San Juan is the capital, largest city, the main port, and the economic and cultural center of Puerto Rico. It is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean. The history of San Juan dates back to 1508. It was then that Juan Ponce de León founded the settlement of Caparra (today Pueblo Viejo) west of the present-day center of the agglomeration. A year later, the settlement was moved to the east and named Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port”. In 1521, the name was changed to San Juan in honor of St. John the Baptist. For me, San Juan is a colorful, lively city that is perfect for a weekend getaway. Below I’m sharing the list of must-see places and attractions that you should consider when visiting San Juan as well as few recommendations of accommodations. Enjoy!
Old Town – Viejo San Juan
The old town – Viejo San Juan is a must-see. The old town is located on the Isleta de San Juan connected with the main island of Puerto Rico by bridges. It is full of historic, colorful tenement houses and single-family houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, typical of Spanish colonial cities in the Caribbean. There are cobbled streets around the historic center. There are numerous city squares and beautiful baroque churches. The most important include St. John the Baptist Cathedral, St. Joseph Cathedral, and the old Carmelite monastery. Among the colorful buildings, you can find numerous restaurants and museums. The 19th-century Paseo de la Princesa promenade runs along the city walls. Other sites worth seeing include El Capitolio – the seat of government, Puerta de San Juan – city gate, Plaza Colón – one of the most important squares in the city, Chapel of Christ from 1753, and La Casa de España from 1914. The historic center of San Juan is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Old San Juan is surrounded by walls and fortifications. There are still four fortresses to this day:
- Castillo San Felipe del Morro – Spanish citadel built between the 16th and 18th centuries. It guarded the entrance to San Juan Bay and protected the city from marine attacks.
- Castillo San Cristóbal – the fortress was built in 1783. Its purpose was to protect the city from land attacks.
- Fortín de San Gerónimo del Boquerón – it is a large fort located at the entrance to the Gran Cantón lagoon. It was built in the 17th century and was part of San Juan’s first line of defense.
- Palacio de Santa Catalina – La Fortaleza – built between 1533 and 1540 to defend the port of San Juan de Puerto Rico. Today it is the residence of the governor of Puerto Rico.
Casa de Baccardi
One of the must-see places in San Juan is undoubtedly the Casa de Bacardi which is the world’s largest rum distillery. You will be able to learn how to taste rum or make the perfect Mojito and Piña Colada, discover the history of these cocktails,
Outdoor art galleries
San Juan is a city packed art. There are many outdoor (open-air) galleries in the capital of Puerto Rico where local artists sell their paintings. The largest concentration of Puerto Rican artist galleries is in the Celle San Sebastian area in Old San Juan. It is a must-see for every enthusiast of art and provides the opportunity to buy a unique souvenir from the island.
Tasting local specialities
Make sure you’ll try the local specialties in local restaurants. Puerto Rican cuisine is rich in various types of beans, rice, as well as vegetables, and local fruit. Restaurants serve various types of meat, fish, and seafood. There is a lot to choose from. Arroz con dulce, arroz con leche, arroz con gandules y lechón, arroz y habichuelas – these are the most popular dishes with rice. Meat-based dishes include bistec encebollao, albondigón, chuleta can-can, empanizado, picadillo a la puertorriqueña, or sancocho. Plátanos maduros are deep-fried sweet bananas – platanos. Another delicacy is tortilla de huevos, an omelet with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and cheese. You may also sit in a cafe and enjoy the local, tasty coffee and watch the everyday life of the people of San Juan.
Nightlife, rum, music, dance, and parties
Puerto Rico is music and dance. It’s impossible to be in San Juan and not experience the nightlife of the city. The best place for this is La Placita in the Santurce. There are plenty of bars and people often dance salsa in the streets. When visiting local bars, you must of course try the local rum and rum-based drinks. The most famous one is undoubtedly the piña colada, but there are plenty of rum drinks here. The bartenders make cocktails with tropical juices made of fruits harvested on the island, such as pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit, and many, many more. There are street festivals in San Juan taking place every month, and the best time to get attend them is at the turn of December and January. Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián also called Sanse by Puerto Ricans is a 4-day festival in honor of St. Sebastian, whom the Catholic Church remembers on January 20th. There are street parades during the fiesta, you can taste local dishes served from food trucks and of course have a beer.
Playa El Escambrón – relax and dive
To forget for a moment that you are in the city, you can go to Playa El Escambron. Few capitals, even the Caribbean ones, have access to the beach – this is a big advantage of San Juan. This picturesque beach is surrounded by coral reefs. The sand is soft and golden and you can take a break from the Caribbean sun in the shadow of tall palm trees. It’s the perfect place for typical chillout. There is a breathtaking view of the ocean, as well as the old town and the modern part of San Juan.