’s center, the intersection of Calle 7 and Avenida 3. An authentic Japanese garden and other statues can be found within the park.
Adjacent to the Morazán Park is Spanish Park (Parque España), a tranquil bastion of tall trees from which birds perch and sing throughout the day, reaching their apex at dusk. The Belgium made Metallic Building (Edificio Metálico) lies to the northwest—a striking attraction that required years of assembly and today houses a school.
North of Morazán is the Jade Museum (Museo de Jade), perhaps Costa Rica’s most outstanding museum. Home to the largest collection of American jade in the world, this is one museum that visitors should not overlook. Other ceramic exhibits, stonework, and gold pieces complete the museum, which are arranged according to the specific cultural region from whence they came. Located on the eleventh floor of the impressive glass INS Building, the museum offers expansive views of the surrounding cityscape as well.
One of the inner-city’s largest open areas, Democracy Plaza (Plaza de la Democracia) is located in downtown’s east. A statue pays tribute to Jose Maria “Don Pepe” Figueres, the father of Costa Rica’s modern democracy. The National Museum (Museo Nacional) lies to the east, within the bullet riddled Bellavista Fortress, an ex-army headquarters. The museum houses a number of historical exhibits, including jade, gold, and colonial art.
Kittycorner from Plaza de la Democracia is the Moorish style National Palace (Palacio Nacional), where the nation’s legislative assemblies are held.
The pleasant National Park (Parque Nacional), located in east San José, is the city’s largest inner-city park. At the park’s center is the National Monument, which depicts Central American regulars driving out the filibuster William Walker. A statue of Juan Santamaría, a national hero, is located to the park’s southwest. The National Library (Biblioteca Nacional), the country’s central library, covers the northwest portion of the park. The National Center of Art and Culture (Centro Nacional de Artes y Cultura) hosts several art galleries, as well as a theater.