Hardly anyone budgets time for San Jose beyond an overnight stop on the way to other destinations in Costa Rica when the flight schedule dictates so. Spending time in the capital city in a country that is famous for its sun, sea, rainforests, and fauna sounds a bit wasteful.
That sentiment is not entirely undeserved. The city can never be mistaken for impressive. In fact, it looks decidedly not too well cared for, and with the absence of significant architectural monuments, it all combines into a feel of an underdeveloped city. Occasional visual highlights pop up here or there, but they are the exception to the rule (and a good portion of them show signs of neglect as well).
We did spend two nights – and therefore, about a day and a half – in San Jose on our recent trip to Costa Rica. A dedicated urban explorer will still find things of interest here, starting with the sampling of the eye-catching colonial architecture.
The last two shots depict the main post office. A curious parallel with the capital of the former colonial power: those who’ve been to Madrid would definitely recall Palacio Cibeles – formally, Palacio de Comunicaciones – as one of the standout edifices.
The next perspective is of the “Blue Castle”. Behind that obvious moniker hides the less obvious former function of the building as the home of the country’s legislature.
And the grim-looking building in the background? Surprisingly, that is the new modern home of the Costa Rican legislature.
Another modern building at the edge of the city center is the Museum of Jade. We will take a look inside later in this post.
Probably the finest architectural highlight of San Jose is the National Theater, built at the end of the 19th century and modeled on the Opera Garnier in Paris.
Access to the foyer is free, so even if you do not go for a paid self-guided tour of the building, you can still get a feel for the decor. Marble and other materials used in the buildings’ interior originate from all over the world, but mainly from Italy and France.
An example of a religious building, in the form of Iglesia de la Soledad. Not without some fine details but well illustrating my overall impression of the understated nature of most churches in Costa Rica.
San Jose has its own Chinatown, which is in effect a small area not wholly commensurate with the size of the traditional gate.
And this is the most popular monument in all of San Jose. (At least according to a transplanted American who decided to chat me up as I was taking this picture.)
Which makes sense, I suppose. What do I really know about generals and politicians whose monuments appear throughout town? Barely anything, even when I recognize the name from somewhere. I know quite a lot about John Lennon, conversely. Although I did not know until researching it upon my return that the location of this statue approximately marks the spot where, in 1966, Costa Ricans smashed Beatles records in protest of Lennon’s statement that the iconic pop group was “more popular than Jesus.” The placement may just be a coincidence, given that Plaza Artigas, as the square is known, commemorates quite a number of other famous artists. Or it could be an admirable exercise in self-reflection.
The next shot is of the atrium of Edificio Steinvorth, a former music venue repurposed as a commercial place. One of the best coffee house in San Jose is located here.
A few other exterior perspectives.
Ever-present low-grade graffiti aside, San Jose is full of arresting examples of street art, be it colorful façades or murals.
Even in a city lacking exceptional features, you can find an exceptional museum or two. The Museum of Jade certainly qualifies for a highly-recommended designation. This is really more of a museum of indigenous cultures, highlighting every aspect of the life of pre-Columbian societies over three floors of exhibits.
Extensive displays of jade, wood, and pottery artifacts are quite amazing.
The National Museum of Costa Rica and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold are two other potentially interesting collections. But even with our comparatively longer stay in town, we could not fit more than one museum into the itinerary. That was partially due to the fact that we joined a nature-centric walking tour around the campuses of the University of San Jose.
The tour was advertised as a “walking with sloths”, but for the majority of it, we could only spot some birds and impressive insects.
Almost at the point of giving up, we finally spotted a sloth. These close-ups are your reward for reading through the end of this post.
It remains an arguable point whether spending a day – or more – in San Jose is truly worthwhile. It will never compete for the title of “great place to visit”. I am, nonetheless, quite happy that we gave ourselves a chance to see it.