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San Juan

About San Juan

Puerto Rico encompasses the most alluring qualities of the Caribbean: wide white-sand beaches, lush rainforests and a fascinating Spanish colonial past that is alive and well in its colorful and inspiring architecture. Compact and elegantly planned, Old San Juan, or El Viejo San Juan to the locals, spans the centuries. Juan Ponce de León landed here in 1508 and began construction of Fort San Felipe del Morro 13 years later. The island’s iconic landmark has been standing watch over San Juan Bay ever since.

San Juan was a settlement of the Spanish Empire, providing a stopover for ships en route to farther points in the New World. It wasn’t until 1898, during the Spanish-American War, that US Navy ships arrived and claimed Puerto Rico from Spain. San Juan is the oldest city now under US jurisdiction, and the second-oldest European capital in the Americas after Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Today, San Juan boasts the largest industrial center on the island, refining sugar, processing tobacco and distilling rum. La Milla de Oro (the Golden Mile) is where many local and international banks are located. This influential stretch is often called the “Wall Street of the Caribbean.”

San Juan Lifestyle and Culture

San Juan is a mix of Taíno, African, and Spanish influences and all of these traditions permeate the architecture, food, arts, music and events. Buildings blend the stately colonial style with vibrant colors to create a quintessential Latin charm. The city’s fortified walls encompass Old San Juan, home to many historic landmarks. By contrast, the Beach & Resort District offers the best of San Juan’s seaside with modern amenities. Outlying communities like the vibrant neighborhood of Santurce spring to life with galleries, restaurants and bars.

Art and music are central to San Juan’s culture. Opera singer Justino Díaz, pop artist Ricky Martin and actor Benicio del Toro are notable exports. Puerto Ricans certainly know how to celebrate life, as evidenced by their annual events. The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, which ends the Christmas season, is a giant block party with music, dance, parades and crafts. Some refer to this four-day extravaganza as Puerto Rican Mardi Gras. The Casals Festival, honoring world-renowned cellist and conductor Pablo Casals, pays homage to classical music with performances from top musicians. Another favorite celebration is La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista, which commemorates the patron saint each June with music, dancing, parades and lots of amazing food.

San Juan Sights and Landmarks

San Juan’s fortified Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still has streets paved with steel-blue adoquín stone, which was used to ballast the Spanish galleons that brought settlers and goods here. These colorful, narrow byways lead to picturesque multihued facades, townhouses with neoclassical balconies, restaurants serving some of the most creative fare in the Caribbean and charming boutique shops.

The star of the Old Town is its castillo, the El Morro fortress (Fort San Felipe del Morro), the island’s most iconic landmark. With walls 20 feet thick, a dramatic perch over the Caribbean waters and formidable cannons pointed out to sea, it’s no wonder this citadel has withstood the test of time. Today, a vast green esplanade reaches up to the center of the Old Town from the moat, an inviting lawn dotted with kite-flyers and picnickers. La Fortaleza is another imposing building. Dating from 1533, it was originally built as a military facility but later became the Governor’s Residence. Ponce de León was the island’s first governor, and his final resting place is in the Catedral de San Juan, a rare new-world example of medieval architecture.

One of the most revered art museums in the Caribbean is the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Displaying works from the 17th to 21st centuries, this sprawling museum in the Santurce neighborhood will keep art enthusiasts enthralled for hours. Don’t miss the beautiful two-acre sculpture garden out back.

San Juan Entertainment and Activities

Wandering the historic streets of Old San Juan is a fine way to while away an afternoon. As you explore, the statue-clad Plaza de San José, Plaza del Quinto Centenario and Plaza de Armas provide ideal spots for a respite and for ample people-watching opportunities.

From lush green landscapes to sprawling white sand, the island’s natural beauty is never far from reach. Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park) on top of the city wall overlooks the harbor, city and mountains. About 30 miles from San Juan, El Yunque national rainforest is the US National Forest Service’s only subtropical rainforest. It hosts myriad plants and animals, including the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the ten most endangered bird species in the world.

To soak up the sun, make your way to one of San Juan’s many beaches. Playa Isla Verde has been called the “Copacabana of Puerto Rico” with its mile-long beach dotted with volleyball courts. Escambron in Puerta de Tierra is one of the city’s best stretches of sand with calm, crystal-clear water perfectly suited to swimming and snorkeling. For a quieter experience, Playa Peña is a hidden gem in the heart of the Old Town.

San Juan Restaurants and Shopping

Puerto Rican cuisine (cocina criolla to locals) fuses Spanish, African and Taíno influences with a plethora of bright flavors. Adobo—crushed peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil and lime—is a popular blend used on a variety of meats.

Celebrated chef José Enrique set up shop in a hidden yellow house in San Juan. The restaurant bears his name, but you won’t find a sign announcing that you’ve arrived. Instead, a crowd of people will tell you you’re in the right spot. Upscale Puerto Rican food with fresh, local ingredients has earned him multiple awards. Marmalade is another celebrated chef-focused eatery; here, Peter Schintler cooks up California French dishes and offers splendid tasting menus. Other notable restaurants include St. Germain Bistro & Café and Santaella.

To take home a piece of Puerto Rico, visit the Artisan’s Fair for plentiful arts and crafts, while Galeria Exodo offers great works by local artists. Plaza las Américas is the largest mall in the Caribbean. For authentic Panama hats, visit Olé.