Puerto Rico may be a commonwealth of the United States, but its culture stays true to its Spanish roots and Caribbean heritage. Nowhere is this more evident than in bustling San Juan, where customs and folklore continue to thrive alongside modern day conveniences. Known as “La Cuidad Amurallada” (the walled city), San Juan was founded and settled by the Spanish in 1521. Today, San Juan is the second oldest European settlement in the Americas with one of the largest natural harbors in the Caribbean. You can fully appreciate its colonial past by taking a stroll through Old San Juan. From architectural landmarks to world-class art museums, this picturesque part of the city is full of interesting things to see and do. And for the more adventuresome, you won’t want to miss the massive El Yunque Rain Forest, once believed to be the Fountain of Youth.
Locals call Puerto Rico la isla del encanto, “the island of enchantment.” The capital, San Juan, is its heart and soul. Established in 1508, San Juan is the second-oldest settlement in the New World and the oldest city under US jurisdiction. Today, it’s a place of contrasts – appealing historical town and a modern metropolis, an intriguing blend of old and new. Towering skyscrapers and 5 – star hotels are surrounded by forts, churches, and cobblestone streets.
If you are on a cruise the majority of ships dock at the port in Old San Juan. Ships docking at the Pan American Pier are about a 5-minute taxi ride from Old San Juan. From the cruise piers in Old San Juan, it’s a quick walk to Paseo de la Princesa, a peaceful tree-lined promenade with street vendors selling snacks and souvenirs Try a piragua, the refreshing snow-cone-like treat. The Puerto Rico Tourism Board is housed in La Princesa, the former prison building that intersects the walkway.
Things to do in Old San Juan
- Capitolo De San Juan – The capital of San Juan is home to House of Representatives and Senate. You are allowed to enter the building and highly recommended. There is a beautiful mosaic ceiling in the central hall.
- Plaza De Colon – Named after the explorer Christopher Columbus, this plaza statue was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the island. This is a great place to rest, people watch and grab some food.
- Cathedral of San Juan Bautista – This cathedral is open daily and free to enter. Regular church services occur daily so be courteous and mindful of worshippers.
- Old San Juan Wall – Walk along the water’s edge where you can see how well fortified San Juan really was.
- Castillo San Felipe Del Morro – 16th-century fort that I highly recommend. It’s what you likely will see if you are on a cruise ship and sailing into the port. It’s a huge fortress with six levels of fortification and a place everyone should visit once in their lifetime. It’s a trek out so be prepared to either walk or carve time out of your day for a trip here.
If you are interested in doing some shopping there are brand-name stores and local shops that line the streets. Look for handmade lace, hand-rolled cigars, jewelry, and watches. All the best shopping is located in the heart of Old San Juan, on Calle Fortaleza between Calle Cristo and Calle Tanca.