Last Updated on September 3, 2023 by Ray Roman
Located on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, Old San Juan is a captivating destination renowned for its rich history and vibrant atmosphere.
As the second-oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, Old San Juan offers a treasure trove of historical sites and attractions that showcase the region’s cultural significance.
This comprehensive guide will explore the top things to do in Old San Juan, from exploring ancient forts to indulging in mouthwatering cuisine. Let’s journey through this enchanting city and immerse ourselves in its vibrant heritage.
Getting There and Around
Before we dive into the myriad of activities that Old San Juan has to offer, it’s essential to understand how to make your way to this historic gem and get around once you arrive. Here are some tips:
Recommended airports and transportation
When visiting Old San Juan, the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) is the primary gateway for most travelers.
It offers a wide range of domestic and international flights, making it convenient for those arriving from various destinations. From the airport, you can choose between taxis, Uber, or car rentals to reach Old San Juan.
Walking vs. public transit: Tips for travelers
Old San Juan is a compact city that is best explored on foot. Its narrow cobblestone streets wind through colorful colonial buildings and hidden plazas, creating a pedestrian-friendly environment.
However, if you prefer public transit, buses and trolleys are available for convenient transportation within the city. It’s important to note that parking can be challenging, so walking or public transit is typically the preferred mode of transportation.
Historical Sites & Attractions
Old San Juan is teeming with historical sites and attractions that offer a glimpse into its captivating past. Here are some must-visit destinations:
El Morro Fortress
El Morro Fortress, also known as Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most iconic landmarks in Old San Juan. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, this six-level fortress is a testament to Puerto Rico’s military past.
Visitors can explore its intricate network of tunnels, ramparts, and breathtaking views of the sea.
La Fortaleza (Governor’s Mansion)
La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, is a magnificent example of Spanish colonial architecture.
Built in the 16th century, it is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas. Guided tours provide an opportunity to admire its elegant interiors and beautiful gardens while learning about its historical significance.
San Juan Cathedral
The San Juan Cathedral, or Catedral de San Juan Bautista, is another important landmark in Old San Juan. Dating back to the 16th century, this stunning cathedral is the second-oldest in the Americas. Its Gothic architecture and intricate stained glass windows create a serene atmosphere for visitors to admire.
Paseo de la Princesa and City Walls
For a leisurely stroll, Paseo de la Princesa is a charming promenade that offers beautiful views of San Juan Bay.
Also, take the time to explore the city walls that once protected Old San Juan from intruders. These ancient fortifications have stood the test of time and provide an opportunity to learn about the city’s strategic importance.
Museums & Cultural Centers
To delve deeper into the history and culture of Old San Juan, visiting its museums and cultural centers is a must. Here are some notable establishments to add to your itinerary:
Casa Blanca Museum
Casa Blanca Museum, the former residence of Ponce de León’s family, provides an insightful glimpse into Puerto Rico’s colonial history. With its beautifully preserved furniture and artifacts, the museum offers visitors a chance to step back and discover the personal stories of the island’s early settlers.
Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan
Located in a former marketplace, the Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan is a cultural hub showcasing Puerto Rican art, history, and archaeology.
From pre-Columbian artifacts to contemporary artworks, this museum offers a comprehensive overview of the island’s vibrant artistic heritage.
Museo de las Américas
The Museo de las Américas focuses on the rich cultural diversity of the Americas, with an emphasis on Puerto Rico’s indigenous roots and African heritage. Its exhibits include archaeological artifacts, traditional crafts, and contemporary works of art that narrate the stories of the region’s indigenous peoples.
Pablo Casals Museum
Devoted to the legacy of the world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals, this museum highlights his life and contributions to music. Located in a historic building in Old San Juan, the Pablo Casals Museum features photographs, personal belongings, and memorabilia that showcase the musician’s profound impact on the world of classical music.
Shopping & Souvenirs
No trip is complete without picking up a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit. Old San Juan offers a variety of shopping opportunities, from local boutiques to traditional markets. Here are some options to consider:
Calle Fortaleza, one of the main streets in Old San Juan, is lined with boutique shops that showcase Puerto Rico’s unique style. From fashion and accessories to artisanal goods, this vibrant street is the perfect place to find one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
Plaza Las Américas
For those seeking a larger shopping experience, Plaza Las Américas is the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean. Located just outside of Old San Juan, this mall offers a wide selection of international and local brands, making it a popular destination for both tourists and locals alike.
Traditional Puerto Rican souvenirs to look for
When shopping in Old San Juan, keep an eye out for traditional Puerto Rican souvenirs that capture the essence of the island’s culture. Some popular options include handcrafted ceramics, colorful paintings, delicate lacework, and locally produced rum and coffee.
Local Cuisine & Dining
Old San Juan is a culinary paradise, where traditional Puerto Rican flavors mingle with international influences. From street food to fine dining, here are some culinary experiences you shouldn’t miss:
Signature dishes to try
When in Old San Juan, be sure to indulge in the island’s signature dishes. Mofongo, a savory dish made from mashed plantains, is a must-try.
Other specialties include arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), lechón asado (roast pork), and tostones (fried plantains).
Don’t forget to sample the wide variety of tropical fruits and refreshing beverages like piña coladas and coquito (a traditional Puerto Rican eggnog).
Top restaurants and cafes
Old San Juan is home to an array of top-notch restaurants and cafes that cater to various tastes and budgets. Some notable establishments include Raíces,
Marmalade, and Cafe Mallorca. Whether you’re in the mood for local cuisine or international flavors, you are sure to find something that satisfies your cravings.
Local street food favorites
For a more casual dining experience, explore the city’s street food scene. Food trucks and kiosks scattered throughout Old San Juan offer a diverse range of culinary delights. Try alcapurrias (deep-fried fritters) or empanadillas (stuffed pastries) for a quick and tasty snack while exploring the city.
Nightlife and Entertainment
When the sun sets, Old San Juan comes alive with its vibrant nightlife scene. Whether you’re looking for a quiet evening with traditional music or a lively night of dancing, Old San Juan has something for everyone:
Bars and lounges
Start your evening by sipping on some artisanal cocktails at one of the many bars and lounges in Old San Juan. From rooftop bars with panoramic views to cozy speakeasies tucked away in colonial buildings, you’ll discover the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the ambiance.
Traditional music venues
To immerse yourself in the island’s rich musical heritage, visit one of the traditional music venues in Old San Juan. From salsa dancing to live jazz performances, these venues offer a delightful experience for music enthusiasts.
Popular nightclubs and dance spots
For a night of dancing and revelry, head to one of Old San Juan’s popular nightclubs. With a mix of Latin and international music, these venues attract both locals and visitors looking to dance the night away.
As much as Old San Juan is known for its historical charm, it is also a city that offers plenty of outdoor activities. Here are some ways to enjoy the city’s natural beauty and outdoor spaces:
Walking tours and their highlights
Exploring Old San Juan on foot is an excellent way to immerse yourself in its enchanting streets. Numerous walking tours are available, allowing you to discover hidden gems and learn about the city’s history, architecture, and local legends.
Highlights include the vibrant La Perla neighborhood, known for its colorful houses and the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, which boasts stunning ocean views.
Coastal activities: Beaches and watersports
When in Puerto Rico, you can’t miss the opportunity to enjoy its beautiful beaches. While Old San Juan itself does not have sandy shorelines, the nearby beaches of Condado and Escambrón offer pristine white sand and turquoise waters.
These beaches are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, or trying out various water activities such as paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Local parks and plazas to relax
Old San Juan is home to several parks and plazas where you can take a leisurely break from exploring the city. Parque de las Palomas, with its resident pigeons, is a picturesque spot overlooking the bay. Plaza de Armas, the central square of Old San Juan, is a vibrant gathering place with beautifully landscaped gardens and historical monuments.
Festivals & Special Events
To truly experience Old San Juan’s vibrancy, plan your visit around one of the many festivals and special events throughout the year. Here are some renowned celebrations to consider:
San Sebastian Street Festival
The San Sebastian Street Festival is one of the largest and most popular festivals in Puerto Rico. Held annually in January, this four-day extravaganza features live music, street food, traditional dances, and colorful parades that fill the streets of Old San Juan with joyous celebrations.
Other yearly cultural events
Old San Juan hosts a myriad of cultural events throughout the year, including art festivals, jazz concerts, and religious processions. Check the event calendar and see if any celebrations coincide with your visit.
Tips for attending and participating
To make the most of these festivals and special events, arrive early to secure a good spot and fully immerse yourself in the festive atmosphere. Stay hydrated, dress comfortably, and be prepared to walk and navigate through crowds.
Also, make an effort to interact with the locals and learn about their unique traditions and customs.
Old San Juan offers a variety of accommodations to suit every traveler’s needs. Whether you’re looking for historic inns, budget accommodations, or luxury stays with a view, this vibrant city has it all:
Historic inns and boutique hotels
For a romantic and authentic experience, staying at one of Old San Juan’s historic inns or boutique hotels is highly recommended. These accommodations are often housed in beautifully restored colonial buildings, offering visitors a glimpse into the city’s past.
Budget accommodations and hostels
Travelers on a budget will find several affordable accommodations and hostels in Old San Juan. These options provide a comfortable and convenient base for exploring the city without breaking the bank.
Luxury stays with a view
If you’re seeking a luxurious getaway, Old San Juan boasts several upscale hotels with stunning views of the ocean or the city’s historic architecture. Enjoy top-notch amenities, exquisite dining options, and unmatched comfort during your stay.
Travel Tips & Safety
To ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip to Old San Juan, keep these helpful tips in mind:
Best times to visit
Old San Juan’s peak tourist season runs from December to April, which corresponds to the island’s dry season. However, visiting during the offseason, which includes late spring and fall, can offer more affordable prices and fewer crowds.
When visiting Old San Juan, pack essentials such as comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat, and lightweight clothing suitable for warm tropical weather. Don’t forget your camera to capture the colorful facades, breathtaking views, and memorable moments.
Navigating the streets safely
Old San Juan’s narrow streets can be challenging to navigate, especially for those unfamiliar with the city’s layout. It’s helpful to carry a map or use a navigation app to ensure you don’t miss any must-see attractions. Additionally, be mindful of your surroundings and take standard safety precautions when exploring the city.
Best Things to Do in Old San Juan Final Thoughts
Old San Juan is a captivating destination that blends its vibrant past with modern-day allure. From its historical sites and museums to its vibrant culinary scene and exciting nightlife, this city offers a myriad of experiences for visitors to enjoy.
Immerse yourself in the rich heritage of Puerto Rico, stroll along its cobblestone streets, indulge in delectable cuisine, and embrace the lively atmosphere that Old San Juan has to offer. Plan your trip to this enchanting city, and you’ll create memories that will last a lifetime.
Resources & References
If you’d like to delve deeper into the history and culture of Old San Juan, here are some books and online resources to check out:
Books for further reading
- “San Juan: Memoir of a City” by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá
- “The Fortress of San Juan: America’s Military History from the Colonial Period to 1945” by Gustavo Utrera
- “Old San Juan: Puerto Rico’s Capital” by Jorge Rigau
Websites and apps for planning
- Discover Puerto Rico (https://www.discoverpuertorico.com/) – The official tourism website of Puerto Rico, offering information on destinations, activities, and accommodations.
- Tripadvisor (https://www.tripadvisor.com/) – A popular travel website with user-generated reviews and recommendations for hotels, restaurants, and attractions in Old San Juan.
- Google Maps – A reliable tool for navigation and finding attractions, restaurants, and other points of interest in Old San Juan.
With these resources, you’ll be equipped to plan an unforgettable trip to Old San Juan and ensure you make the most of your time in this enchanting city.