Top 5 Things to Do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
What to do in Old San Juan from a 'British' point of view.
Now living in Old San Juan, a British native lists her top things to do when visiting the historic city.
Visit the National Historical Sites
Top of every list and guidebook to Puerto Rico, will be the Castillo San Felipe del Morro - or ‘El Morro’ as it is more commonly known – but not without good reason.
This sixteenth-century fortification built at the entrance to the San Juan bay was once pivotal in allowing Spain to defend the wealth of the New World against their sea-faring enemies. Puerto Rico’s strategic position at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, made it a desirable location for sailors (and pirates) to rest and resupply.
El Morro is part of the larger San Juan National Historic site, which includes the San Cristobal fort to the east, and both can be included in the price of a one-day ticket.
At both locations, hourly tours are given by park rangers, in both English and Spanish, and provide great insight and enthusiasm for the sites. There is also a free shuttle bus that runs between them if you do not fancy the walk in the hot Caribbean sun.
Not only is El Morro worth visiting for the historical interest but the surrounding green space and the views are incredible. San Juan locals come here to spend time with their families, exercise, buy ‘Piraguas’ (shaved ice with all sorts of yummy syrups added) and even fly kites.
So whilst you are visiting, make sure you find time to step back and admire the view over the ocean and back over the peninsula. It also provides the best view of ‘La Perla’ and the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery – without walking down there of course!
The Museum of the Americas
The Museum of the Americas, located right next to El Morro, is worth the trip for the architecture alone. In order to access the museum on the second floor, guests have to enter the building through the central courtyard.
The courtyard has a distinct European feel – helped by the Don Ruiz Café serving crepes and smoothies along with some of the best coffee in all of San Juan, an absolute must if you have the time – and the plaza is really photogenic.
Opened in 1992, the Museum of the Americas always has a wide range of exhibitions, and your one ticket price gives you access to all of these.
The constant fixture is an exhibition which looks at the native tribes which still exist across the continents of the Americas. With excellent attention to detail, videos, artwork, models and life-size replicas of the tribes – this is a really underrated attraction in San Juan.
Also on the premises in Cinema Bar 1950 a quaint restaurant / bar with outdoor seating and fantastic views of El Morro.
Calle San Sebastian
During the day Calle San Sebastian, can seem quiet and a little uninhabited with shop fronts closed up and the pavements empty, but come back at dusk and you will find a completely different place.
Calle San Sebastian is a great place to have a drink in the old town, and far enough away from Calle Fortaleza that you get more of a local crowd, with a variety of bars including cocktail hub Factoria, and Taberna Lupolo, full of bottled craft beers and others on tap, such as Brooklyn from New York.
If you fancy something a little more authentic then head to the no-name bar, adjacent to ‘Bistro Burger’ where you will find Puerto Rican families – across three generations – all drinking and dancing to a live band together. Prepare to feel a little gringo in here, but worth it for the local flavour.
You may also remember that Calle San Sebastian is home to the annual festival held every January, so check that out if you are lucky enough to be here during that period.
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas, located right by the Puerto Rican Department of State and San Juan City Hall may seem rather uninspiring at first, the sort of place you pass through but never stop, but this square is a hub of local life – to meet friends, shop, play dominos, buy lottery tickets - and somewhere you should definitely spend some time.
The perfect excuse to hang out here is to grab some lunch at a small kiosk. Pull up a seat under the shade of the trees and sample a Puerto Rican Mallorca – toasted sandwich topped with powdered sugar – it’s a must!
Or a ‘Quesito’ ‘little cheese’, similar to a glazed croissant, and be sure to wash that down with a ‘cortado’ coffee topped with cinnamon, sourced only from the finest Puerto Rican beans.
This is where locals come for breakfast, as well as a midnight snack and everything in between.
As well as being a pit-stop for food, Plaza de Armas is great for people-watching especially the frequent street performers who work near the fountains or the gold bench and are always great entertainment. This is an iconic place for Puerto Ricans, and a television advert was recently filmed here too!
Paseo de la Princesa
Finally, take a sunset walk along the tree-lined Paseo de la Princesa on the south side of Old San Juan starting at the San Juan gate. Built in 1853 and recently restored, this tree-lined walk follows the base of the old city wall and is the perfect place to come in the early evening to people watch or have a stroll.
The ‘Paseo’ used to be where the local aristocrats would come to display their wealth and socialise, today many people come here to exercise or simply take a look at the view or most across the bay.
When you reach the end, there is the large, and much photographed, Raices fountain – watch out for engagement proposals as it’s a popular location!
At the weekend there is also a local craft market set up on the Paseo, where you can browse Puerto Rican artisan goods, perfect last minute presents. The Puerto Rico Tourism company is also based here.
Got other Old San Juan suggestions?
Sophie Gallagher is a qualified journalist, having trained in the seaside town of Brighton, England before moving to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. Sophie has experience working at My Guide Head Office in London and now contributes articles to the Puerto Rico franchise. She has also had work published by The Daily Express, Very Magazine, The Editeur and The Argus.