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Introducing San Juan

Take note New York! Modern America started here. Well, almost. Established in 1521, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas (after Santo Domingo) and the oldest under US jurisdiction. Shoehorned onto a tiny islet that guards the entrance to San Juan harbor, the atmospheric ‘Old City’ juxtaposes historical authenticity with pulsating modern energy in a seven-square-block grid of streets that was inaugurated almost a century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present day Massachusetts. Surreal sounds and exotic sights resonate everywhere. A stabbing salsa stanza in sonorous Calle San Sebastián, timid cats scurrying under winking lanterns in shady Plaza San José, and the omnipresent roar of Atlantic breakers battling mercilessly with the sturdy 500-year-old fortifications of El Morro.

Beyond its timeworn 15ft-thick walls, San Juan is far more than a dizzying collection of well-polished colonial artifacts. To get the full take on Puerto Rico’s capricious capital, visitors must first run the gamut of its distinct but ever-evolving neighborhoods. There’s seen-it-all Condado where Cuba’s 24-hour gambling party got washed up in the early 1960s; tranquil Ocean Park with its gated villas and strategically located B&Bs; gritty Santurce relaunched with art galleries after a two-decade-long depression; and swanky Isla Verde awash with luxurious resort hotels and kitschy casinos.

Choked by bumper-to-bumper traffic and inundated with nearly five million tourists annually, parts of San Juan can leave you wondering if you took a wrong turn at Miami airport in Florida. But the confusion rarely lingers. Cultural borrowing has long been this city’s pragmatic hallmark. For every gleaming office block, you’ll also stumble upon a colorful Spanish fiesta, an African religious ritual, a delicate native woodcarving and architecture that could easily have been ripped out of Seville, Cartegena, Buenos Aires, or even Paris.

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