If an inbound/outbound flight leaves you with a few hours to spare in San Jose, you’re in luck – take this walking tour to discover kaleidoscopic stained glass, indigenous gold, colorful ceiling frescoes, and handcrafted souvenirs.
Start out at San Jose's Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana), located on the eastern edge of the Central Park. Originally built in 1802, it was reconstructed in 1871 and today incorporates Baroque, Greek Orthodox and Neo-classical styles into the green-roofed structure.
As you walk through the arced front doors, notice the religious statues lining the walls; these figures are used in San Jose's annual Holy Week procession, the largest in the nation. The church features fine detail work, including a colonial tiled floor, vaulted ceilings and vibrant stained-glass windows that depict biblical scenes. The Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, to the left of the main altar, offers carved motifs and a quiet place for reflection. Standing proud outside, the white statue of Pope John Paul II was crafted by Costa Rican Jiménez Deredia, one of Latin America's most famous sculptors.
Guests are welcome to tour the interior – but time your visit well, as the cathedral is a popular choice for Sunday Mass.)
Cross the street and walk two blocks east to the National Theater (Teatro Nacional), a national monument considered San Jose's architectural jewel. Inspired by the Paris Opera House, this Neo-baroque style building was built to impress, boasting fine finishes including 22.5-karat gold leaf and Belgian ironwork.
As you walk past the entrance foyer, glance up – this colorful ceiling mural is entitled the "Allegory of Coffee and Bananas." An ornamental staircase leads to the main theater, which seats 1,040 and converts to a ballroom. Continue on to the lobby, where gold-leafed details complement a floor crafted from ten local hardwood species. Above your head hangs an impressive 85-light chandelier, and beyond that are feature frescoes of mythological deities.
Walk east to the end of Avenida Central's pedestrian mall, continuing two more blocks east to the National Museum (Museo Nacional). The museum is located in the bullet-riddled Bellavista Fortress, a historical structure that saw two battles and hosted Costa Rica's announcement to abolish its military.
The National Museum gives an excellent introduction to Costa Rican history, housing collections of indigenous gold, pottery and stone works, lustrous jade, pre-Columbian artifacts and a replica of a colonial home. All exhibits have descriptions in English and Spanish. Before you leave, walk downstairs to the small butterfly garden, a peaceful urban oasis.
On the western edge of the National Museum sits San Jose's best artisan market. The narrow alleyway is lined with stalls displaying every type of souvenir, though the most impressive good proffered is carved wood. Featuring five regional species (rosewood is prominent), vendors sell wine holders, salad bowls, beer mugs, cutting boards, and other wood works. Prices are always negotiable; don't be afraid to bargain.
Hotels...a hop, skip and a jump from the airport: