Visiting Puerto Rico? One experience all travelers to the island should have is exploring Old San Juan, a historic district dating to 1509, when Spanish settlers arrived.
The most popular attraction in the area is undoubtedly Castillo San Cristóbal, a fort completed in 1783 by the Spanish to protect the city. And while you should certainly visit the site, it’s important to explore beyond to experience the other wonderful things Old San Juan has to offer.
1. Wander with Open Eyes
One thing that makes historic Old San Juan so charming is its array of pastel-colored Spanish colonial architecture paired with peaceful squares. It’s the second-oldest city in the Americas, and a stroll up and down its cobbled streets offers a window into the island’s past — and present.
Blending with well-preserved history is the slower pace of island life, so don’t feel guilty for grabbing a Señor Paleta ice cream (don’t miss the Strawberry Cheesecake!) and just enjoying the sun.
The main squares are Plaza de San Jose, where you’ll see a statue of Juan Ponce de León; the bustling Plaza De Armas, with murals and sometimes live performers; Plaza Colon, which honors Christopher Columbus; and the waterfront Plaza Dársenas.
2. Get Creative
Old San Juan has no shortage of arts-focused offerings, from the San Juan Museum of Art & History to smaller galleries like Galeria Botello and the Haitian Gallery. If you’re really looking for inspiration, Poet’s Passage is half café, half poetry gallery, with inspiring plaques covering every shelf and wall. On Tuesdays at 7 p.m., they host open-mic poetry nights in a chill, sofa-filled space.
Wandering Old San Juan, you won’t need a plan for drinks; almost every two feet you’ll find another bar — many with outdoor seating — offering inexpensive cocktails and two-for-one glasses of sangria.
If you’re looking for a special imbibing experience, however, you’ll want to have a plan. For beer drinkers, La Taberna Lúpulo is craft-beer heaven. Inside you’ll find locals and visitors beating the heat and sipping their Bell’s and Victory beers for hours, though you may want to opt for one of the quirky beer cocktails.
Tip: The Perla Punch is amazing, blending fruit juices, lemon and coconut rums, and ale. Another cocktail spot, the unpretentious, speakeasy-like La Factoria, is where creative libations and live music meet.
4. Eat Local
With so many great restaurants — both local and international — it’s hard to decide where to eat. Because Old San Juan is so tied to history and culture, it’s smart to opt for a truly local meal.
At Deaverdura, you’ll listen to Latin music in a lively, lime-green-splashed space. The bar is lined with coconuts, a perfect meal accompaniment. There’s no paper menu; instead your server will recite the offerings — fried chicken, pork chops, fresh catch, roast pork, pasteles — and each includes beans, rice, an optional plate of fried plantains (tostones) and a selection of homemade sauces.
La Casita Blanca is also a must for Puerto Ricaodd home cooking savored in a traditional home-like setting.
5. Get to Know Artisanal San Juan
Wherever you travel, you should aim to go local and support the community you’re in. Luckily, Old San Juan offers a number of ways to do this. For unique, affordable souvenirs, try The Artisan Corner Everything, from the wine-laced candles to the pineapple coffee to the handmade soaps, is made by Puerto Rican artisans.
Another suggestion: Café Cuatro Sombras. Here you can order from the counter or coffee lab, or sit in the rustic café or on the back patio with its climbing vines. No matter what ambience you seek, your cup will be filled with 100-percent arabica coffee from the cafés hacienda in Yauco, renowned as one of Puerto Rico’s best coffee regions.
Say goodbye to cheap keychains: You can even buy a bag to bring home for a local souvenir.
Where to Stay:
- AC Hotel San Juan Condado
- Courtyard Aguadilla
- The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan
- Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
- Courtyard Isla Verde Beach Resort
- Courtyard San Juan Miramar
- San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
- Residences at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
- La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort