An Old San Juan, Puerto Rico Travel Guide
There are an estimated 7,000 islands in the Caribbean region, but only one that does not require a U.S. passport to visit. Located just 1,019 miles from Miami, Puerto Rico offers a perfect mix of the exotic and the familiar at recession-friendly prices, and the port city of Old San Juan is the island’s historical heart. The oldest settlement in U.S. territory, Old San Juan was originally founded by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1509 and named Puerto Rico (which means “rich port”).
Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983, the walled city’s narrow cobblestone streets, well-preserved forts, and colonial-style stone and brick buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century make it as distinct from the rest of San Juan as Puerto Rico is from the rest of the Caribbean. It’s connected to the mainland by three bridges, but you don’t need to leave the 2.63 square mile island in order to have an amazing vacation.
SAN JUAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
One of only 12 national park areas in the United States that are considered World Heritage Sites, the San Juan National Historic site encompasses four features.
Fort San Felipe del Morro was built in the 16th century, when it was designed to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the city from attacks by sea.
Fort San Cristóbal, the largest Spanish fort in the New World, was built in the 1700s to protect San Juan from land-based assaults. Visitors today can explore an extensive tunnel system, see exhibits of military clothing and mortar shells, and get amazing views of the city from Cavalier San Miguel (the fort’s highest point).
Fort San Juan de la Cruz, also known as El Cañuelo, sits across the bay from El Morro, where it created strategic crossfire against invading ships. Though tourists are prohibited from entering the fort, its exterior offers fantastic views of Boca Vieja Cove and San Juan Bay. But arguably the site’s most striking element is the historic wall built to protect Old San Juan, three-fourths of which remain standing despite numerous attacks over the centuries.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS IN OLD SAN JUAN
Though there are free trolleys that allow tourists to travel throughout Old San Juan, a walking tour of the picturesque streets affords unique opportunities to explore a variety of intriguing attractions. The city’s West side features San Juan Gate, the historical entrance to the city; San Juan Cathedral, the burial site of Ponce de León; San Jose Church, the New World’s second oldest church in continuous use; Alcadia, Old San Juan’s 400-year-old City Hall; and La Fortaleza, the New World’s oldest governor’s mansion.
For those interested in learning more about Puerto Rican history and culture, the area also features several museums, including Casa Blanca, the ancestral home of Ponce de León (which now houses a museum in his honor); Ballaja Barracks, also known as Museo de las Américas, which features exhibits of the region’s colorful folk art; Casa del Libro, a museum devoted to books and printing that houses exhibits of primitive printing tools and vintage books from the 15th-17th centuries; and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which is housed inside a Dominican convent built in the 1500s.
The Cementario de Santa Maria Magdalena, where some scenes from the movie “Assassins” were filmed and many Puerto Rican patriots are buried, attracts photographers and history buffs alike. But visitors should venture there only during the day and be wary of the nearby slum of La Perla, which is known as a hotbed of drug trafficking and other crime.
As in many Latin American countries, nighttime is the right time for celebration in Old San Juan, with numerous bars and restaurants keeping the party going into the wee hours of the morning.
The Parrot Club is a Latin fusion restaurant, but also offers live Brazilian, salsa and jazz music nightly (as well as during their popular Sunday brunch), while Rumba attracts lots of locals with its lively salsa music and vibrant dance floor. Maria’s Tropical Drinks offers a modest food menu, but is better known for colorful alcoholic concoctions such as the Coconut Freeze and the Orange Frost. A bit further away in San Jose, Barrachina is reportedly where the classic piña colada was invented and remains one of the area’s most popular nightspots.
And for those looking to try their luck, the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino offers 10,000 square feet of fun, with over 350 slot machines and 10 gaming tables. Whether you win a fortune or lose your shirt at the casino, having a wonderful time in Old San Juan may be the safest bet you’ll ever make. –by Bret Love; photos courtesy Puerto Rico Tourist Board
If you enjoyed reading our Old San Juan, Puerto Rico Travel Guide, you might also like: