13 Things to do in San Juan
The tropical Caribbean island of Puerto Rico is a beautiful mix of white sandy beaches, mountainous landscapes, thriving rainforests and beautiful old towns. Not long after arriving in San Juan we already wished we were staying for longer. Getting lost in the maze of colourful streets and experiencing the vibrant culture, it isn’t hard to see why it is such a popular tourist destination.
The Spanish and American influences create rich history for the island, much of which can be discovered in San Juan. But take a trip out of the city and you can find yourself trekking through the spectacular El Yunque rainforest exploring the lush hiking trails and waterfalls.
Although thought of as one island, Puerto Rico is actually an archipelago, formed by the main island and 143 small islands, cays and islets. It is super easy to take a ferry trip from the port of Ceiba to the popular islands of Vieques and Culebra.
During our time in Puerto Rico, we stayed in San Juan. We were only there for 10 days so it was a good place to base ourselves so we didn’t have to travel too far to each of the places we wanted to see. Like I said before, as soon as we got to Puerto Rico we wished we had longer there to explore more of the country and we’ve already decided we are definitely going back!
In all honesty, you can easily see all of old San Juan within one or two days and make the most of your time discovering other parts of Puerto Rico. We decided after doing a lot of hopping around Caribbean islands, we would take it slower and enjoy life in the old city for a while and see what it had to offer!
These our top things to do in and around San Juan and things we would have added to our Puerto Rico Itinerary if we had longer (or didn’t need a good recharge!).
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
One of the top tourist attractions in Old San Juan, and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site is Castillo San Felipe del Morro. As you walk across the large grass lawn out front, with kites flying in the breeze around you, you get a feel of just how big this fortress is! The large fortification is six-stories and sits spectacularly up high looking out over San Juan Bay.
Construction began in the 1500’s but wasn’t finished until the 1700’s and was built to defend the city from attacks by sea. As you walk through the arched gateway you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Due to its size you can spend hours wandering around, espeically if you are into your military history (like Jay is).
The Fort is open from 09:30 and it’s definitely a good idea to visit in the morning as it’s quieter. We definitely felt the heat later in the morning on the upper levels as the sun hits so come prepared with water and sun hats! It’s also worth noting that they only take card for entrance fees.
Cementerio Santa María
Near to Castello San Felipe del Morro, you’ll find this historic cemetery which is the resting place of many important Puerto Rican figures. As well as walking through the cemetery itself, you can also get great views of the cemetery from the castle walls, allowing you overhead views of the elaborate tombs.
The cemetery is within the district La Perla. This colourful neighbourhood was previously not a place tourists would visit but over the last decade it has grown in popularity and safety as the community have come together to develop tourism in the area.
La Casa Estrecha (narrow house), was previously an abandoned alleyway that was transformed into a house by the architect Antonio Álvarez. Measuring only around 5 feet wide, you can tour the house which was turned into an art gallery to showcase artwork produced by the locals. You’ll find the house on Calle Tetuán and with its vibrant yellow colour it’s hard to miss as you walk by!
If you’re into trekking through the jungle, swinging from ropes and cliff jumping then you can’t miss out on a trip to El Yunque! Of course you don’t have to be a swinging dare-devil to enjoy yourself here. As the only tropical rainforest in the U.S National Forest Service is is one of Puerto Rico’s most loved tourist spots. There are lots of different hiking trails to choose from, varying in length and ability, but all of them allow you to see the beauty El Yunque has to offer.
Be prepared for wet and muddy trails as El Yunque gets around 200 inches of rainfall a year. So don’t go hiking in your nicest white trainers (mine are no longer white anymore). Most tours revolve around getting in the water so make sure you wear comfortable clothes you don’t mind getting wet. There are also hiking trails to explore if swimming isn’t your thing.
Most people join tours as it is the easiest way to get to the forest, especially if they can pick you up from your accommodation. Due to all the different trails it is also best to have a guide taking you on your specific tour. If you don’t have a rented car, it can be difficult to find taxis that will take you to the entrance and you may find you have to walk a fair way from where you get dropped off before the trail even begins.
We booked our tour with Bespoke Lifestyle Management through Viator online and would highly recommend them! They include pick up and drop off from your accommodation and the group was a lot smaller than some of the others we saw. They also arrive earlier than most other tours so you get to do all the activities before it gets really busy! These tours are run by locals so it helps to support them and their business.
Wander the streets
Old San Juan is a winding maze of pretty and colourful streets and you can spend hours in the town admiring the pastel multicoloured buildings. We were instantly drawn into the charm of the old city, strolling along the cobbled streets and discovering the beautiful plazas and colonial-style architecture. If you’re anything like us you’ll just want to spend the entire day walking around and getting lost in the town, browsing the local shops and enjoying the many restaurants and cafés dotted around.
La forteleza is known as one of the prettiest streets in Old San Juan. You’ve most likely seen pictures of the umbrellas that float above it making it a popular tourist spot for photos. Of course when we were there they had closed the street and taken the umbrellas down! Lucky us! We still have no idea why but hopefully they are back up again now!
Located in the centre of the city, Catedral de San Juan Bautista is one of San Juan’s most historic religious buildings. It dates back to the 1500’s during the beginning of the Spanish colonisation of Puerto Rico. It is the second oldest Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Americas and has been damaged by two hurricanes over the years and subjected to various robberies. Through all of this it still stands tall and the gothic-style cathedral boasts beautiful stain glass windows and ornate interiors which are free to wander around.
The Cathedral is free to walk around and is open daily Monday-Friday from 8am-4pm and until 2pm on Sunday.
At the end of the Paseo de La Princesa promenade you’ll find the majestic Raíces fountain. The fountain was built to mark the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas. Three figures stand on the fountain to depict the African, Spanish and Taino influences of Puerto Rico.
Explore the Beaches
If you’re travelling anywhere in the Caribbean you probably imagine long white stretches of sand dotted with palm trees gently swaying in the wind. Well, Puerto Rico does not disappoint! We chose to go to Isla Verde Beach which proved very popular with the locals and tourists, especially in the late afternoon.
If we had longer in Puerto Rico we definitely would have added Rincón to our Itinerary. Rincon, known amongst surfers as the ‘jewel of the Caribbean’, is a town on the west coast of Puerto Rico. It’s here that you’ll find beautiful beaches, a relaxed and easygoing lifestyle and stunning Caribbean sunsets.
But the main reason people visit is for the surf. Surfers flock to Rincón year round as it’s pretty much guaranteed to have good surf. Due to it’s unique geography, if the waves aren’t great in one spot, due to weather conditions, then another surf spot will almost certainly be good.
Puerto Rico Door
Now this might sound strange, but Old San Juan is home to some beautiful doorways. The colonial-style architecture paired with the gorgeous colours of the buildings creates a lovely contrast for the arched doorways. One of the most famous doorways is the Puerto Rico flag door located on Calle San Jose. Backed by a crumbling and uninhabited building this door has become a popular place for tourist photos.
Previously painted the colours of the Puerto Ricon flag it underwent a makeover by the original artist in 2016. It is now painted black and white to symbolise the US government imposing a federal control board on Puerto Rico and the ‘mourning’ of the citizens in response to this.
Just outside of the old town of San Juan is the Capital Building of Puerto Rico. Resembling the U.S. Capital Building it is home to the legislative assembly. Construction of the building finished in 1929 but the beautiful marble dome was later added in 1969.
Entrance to the building is free and you can get tours in both English and Spanish.
Across from the Capital Building you’ll find the ‘Paseo de los Presidentes’, or the walkway of the presidents. If you visit, you’ll notice that not all US presidents are represented. This is because only presidents that have visited Puerto Rico since the end of the Spanish-American war in 1889 are honoured with a statue.
If you’ve got the time, then you should absolutely consider hopping on a ferry to either of the islands Culebra or Vieques. Out of the two, we chose Vieques as it is home to the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. We only stayed for one night but absolutely loved it there! With it’s quiet coves and bays, turqouise blue waters and wild horses roaming around, its a little slice of paradise.
If we had more time, we would have hopped on another ferry to Culebra. Like Vieques, it is a small island that is sparsley populated. It is surrounded by more than 20 cays and the reefs make it the perfect place for snorkelling and diving. If you want to escape the fast pace of modern life you can relax on the many beautiful and remote beaches.
Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud
Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud is a small chapel built in the 1753 to mark a miracle. The story goes that a horse race took place in the streets of the city and that one man, who could not stop his horse, went over the cliff.
The Secretary of Government at the time, invoked the Santo Cristo de la Salud (the power of Christ), and saved the man’s life…or so the story goes.
Word to the wise, if you’re scared of pigeons (like Tilly is) then may we suggest you don’t visit this building in the middle of the day. There are loads of pigeons flying around as people feed them and get pictures of the pigeons landing on them (as seen below)!
Food & drink
one of our favourite topics! Old San Juan is full of restaurants, cafés and bars.
Lets start with drinks. Ranked in the top 50 bars in the world for 5 years running, is La Factoria. You’ll find this bar in the heart of the old town in an unmarked location. Wind your way through the bar to each of the six rooms, each with different themes and menus. We spent way too much money tasting the different cocktails, which are delicious by the way!
For food there are plenty of restaurants offering different cuisines.
Casita Miramar: A cosy restaurant offering Caribbean-style cuisine
Sofia’s: An popular Italian steakhouse within the old town
Marmalade: On the slightly pricier side this restaurant and wine bar serves beautifully present creative dishes
Anita Gelato: Amazing ice-cream with so many different flavours!
Kiosko 4 estaciones: You’ll find this café in Plaza des Armas in the old town. It has great coffee and delicious pastries and you can sit in the plaza and watch the world go by around you.
Getting Around San Juan
There are plenty of ways to get around San Juan and the surrounding areas. If you are based near old San Juan then your best bet is to walk, that way you get to explore more of the town and you won’t get stuck in the queues of cars going down the small streets!
If you are staying further away or want a trip out of San Juan then Uber is really useful and it is what we used for most of our time there. You’ll also find plenty of taxis around the city but we found they were generally more expensive than Uber.
The easiest way to get around the island is to rent a car. The road system is easy to follow and it allows you the flexibility to go where you want. We didn’t use the bus system during our time in San Juan but we’ve heard that outside of the San Juan metro area it is limited, so if you choose this option it’s best to plan ahead.