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Visiting museums might not be your first thought when you come to Costa Rica, but you shouldn’t overlook the bountiful opportunities to explore some of this country’s more high-brow, educational and eye-opening culture.
Here are our top picks for the museums you should seriously consider visiting when in Costa Rica.
National Museum of Costa Rica, San José
The National Museum is a must, centrally located in a beautiful and historic building, with frequently updated exhibits.
Permanent exhibits here include:
- “Hall of Pre-Columbian History,” with artifacts of hunters and gatherers from 12,000 BCE through the chieftain-ruled societies of the 16th century.
- “Pre-Columbian Gold” displays the gold artifacts made and traded by Costa Rica’s indigenous population.
- “Colonial Home” is a recreation of a home from the colonial period, with the original roof, walls, floors, doors and windows from an old home in Guanacaste.
Temporary exhibits change often, so check the museum’s website to see what’s new.
The yellow and white museum on Avenida 2 in San José was previously the Bellavista Fortress, a military headquarters, fortress and jail. You can still visit the old jail cells, and you can still see the bullet holes in one of the towers from the 1948 civil war. The winner of that war, José Figueres Ferrer, announced the abolition of the army here at an event in which he took a sledgehammer to its turrets.
Costa Rican Art Museum, San José
This museum at La Sabana Park in San José is well worth a visit, and you’ll love the price: free.
Housed in Costa Rica’s previous international airport, this museum displays paintings, sculptures, murals and other artwork from the latter half of the 19th century to the present.
Don’t miss the Golden Room, the former airport’s Diplomat Lounge, where Costa Rican history from pre-Columbian times through 1940 is represented in a carved mural covering all four walls.
And it’s hard to overlook “Inside Mirror,” a photographic self-portrait of Costa Rican artist Karla Solano Cordero, who put her nude body on life-size display along with images of the body’s skeleton and muscle structure.
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Jade Museum, San José
The Jade Museum is said to have the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts in the world.
With some 7,000 exhibits, the museum also displays ancient artifacts made of stone, bone, wood, shells and ceramics. Many of the artifacts date to 500 BCE, when jade began to be widely traded with the Mayan and Olmec cultures.
The museum is located on Avenida Central and Calle 13, in a squarish building meant to resemble a block of raw jade.
Central Bank Museum, San José
This museum focuses on money and other treasure, from pre-Columbian gold to the world’s largest collection of Costa Rican coins and bills from all eras.
The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum features some 1,600 gold pieces from 500 BC until contact with the Spanish. The Museum of Numismatics displays an impressive collection of historical coins and banknotes. And there’s also lots of art by Costa Rican artists.
The museum is located in underground vaults at the Plaza de la Cultura in downtown San José.
Children’s Museum, San José
Located in what used to be the Central Penitentiary at Calle 4 and Avenida 9, the Museo de Los Niños is dedicated to “the magic of learning by playing.”
With more than 40 galleries, the museum features interactive exhibits on the universe, history, dinosaurs, the ocean, earthquakes, music, transportation and more.
And if your kids ever wondered why leaves are green and flowers are yellow, this museum will tell them.
La Casona, Santa Rosa National Park
Located in a remote park in northwestern Guanacaste, La Casona is the site of Costa Rica’s finest moment in battle.
In 1856, some 400 U.S. and European mercenaries invaded Costa Rica on the orders of William Walker, a U.S. doctor and lawyer who controlled Nicaragua and wanted to establish a slave empire in Central America. They stopped to rest at a house called La Casona, where they all settled down and started drinking, but somehow they didn’t think to post a sentry.
So 700 Costa Rican soldiers sneaked up on them, surrounded them and routed them in a 14-minute battle that forced them to flee back to Nicaragua. The museum that commemorates this event displays rifles, sabers, bayonets and other weapons used, and it has excellent graphics and chronologies explaining what happened.
Finca 6, Palmar Sur
A little more off the beaten path, Finca 6 is a museum and archaeological site showcasing Costa Rica’s mysterious pre-Columbian stone spheres.
Located between Palmar Sur and Sierpe, in Costa Rica’s southwest, Finca 6 is the largest collection of these spheres anywhere. Many of them are still in situ, where they were originally found, and a smallish museum here explains what is known about how and why these spheres were made.
About 300 of these spheres have been found, ranging in diameter from a few centimeters to two meters, and made between 300 BCE and 800 CE. Some theorize that they were made by aliens, but the exhibits here have a more down-to-earth explanation about how the stones were quarried, shaped and transported.
As for the why, the spheres appear to have been status symbols that local chieftains used to showcase their power and influence.