Puerto Rico’s capital is most commonly associated with the colonial streets and forts of Old San Juan, but that’s only part of the picture. San Juan is a major metropolis, radiating out from the bay on the Atlantic Ocean that was discovered by Juan Ponce de León. More than a third of the island’s nearly 4 million citizens proudly call themselves sanjuaneros. The city may be rooted in the past, but it has its eye on the future. Locals go about their business surrounded by colonial architecture and towering modern structures.
By 1508 the explorer Juan Ponce de León had established a colony in an area now known as Caparra, southeast of present-day San Juan. He later moved the settlement north to a more hospitable peninsular location. In 1521, after he became the first colonial governor, Ponce de León switched the name of the island—which was then called San Juan Bautista in honor of St. John the Baptist—with that of the settlement of Puerto Rico (“rich port”).
Defended by the imposing Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristóbal, Puerto Rico’s administrative and population center remained firmly in Spain’s hands until 1898, when it came under U.S. control after the Spanish-American War. Centuries of Spanish rule left an indelible imprint on the city, particularly in the walled area now known as Old San Juan. The area is filled with cobblestone streets and brightly painted, colonial-era structures, and its fortifications have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Old San Juan is a monument to the past, but most of the rest of the city is planted firmly in the 21st century and draws migrants island-wide and from farther afield to jobs in its businesses and industries. The city captivates residents and visitors alike with its vibrant lifestyle as well as its balmy beaches, pulsing nightclubs, globe-spanning restaurants, and world-class museums. Once you set foot in this city, you may never want to leave.
Puerto Rico’s capital is most commonly associated with the colonial streets and forts of Old San Juan, but that’s only part of the picture. San Juan is a major metropolis, radiating out from the bay on the Atlantic Ocean that was discovered by Juan Ponce de León. More than a third of the island’s 4 million citizens proudly call themselves sanjuaneros. Old San Juan is a monument to the past, but most of the rest of the city is planted firmly in the 21st century and draws residents island-wide and from farther afield to jobs in its businesses and industries. The city captivates residents and visitors alike with its vibrant lifestyle as well as its balmy beaches, pulsing nightclubs, globe-spanning restaurants, and world-class museums. Once you set foot in this city, you may never want to leave.
POINTS OF INTEREST
For multiple shopping and dining options all within walking distance, look to Condado. Home to many of the city’s moneyed elite, it’s the most vibrant pedestrian neighborhood outside of Old San Juan. Here you’ll find old Spanish-style homes next to sleek, modern apartment buildings and designer shops. The main street, Avenida Ashford, is fun to walk along, but the quieter residential areas are also very attractive. Many hotels are beachfront, though the beach is not as big or alluring as those in Isla Verde.
If you came to work on your tan—and you came to do it on a big, beautiful Caribbean beach—then Isla Verde, home to the nicest beach in the metropolitan area, is your place. The main commercial strip is not especially attractive: it’s filled with fast-food restaurants and other businesses. You’ll also need a car or taxi to get anywhere. That said, the resort-style hotels (many of them beachfront) offer so many amenities and so many restaurants on-site, you may not want—or need—to leave very often.
East of Old San Juan and west of Ocean Park, this long, wide beach is overshadowed by an unbroken string of hotels and apartment buildings. Beach bars, water-sports outfitters, and chair-rental places abound. You can access the beach from several roads off Avenida Ashford, including Calles Cervantes, Vendig, Condado, and Candina. The protected water at the small stretch of beach west of the Condado Plaza Hilton hotel is particularly calm and popular with families; surf elsewhere in Condado can be a bit strong. The stretch of sand near Calle Vendig (behind the Atlantic Beach Hotel) is especially popular with the gay community. If you’re driving, on-street parking is your only option. Amenities: none. Best for: partiers; people-watching.
When people talk about a “beautiful Isla Verde beach,” this is it. East of Isla Verde, this Blue Flag beach is so close to the airport that leaves rustle when planes take off. Thanks to an offshore reef, the surf is not as strong as other nearby beaches, so it’s good for families. There’s plenty of room to spread out underneath the palm and almond trees, and there are picnic tables and barbecue grills. Though there’s a charge for parking, there’s not always someone to take the money. On weekends, the beach is crowded; get here early to nab parking. Amenities: lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: swimming; walking.
In Puerta de Tierra, this government-run beach has a patch of honey-colored sand shaded by coconut palms. An offshore reef generally makes surf gentle, so it’s favored by families. Nearby restaurants make picnicking easy. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards, parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: swimming; walking.
Old San Juan’s 16th-century cobblestone streets, ornate Spanish townhouses with wrought-iron balconies, ancient plazas, and eclectic museums are all repositories of the island’s colorful history. Founded in 1521 by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, Old San Juan sits on an islet separated from the “new” parts of the city by a couple of miles and a couple of centuries. Ironically, its culture is youthful and vibrant, reflecting the sensibilities of stylish professionals, a bohemian art crowd, and university students who populate the streets. You’ll find more street-front cafés and innovative restaurants, more contemporary art galleries, more musicians playing in plazas, than anywhere else in San Juan.
Old San Juan slopes north, uphill, to Calle Norzagaray, which runs along the Atlantic shoreline and connects Castillo San Cristóbal to El Morro, the Old City’s twin defensive bastions. On the north side of Calle Norzagaray you’ll find a small neighborhood tucked beneath the city walls tight up against the ocean—this is La Perla, a rough area that you would be wise to avoid. The west end of the Old City overlooks San Juan Bay, and it’s here that the rugged, towering walls of the original city are most evident. On Old San Juan’s south side, along Calle Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, you’ll find the commercial and cruise-ship piers that jut into San Juan Harbor.
Dating back to 1520, this was one of the five original entrances to the city and is the only one still in its original state. The massive gate, painted a brilliant shade of red, gave access from the port and welcomed diplomats into the city. It resembles a tunnel because it passes through La Muralla, the 20-foot-thick city walls.
This huge stone fortress, built between 1634 and 1790, guarded the city from land attacks from the east. The largest Spanish fortification in the New World, San Cristóbal was known in the 17th and 18th centuries as the Gibraltar of the West Indies. Five freestanding structures divided by dry moats are connected by tunnels. You’re free to explore the gun turrets (with cannon in situ), officers’ quarters, re-created 18th-century barracks, and gloomy passageways. Along with El Morro, San Cristóbal is a National Historic Site administered by the U.S. Park Service; it’s a World Heritage Site as well. Rangers conduct tours in Spanish and English.
At the northwestern tip of the Old City, El Morro (“the promontory”) was built by the Spaniards between 1539 and 1786. Rising 140 feet above the sea, the massive six-level fortress was built to protect the port and has a commanding view of the harbor. It is a labyrinth of cannon batteries, ramps, barracks, turrets, towers, and tunnels, which you’re free to wander. The cannon emplacement walls and the dank secret passageways are a wonder of engineering. A small but enlightening museum displays ancient Spanish guns and other armaments, military uniforms, and blueprints for Spanish forts in the Americas, although Castillo San Cristóbal has more extensive and impressive exhibits. There’s also a gift shop. The fort is a National Historic Site administered by the U.S. Park Service and is a World Heritage Site as well. Various tours and a video are available in English.
Dedicated to the artistry of the printed word, this museum counts among its holdings approximately 400 books printed before the 15th century—one of the larger such collections in the Western Hemisphere. It also owns two royal decrees from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that date back to 1493, the year Columbus first reached Puerto Rico. Because the museum is in a temporary location while long-term restorations to the permanent building are underway, only a small portion of the 6,000-piece collection is on display: you can see a page from the Gutenberg Bible and a 12th-century lunar-cycle calendar, which is impressive and worth a quick look. The gift shop has a terrific collection of posters that draws customers from all over the world.
Exiled from Cuba, the Bacardí family built a small rum distillery here in the 1950s. Today it’s the world’s largest, able to produce 100,000 gallons of spirits a day and 21 million cases a year. A basic tour of the visitor center includes one free drink, or you can opt for a mixology class or rum tasting. If you don’t want to drive, you can take a ferry from Pier 2 for 50¢ and then a público (public van service) from the ferry pier to the factory for about $3 per person.
The 42-acre Luis A. Ferré Science Park reopened in 2016 after an impressive renovation. Attractions include a 4-D theater, a mini-golf course, an aerospace museum, a planetarium, and more. The Transportation Museum has antique cars and the island’s oldest bicycle. In the Rocket Plaza, children can experience a flight simulator, and in the planetarium, the solar system is projected on the ceiling. Also on-site are a small zoo and a natural-science exhibit. Relax on the lake in a paddleboat—it’s free! It’s a long drive from central San Juan, though.