Capital of Puerto Rico, the wonderful pearl of the Caribbean and beating heart of tropical island life. San Juan is home to nearly a third of Puerto Rico's four million citizens. When you arrive here, on a cruise or at Luis Muoz Marin International Airport, you'll be overwhelmed by an atmosphere that smells of sea, city life and a culture ready to make you fall in love.
Like many overseas lands, San Juan (and Puerto Rico in general) is a city of contrasts: slums and luxury hotels with infinity pools and all the amenities; very rich and very poor within a few metres of each other. The local population is made up of descendants of the Taio Indians and, in general, the city is in a critical condition for most people. Although part of the Commonwealth, Puerto Rico boasts 4 centuries of independent history that have profoundly marked the architecture and history of the place creating a unique location.
If until a few years ago tourists came here to enjoy the casinos, luxury beaches and top-notch hotels, now those who arrive in Puerto Rico are also looking for something else, and turn their attention not only to the comforts, but also to the innermost and most degraded areas, where spectacular Spanish neighbourhoods give the impression that here, time, has stopped for real. Of all this exciting humanity, it is important to remember that San Juan is a cultural melting pot par excellence: a little Creole, a little Native American, a little American.
Here there is everything and the result is a population that will warm your soul.
In this guide we will try to shed light on one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean and, in particular, Puerto Rico. There are so many things to see in San Juan, and we can't wait to show you all.
Here's a list of what we think you can't miss:
- The Old Town of San Juan
- San Cristobal Castle
- San Felipe del Morro Fortress
- Plaza del Quinto Centerario
- The Church of San Jose
- The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
- Plaza de la Rogativa
- The Alejandro Tapia y Rivera Theatre
- The National Forest: El Yunque
- Yokahu Tower
- The Bacardi House
- Paseo dela Pricesa
- The Museum: Las Americas
- The Fortress: El Arsenal
The Old Town of San Juan
San Cristobal Castle stands 50 metres above sea level and is an immense structure that occupies almost the entire southern part of the coast of Old San Juan, the old city. The Castillo was built over a 20-year period, approximately between 1765 and 1785. Despite being 200 years behind the Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, the Castillo was an essential addition to the city's defences, protecting the land east of Old San Juan.
A wise move, if we think that in 1797 the Castillo defended the city from the attempted invasion by Sir Ralph Abercrombie. From a strictly architectural point of view, San Cristobal is a castle and not really a fortress, and its structure has allowed a simply brilliant defence of the perimeter. Built "in layers" completely walled and separated from each other, it allowed the internal defences to withstand the break-ins not once, but several times, frustrating the enemy and creating impeccable protection.
Unusual, but really effective: all you need to do is walk around the walls of San Cristobal to understand the design principle and appreciate its ingenuity. Not to mention the air inside: many battles have been fought in this castle, including the first cannon fire of the Spanish-American War. During World War II, the United States added some fortifications to the outer walls and some concrete structures that somewhat ruined the overall vision of this beautiful historical jewel.
The Castillo de San Cristobal has therefore surpassed not only the test of time, but also that of wars, and is one of the most significant places in the history of San Juan.
Those who enter the Castillo can stroll along the walled parapet and admire a beautiful view of San Juan Bay, El Morro or the eastern edge of the city. Those who reach the sentinel box, will also have a privileged view over the ocean water. Between San Cristobal and El Morro there is a strip of land now considered to be a Historical National Park. The ticket costs just under 5 dollars and includes a guided tour that will allow you to hold one of the bayonets that soldiers used, take one of the tours below or simply learn more about the history of San Cristobal. The park is open from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. all year round.
San Felipe del Morro Fortress
If it's your first time in San Juan – and even if you've been there before! – you just have to visit Fuerte de San Felipe del Morro! The fortress is one of the most impressive and majestic places in the city and, in general, Port Rico. San Felipe elevates the region to the undisputed bastion of the defences of the New World, and allows the curious tourist to immerse himself in the local history and beauty.
With more than 500 years of military history, the history of El Morro begins with the first Spanish conquistadors and goes all the way to the days of World War II. El Morro became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and is one of Puerto Rico's most picturesque military facilities. The Spaniards began the construction of this beautiful "Fuerte" in 1539, which took more than 200 years of work to be completed. Not only did this impressive structure successfully halt the British assault of Sir Francis Drake, who attempted a naval assault in 1595, but it also (almost) blocked all subsequent attempts to conquer by sea – earning him a reputation as an impregnable fortress. Think that its usefulness continued even in the second half of the twentieth century, when during the Second World War, the Americans used the walls to track the movements of German submarines in the Caribbean.
Known as El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, or simply El Morro, which means "headland." Located in the area northwest of Old San Juan, this huge stone colossus will have been a terrible sight for enemy ships. Today, however, it offers a hospitable environment where tourists come to immerse themselves in Puerto Rican history, have a picnic and try their hand at kite flying (the chiringas, also sold on site). Come to El Morro and walk in the footsteps of the Earl of Cumberland up to the green meadow leading to the entrance to the fortress, which requires some physical prowess to be reached due to the number of steps and slopes present.
Once you reach the citadel, enjoy El Morro, consisting of six different levels that include dungeons, barracks, passages and warehouses. Walk along the walkways where cannons still peer into the ocean and enter the garitas, or observation towers, which offer a great vantage point over Puerto Rico. From here, you can also see El Canuelo, a smaller fortification located on the island. In 1898 other structures were connected to El Morro following the annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States, including a port. During the Second World War, a bunker was also attached.
Plaza del Quinto Centenario
The Church of San José
In the heart of Old San Juan stands the St. José Church, a stunning colonial structure in the beating heart of Puerto Rico's capital. San José is one of the oldest to have survived on the island, and offers an interesting perspective on 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture. In 2013 it was added to the Historical Preservation Fund as one of the most at-risk cultural assets.
The church was built between 1532 and 1735 by the Dominican Order, as a group of Sant’Aquino Monastery. In 1865 it was then renamed as San José by the Jesuits. The first Governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leòn, was buried here, in the crypt of this church, until 1836, when his remains were exhumed and transferred to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista a few years later.
Currently, Juan Ponce de Leon II, his son, and the Puerto Rican painter José Campeche lie under this church. The church has been under renovation since 2003 and is therefore not always visitable, but outside a small dual-language installation has been set up that allows tourists to immerse themselves in the history of this ancient place of worship. Although it is often closed, it is worth passing by here: the doors could in fact be open and in that case you can take a look inside, as long as you do not enter.
The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
The spectacular Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, or St. John the Baptist, is one of those historical sites that cannot be missed by anyone who comes to Puerto Rico. It is part of the Old San Juan and is located in the Calle del Cristo, a short distance from El Convento Hotel. Admission is completely free, but those who wish to do so can leave a small voluntary donation at the entrance. Mass is open to all on Saturdays at 7 p.m., Sundays at 9 and 11 a.m. and weekly at 7:25 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Visits are allowed every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Sundays when it closes at 2. When visiting this beautiful Cathedral, don't miss the tomb of Ponce de Leòn, the mummy of San Pio and the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the windows. If you happen to visit Puerto Rico at Christmas, go to the Misa de Gallo, which is held every 24 December just before midnight: for the occasion, the church is decorated with nativity scenes and offers tourists the best of local Christian culture.
San Juan Bautista is Puerto Rico's most beloved cathedral and the headquarters of the Archdiocese. It is also the second oldest church in the New World. The history of San Juan begins in 1521, with the first Spanish colonisations of the island. The structure that can be admired today, of course, has nothing to do with what was once built, and the renovations date back to 1540.
Over the ages, San Juan Bautista has gone through several misadventures, robberies and looting, particularly in 1598, when the troops of the Earl of Cumberland invaded the city and devastated the church. In 1615, a hurricane took away the roof, which was later rebuilt. San Juan was placed in Calle del Cristo, and this is no accident. Nearby, in fact, stands one of the gates of the city and the Caleta de las Monjas, one of the first stops for travellers arriving on the island who wanted to find some comfort.
In addition to its undeniable beauty, the church is famous for its Reliquaries. The first is that of Juan Ponce de Leòn, the first Governor of Puerto Rico who consolidated his place in history thanks to his tireless search for the Fountain of Youth. Although he did not live long in the city, the Governor remains a prominent figure in the history of San Juan, and his remains were moved to the cathedral in 1908. The second relic is to San Pio, a Roman martyr killed for his faith.His remains are kept in a crystal case and create a ghostly atmosphere in the chapel of one of Puerto Rico's most beautiful churches.
Plazuela de La Rogativa
Exit La Fortaleza and reach La Rogativa, by walking along the Oeste Street fence beyond the gates of San Juan (one of the five that served as an entrance to the city).
Plazuela de la Rogativa, which means "Procession" stands near the Caleta Las Monjas. The sculpture in the centre of this small square is precisely that of a Christian procession, with figures carrying lit torches. This area became famous in 1797, when the procession took place during the invasion of the English. Legend has it that seeing the torches in the distance, Sir Ralph Abercrombie gave up storming the city by trading them for reinforcements. From La Rogativa you can enjoy beautiful views of the sea and a beautiful view of La Fortaleza.
The Alejandro Tapia y Rivera Theatre
The Alejandro Tapia y Rivera Theatre is the oldest in Puerto Rico. On completion, the building was inaugurated in 1832 and, until the beginning of the twentieth century was known as the Municipal Theatre or Coliseum.
The building is located in the Old San Juan, at the entrance to Islet, Fortaleza Street, after Plaza Colòn. The structure was created by the engineer Navarro y Herrero, and its architecture encompasses the mid-18th century Neoclassical style. In this beautiful theatre there were thousands of performances including operas, ballets, dramas, zarzuelas and many musical performances.
Shortly after the bridge from Old San Juan and Puerta de Tierra we find Condado, one of the trendier neighbourhoods in san Juan and, in Puerto Rico in general. Luxury shops proudly display their signs on the best streets of this exclusive area where it is a pleasure to walk both night and day. This is also the perfect place to immerse yourself in Puerto Rican gastronomic culture, where you can find restaurants and bistros for all pockets and all experiences.
Condado is also a perfect place to stay: there are not only luxury resorts, but also affordable facilities that offer good prices all year round. There are three things you do in Condado: shopping, beach life and casinos. Speaking of the latter, when you enter Condado Plaza you feel a Las Vegas-worthy atmosphere, with luxury residences and over 400 slot machines, blackjacks, roulettes and Texas Hold-em tables. Those who prefer activities can go to the beach or to one of the green areas of the neighbourhood where yoga classes and lots of outdoor sports are organised. In addition to the casinos and restaurants that stay open until the early hours of the morning, Condado is yourplace for nightlife.
Let's take Eternal for example, one of the most exclusive clubs in San Juan, or La Concha Resort. For a truly Puerto Rican experience you have to for taste mofongo, a dish made from fried pickled plantains with garlic, pork and other ingredients such as fish, chicken and beef added to taste according to the local recipe. Come to Condado and try the thousand versions of mofongo to discover the one that best suits your personal taste!
The National Forest: El Yunque
El Yunque is the subtropical rainforest located in the area northeast of Puerto Rico. It is the only area of rainforest under U.S. control. 28,000 acres of biodiversity and pristine tropical splendour. Its name means "the anvil" and derives from the essentially flat shape of the area, as well as the fact that the Taìno Indians believed that these forests were home to the benevolent god Yuquiy.
In addition to being the only U.S. stretch of the rainforest, El Yunque is an extraordinary location for the diversity of flora it hosts. With over 150 different species of fern and 240 species of trees, 23 of which are found here alone, El Yunque is the ideal destination for nature lovers looking for a glimpse of what Puerto Rico might have looked like more than 700 years ago, when it was still unspoiled land and far from periods of Western domination. Come to El Yunque for the unforgettable photos and be captivated by the wildlife too: this forest is home to many animals that are only found here, and nowhere else. Take for example the coquì frog, the Puerto Rican parrot and the "anole" pygmy lizard.
You can visit El Yunque by renting a car, or on one of the many organised tours that depart from San Juan each day. You come here for the very long walks and excursions, the climbs (of all difficulties) and, of course, the clean and wonderful air. One of the most famous routes is certainly to La Mina, which leads directly to the waterfalls – the only ones where you can swim all over the park!
Be careful, however, as the area tends to be very busy. If you are looking for a thrill you should contact Aventuras Tierra Adentro, an organisation that will lead you to do canyoning, rock climbing and lots of other activities that will leave you breathless.
Among the many things to see in El Yunque we can not fail to mention the Yokahu Tower, on the island of Puerto Rico. It is one of the two observation towers in the grounds of the park, 480 metres high and built in 1963. The view you enjoy from here is just amazing, and worth all the steps!
The other tower, Mount Britton, is located in a more elevated area, but is difficult to reach and rises in the heart of the forest. Yokahu is the most "comfortable" solution for those who are trying to take an unforgettable photo without necessarily embarking on an excursion that is too complicated or long. The surrounding area has a convenient parking lot.
Take a tour of the Puerto Rico's most famous distillery: Casa Bacardi. It is not only a point of interest on the island, but also the largest rum distillery in the world. Those who want to enter can choose three different tour options: one dedicated to the history of the Bacardi family, one for rum tasting and one to learn how to mix cocktails. What's your favourite?
The history of the Bacardi family is a long one. We think that the company's tours began in 1962 and have become a tradition themselves. The founder of the business was Don Facundo Bacardì Massò, a Spaniard who emigrated to Cuba in 1830. He and his brother José learnt to filter rum through coal to remove its impurities, causing it to mature in oak barrels that lend it a smooth flavour. Facundo's son was a politician, an author and then the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, but it is all thanks to Enrique Shueg, his brother-in-law, if today Bacardi enjoys an international, consolidated empire.
The production of rum in Puerto Rico began in 1930 and now the company has its fifth generational change. One of the most interesting parts of the tour is the interactive installation faithfully carried out according to the model of the first family distillery, where some Bacardi memorabilia and several photos are also stored. There is also a section where you can make a guided olfactory analysis of the various types of rum products here.
If you're inspired, you can also take a look at the area where you they teach you how to produce this spirit: the two types of fermentation, the best tasting and cocktail rums and many other activities that Bacardi performs daily in its facilities. You can book a visit to Casa Bacardi directly from the website or on site, deciding at the last minute. Casa Bacardi also allows you to buy a bottle and tap your rum, with custom engravings and a package that can only be purchased in the Puerto Rican facility.
Paseo la Princesa
The museum: las Americas
It is no coincidence that the Museo de las Américas is one of the most popular attractions for tourists who come to spend their holidays in Puerto Rico. The museum offers a vast structure of works and artefacts that trace the whole history of the island and Latin American culture with a breathtaking art collection.
Indigenous cultures are celebrated here for their resilience and adaptability, while other sections are dedicated to colonisation and slavery – as well as the impact they have had on Puerto Rico. Those who come here seek not only a moving and cultural experience, but know that they can find everything they have ever wanted to discover on one of the most controversial chapters in the history of humanity.
The Fortress: El Arsenal
During the period of Spanish domination of Puerto Rico, and even during the Spanish-American War that followed, the Spanish invaders quickly found themselves losing control over many of the cities of the Americas, including San Juan, amid disputes over plantation ownership and the growth of smuggling activities. In the 18th century, the city played a very important military role as a Spanish base, which ruled it with an iron fist and strict laws.
This area, now known as Old San Juan, has gone from being one of the most densely populated on the island to one of the main tourist attractions. El Arsenal, also known as El Arsenal de la Marina, was built by the Spanish during the Spanish-American War.
The Fortress, built in the nineteenth century, can still be admired in its original structure. Located in La Puntilla, its entrance in the Romanesque style still instils a certain reverential fear in tourists who decide to visit this location of great importance.
The purpose of El Arsenal was to give a safe space to the water and ground patrols that guarded San Juan and protected it from attack. It was later renamed as the last outpost of the Spanish resistance before the Americans took control of the city, and from there some of them even managed to escape. El Arsenal has not raised the Spanish flag for centuries, nor does it perform its military function. El Arsenal has been turned into a permanent art installation which preserves some impressive masterpieces made by Latin American artists.
El Arsenal also maintains an important department of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena with three different painting galleries. There is also a section dedicated to temporary exhibitions that change frequently and offer the tourist an opportunity to admire the modern Puerto Rican art trends.
Discover San Juan with Costa Cruises
Take advantage of a Costa Cruise to discover the beauty of San Juan, stroll through the streets of the Old City and explore the Castillo de San Cristobal. History, culture and an immersion of colonial architecture await you!