Lonely Planet has partnered with San Juan–based travel community Platea to provide comprehensive guides, curated lists and insider tips for your next trip to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is one of the most accessible tropical destinations for domestic US travelers. From the East Coast, you can hop on a flight after breakfast and have lunch with your feet in the sand.
San Juan is the perfect launchpad for discovering la isla del encanto. Puerto Rico’s romantic capital is chock full of historic landmarks, vibrant dance halls and celebrity chef–helmed restaurants. A three-day itinerary provides a perfect taste of this revitalized metropolis and allows time to venture beyond the city limits for more picture-perfect beaches and the island’s prize attraction: El Yunque National Forest.
Morning: Tread the cobblestones of Old San Juan
Fall under the spell of Old San Juan. Puerto Rico’s cultural jewel is a rainbow-hued confection of preserved Spanish townhomes, palatial forts, venerable churches and historic plazas, encircled by a (largely intact) 16th-century wall. Immerse yourself in the city’s romantic charms with a stroll along Calle San Sebastián, which brims with flower-filled patios, eclectic boutiques and contemporary art galleries.
Stop for brunch and a locally grown Gustos coffee at Mercado la Carreta. Stroll along Calle Norzagaray, a picturesque street lined with townhomes, to the colossal Castillo San Cristobál.
No visit to Old San Juan is complete with exploring El Morro, widely considered the oldest fortification in the Americas. This remarkable feat of military engineering was built by the Spanish over a quarter century from 1529. Pick up a kite from the vendors alongside the fort’s grassy promenade and join local families who gather on the weekend to picnic, walk their dogs, play baseball and fly kites.
Afternoon: Fall for Puerto Rican art
Explore the city’s dynamic art scene. The streets of Old San Juan and Santurce are dotted with galleries and museums that celebrate emerging local artists and established international talent.
A short walk east of La Placita is Puerto Rico’s most prestigious cultural institution, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Located in a lofty 17th-century building, the museum houses 24 exhibition galleries and an expansive collection of paintings, lithographs, sculptures and mixed media artworks spanning over 400 years.
If you’re short on time, head straight for seminal paintings by Puerto Rican artists, including José Campeche and Francisco Oller, and acclaimed photographs and installations of modern artist Marta Mabel Pérez. The beautifully curated collection of Taíno artifacts provides a historic perspective of the country.
Dozens of San Juan’s small galleries showcase Puerto Rico’s contemporary artists, who are finally gaining recognition on the international stage. Our blue-chip picks include Walter Otrero and Roberto Paradise.
Evening: Play in La Placita
Spend your first night in the Santurce district. Bold street art, innovative cocktail bars and culinary temples orbit La Placita de Santurce – a farmers market by day and nightlife hub by night.
Some of San Juan’s top restaurants and cocktail bars are here. Asere Kitchen and Bar is a slice of Old Havana. Amid its eclectic vintage vibe – burgundy-and-green walls etched with landscape paintings, red velvet sofas, chandeliers – try a signature passionfruit or habanero mojito, made from local rum, tropical fruit and spices.
A short walk south of the plaza, La Penúltima is a community bar housed in a low-slung building painted with colorful murals. Locals swing by at all hours for an ice-cold Medalla (Puerto Rico’s national beer), a glass of wine or a classic cocktail – daiquiri, old fashioned or Negroni. The mixologists here are purists and let the island’s local produce and ingredients shine without any flashy gimmicks.
After dinner, choose from dozens of bars and live-music venues that surround La Placita. Every night of the week the sounds of local folk music (bomba and plena) and the island’s soundtrack – reggaetón – fill the air.
Morning: Enjoy sun, sand and surf
Choose one of San Juan’s beautiful beaches, rent an umbrella and relax or snorkel, jet ski, paddleboard or take a surf lesson. With its high-end resorts, tropical vibe and luxury boutiques, Condado is the kind of neighborhood that attracts folks with money to spend.
Just west of the main beach, the sheltered cove at Playita del Condado is ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Take the Puente Dos Hermanos bridge across Condado lagoon and stroll along Escambrón Beach, a local’s favorite for its laid-back vibe, postcard views and (generally) decent surf.
Here, fabled La Ocho (named after its bus stop, the 8th) has some of the largest swells – locals claim the left side is the best. Novice wave riders should head to Pine Grove in Isla Verde, known for its small, steady waves. Or join the locals for a sunrise yoga class or a game of beach tennis on the scalloped white sands of Ocean Park, an exclusive residential enclave.
Active travelers can rent bikes and explore the coast. A 4-mile, partly paved boardwalk skirts the oceanfront from Isla Verde to the mangrove-fringed beach of Piñones.
Fronting the beach, a string of kiosks serve some of the island’s best traditional street food – try bacalaítos (codfish fritters) or alcapurrias (fried plantains stuffed with beef or crab). After lunch, go barefoot in the ocean at La Pocita Beach and hydrate with a coco frío (ice-chilled coconut).
Afternoon: shop local, shop cool
Experience Puerto Rico’s creative verve on Calle Loíza, San Juan’s “Avenue of the Arts.” Walkable and buzzing day and night, gourmets and night owls will find endless diversions. Restored buildings emblazoned with street art house dozens of cafés, restaurants and concept stores that channel Puerto Rico’s apoyololocal (shop local) movement.
Take a stroll along Calle Cerra to see iconic murals that have their origins in a 2010 street art festival called Santurce es Ley (“Santurce is law“) – now an annual tradition.
Evening: Sip, dine, dance
Dress the part for an artisan cocktail at the storied lobby bar of the historic Condado Vanderbilt Hotel – arrive early for happy hour (5-7pm daily). Head out onto the patio for stunning Atlantic views or sink into a red velvet chair and linger for a while over a Lady Rosemary – a smooth combination of Hendrick’s gin, Cointreau, lemon, lavender and egg white.
Reserve a table at least two weeks in advance for a prix-fixe dinner at Marmalade – a 10-minute taxi or Uber ride away in Old San Juan. Iowa native Peter Schintler conjures artfully presented dishes, including fresh-smoked swordfish garnished with anchovies and olives, seared salmon encrusted with quinoa and aromatic baba ghanoush topped with pomegranate seeds. Schintler’s must-try item is the rich potato truffle soup, one of Marmalade’s trademark dishes.
For night owls and salsa lovers a visit to La Factoría is an absolute must. With an international cult following, this hot spot has raised the bar for everything a salsa bar should be. For all its fame and place on the tourist map, it packs impassioned locals into its storied dance hall every night of the week – Daddy Yankee’s 2017 summer smash “Despacito” was filmed here. If you want space on the dance floor at the weekend, arrive after 2am, or visit on Sundays.
Morning: Hike through the rainforest
For your final day, head out of the city to where thickly forested mountains meet the sea. The only rainforest under the care of the National Park Service, El Yunque National Forest is a hiker’s dream. Miles of accessible hiking trails traverse this ecological wonderland of cloud-laced mountains and teeming greenery.
Four distinct zones harbor an array of flora and fauna. The 5-mile El Yunque trail immerses hikers in the park’s signature biomes. Winding amid thick clusters of bromeliads, ferns and orchids, the route ascends to El Yunque summit (3469 ft) and rewards with sweeping views. For novice hikers, the short and scenic Big Tree Trail (less than one mile) culminates in the gorgeous waterfalls of La Mina.
El Yunque is a 45-minute drive east from San Juan. Many tour operators offer full-day tours with hotel pick ups, but with a reliable rental vehicle and GPS, tours aren’t necessary.
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Afternoon: Go back to the beach
After a long hike, relax on Luquillo Beach, a gorgeous crescent of palm-fringed white sand lapped by calm, clear waters. Just a 10-minute drive from the entrance to El Yunque, this balneario (public beach) is one of the island’s best and boasts plenty of amenities – including bathrooms with lockers where you can change out of your hiking gear.
A clutch of outfitters along the beach offer jet skiing, kayaking, windsurfing and snorkeling. For lunch, head over to any of the dozens of family-run kiosks that line the beach. Feast on authentic Puerto Rican bites as well as superb ceviche and classic American fare.
Evening: Splurge on a farewell dinner
For your San Juan grand finale, start your night with a cocktail at one of San Juan’s most fashionable rooftop bars, Arya. Located inside the award-winning O:LV Fifty Five in Condado, the lounge combines lagoon views, a hip vibe and expert mixology (whiskey-infused cocktails are the specialty here).
Make a reservation for a sunset liberation and then stroll over to the James Beard-nominated José Enrique. The humble facade and minimalist dining room set the tone for unadulterated dishes that let the quality ingredients speak for themselves. The menu changes daily according to what Enrique procures from local farmers but expect gourmet renditions of Puerto Rican classics.
Or if you are in the mood to splurge, head to 1919, widely considered the pinnacle of fine dining in Puerto Rico. Executive chef Juan José Cuevas earned his stripes at the Michelin-starred Blue Hill in New York and was a pioneer of the island’s farm-to-table movement.
Fresh seafood is the focus here, with decadent menu mainstays that include lobster salad, crispy soft-shell crab, and wild shrimp flecked with coconut then doused in lobster jus. It’s expensive, but worth it.
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