San Juan Puerto Rico: visitor attractions and guide for Old San Juan

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For many visitors, San Juan is Puerto Rico. With its perfect beaches, vibrant nightlife, historic center, excellent restaurants, water activities, and a wide range of accommodations the island’s largest city and capital is a difficult place to leave. And historic Old San Juan is high on the must-see list.

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One of the familiar, almost iconic views of San Juan is the old fort - El Morro which guards the harbor entrance.

The fort and the city walls enclose the heart of Old San Juan with its up and down streets and historic buildings. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1983, Old San Juan is a classic fortress city enclosed by massive walls, guarded by fortifications and with entry only through what were once guarded gates.

Start your tour by walking along Paseo de la Princesa. The Cafe la Princesa snuggles up against the old city walls and landscape garden offering food and music at night. Follow the walkway along the water’s edge just outside the city walls. Enter into the historic section at San Juan Gate. You’ll see San Juan Cathedral at the end of the street and neoclassical to Spanish revival architecture all around you. It’s like stepping into another world away from the hustle and bustle of the modern part of the city.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Turn to the west to visit the old fort. Originally built in 1539, the fortification grew again in 1787 protecting San Juan from sea attack. Its full name is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or the Castle of St. Phillip of the Headland, named for the patron saint of Spain’s King Phillip (1556 - 1598). It could easily be one of the most photographed sights of the city. But it’s also a fascinating place to visit.

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Right outside El Morro is a big grassy plain filled with families and children flying kites in the ever-present ocean breeze. Now a place of life and joy, it was once a bloody battlefield and a place of death. A plaque commemorates the Dutch attack of 1625 and the Spanish soldiers who fought them off during the month-long attack. Although today Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, it was historically Spanish.

One of the most incongruous elements of El Morro is the lighthouse. Amid all the stone is a blue and white Moorish confection that is the lighthouse rebuilt in 1908 by the US Navy. In addition to all the normally visited locations that attract visitors (e.g. the chapel, gun emplacements, and sentry boxes), stop by the bathrooms. Not normally high on the must-see list, the woman’s bathroom offers a gorgeous view of ocean and fortification out the narrow window.

Exploring Old San Juan and Pina Coladas

Walk back along the promenade into Old San Juan. San Jose Church is the final resting place of the family of Ponce de Leon who are buried in the catacombs under the street. Nearby is the Plaza del Quinto Centenario with a giant obelisk. The area is chock full of museums and galleries. Old San Juan is said to encompass 14 museums, 2 national parks, and 25 bars

One somewhat unusual place to visit is Restaurant Barrachina. It is, according to their own legend, the birthplace of the pina colada. One of the world’s favorite drinks, this pineapple, coconut and rum delight was supposedly created by Don Ramon Portas Mingot in 1963 on that site. Let us toast.

Food and Drinks

When you need a break from strolling and shopping, try the historic Hotel El Convento at 100 Cristo Street. As the name implies, it was once a convent. In 1646, King Phillip IV of Spain granted a petition from a Spanish noblewoman to establish a Carmelite convent. The wars had made marriage prospects unlikely and young women had few options – convent life was one of the better ones.

Built with typical Spanish architecture, it featured an open interior courtyard surrounded by balconies and arched corridors. Eventually it became too expensive to maintain and by 1953 was in ruins, in danger of being turned into a parking garage. It went through several hotel incarnations, finally sold to a group of San Juan investors it’s been returned to glory and is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

But you don’t have to sleep there to enjoy the rich atmosphere. Hotel El Convento offers excellent food and drink amid a perfect setting – that same historic courtyard. Feel rich for a few hours and drink in the ambiance.

For a totally different dining experience, the Parrot Club is a Nuevo Latino Bistro and Bar. What does that mean? Think hamburger done like a Cubano sandwich. But you can also get the traditional pork with rice and beans. Or, the seviche was freshly delicious. The fun and festive atmosphere says party-time but you can enjoy their nonalcoholic specialty - a frozen concoction of orange juice and passion fruit juice. It’s worth giving up alcohol. Their dulce du leche brownie is a dessert of choice.

Free Trolley

Getting around Old San Juan is challenging. There’s no parking and the tiny streets are almost impossible for driving. So the city runs a free trolley service that covers much of the tourist sights. Just hop on and hop off. Just look for the signature trolley sign.

If You Go

For an organized tour try Rico Suntours.

For more information on Puerto Rico visit See Puerto Rico

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Neala McCarten

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