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Pedestrian-friendly San Juan teems with various diversions. However, the capital city's museums should be top of mind during your visit. San Juan's art scene highlights the island's history and the innovative spirit of those who call Puerto Rico home.

Niche museums bring to light industries, culture and people who shaped the timeline of Puerto Rico, while local museums provide inspiration and personal connection to the island through paintings, sculptures, well-preserved artifacts and detailed accounts of history-making events.

Here are five museum options for a well-rounded San Juan itinerary.

San Juan's Plaza del Cuartel, in front of Museo de las Américas
Museo de las Américas is housed on the second floor of Old San Juan's historic Cuartel de Ballajá – former military barracks used by Spanish soldiers in the 1800s © Getty Images

Museo de las Américas: best for historical and cultural connection

Established in 1992 by renowned San Juan archaeologist Dr. Ricardo E. Alegria, Museo de las Américas explores the American experience from 1492 to the present with a thorough overview of Puerto Rican and Latin American heritage and culture. Exhibits like The African Heritage and Conquest and Colonization: Birth and Evolution of the Puerto Rican Nation offer a profound look at the impact of colonization and slavery.

Take time to peruse the well-curated selection of archaeological relics, pottery and art from the Americas, Africa and the Caribbean in the Popular Arts in the Americas exhibit. The Indian of America exhibition room was severely damaged during Hurricane Maria and is currently closed for restoration.

Museo de las Américas is housed on the second floor of Old San Juan's historic Cuartel de Ballajá – former military barracks used by Spanish soldiers in the 1800s. The museum also hosts revolving exhibits by local artists and creative workshops and community events throughout the year. 

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Museo del Mar San Juan: best for nautical history

Tucked in amid a row of shops on Calle San Francisco in San Juan, this cozy museum is chock-full of interesting finds, offering a peek at the island's seafaring history through an impressive selection of nautical artifacts, Spanish coins, maps, antique compasses and other maritime instruments. There are also several detailed ship models representing the 15th century through modern times. Museo del Mar also houses the world's largest collection of lifebelts, according to Guinness World Records

Palm trees around the entrance of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
The Caribbean's largest museum brims with heavyweights of Puerto Rican art, including classical and modern masters like Francisco Oller, Rafael Tufiño and Antonio Martorell © Alfredo Sosa / Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico: best for Puerto Rico masters’ works

The grand columns of the former San Juan municipal hospital – now the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) – are a fitting introduction to what's inside. Situated in the bustling neighborhood of Santurce, the 130,000-sq-ft museum is one of the Caribbean's largest and brims with heavyweights of Puerto Rican art, including classical and modern masters like Francisco Oller, Rafael Tufiño and Antonio Martorell. 

More than 1000 works ranging from paintings and drawings to sculptures and photographs make up the permanent collection, on view throughout the museum's 24 exhibition galleries. Savor a few quiet moments strolling through the striking sculpture garden, where lush trees, vibrant plants and waterfall-fed ponds create a serene escape from the world outside. 

The onsite activARTE Ángel Ramos Foundation Gallery aims to ignite young visitors' creativity through immersive and educational displays. One interactive display introduces students to the elements of art and design principles through a self-guided digital experience.

The sample art used in the digital lesson is from the museum's own collection, creating a robust experience for young museum visitors. The gift shop is a fantastic spot to pick up Puerto Rican souvenirs made by local creatives. 

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Casa Museo Felisa Rincón de Gautier: best for feminist inspiration

Felisa Rincón de Gautier, affectionately known as Doña Fela, was a woman of diverse talents and interests. Throughout her life and career, she was a pharmacist, florist and accomplished seamstress who established a successful fashion house in Old San Juan.

In 1946, Doña Fela became San Juan's first female mayor and during her 22-year tenure, championed for gender equality and social justice issues. 

Casa Museo Felisa Rincón de Gautier is a testament to Doña Fela’s legacy. A docent-led tour of her former residence reveals a glimpse of her life via family photographs, paintings, original furniture and personal items, including a remarkable assortment of 70 hand-painted fans. 

The museum also hosts conferences, seminars and educational programs promoting Doña Fela's principles. 

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Casa Cortés: best for Caribbean contemporary art and sweet treats

The Cortés family has crafted bean-to-bar chocolate since 1929, and they're the largest chocolate manufacturer in the Caribbean. Of course people come to Chocobar Cortés for the chocolate – the heavenly aroma will likely activate your salivary glands before you cross the threshold – but there's an impressive art gallery upstairs as well.  

Part of the Fundación Cortés, a nonprofit organization established to educate and inspire via their passion for Caribbean arts. The gallery features the family's extensive private collection of Caribbean and Latin American art, including works from Antonio Martorell, Carmelo Sobrino and Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez. In addition to permanent pieces, rotating exhibitions feature the work of local artists and designers.

The gallery is open Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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