It’s not hard to tell that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory — the dollar is the reigning currency, and you’ll never want for a McDonald’s Big Mac. Get beyond that, though, because of all America’s Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico offers the most exotic aura. Its culture blends indigenous Taino traditions with European and African influences, creating unique cuisine, music and art. Folks who have traveled to Cuba say that Old San Juan reminds them more of Cuba, at times, than Cuba itself! San Juan is also very Spanish (think Seville) and even a bit Italian (reminiscent of Naples). Finally, the city evokes just a wee taste of Buenos Aires.
San Juan’s biggest appeal is its exquisitely preserved old city, which dates back to the 16th century. Its sprawling forts, cobblestone streets, antique shops and art galleries make it an ideal first stop. And even for repeat visitors, it’s worth a second look; Old San Juan is undergoing an awesome renaissance. If you haven’t visited lately, you’ll be amazed at how beautiful and spiffed-up its European-style buildings are, particularly the many that are freshly painted in cheerful pastels of lavender, blue, yellow and pink.
Old San Juan’s main attractions include the imposing El Morro fort, which dates back to 1539; the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, where the island’s first governor, Ponce de Leon, is buried; La Fortaleza, the oldest governor’s mansion on U.S. soil; several colonial plazas; and the triumvirate of Calle del Cristo, Calle San Jose and Calle Fortaleza for shopping. Calle del Cristo, in particular, is chock-full of art galleries, artisan studios and distinctive boutiques.
San Juan Attractions
Other historic buildings in San Juan include La Fortaleza, which dates back to the 1530s and currently serves as the governor’s residence. The lovely Cathedral of San Juan was built in the early 16th century.
Fans of the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals should check out the Museo Pablo Casals, where the Spanish master’s collection includes manuscripts, photographs and a library of video tapes of Festival Casals concerts (played on request).
While Old San Juan doesn’t really boast any of its own beaches, you can find some nearby in Condado and Isla Verde, only a 5- to 10-minute taxi ride away from Old San Juan (longer during rush hour). The beaches that run in front of Isla Verde’s luxury hotels are best for short visits; ask the cabbie to drop you off at the Ritz-Carlton or the El San Juan
Rum fans should make a pilgrimage to Casa Bacardi. The factory itself is lovely. There are gorgeously landscaped grounds (lots of hibiscus), an open-air pavilion for Bacardi drinks, a gift shop, a tour that includes an interesting film on the company’s history, and other activities (such as testing your sense of smell and learning about rum distillation).
Visit El Yunque, the only rain forest designated as a U.S. National Forest. Located about an hour south of San Juan, it is home to numerous waterfalls, ferns and wildflowers along the marked trails. Because it’s a rain forest, it will probably, well, rain during your visit — so pack a slicker.
The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce (just south of Condado) exhibits elegant Puerto Rican art, along with visiting themed shows. Also a must-see for art lovers is the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, which houses hundreds of post-1940s works from artists of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America.
For golfers and beach bums, the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is a hidden treasure. A car rental is required to get to this out-of-the-way resort, which has a lush 18-hole public golf course at the base of El Yunque. The resort fronts the sea with a gorgeous, secluded beach, framed by palms and palmettos. The golf course is public, and clubs are available for rent.
Try your luck with casino gambling at the big hotels, from the Sheraton Old San Juan (right across the street from the cruise piers) to the Ritz-Carlton.
Luquillo Beach (near El Yunque) is a real locals’ haunt; there, you’ll find long stretches of sand, water sports equipment rentals and a great line of food stands, offering classic Puerto Rican beach food.
San Juan Restaurants
San Juan has a truly cosmopolitan restaurant scene, with culinary options from around the globe. But if you’re looking for local favorites, you’ll find plenty of arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), empanadillas (fried turnovers filled with meat or seafood) and many varieties of plantains. Medalla Light is the local beer, and while Bacardi is the better-known rum produced in Puerto Rico, the locals prefer Don Q — an equally (if not more) venerable brand.
The Parrot Club is the restaurant that inspired San Juan’s gourmet revolution, and while it’s a bit more passe these days, it’s one of the few in the trendy SoFo (south of Fortaleza restaurant district) to open daily for lunch. It’s known for its Nuevo Latino cuisine, and it often hosts live Latin jazz performances.
Also in the aforementioned SoFo area, one of the most popular restaurants is Marmalade, which offers a U.S.-inspired menu — think Maine lobster and Hawaiian sea bass — as well as a wine bar. There’s an extensive vegetarian menu.
Aguaviva is another trendy place; the specialty here is seafood, and it has an extensive oyster/ceviche bar. (Note the whimsical, jellyfish-like chandeliers.)
Dragonfly, a fabulous Latino-Asian restaurant, offers Korean kimchee dragon fajitas, Peking duck nachos, and a variety of sushi, dim sum and noodles.
Bagua is a local favorite in Condado, offering a creative menu of Puerto Rican dishes such as plantain-crusted mahi mahi. Past diners rave about the sangria and the ceviche.
A good spot for a light, healthy lunch or dinner is St. Germain Bistro & Cafe, where you can choose from a selection of sandwiches and salads — like the Arabian (pesto chicken, grape tomato and hummus on pita bread) or the Ginny (mixed greens, shrimp, carrot, tomato and parmesan cheese with a ginger vinaigrette). Also on the menu are quiche and crepes.
Shopping in San Juan
You’ll certainly find plenty of craft and T-shirt shops in Old San Juan (particularly along Fortaleza and San Francisco Streets). One tip: The farther east you walk (going away from the cruise pier), the more interesting the shops and restaurants become. Looking for souvenirs? Pick up a top-notch bottle of Bacardi or Don Q rum. We also love the artisan crafts that are showcased at the Plaza Arturo Somohano in downtown Old San Juan.
One great street for window shopping is Calle Cristo; highlights include Magia (99 Calle Cristo), where the artisan owner crafts works of art from recycled objects — old mirrors, wooden shutters, antique windows and even pocket-sized religious icons.
A new find on our most recent visit to Old San Juan was the pocket-sized Plaza Arturo Somohano. Just a block behind the Sheraton Old San Juan (located at pier central), this tree-shaded park is home to artisans who sell handmade and designed crafts. They must be approved by the government to open stalls (no “made in China” stuff here). While vendors vary, on my trip there were beautifully scented soaps from Taino Soapworks (the anise lavender is a favorite), hand-tooled leather belts, pretty (and reasonably priced) beach-glass jewelry, gourds and coconut shells, and charming burlap handbags.
Plaza Las Americas, located in the central business district, is the island’s largest shopping mall and is home to the only Macy’s in the Caribbean. There are more than 300 stores here, including familiar names like Banana Republic, Gap, Sears and Brooks Brothers.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown