Puerto Rico, formerly a Spanish armed force and naval base, is an U.S. territory and a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, with tropical climate and beautiful, sun kissed beaches. Most people flock to this island to enjoy their time on the beach resorts in the newer Condado part of San Juan. However for lovers of some old world charm will find solace in the beauty and vivacity of old town Puerto Rico which is a bridge and 10 min drive from the Condado/airport area. There are plenty of things to do in old San Juan during your Puerto Rico itinerary, which will mesmerize you with its beauty, colonial architecture, colorful houses and of course, a lot of history hanging on to its air like a musty cobweb.
I have visited this city twice and have explored the old San Juan attractions simply by walking everywhere on its cobbled streets. So here is an account of my self-guided tour of old San Juan, which covers most of the sightseeing in old town if you have three days in hand. So here my take on this part of the capital city, with tips on where to stay in San Juan, Puerto Rico, things to see in old San Juan, places to do some old San Juan shopping, and of course, tips on where to find some of the best restaurants in old San Juan.
Best things to do in old San Juan
There are so many things to do in Old San Juan and the best way to explore them is by foot since the city is spread out like a grid and is thus very walkable. If you have semi-winged appendages, i.e. overly eager feet and are a champion walker, you can explore the entire old town in two days. If walking is really not your scene, take the free green trolley to the major attractions of old San Juan that have several stops all over town and the stops are clearly demarcated. Here are some of the top things to do when you are exploring old San Juan:
1) Admiring the colonial architecture
Old San Juan is indeed a beauty with her wares on full display, seeped in history starting from when Christopher Columbus first landed foot in 1492 to the modernities of today’s age reflected in the cafes, occasional fast food chains and other amenities jostling for space with the historic buildings. The houses hark back to the Old Spanish colonial style, with dark wooden doors and windows that are slatted, beautiful pastel, neon and all other shades of colored walls and inner courtyards, very much in the Andalusian style. This website has a brief history of the Old San Juan architecture and its primary attractions and is a fun read for history aficionados.
Some of the best places to view colonial architecture in old San Juan are the following:
a) Calle de La Fortaleza: This is the artery of old San Juan and is flanked by beautiful, colorful homes on either side
b) The Casa Blanca (White house): this National Historic monument, built in the 1520s for the Ponce de León, stands pristine on Calle San Sebastian and is home to a museum.
c) San Jose Church: An excellent example of Spanish Gothic architecture, this beautiful church is located on Plaza de San Jose.
d) Palacio Rojo: This Baroque style building is on one end of Calle La Fortaleza and houses administrative offices
e) Palacio Episcopal: This continues to serve as the private residence of the Bishop of San Juan and is located on the Avenida de la Constitución.
2) Visiting the Spanish Forts
Old town boasts of the two Spanish fortresses Castillo Morro and Castillo Cristobal, two must visit World Heritage sites in San Juan that were built by the Spanish to protect this good port (i.e. Puerto Rico) from being invaded by other European forces (Dutch/French). These fortresses stand tall and proud on the north and east ends of the city and are must visits.
Castillo Cristobal was built in 1634 and was once considered the Gibraltar of the West Indies. This fort is one of the largest defenses ever built in the Americas and is currently a World Heritage and National Historic Site managed by the U.S. National Park Service.
Castillo Morro overlooks the San Juan Bay and is the labor of love of Spanish engineers over a period of 250 years (1539-1787). This was considered to be the grandest fortification built by the Spanish in the Caribbean. Once atop the fort, you will get one of the best views in Puerto Rico of the old town shoreline along with a peek at the dotted white tombstones of the cemetery below. You can either walk along the guarded wall or adjacent paved way from one fort to the other or simply take the trolley.
3) Exploring museums
i) Museo de Americas
San Juan is home to a few small, yet lovely museums hosting exhibits that you will not find elsewhere in USA, thanks to it being a territory and not a state. If you are a history buff, I strongly suggest visiting the Museo de Americas during your old San Juan walking tour which is one of the most beautifully curated museums that I have ever visited and one of the hidden gems of Old San Juan.
At a ridiculous entry free of $6, you get to see painstakingly detailed exhibits spanning the history, origins and anthropology of Puerto Rico, the folk art of the island, the information on the original Taino people who inhabited the island, the arrival of the Europeans and finally the advent of the African slaves. All three races have influenced the island’s checkered and often turbulent history and left their mark on its cuisine, culture and music.
There is an entire section of this old San Juan attraction devoted to the horrors of slavery as a part of Puerto Ricans to understand their African heritage, and this is something you will not see anywhere in mainland USA. So prepare yourself to encounter a very vivid narrative of a very dark past of the Americans, that includes a display of the torture devices to punish the runaway slaves. Although I pride myself on having an iron stomach for most atrocities in man’s history, this was something very difficult to accept visually. Some of the exhibits on the lighter side were paintings on modern day symbolism and holograms of famous personalities, showing two sides of a coin.
ii) Museo de San Juan
I also peeked into the Museo de San Juan, another one of the many things to do in old San Juan, which is a free one and had only two galleries, one of which was devoted to the different translations of Don Quixote, the famous book written by the Castilian author Miguel De Cervantes and is the most translated book in the world after the Holy Bible. I managed to take photos of the books translated in Indian languages such as Hindi and Bengali, but apart from that the exhibit had nothing much to offer unless you are a true blue linguist.
4) Walking down Paseo de la Princesa
Paseo de la Princesa should definitely be on your self guided tour of old San Juan. This is a beautiful promenade towards the harborside where you can go on a tranquil evening walk to catch the last rays of the sun glistening on the waters of the Atlantic. You will see the Governor’s palace, a beautiful garden with a small fountain (called fountain of youth), ships passing by and a trail that leads to the Castillo Morro. The red San Justo gate stands tall and proud at the point where the trail starts and it is considered to be the entry way for Spanish Officials into the island starting from the 1500s.
At the center of this old San Juan point of interest stands a statue made of several figurines that depict the spirit of Puerto Rico, its people, its origins and its hopes and aspirations. A fountain caresses this statue which was unveiled to coincide with 500 years of Columbus’s arrival on this island. There are several other statues found in the plaza (called Plaza of the Heritage of the Americas) nearby which were sculpted by Jose Buscaglia which represent the various sources of the heritage the Americas (Fuente de la Herencia de las Américas)-that of faith, blood, Hispanic heritage and Intellectual heritage. There is also a small garden with the statue of Elisa Rincón de Gautier where you can sit and relax.
5) Checking out Avenida de Constitución
Of all the things to do in Old San Juan, I really enjoyed my walk along the Avenida de Constitución that skirts along the Castillo Cristobal, where the Capitol is located along with other administrative buildings. These were are anything but the staid, plain government buildings that we see elsewhere in USA. Brightly colored with ornate architecture, they too are very picturesque.
As you walk down this one way street, you will see 8 bronze statues of American President (including President Obama) on the pavement called Presidential walk. These are of the sitting presidents who have visited Puerto Rico while they held office.
The capitol is also open to visitors, but I was running low on time during my Puerto Rico itinerary and thus had to be content by clicking photos from the outside. In addition, there is the Puerto Rico police memorial as well as the holocaust memorial for the Jewish population inhabiting the island.
6) Souvenir shopping in old San Juan
Shopping in Old San Juan can be somewhat of a disappointment for those looking for local artisans and boutiques. Most of the old San Juan shops sell cheap souvenirs and trinkets, catering to the tourists and the remaining are the impersonal chains such as a Coach factory or Tommy Bahamas.
I still managed to find two amazing old San Juan stores in this sea of commercialization, who represented a slice of this town in their works and recommend them as places to shop in old San Juan. My favorite was Mi PeQueno San Juan (152 Calle Fortaleza) which is an artists shop selling replicas of real Old town doors, handmade from scratch. These were mini versions of the beautiful andalusian architecture that you will find yourself surrounded by, during your old San Juan walking tour, and can be customized with your name. They were so beautiful that I simply had to buy one (see photo below).
The other store is called “Sea Foam Rare and Authentic” (101 Calle Fortaleza) and here I found the prettiest, nickel free copper earring etched with delicate patterns (see photo below).
7) Eating out in old San Juan
San Juan is having its moment of glory in the American Culinary scene and Old San Juan’s restaurants are a testimony to the creativity that is overtaking the island food. So if you are wondering where to eat in Old San Juan, you will be spoiled for options. Please stay away from all the tourist traps selling garbage and follow this foodie’s, aka my, trail for lip smacking food that fits all budgets. Here are some of my suggestions on where to eat in old San Juan:
i) Old San Juan street food: Start off with some fresh coconut water (straight out of a coconut) or Piragua (Puerto rican crushed ice with syrup) at one of the vendor stalls in the city squares
ii) Old San Juan restaurants: Have a quiet breakfast in the serenity of Patio del Nispero in Hotel El Convento, get hold of some amazing Latin-Asian fusion food at DragonFly, try some sumptuous mofongo (Puerto Rican mashed plantains stuffed with fillings, a food of African origin) at its sister establishment Aguaviva (right next door) or the amazing four/five or six course menu at Marmalade (Best restaurant in San Juan, hands down and right across from my hotel and has a whole vegetarian section).
iii) Old San Juan Cafes: Don’t forget to get breakfast La Parisian style at Cafe Berlin (lots of vegan/vegetarian choices available including vegan mofongo), cold drinking chocolate and chocolate-hazelnut paste filled croissant at Chocobar Cortes chocolate bar and finally some Mallorca (sweet bread with powdered sugar) at one of the best places to eat in old San Juan, i.e. the famous La Bombonera cafe.
Where to stay in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?
I strongly recommend Hotel Casablanca, a Moroccan themed hotel on Calle Fortaleza, in the heart of the city where I stayed during my second visit and loved the convenience and service! Seriously, If you are looking for a budget boutique hotel in the heart of old town, Casablanca is possibly one of the best hotels in San Juan. Unlike what it says on the website, the hotel now has a functioning elevator so you don’t have to huff and puff up the stairs with your luggage in tow.
The hotel is very vintage, very quirky in its choice of wall paintings (eclectic, pop-art kind of) and has delicate Moroccan touches such as lamps and chandeliers. The rooms are very modest with a bed, two side tables and separate washrooms for bathing and doing your business. There is also a flowing mosquito net that hangs from the top and lends a touch of bygone-era class to the otherwise spartan decor. The funniest thing that caught my eye at that time was the continuous playing of the famous movie “Casablanca” on loop on the hotel lobby monitors.
The rooftop offers a good view of the city and is free to all guests. The room rates are surprisingly on the cheaper side (less than $130/night) for the location and popularity of the hotel. The front desk is active 24/7 and you can request them for any reasonable amenities. Finally, there is free WIFI which you cannot beat! Again, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this charming, quaint hotel in the heart of Old Town in lieu of the monstrosity of the resorts in the Condado area that you’ll encounter during your San Juan, Puerto Rico vacation. It’s centralized location is a big plus for your self guided tour of old San Juan.
This in a nutshell, was my take on things to do in old San Juan, a city I revisited this year and the one I love coming back to. I hope you get to visit it someday too in your travels and enjoy its offerings and beauty as much as I have. Do share your travel experiences with me and let me know if you found my tips helpful. As promised, click below to download your free PDF itinerary of old San Juan.
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