San Juan & Around
Established in 1521, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas and the oldest under US jurisdiction. Shoehorned onto a tiny islet that guards the entrance to San Juan harbor, the old town was inaugurated almost a century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present-day Massachusetts, and it is now a historic wonderland that juxtaposes historical authenticity with pulsating modern energy.
Beyond its timeworn 15ft-thick walls, San Juan is far more than a collection of well-polished colonial-era artifacts – it’s also a mosaic of ever-evolving neighborhoods such as Santurce, which has a raw vitality fueled by street art, superb restaurants and a bar scene that takes over the streets at night.
And then there's the beaches. Silky ribbons of sand line San Juan's northern edge from swanky Condado to resort-filled Isla Verde. You can land at the airport and be splashing in the azure waters an hour later.
In early September 2017, San Juan was hit hard by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that formed hot on the heels of record-breaking Hurricane Irma; it was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 89 years. While many buildings and roads sustained wind and flood damage, this city has endured wars, pirates and storms for centuries – with the help of its energetic and resourceful citizens, it will rebuild and remain the beautiful and captivating place it's always been.
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A star of Old San Juan, brooding El Morro sits atop a headland, deterring would-be attackers. The 140ft walls (some up to 15ft thick) date to 1539 and it's said to be the oldest Spanish fort in the New World. Displays, a short video and weekend tours document the construction of the fort, which took almost 200 years, as well as its role in rebuffing attacks on the island by the British, the Dutch and, later, the US military.
The city's second major fort is one of the largest Spanish-built military installations in the Americas. In its prime, it covered 27 acres with a maze of six interconnected forts protecting a central core with 150ft walls, moats, booby-trapped bridges and tunnels. It has a fascinating museum, military archives, a reproduction of military barracks, a store and stunning Atlantic and city views. Hour-long free guided tours in English roam the tunnels at 10:30am on Saturdays (Sundays in Spanish); first-come, first-served.
This museum presents an impressive overview of cultural development in the Americas, including indigenous, African and European influences. Four permanent exhibits integrate art, history and anthropology in thoughtful and provocative ways; the coverage of slavery is particularly moving, including the recreation of travel on a slave ship. Audiovisual highlights and knowledgeable guides enrich visits. There are interesting temporary exhibitions, along with a store stocking books, jewelry and art.
This sheltered arc's raked sand, decent surf breaks, local action and a 17th-century Spanish fort shimmering in the distance are the hallmarks of what's considered San Juan's finest beach, with Blue Flag status and only a stone's throw from the old city and the busy tourist strip of Condado. Best of all, it's often uncrowded.
San Juan boasts one of the largest and most celebrated art museums in the Caribbean. Housed in a splendid neoclassical building that was once the city’s Municipal Hospital, MAPR holds 18 exhibition halls spread over an area of 130,000 sq ft. The artistic collection includes paintings, sculptures, posters and carvings from the 17th century to the present, chronicling such renowned Puerto Rican artists as José Campeche, Francisco Oller, Nick Quijano and Nayda Collazo-Llorens.
Built in 1854 as a military barracks, the cuartel is an impressive three-story edifice with large gates on two ends, a series of arches and a large central courtyard. It was the last building constructed by the Spaniards in the New World. Facilities once included officers’ quarters, warehouses, kitchens, dining rooms, prison cells and stables; today it's home to several administrative offices, a dance studio, a music school, several cafes and the first-rate Museo de las Américas.
With countless tanned bodies lounging or flexing their biceps around the volleyball net, this urban beach basks in its reputation as the Copacabana of Puerto Rico. Serenity seekers may prefer to head west to Ocean Park but despite the crowds, this broad, mile-long swath of sand lying between Punta Las Marías and Piñones is an undeniable beauty, especially at sunset. Jet Skis, flyboards, beach chairs and umbrellas are all available to rent; banana boats and parasailing are on offer too.
Protected by offshore reefs and caressed by cooling seasonal trade winds, this wide sweep of diamond-dust sand is a favorite of locals. But this residential ’hood's namesake beach is open to all – just pick a road through the low-rise gated community and follow it to the water.
A veritable smorgasbord of family-friendly museums and exhibits plus a minizoo are housed in the expansive Parque de las Ciencias. Kids learn about aerospace and archeology, transportation and communication, plant life and the world's oceans. There's a planetarium and an art museum featuring work by some of Puerto Rico's best-known artists.