Kick up your heels to live music at Bar Gitano. (Photo: Luis Marin)
Puerto Rico may be half the size of New Jersey, but from gritty dive bars to swank hot spots, its nightlife is immense. San Juan, the island’s capital, is the heart of the after-dark party. With the rhythm of salsa music pulsing through the air and sultry tropical heat warming the night, San Juan is a magnet for fiery fiesta-seekers.
Here is where to catch the action in San Juan’s most popular neighborhoods, from the historic cobblestone streets of Old San Juan to the emerging arts district of Santurce and oh-so-posh Condado.
Old San Juan
Named one of the world’s top 50 bars, twice, the speakeasy-style bar stays open until sunrise, blasting salsa tunes and serving up artisanal cocktails to the city’s young artist set. Ginger beer is homemade, so make sure to order a ginger-centric cocktail, such as a lavender mule or ginger tropical spritzer. A speakeasy within a speakeasy, the entrance is unmarked (look for a door in a terracotta-colored building at the corner Calle San Juan and Calle San Sebastian). You’ll see a hidden wood door inside that leads to VINO Wine Bar, which in turn leads to La Factoria.
Writer Hunter S. Thompson, bad-boy writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, would call this bar his second home if he were alive today. El Batey is a total dive bar with authentic bohemian charm. Dimly lit with crumbling walls covered in scribbled signatures and haphazard drawings, it looks pretty sketchy inside this hole-in-the-wall on Calle del Cristo. But stick around. Both locals and tourists come out as the night progresses to play jukebox tunes and shoot pool until the wee hours.
Located on Calle Fortaleza, legend has it that the piña colada was invented here by Don-Ramon Portas Mingot, a famed barkeep in the 1960s. Head to one of the five bar stools at the small counter and ask the bartender about La Caribe’s claim that they invented the frozen rum drink. You’ll get an earful and a stout piña colada made with Puerto Rican rum, either Don Q or Ron del Barrilito.
Los Tres Cuernos
Had enough of frothy frozen drinks? Say hello to chichaíto, an anise-flavored shot of rum. This Carnaval mask shop turned bar on Calle San Francisco serves up hundreds of $1 rum shots in more than 25 fruit-infused flavors such as coconut and ginger. With masks hanging from the ceiling and walls plastered with dollar bills autographed by patrons, it has a colorful, laid-back vibe contributed to by students and hipsters.
Tia Maria’s Liquor Store
Despite its name, this tiny hole-in-the-wall is not a liquor store at all. It’s actually home to the city’s oldest gay bar and a thriving karaoke scene. Located on Avenue de Diego, the action starts here around 10 p.m. Expect standing room only. When you go, say hello to Tia Maria — a fabulously dressed red-headed drag queen. She’s usually behind the bar chatting up patrons that come in for good company and cheap, stiff drinks.
The heart of Puerto Rico’s underground art scene, La Repuesta is a funky bar that features frequent art openings, local indie bands and legendary musicians like Jerry Medina. Go there to get your groove on.
El Bar Bero
This barber-themed shop — decor includes barbershop chairs and cans of shaving cream as vases — serves up excellent craft cocktails, both classic and original. And it’s pretty much the spot for Santurce’s hipster gang.
Located in the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, this is the spot to be on the weekends. A hot spot for locals, the bar is a lively scene of Borinquens (native Puerto Ricans) tearing up the dance floor to live Latin music or DJ sets. Don’t miss sampling the signature Dragon Berry Mojito; it’s made with Bacardi Dragon Berry rum, strawberries, soda and mint.
Because of its alfresco terrace, ample bar and dining room appointed with Spanish-themed art, it’s a great place to people watch while enjoying tapas and a tipple. Of course, sangria is the specialty, but classic cocktails like manhattans and mojitos are on point, too. Plan to head here on a Thursday or Sunday evening when the place heats up with music and flamenco dancing.