Destination Costa Rica

Art City Tour: Costa Rica

The Art City Tour in the Costa Rican capital of San José takes place every two months and offers the culturally curious an opportunity to embrace and rediscover the city’s nocturnal geography. The final Art City Tour of the year is scheduled for Wednesday, November 20.

By: Gladys Arosemena Bissot
Photos: Lourdes Mora

Around five o’clock in the afternoon, noise is a normal part of the Costa Rican capital’s weekday routine. Thousands of people rush through the streets in cars, busses, or on foot on their way home, in search of a place to rest after the busy workday. But this evening, like on other bi-monthly occasions, the city’s nightscape is different. The streets, far from succumbing to solitude, begin to welcome large groups of visitors gathering at museums, galleries, design shops, and other cultural venues from La Sabana to downtown with a clear goal in mind: to rediscover San José’s renowned architectural and cultural icons, thanks to the Art City Tour.

As on other occasions, I arrive for this nocturnal cultural adventure as early as possible; the activities may be free, but time is money. And, as usual, I ask myself the question: How will I, in four short hours, ever manage to cover the whole tour?

Although I had originally planned on taking Route C in a minivan, I came across a group that captured my attention; they were on foot, being guided by an architect and a historian along Route 1, called “The Monuments Speak: National History in Public Spaces.” The meeting point was on Avenida de las Damas, or Paseo de las Damas, named after the Costa Rican fiddlewood trees, the flowers of which evoke the hair color of the foreign ladies that took stately walks along the avenue in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

I couldn’t have picked a better place for a stroll: my first steps on this evening’s tour are along this wooded avenue, which acted as the gateway to the city in the early twentieth century and this evening, to landmarks such as the Castillo Azul (Blue Castle) and the Supreme Court of Elections building.

Recalling the avenue’s origins —it was built to commemorate the arrival of the modern winds of change— I came to the conclusion that Costa Rican architecture has enjoyed a history both fresh and fortunate. Unlike the unbridled growth typical of other capitals, many of the city’s most emblematic buildings are fine examples of an urban renewal that succeeded in preserving and honoring historically valuable landmarks.

And then my group steps into Morazán Park. Once inside the Temple of Music, our guide tells us a story I’d never heard before. In the 70s, the opening of the modern Hotel Aurola threatened the flora in the park. The sun’s rays were reflected from the plate glass facade onto the trees in the park, making it necessary to reforest one of the city’s most important “lungs,” which also acted as the chosen resting place for drovers after they dropped off their wares at the Fábrica de Licores.

Next, the group stops in front of the Edificio Metálico, the building that marked the arrival of cast-iron architecture in Costa Rica. This building is living testimony of a journey that began in Belgium, where its pieces were prefabricated in 1891 before crossing the sea and joining with marble blocks and cast-iron walls and columns to become one of San José’s most beautiful neoclassical landmarks.

As a minivan ambles by, I am reminded that I’ll have to resume my initial plan as soon as possible, as the evening’s cultural itinerary is long and time marches on. Gradually, I approach the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, where the National Dance Company is currently performing Uno, a piece on the poetics of being with another and sharing affection. As the performance still underway, I am able to visit the other sites along this route without missing a thing.

Although part of Route A, I choose to walk on to the Central Bank Museums, which offer three exhibitions in a single space: the first, a look at the forgotten work of Thomas Povedano, one of the most important illustrators of early twentieth-century Costa Rican currency; the “Metaphor of Sounds” exhibit, displaying essential instruments from pre-Columbian times; and “Almost Invisible,” a tangible portrait of the transgressive spaces in which Costa Rican art has flourished over the years.

Although the time allowed is limited, part of the charm of the Art City Tour is walking around in the capital’s cool night air, on the lookout for whatever may pop up along the way. Now only a few blocks from the National Museum, I decide to walk the distance. Upon arrival, I am welcomed by the imposing Diquís Spheres, from a site now on the World Heritage List, and then move to the “Observatory of an Invisible Garden” exhibit, a collection of strange photos of extinct or endangered botanical species by Costa Rican artist Carolina Guillermet.

Leaving the museum, I decide to change my itinerary yet again, taking one of the Route B minivans. If there’s one thing about the Art City Tour I truly appreciate, it’s being able to change routes freely, limited only by time. The minivans leave every fifteen minutes from set meeting points, and if you decide to walk from one spot to another, you can mix and match routes easily.

It’s already eight o’clock and I barely have time for one more visit. I opt for the TEOR/éTica gallery, an obligatory stop as it supports experimental work and brings important artistic projects from across the region to Costa Rica by providing scholarships to established artists. This evening there are two exhibits: the powerful choreography of Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier and an exploration of the effects of light in art titled Light/Matter/Form, by Costa Rican artist Wilson Ilama.

It’s almost nine o’clock by the time I leave TEOR/éTica. The last minivan has already gone so I decide to return to my starting point on foot. As I walk past the Alliance Française I notice the door is still open. Inevitably on this tour, just as I think I’m leaving I enjoy an impromptu encounter with some design shop or gallery. I take advantage of my good fortune to make a quick visit to a photography exhibition titled Private Worlds: Space in Portraits.

Yet again, this fortuitous end to my evening could not be more fitting. The hall is filled with photographic portraits celebrating a plurality of faces based on their unique features. The photographs appropriate the space, rediscovering and reinventing it, as we have rediscovered the city this evening, reinventing its cultural imaginary, a nightscape reflected in the eyes of the hundreds of people who, every two months, come to smile upon art.



The tour starts in various parts of the city; check for meeting points at

Important Facts

The tour begins at 5:00 pm and ends at 9:00 pm. It can be done on foot, using the minivans, or on a bike, each offering different routes.

The Art City Tour is a free event.

Organizers request that participants register at the above website so they can make sure there are enough minivans available. It is not necessary to present proof of registration.

Minivans leave every fifteen minutes from the various meeting points.

Security is usually increased for these night tours so it’s safe to walk around, even with camera.

You can purchase fairly priced quality items at Costa Rican design stores.

The final Art City Tour of the year is scheduled for Wednesday, November 20. Because of the temporary nature of exhibits, they will be different from the ones described in this article.