A diverse and sprawling metropolis, the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan seamlessly weaves together the historic and the modern; rainbow-colored colonial buildings, smart boutiques, military forts, art districts, world-class cuisine: you'll find it all here. There’s much more to this Caribbean port city than a cruise ship day trip, so take some time to explore this unique culture-rich gem.
Editor's note: In September 2017, Puerto Rico was affected by two hurricanes that each earned the title of superstorm; first, Hurricane Irma passed just north of the island, causing flooding and wind damage along the northeastern coast and on the outlying islands of Culebra and Vieques. Just a week later, Hurricane Maria quickly spiraled from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 and took aim at the isla del encanto, becoming the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico in nearly a century. San Juan, along with the rest of the island, was damaged by Maria's force, but relief and recovery efforts are underway. This list compiles some of the city's best experiences, and once San Juan is back on its feet, there will be plenty to see and explore.
Discover Old San Juan’s impressive architecture
While it's tempting to hotfoot it to the varied destinations across this unique city, take a moment to marvel at the Spanish-influenced architecture of Old San Juan, an historic micro-peninsula of tightly knit grid streets sandwiched between San Juan Bay and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Within the original Spanish city wall, you’ll find streets cobbled with ballast from Spanish galleons, a convent, churches, plazas, boutiques, bars and much more.
Explore the iconic headland fort at El Morro
Built over the span of 200 years to dissuade Puerto Rico’s seaborne aggressors, El Morro, the crown of colonial San Juan, stands majestically at the very northwestern point of the Old San Juan peninsula. Dating back to the 16th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was occupied by both Spanish and American military before becoming a national monument in 1961. The recently refurbished lighthouse and the water battery give visitors great views of the Old San Juan harbor, the area this giant was built to protect.
Free talks are offered by the US National Parks Service (entry is $5).
Relax on the dazzling white sandy beach at Ocean Park
Boasting one of San Juan’s best beaches, and certainly the most low-key, the upmarket Ocean Park neighborhood is a mix of pristine gated residential communities and excellent restaurants. The beach itself offers a delightful vista of the city’s Condado high-rise skyline to the west, as well as a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Head to the beach-side restaurant Pamela’s and grab a table on the sand for unhurried food and a great sunset view: it’s a classy spot for a cocktail and people-watching as local residents take their evening stroll at the shore.
Embrace the local vibe at the Plaza Del Mercado in Santurce
Take a walk around this quaint neighborhood market to pick up an authentic breakfast of fried snacks and fresh juices. La Plaza del Mercado de Santurce opens not long after sunrise in a recently renovated market hall where you’ll find local traders peddling fresh bananas, plantain, local root delicacies and more. At night, the bright cafe-lined square comes alive again, as locals gather at the surrounding bars to embrace San Juan’s open-air lifestyle with proper mojitos, local beers and salsa dancing.
Learn about the history of rum at Casa Bacardi
A short ferry and taxi ride from the main islet of Old San Juan is Casa Bacardi, the rum giant’s flagship factory and spiritual home since the Bacardi family fled from Cuba to Puerto Rico in 1936. Bacardi offers three tours: a historical tour ($12, includes a welcome cocktail), a rum tasting ($45) and a mixology session ($45). The Bacardi Visitor Center is a must-see – its 'Cathedral of rum' interior, designed to reflect a Cuban villa, houses an interactive history of both the company and rum that includes a film, audio guides and the opportunity to nose rum ingredients.
Uncover rich maritime history at the Museum of the Sea
A treasure hidden in the criss-crossing streets of Old San Juan, the quaint Museo Del Mar displays a private collection of maritime artifacts from all over the world: documents, models, coins, Titanic memorabilia, and the largest collection of life-saving rings in the world (a title that has been certified by the Guinness Book of Records). The museum also documents San Juan’s own sizable sea-faring history, with a vast array of pieces relating to Christopher Columbus’ landing on Puerto Rico in 1493. Entry: $5.
Embrace local cuisine at Verde Mesa
Old San Juan’s nightlife offers a varied palette for all tastes, and Verde Mesa has nailed a winning combination of food, theater and art nouveau atmosphere that’s made it one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Begin your meal with one of the herb-infused botanical potions before wait staff talk you through their daily menu as if opening the first act of a play. A creative mix of seafood, fish and organic vegetarian delights, the exquisitely arranged dishes arrive adorned with flowers, but it’s worth ruining the display to enjoy the food.
Investigate the history of Caribbean art at Museo de las Américas
San Juan’s Museo de las Américas, housed in the former military barracks of Old San Juan, explores the often-unconsidered side of Puerto Rico’s rich African heritage as well as pre-colonization Caribbean history. There’s plenty to discover, starting with African and indigenous South American culture and leading up to present day Puerto Rican identity and expression. The national music scene is also well represented, with a large room dedicated to local heroes and the island’s unique instrumentation. Entry: $6.
Drink like a local at one of San Juan’s oldest bars, El Batey
El Batey is located opposite the grand El Convento hotel, and is one of San Juan’s longest-living bars at over four decades old. Brimming with low-lit bohemian cool, El Batey and its throwback jukebox maintain a feel of ‘old’ San Juan in Old San Juan. Rock up, claim a bar stool and leisurely work your way through the rum list, because at El Batey it’s absolutely the right thing to do.
Taste locally grown coffee at the charming Hacienda Pomarrosa
Head out of bustling San Juan and experience another side of Puerto Rico via a day trip to the foot of the island’s highest mountain, Cerro Punto, where you’ll find Hacienda Pomarrosa and witness coffee cultivation firsthand.
This small-batch specialty coffee farm is family-run and operates daily tours of their plantation within peaceful, panoramic surroundings. Plantation owner Kurt Legner and his son Sebastian guide visitors through the history of coffee (with tastings!) and lead an informative walk around the vibrantly green coffee-growing areas. The tour concludes by heading to the various production floors before rounding off with another exceptional brew.