The energetic and enigmatic capital of San Juan, Puerto Rico possesses an abundance of history seldom matched in the Americas. The second-oldest European settlement on American land, San Juan boasts a unique blend of colonial magnificence and modern vibrancy. The striking city walls which welcome you as you approach by sea offer a glimpse into the medieval splendour of San Juan, protectively surrounding the buzzing hive within.
As a Spanish colony between 1493 and 1898, there is a strong Spanish influence upon the city and wider Puerto Rico, from the delightful architecture to the language and the laid-back style of life. As one of the largest, most populous and culturally-diverse islands in the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico offers something a little different to the other destinations of an island-hopping cruise.
From investigating the oldest reaches of the city to exploring the great selection of museums and galleries on offer; we’ve put together a list of our favourite things to do during a visit to San Juan.
Soak Up Old San Juan
Major cities all around the world love to talk up their old town region, promising a taste of authentic culture and a delightful slice of history. Sadly, increased tourism to many of these old town regions has somewhat diluted the effect, losing some of the areas’ old charm. Not Old San Juan though, it’s still possible to walk around this beautiful part of the city in complete peace – not surrounded by revellers and tacky tourist shops.
Strict remodelling codes have been imposed on Old San Juan, so it has retained all its old charm, with beautiful Colonial Spanish buildings lining every street, opening up to beautiful squares and public monuments. Houses of vibrant pink, blue, yellow and orange sit next to one another, creating a beautiful tapestry woven over centuries.
Authentic Puerto Rican street vendors have a strong presence in Old San Juan, selling great little trinkets and souvenirs. And if exploring under the Caribbean sun gets a little too much, you’re never far from a charming little café or bar in Old San Juan.
Relax Outside the San Juan National Historic Site
San Juan’s National Historic Site is made up of a series of old military fortifications and defences, including castles, forts and the old city walls. The Castillo San Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, City Walls of Old San Juan and Fortín San Juan de la Cruz make up much of the historic site, giving a wonderful insight into the historic past of this enigmatic city. And their presence is just as important to modern San Juan locals as those who lived in the city 400 years ago.
Today, the San Juan National Historic Site is, perhaps, the city’s major meeting site, with locals flocking to the lush greenery lined by crumbling fortifications for family days out. The sound of the sea lapping against the land creates a delightful background for a few hours of relaxation, admiring the scenery and enjoying the abundance of kites usually found overhead.
And from here, you’re perfectly placed to tackle one or more of the awe-inspiring fortified sections of the San Juan National Historic Site.
Tackle the Street Food of Plazoleta del Puerto
Just a couple of minutes from the main cruise terminals in San Juan is Plazoleta del Puerto, the home of Puerto Rican street food. A great selection of food carts and stands dot the street, sending their delightful smells into the air, which will get your taste buds revving before you’ve even turned the corner onto the street.
We’d recommend trying a Tico Tripleta (and sharing the monstrous snack unless you’ve got a great appetite), a huge sandwich not dissimilar to the more famous (but ultimately inferior) Cuban. A slightly-sweetened roll is wrapped around layers of chicken, ham and beef, then slathered with mustard, mayo and ketchup.
Wash this monster of a sandwich down with a cup of mavi, a drink made from the bark and fruit of the soldierwood tree. This unusual boozy drink has hints of tea, fizzy wine and root beer, creating a surprisingly delicious taste.
Peak Into Castillo San Felipe del Morro
If you’ve got only limited time to explore the fortifications of San Juan, and don’t know where to start, let us help you out by recommending Castillo San Felipe del Morro (Morro Castle). A 16th-century citadel, Morro Castle is located on the most north-westerly tip of San Juan and served as the earliest form of defence for the city, built on the orders of King Charles V of Spain.
For 400 years, the castle was continuously updated and upgraded in line with the latest military techniques and advances. San Juan’s famous city walls emerge from Morro Castle, with many of the city’s early inhabitants living in or around the citadel. Morro Castle was integral to the city remaining under Spanish rule for more than 350 years, fending off sieges and attacks from the English and the Dutch.
Today, Morro Castle enjoys a much more peaceful existence, serving as a museum since the 60s. In 1983, the castle earned World Heritage Site status, and careful restoration works were undertaken to restore the citadel to its original appearance.
Lose Yourself in the Muñoz Riviera Park
Named in honour of Puerto Rican statesman, Luis Muñoz Rivera, this astonishing retreat located at the eastern end of Old San Juan is much more than just a park. Home to an arboretum, botanical garden, art gallery, architectural display, historical museum and much more, it’s possible to spend hours and hours in the park without ever growing bored or seeing the same thing twice.
Great for families, the Munoz Riviera Park has a little something for everyone – even boasting a cracking little playground if you’ve got kids in tow. Busts of Latin American public figures line the many walkways of the park, giving you a little history lesson along the way, and hundreds of unique species of trees and flowers provide intrigue for green-fingered visitors.
There’s little wonder the Munoz Riviera Park continues to be a popular setting for weddings and couples caught up in the magic of romance, the wonderfully-appointed and maintained park is just as beautiful today as it was when it was first constructed in the 1930s.
Indulge at Casa Cortes
Chocoholics, you have found your mecca. Casa Cortes is absolute chocolate heaven – a small family restaurant specialising in everything cacao, from indulgent hot chocolates to the Cortes family’s famous ‘Chocolicious’ brunches. The home-made chocolate/vanilla marbled pancakes are an absolute must for any self-respecting choco-fiend landing in San Juan.
Chocolate has long been an important trade in Puerto Rico, and the Cortes family have been at the forefront of the industry since the 1920s, producing the best-loved chocolate of the Caribbean. The family has lent all of their chocolate-producing expertise to the menu at this restaurant, providing an absolute treat for visitors and locals alike.
Don’t worry if you’ve been dragged along and your sweet tooth isn’t so keen, the menu includes a great selection of non-chocolate dishes to enjoy too.
Learn About the Coconut Revolution
Fancy doing something completely different during your time in San Juan? Why not learn a few island survival tips with the Coconut Revolution 101 classes, where you’ll discover the important role that coconuts played in Puerto Rico’s survival and growth. You’ll also learn some practicable skills such as how to pick coconuts, crack into the blighters and even use their husk to create a fire. So, no longer will you be embarrassed trying to drill into a store-bought coconut with your brother-in-law’s Black & Decker.
It’s not all coco-centric though, the classes also teach you how to make shelter with palm leaves and forage for fruits and nuts. Set in the isolated Pinones Beach Reserve, the class provides an insight into the connection between nature and culture on this unique island, and how the humble coconut was central to Puerto Rico’s liberation from colonial rule.
Fancy visiting wonderful San Juan as part of an unforgettable Caribbean cruise? Why not head over to our Caribbean cruise deal page to find the perfect itinerary for you. Alternatively, call our friendly sales team on 0808 231 3669 and we’ll find your ideal cruise holiday.