San José welcomes foreigners and tourists. Depending on how much time you have and, of course your interests, San José is fascinating. If you have only a short time in San José, a stroll downtown will give you a “feel” for the city. Create your own tour! Consider starting at the Cultural Plaza.
San José is a city full of hustle and bustle. At times it even seems to transform itself daily. If you wander, you will discover old and new, poor and rich, public and private, residential and commercial all woven together to form the central fabric of the city. While the main design stays more or less constant, San José’s patterns change with the tropical seasons, people, and traffic flows.
Like most urban centers anywhere, it’s important to be observant while walking. Be careful not to wander into isolated areas. San José is colorful and energized; vibrant with an impressive variety of enterprising entrepreneurs on nearly every corner.
At the heart of San José, La Plaza de la Cultura is a good starting point for any stroll around San José. Here you will begin to get a sense of the city; its current culture and history. The Plaza is alive with passersby, young and old, people of many professions and students.
There’s often captivating entertainers. On weekends especially, you're likely to see a musician or juggler. If you just like watching people, this is the spot! Kick back and enjoy a refreshing coconut drink (called "pipa" in Costa Rica) or tropical fruit ice cream before you head off to explore. By the way, in Costa Rica it’s best to have local currency (colones) for purchases; some stores and restaurants accept credit cards, but not always.
The star feature of La Plaza de la Cultura is The National Theater of Costa Rica. Built in 1897, it is an official national monument even as it continues to host performances. It’s often called “the gem of Costa Rican culture and architecture.” According to history, the National Theater was modeled after the magnificent Opera House of Paris. The introduction to culture begins at its entrance. As you enter its gates, you’re welcomed by statues of the world renowned artists: the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven and the Spanish dramatist, poet, and writer Pedro Calderón de la Barca.
Attend a performance by the Costa Rican symphony orchestra or take a tour to see the original hand crafted Belgian ironwork and the elaborate Baroque and Italian renaissance decor with its 22.5-karat gold leaf. Be sure to look up to marvel at the sparkling chandeliers, marble columns wrapped with bronze, and the still-beautiful ceiling mural. Painted in 1897 by Aleardo Villa, the ceiling painting is surely the most famous painting in Costa Rica. It reflects equality among grateful farmers harvesting Costa Rican coffee. It truly portrays Costa Rican humility along with prevailing values of hard work for prosperity. The precious woods in the grand theater came mostly from Alajuela. The antique red velvet seats are still preserved.
The Gran Hotel of Costa Rica is directly across from the National Theater. Treat yourself to a pastry and a cup of richly aromatic Costa Rican coffee while you admire the stately interior. From the Plaza, you are just steps from the busy Avenida Central, a pedestrian boulevard (no cars), where you’ll find lots of shops and shoppers, cafés and restaurants, and street vendors.
Close by are several museums to check out. The precious collections on display in the Museo de Oro Pre Colombiano (Pre Columbian Gold Museum) and in the Museo de Jade (Jade Museum) are major attractions. The Museo Numismático (National Coin Museum) is also located in the same building as the Gold Museum. It displays the currency and eventual minting history of Costa Rica, dating back to 1236, including coffee tokens. The Museo Nacional (National Museum of History and Culture) is nearby. If you’re traveling with children (or even if you’re not!) a favorite museum for both Costa Ricans and tourists is the Museo de Los Niños (Children’s Museum). It's full of hands-on activities.
Before you leave downtown or Costa Rica, be sure to save time to go to a souvenir market (Mercado Municipal de Artesania). Closest to the Plaza de la Cultura is the Arts & Crafts Market of San Jose, (sometimes called the Nacional Artisian's Market). Other popular places to buy souvenirs are Sarchi, Alajuela, Poasito, Cartago, Jaco Beach, and at most national parks.
Two uniquely Costa Rican souvenirs to take back home are miniature ox carts (carretas) and delicious Costa Rican coffee. Sarchi is the town known for its wood and ox cart craftsmen. These brightly painted carts are still hand painted with traditional geometric designs.
Coffee from the high volcanic mountain ranges of Costa Rica is my favorite souvenir gift. There are many quality brands with prices ranging from $3-5 for a half kilo. You can buy coffee at any grocery store. Or, you can purchase it directly from coffee producers when you take a Costa Rican coffee tour. I’ve given Costa Rican coffee as a gift to family, friends, and as diplomatic gifts to colleagues all over the world. Delicious coffee is a gift that’s always received with appreciation. Yours will be too.
San José is a city with its own charm and style. I hope you are intrigued to stroll around downtown San José and create your own fun tour. The city’s colors, charisma and culture are constantly revealed in San José as well as through the people, parks, towns, and foods you explore as you wander.
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