History Lesson

Thank Your Cuppa Joe


This richly decorated theatre owes its construction to a humble product—the coffee bean. Styled after European opera houses and theatres such as the Opera Garnier in Paris, Costa Rica’s lavish National Theatre would never have been constructed without the world’s desire for a cup of joe.

Wishing to capitalize on a booming produce economy in the late 19th century, Costa Rican president desired to bring a lavish cultural center to the capital of San Jose, which had a small population of around 20,000 at the time. In order to cover the costs of such a prominent national theatre, a tax was placed on coffee exports, providing the small capital with enough funds to begin construction in 1891. Italian designers and engineers were brought in to create a structure in fashion with popular European tastes.

Completed in 1897, the National Theatre is touted as one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts-style buildings in Central America. Looming sculptures in the theater’s hallways by Pietro Bulgarelli depict musical legends such as Ludwig von Beethoven and Frederic Chopin. Gilded chandeliers and massive murals grace the lobbies and performance spaces, though not without some mistakes. One of the National Theatre’s most famous paintings, Alegoría al café y el banano, depicts the harvest of bananas and coffee. However, the painting was made in and shipped from Italy–by an artist who had never been to Costa Rica. As a result, workers in the painting are grabbing bunches of bananas incorrectly,such is the caveat for going all in on a fully European theatre.

Now host to various operas and acclaimed musical acts throughout the year, the National Theatre is a celebrated landmark in the city of San Jose, which today has a population of  over 300,000 people. While the glamorous cultural palace attracts locals and tourists alike, the theater also offers a nod to how its construction was possible—with a small celebrated coffee shop on its side.

Written By: Seamus McMahon

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