Founded in 1521, San Juan is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Puerto Rico’s capital city has a lot to offer visitors in search of history, entertainment, gastronomy, beaches or shopping. Here are some of our favourite things to see and do in San Juan.
Explore some forts
San Juan is home to two great forts that are worth exploring while you’re in town.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a 16th century citadel located in Old San Juan. It was built at the entrance of the bay of San Juan to protect the city from sea invaders. This proved to be a formidable defense against several invaders over the centuries. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and stands tall today as a testament of the city’s past. Be sure to visit the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery right next to El Morro. It dates back to 1863 and encompasses some beautiful tombs and mausoleums.
Castillo San Cristóbal took 150 years to complete. It’s a fortress built around the city of San Juan and meant to protect it against land attacks. It is known as the largest fortress the Spanish built in the Americas. Visitors can also explore the series of underground tunnels as well as the moat and the main plaza that was used for drills. San Cristóbal was designed to retain rain water in its 5 cisterns that can hold around 800,000 gallons of water and that are still in use today.
World class museums
If you’re an art and history lover, San Juan is a great place to explore museums and galleries. The Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art is home to contemporary art by local artists as well as Caribbean ones. The Georgian-style building has a glass roof over one section of it that’s worth the visit if you’re an architecture fan. The Puerto Rico Museum of Art holds pieces by some of the country’s most prolific artists in its permanent collection. Step back in time by visiting Casa Blanca, which depicts life as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Originally built for Juan Ponce de León, the conquistador never made it back to San Juan to live in his house. The historical residence is surrounded by a beautifully lush garden that’s worth exploring. Some of the other noteworthy museums include The Museum of History, Anthropology and Art, the Museum of the Americas and the Sports Museum.
Visit El Capitolio
Completed in 1929, San Juan’s Capital Building is one of the most important buildings in Puerto Rico and one of San Juan’s most visited attractions. Guided tours of the building can be booked in advance. A visit to the dome is a must. The structure was added in 1961 and depicts the history of Puerto Rico in a series of paintings around the rotunda.
Beaches and water sports
Puerto Rico has some stunning beaches to offer all over the island. The capital city’s beaches include Condado Beach, Escambrón Beach, Ocean Park Beach and more. If you’re a water sports fan, you’ll find your share of activities at these beaches.
Puerto Rican cuisine is fantastic and a melting pot of African, Spanish and native Tainos culinary cultures. It’s also naturally influenced by the United States. The result is a unique and delicious local food culture that visitors must partake in. Try some of the local dishes such as mofongo, lechón and tostones. While in San Juan, head to the Miramar Food Truck Park, as well as La Placita de Santurce, a farmers market by day and a lively dance party by night. Also in Santurce, Lot23 is a lively street food gathering and a gastronomic haven for anyone interested in tasting authentic island cuisine using locally sourced ingredients.
The cocktail culture is thriving on the island and can be enjoyed in some of San Juan’s more upscale bars as well as within the more modest establishments. Rum is the preferred spirit since Puerto Rico’s Casa Bacardi produces most of the world’s rum. Piña Colada is a Puerto Rican creation and the national drink, so do indulge in a few of those while you’re visiting.
San Juan Bautista Cathedral
The Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan. It’s the city’s oldest cathedral as well as the oldest one in the United States. First built in 1521, it was destroyed by a hurricane and rebuilt in 1540. A Gothic-style façade was then added in the 1800s. It contains religious artifacts as well as the tomb of Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico and one of its greatest explorers.
The Governor’s Mansion or La Fortaleza
Located at the end of Old San Juan’s most colourful street, La Fortaleza was the first fortification built in San Juan between 1533 and 1540. It’s also where the island’s governors have resided since 1640. Visitors can’t enter the pretty blue building but walking down Calle Fortaleza towards the Governor’s Mansion is a treat. The charming cobblestone street is lined with some of San Juan’s prettiest and most colourful colonial houses and the Governor’s wife always decorates the street herself. It makes for a beautiful photo op.
Tour the Casa Bacardi rum distillery
Although not officially within the city’s limit, no visit to San Juan would be complete without a tour of the Casa Bacardi distillery. Located in Cataño, a small town across the San Juan Bay, Casa Bacardi is the largest premium rum distillery in the world. Bacardi founder Don Facundo Bacardí Massó invented white rum in 1862 and the current Cataño distillery has been running since 1958. Take a tour of the modern facilities to learn how rum is distilled or practice your mixology skills with a bartending class. You can even bottle your own Special Reserve double aged rum in a custom engraved and red-wax sealed bottle!
If you’re interested in shopping, you’ll be happy to know that San Juan has it all. Plaza Las Americas is a huge mall with over 250 stores including most of the world’s biggest fashion brands, a large choice of restaurants, entertainment and more. If you’re looking for more local flavours, Old San Juan has plenty of shops specializing in jewelry, fashion and local arts and crafts. Calle Del Cristo and Calle Fortaleza are the area’s main shopping streets but explore the area’s narrow passageways and alleys for locally made treasures. If more upscale boutiques such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton fit your style better, head to Condado’s posh Ashford Avenue.
Book your direct Air Transat flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Cover photo credits: © Breezy Baldwin