What to do in San Juan. Our 5 days in the Puerto Rican Capital without stepping foot onto one cruise ship
The beach, cruise ships, cocktails, Bikinis, Palm trees, and sunburned tourists are what comes to my mind when I think of the Caribbean. Boy, was I wrong! Visiting Puerto Rico has opened my eyes to all the wonders you can find on those sun-kissed islands that lie between the Atlantic ocean and the Mexican gulf. We already shared our two-week itinerary for the whole island with you.
Today it is time for a more detailed look into our first destination on the list: San Juan. We spent five nights in this beautiful city with a lot of down time to relax and come down from our busy all day life.
We stayed at one of the few hostels you’ll find in Puerto Rico. For some reason, there aren’t that many yet. You’ll mostly find hotels and resorts on the island. Seeing as San Juan is a prime destination for all cruise ships floating around the Caribbean, there are a lot of day tourists walking the small streets of Old San Juan. We went at the end of November just in time for the end of the rainy season, which was perfect for two reasons: 1. We were outside of the main season which meant fewer tourists and more space and 2. some amazingly refreshing rain showers during the day. They never lasted long but were amazing to get the temperature down a little.
So much history! Where do we start?
Did you know that San Juan not only is the industrial, financial and cultural center of Puerto Rico but also the second oldest European-established capital in the Americas? And all that history seems to live and breathe through every pore of Old San Juan. One of our favorite past times was just roaming the streets of this UNESCO World heritage site. Founded in 1521, Old San Juan has a lot to offer for a history buff like me. Next to roaming the beautifully colorful streets of the Old Town, exploring the two forts – Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal – was like a trip back in time.
When you visit either fort you’ll have to buy a ticket that will allow you to visit both sites for 7 days straight. You’ll only pay 5 $, so it’s easy on your budget and is the perfect opportunity to take your time in both cases. Both forts also provide a lot of free tours, on which guides go into details about the history of the forts and the life of the soldiers that maintained them. I would absolutely recommend partaking in one of them, it’s way more fun than reading all those signs by yourself and the guides have a lot more info that they love to share.
Walking The Edge – Paseo del Morro and Paseo del Princessa
When you’re already at El Morro you should take a walk on the beautiful Paseo del Morro around the outer wall of the fort, you’ll get stunning views of the coast and a sense of the vastness of the fortification that feels way smaller from the inside. And when you’re already on the Paseo del Morro just go a little further after the Puerto San Juan onto the Paseo del Princessa. It makes for an especially beautiful afternoon walk or a romantic evening stroll and will lead you right back into the city.
A Foodies Paradise: Mofongo
What makes San Juan, especially Old San Juan, so interesting are the experiences that you’ll have meeting the people. Everybody is so open and willing to show you their San Juan. We got some of the best tips from locals we met while roaming the streets or talking to everybody who would listen. Something you absolutely have to try when you are in Puerto Rico is their famous Mofongo. It’s a typical dish on the island that you can get at pretty much every corner restaurant with a few variations.
My favorite is the seafood Mofongo. It is made of plantains, that get mashed with garlic and spices and topped off with different things like seafood, pork, steak or veggies. Nearly every restaurant or food truck you’ll visit will have a slightly different version of this dish and every last one of them will claim theirs is the best in the whole of Puerto Rico. My two favorite places to eat Mofongo in Old San Juan are Cafe Puerto Rico and Cafe Berlin. Both are at Plaza Colon, right around the corner of Castillo San Cristobal.
Let there be Rum!
When you’re traveling through the Caribbean you won’t be able to get around without drinking at least one Cuba Libre, Pina Colada or other Rum Cocktail. Be aware: Most of them are really potent! You’ll get drunk without realizing it. For those – like us – that love their Cocktails and Liquor, it’s worth your while to take a short ferry trip to Catano.
In Catano is the Casa Bacardi and they offer a variation of tours. We just took the historical tour and got to taste a typical Rum cocktail and an Old Fashioned. We could even keep our cups. There are also tours where you can learn how to mix cocktails or taste test the different rums they produce. The ferry ride is really short and cheap (50 cents per person one way) and there will be publicos (Taxis) already waiting for tourists to drive them to the Bacardi factory (3 dollars per person one way). Just follow the guys that run around and scream “Bacardi, Bacardi!”.
Life in Old San Juan
A few of the lesser known attractions and sights in Old San Juan provide the perfect opportunity to sit back, relax and get a short breather from the hustle of the busy San Juan streets. One of those is the Garden at Casa Blanca. Yes, you read right. No, you won’t meet Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but you’ll feel like you stepped into an Oasis. The Garden is beautiful and the house (which you can visit for a small fee of 3$) holds a lot of San Juan’s history.
Build in 1521 it served as Old San Juans first fortification and was meant to be Juan Ponce de Leons living quarters. He never got to move in as he died on an expedition to Florida, but the staff that maintains the structure today did an amazing job preserving the house and filling it with original furniture etc. so you can get a really good impression of life in the 1520s.
One of the most popular things to do in San Juan is relaxing at its beaches. Even though the most popular ones are in Ocean Park, the most beautiful one is just a stone’s throw away from Old San Juan. Balneario Escambrón is one of the lesser known beaches which comes in handy if you just want to relax for it is mostly uncrowded.
What to do in San Juan – A few extra tips
If you haven’t had enough yet of San Juan or want to venture further into the city here are a few more tips on what to do in San Juan:
Cycling the shore of San Juan | San Juan has a beautiful coastline and is perfect for a few hours of cruising down the street and taking in the city. Don’t forget to take sunscreen! There isn’t much protection from the sun.
Gawking at art in the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico | A must for every art buff out there and a perfect escape from the heat of the city. It’s the largest and most celebrated art museum in the Caribbean and the garden with its sculptures will amaze you.
Walking the streets of Santurce | Santurce is THE hot spot for street art in San Juan. You’ll find amazing murals and smaller pieces all over the city, but Santurce is the Mekka of Puerto Rican street art. Just stroll along its streets and take it all in.
So this is our little collection of what to do in San Juan. What’s with you? Have you been? Do you have tips on your own or know of places that we overlooked? Let us know in the comments below.
As always: See you on the next trip,