This blog post was updated on January 30, 2018.

[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]O[/mks_dropcap]ne of the best things about exploring unknown places is finding something unexpected or out of the ordinary. During my recent trip to Costa Rica, I didn’t anticipate finding a building so reminiscent of 19th century Europe. The National Theatre of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica) is definitely a must see for anyone who delights in discovering hidden treasures like I do.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This was the first building in Costa Rica to have electric lighting. [/pullquote]

From the Outside

National Theatre of Costa Rica by Sandy Bornstein

National Theatre of Costa Rica by Sandy Bornstein

[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]T[/mks_dropcap]he National Theatre of Costa Rica is conveniently located in the heart of San José. This memorable building took approximately seven years to build and held its first performance in 1897. According to our guide: The government initially funded the building’s construction via an export tax on its primary natural resource— coffee. When this revenue option fell short of its anticipated goal, they chose to add an import tax, instead. This passed the burden to the citizens. As a result, many Ticos (slang for modern Costa Ricans) take pride in its ownership.

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[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Many oohed and aahed as they passed by the exquisite examples of 19th-century artwork.[/pullquote]

[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]w[/mks_dropcap]hen I walked through the doors, I was immediately taken aback. My eyes were drawn to the Italian marble floors and walls, the intricate woodwork with gold overlay, and the prominent full-sized statues. In the next room, a very intricate and beautiful European mural covered the ceiling. I was surprised to see European craftsmanship in a tropical capital city.  USA Today (January 23, 2014) considers this mural to be “One of the Ten Great Ceilings in the World.”

Our guide told us that almost all of the interior furnishings were imported from Europe. She pointed to one small statue in the front foyer that was created by a Costa Rican. Everything else was imported. Surprisingly, most of the original accouterments remain intact. In the theater, we sat in the original seats.

Climbing the Staircase

Ceiling of National Theatre of Costa Rica by Sandy Bornstein

Ceiling of National Theatre of Costa Rica by Sandy Bornstein

[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]A[/mks_dropcap]n Italian artist painted the ceiling mural at the top of the dramatic staircase that leads to the third floor. It is commonly referred to as the Allegory of Coffee and Bananas. However, painting from Italy, the European artist created a picture with numerous factual errors. Anyone looking for a souvenir to remember this beautiful depiction can purchase a now defunct Costa Rican bill from an outside vendor.

On to the Third Floor

3rd floor meeting room by Sandy Bornstein

3rd floor meeting room by Sandy Bornstein

[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I[/mks_dropcap]n its heyday, the third floor was a meeting place for the affluent. Gender specific smoking rooms are found in opposite corners of the ornately decorated room. The focal point is another enormous ceiling painting. If you look closely at the woman holding the harp while walking, you’ll see that her eyes follow you across the room.

The tiered theater is accessed on multiple floors and has three balcony levels. The main floor can be manually raised up to the level of the stage by turning an old-fashioned wheel on both sides of the stage. This process takes approximately 30 minutes. There is a special box that is reserved for the Costa Rican president.

History buffs and people who love to gawk at lavish surroundings should find their way to the National Theatre of Costa Rica in San José. It is open for daily tours as well as for performances.

Can you share an unexpected treasure that you visited recently? Let us know in the comments section.

2 Responses


    Hi, Sandy, I only wish my pictures were even 10% as good as yours. My “4x” camera didn’t do our trip justice. I got NO bird pictures and only a few of other wildlife. However, I have finished my album, such as it is, and transcribing my notes. So that’s why I just g ot around to viewing your e-mail.

    • Sandy

      Hi Carol, Yes, I agree that a better camera may make a difference. Keep in mind that it isn’t easy to capture any type of moving object, especially birds. Costa Rica is an amazing place. I’m sure that your photo album is filled with many memorable photos.


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About The Author

Sandy Bornstein lived as an expat in India. Her award-winning memoir, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, highlights what she learned as the only American teacher at an international Bangalore school. After living abroad, Sandy continues to explore the world and write about her travels. You can follow Sandy's adventures at