Boulevards & Byways

7 Amazing Things to do in Old San Juan Puerto Rico

7 Amazing Things to do in Old San Juan Puerto Rico

Flags proudly fly at the top of the Governor's residence.

Flags proudly fly at the top of the Governor’s residence.

As you gaze about at the vast Atlantic Ocean, walk through 16th century forts, nibble on home-made chocolate, and dance salsa, they’ll be no doubt you’re in of the most interesting and beautiful cities in the world. Let’s explore 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan Puerto Rico.

It was 1528 when the growing and prosperous city of Old San Juan experienced its first pirate attack.  To fend them off, the Spanish created two huge forts and walled-in the city. Today, you don’t have to worry about pirate attacks, but as a result of the past you’ll find yourself in the present exploring 16th century forts where soldiers once fought and walking on blue cobblestones from the ballasts from navy ships.

I’m starting out by recommending two forts to explore, El Morro and San Cristobel.  If you’re one of those people who cringe at the thought of visiting something historical, go to at least one of the forts and I promise you won’t be sorry. The views alone are worth your time.

El Morro guarded the city from invaders and still stands today.

El Morro guarded the city from invaders and still stands today.

1. Explore El Morro Fort

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?
Guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro, a 6 level fort maintained by the National Park Services, is one of the most spectacular sites in Old San Juan. It’s where stone walls meet the crashing spray of the salty Atlantic Ocean, and the vast green lawn touches the azure sky dotted by kites flying in the breeze pulled by happy children at play.

It’s an immense fort built in 1539 with 18-foot thick walls, ominous dungeons, cannons pointing seaward, barracks, and mazes of tunnels. Even though it was one of the largest fortifications built by Spain in the Caribbean, El Morro suffered several attacks from the English in 1595 and 1598 and the Dutch in 1625. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, United States Navy ships fired upon the fortification. Puerto Rico surrendered and eventually became a commonwealth of the United States, which it still is today.  During World War II, the U.S. government added an artillery fire control station.

Even if you don’t have the time or desire to visit this fort, take a stroll by it in the evening. The fort can be especially beautiful at nightfall when the setting sun illuminates the fort, casting shadows on the small, circular sentry boxes called “garitas” which have become a national symbol of Puerto Rico.

Hours: Open Daily: 9am – 5pm (June to November) and 9am – 6pm (December – May)

Address: 501 Calle Norzagaray, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico

Phone:+1 787-729-6960

Website: www.nps.gov/saju/

The cemetery is stunningly beautiful.

The cemetery is stunningly beautiful.

Bonus: Located just outside the walls of El Morro is the beautiful Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery built on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. This colonial-era cemetery contains many stunning and elaborate tombstones and is the final resting place of prominent residents.

 

 

San Cristobal Fort is rich in history and beauty.

San Cristobal Fort is rich in history and beauty.

2. Visit San Cristobel Fort

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?
In 1634 construction began on an even larger fort, San Cristóbal, and was considered a necessary addition to San Juan’s defenses in the wake of devastating attacks from the English in 1598 and Dutch in 1625. The fortress served as a means of defense for the city of San Juan in the event of land attacks from the east.

 

Striking views from San Cristobal Fort.

Striking views from San Cristobal Fort.

Fort San Cristobal is thought to be the biggest fortress constructed on the American continent. With its design inspired by the 17th century Vauban-style fortresses of France, notable features of the fort include a dungeon, moat, bunker, rooms for canons, and various tunnels.  Two observation posts were added during World War II. Fort San Cristobal’s network of underground tunnels is open for exploration – the complex maze was originally utilized to facilitate easy communication and transportation of military materials, and add a level of difficulty for attackers.

At both forts, hourly tours are given by park rangers, in both English and Spanish, and provide great insight into the life of the soldiers and the history of the time. There is also a free shuttle bus that runs between them making it easy for you to see both forts in one day.

Hours: Open daily: 9am – 5pm (June to November) and 9am – 6pm (December – May)

Address: San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico

Phone: +1 787-449-4049

Website: www.nps.gov/saju/

 3. Take a Break at Casa Corte Chocolate Bar

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?

This cold chocolate drink was delicious.

This cold chocolate drink was delicious.

The first time I was in Old San Juan my eyes zeroed in on a sign, Casa Corte Chocolate Bar. Like a moth to a light bulb I plastered my face to the window not knowing what to expect. This modern and trendy café with its long sleek bar as the focal point, is peppered by chrome and red cushioned bar stools. A glass case displays their chocolates.

The establishments name upheld the true sense of the words, chocolate and bar.  Alcoholic drinks such as chocolate mimosas and white chocolate Russians can be ordered. The menu has a traditional list of plates but with a unique chocolate twist. Cheese plates with dark chocolate sauce, grilled cheese with cheddar and dark chocolate, their “traditional” sandwich with roasted beef, pork, turkey, Swiss cheese with a dark chocolate sauce,  and of course a variety chocolaty delicious desserts. We sat at the bar and were immediately given small samples of hot chocolate.  Rich and creamy, it was amazing, but since it was 90 degrees out, I wanted something cool.   I ordered the chocolate frio, (cold chocolate). The tall, cold glass filled with sweet liquid chocolate, a frothy tower of whipped cream, and a chunk of chocolate which was placed on top as if it were the bride and groom on a wedding cake.

Don't forget to taste their tapas.

Don’t forget to taste their tapas.

We decided to try one of their tapas, mofongito.  Mofongo is a mound of the mashed plantains shaped like a cup and filled with chicken, beef, pork or seafood.  Here, they were a smaller version and filled with chocolate. Amazing, unique, innovative.  It’s definitely a one-of –a-kind place to grab a drink, meal, snack, or even chocolates to take home.

Hours: 8am-8pm

Address: 210 Calle San Francisco, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico

Phone: +1 787-722-0499

Web: casacortespr.com

 

4. Ask for a Miracle at Cristo Chapel

The Chapel is open on Tuesdays.

The Chapel is open on Tuesdays.

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?
Cristo Chapel is hallowed ground for those who are in need of a miracle. This 16th century gothic chapel is formally known as the Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud, and more commonly known as the Cristo Chapel.

As legend has it, in 1753 a rider in a horse race, Baltazar Montanez, lost control of his horse plunging to the cliffs below. The Spanish Secretary of Government, Don Mateo Pratts was watching and cried out, “Christ of Good Health, save him!” The horse didn’t survive the fall, but the young rider was miraculously saved.

That same year Montanez built the small chapel on the exact spot where he fell over the cliff – atop the ancient wall that once protected the old city. The altar was built in shining silver and gold leaf, surrounded by beautiful oil paintings by the famous Puerto Rican artist Jose Campeche.

This tiny but well-appointed chapel hasn’t changed since Montanez built it.  Over the decades believers who come to the chapel seeking miracles for physical illness have brought tiny silver ornaments, each one representing some ailing part of the body – legs, arms, heart. These small “Milagros” still decorate the walls today.

Hours: Today the church is only open on Tuesdays and religious days and is reverentially taken care of by a group of local elderly ladies; volunteers called “La Hermandad del Santo Cristo de la Salud.” Viejo San Juan

Location: Lower end of Cristo Street

Take a fun walk through the pigeons in Pigeon Park.

Take a fun walk through the pigeons in Pigeon Park.

Bonus: Walk through the gate on the right before the chapel entrance and visit Pigeon Park, a small shaded are where hundreds of pigeons roost in crevices of the stone wall.  It’s fun to just take a quick walk through.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

5. Shop till You Drop on Cristo Street

The shops are housed in architecturally stunning buildings.

The shops are housed in architecturally stunning buildings.

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?
If you like shopping check out Fortaleza Street for arts and crafts, local fare and cigars. The Cigar House has a great selection of cigar and pipe accessories and a lounge where you can enjoy your favorite smoke.

Looking for authentic Puerto Rican clothing?  For men, purchase a Guayabera on San Francisco Street, a type of loose shirt made with a light fabric like linen that is perfect for the warm weather in the tropics. They are a typical attire in the Caribbean and are part of the national costume of Puerto Rico.  Concalma sells cloth purses and jewelry made by Puerto Rican designers and artists.  They recently initiated a seed project where 1% of their online sales of bags goes to Siembra Tres Vidas, an organic farm in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.  If designer fashion is what you want, take a stroll on Cristo Street where you’ll find shops such as Coach and Ralph Lauren.

Here’s a list of a few of the local shops:

The Handcraft Store: 101 Fortaleza Street, (787) 724-1181, Web: thehandcraftstore.net

Puerto Rican Arts and Crafts:  Calle Fortaleza 204, (787) 725-5596, Web: Puertoricanart-hub.com

The Cigar House: Calle Fortaleza 257, (787) 723-5223, Web: thecigarhousepr.com

Concalma: Calle San Francisco 207, (787) 342-9757, Web: shopconcalma.com

Guayaberas para Caballeros, Damas y niños: Calle Tanca 202 – near San Francisco and Fortaleza Street – la Plaza La Barandilla, 787-664-4367


Don't miss walking on the Paseo La Princessa. There's so much to see.

Don’t miss walking on the Paseo La Princessa. There’s so much to see.

6. Stroll on the Paseo La Princessa

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?

Paseo La Princessa is a tree lined promenade built in 1853 which follows the beautiful views of the San Juan Bay and the historic base of the city walls.  The ‘Paseo used to be where the local aristocrats would come to display their wealth and socialize. Here are a few things you’ll find along your walk on Paseo La Princesa.

On the weekends, vendors set up booths containing various foods as well as arts and crafts.  It’s a great place to pick up a snack or a trinket to commemorate your visit.

A former jail is now home to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.  Here you can get tourist information, grab a map of Old San Juan, (which I highly recommend), visit their art gallery, walk around the elegant courtyard, and see a 19th century jail cell.

On a hot day, the fountain will give you a cooling spray.

On a hot day, the fountain will give you a cooling spray.

 

Raíces Fountain, also known as the Roots Fountain is considered to be one of the most romantic spots in Old San Juan, particularly when the setting sun casts its shades of copper and gold across the water in the bay outlining the dramatic silhouette of the bronze statues. This collection, honoring Puerto Rico’s mixed African, Spanish and Taino/Amerindian heritage, is represented as a ship being steered out into the open sea with leaping dolphins leading the way to a bright 21st century future. The picturesque San Juan Bay serves as a backdrop to the statue.

As you walk further down Paseo de la Princesa you will come upon a large, red gate built in approximately 1635.  This is the last remaining gate which was built into the massive defensive walls to protect the city was the main entry into the walled city during its Spanish colonial era. The gate is closed at night.

The blue cobblestone streets and colorful architecture make this one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The blue cobblestone streets and colorful architecture make this one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

You can walk through the gate to view the blue cobblestones which line the streets and wander leisurely admiring the charming 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial homes which encompass bright colors and interesting architecture. The blue cobblestones are adoquine, cast from furnace slag which were brought over as ballasts on Spanish ships. Time and moisture has given them their blue color.

Location: 101 Paseo De La Princesa, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901

 

7. Dance the Night Away

Make sure you take a salsa lesson.

Make sure you take a salsa lesson.

Why is it one of the 7 amazing things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico?

Locals and tourists together can enjoy the spirited beat of salsa music at Nuyorican Café.  A talented live band, a cover charge of only $5, and a centrally located establishment make this a popular spot to dance. Don’t let its side alley entrance scare you.  At 9pm when they open, they’ll be someone handing out flyers at the door, otherwise you’d never know it’s there.  Salsa lessons are available at 9pm on Wednesdays and the band generally starts at 10:15.

Address: 312 Calle San Francisco, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico (Even though the address is Calle San Francisco the front entrance is actually on the side street of  calle de la Capilla.)

 

7 Amazing Things to do in Old San Juan Puerto Rico

Where to stay in Old San Juan:

Economy Price

Hotel Plaza De Armas Old San Juan

Overlooking the Plaza de Armas, this Spanish Colonial style 4 floor, 51 room hotel is a 9 minutes’ walk from Castillo San Cristóbal fort. Featuring wood furnishings, the low-key rooms offer flat-screen TVs with premium channels. Some rooms have no windows. Amenities include an elevator, free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, an informal coffee shop, and a sitting/dining area in a bright atrium.

Address: 202 Calle San José, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico

Phone: +1 787-722-9191

Web: http://www.hotelplazadearmaspr.com/default-en.html

Mid-Price

La Terraza De San Juan

Located in San Juan Antiguo, this hotel is within a 5-minute walk from Castillo de San Cristobal fort and San Juan Gate.  All 24 individually decorated rooms feature free Wi-Fi and minibars. For a bit of entertainment, guests will find flat-screen TVs with satellite channels, and other amenities include refrigerators and premium bedding. Along with an outdoor rooftop pool, this smoke-free hotel has 3 bars/lounges and a poolside bar. Other amenities include a coffee shop/café and coffee/tea in a common area.

262 Calle Sol, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico

Phone: +1 787-722-2014

Web: http://www.laterrazahotelsanjuan.com/

High-End Price

Hotel El Convento

The Hotel El Convento is in the heart of Old San Juan and is a former Carmelite convent which dates back to 1651 and is now a romantic retreat with 58 well decorated rooms.  It’s also  reportedly home to the ghosts of its nuns who haunt its halls.

Hotel Amenities include a fitness facilities, bar/lounge, conference space, porter/bellhop, multilingual staff, ATM/banking, outdoor pool, free Wi-Fi, snack bar/deli, laundry facilities, refrigerator, cribs/infant beds (complimentary) and rooftop lounge area.

100 Calle del Cristo, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico

Phone: +1 787-723-9020

Web: http://www.elconvento.com/

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6 thoughts on “7 Amazing Things to do in Old San Juan Puerto Rico

  1. Erica

    I feel so fortunate to have crossed many of these things off my list and to be able to do the rest soon! I love PR and am proud to call it my adopted home!

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