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San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the most-visited cities in the Caribbean. The city’s history dates back more than 500 years; it was founded by Spanish colonists in 1521 who named it “Ciudad de Puerto Rico,” or “rich port city,” though the Indigenous Taino people called the area home long before that.
Today, San Juan is a vibrant city that’s a popular port for Caribbean cruises – but it’s well worth visiting on its own, cruise or not. Just a few of the unique things you can do in San Juan include:
- Explore Spanish fortresses from the 1600s
- Drink a piña colada in the place where it was invented
- Go street art-spotting in Santurce
- Have a beach day
- Tour Casa BACARDÍ
- And much more!
Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898 (after the Spanish-American War), which means that it’s very easy for Americans to visit. If you’re from the United States, you don’t need a passport to visit Puerto Rico. You also don’t need to change money or worry about your cell phone plan.
When to visit San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico has a tropical monsoon climate, meaning that it’s hot and humid pretty much year-round (temperatures stay a pretty consistent low- to mid-80s F). The most popular months to visit San Juan are during the North American winter, i.e. December-March, when it’s slightly cooler and drier.
April-June is also an ideal time to visit, when the weather is still good but there are slightly fewer tourists since it’s a shoulder season.
The cheapest months to visit San Juan are during the summer, but that’s also rainy/hurricane season (hurricane season usually runs from June-November). I’ve visited San Juan during both of its “seasons,” and have to say that February is probably my favorite!
The best things to do in San Juan
Puerto Rico is of course much more than just San Juan. There are other great areas to visit, too, like the cities of Ponce and Rincon; islands like Vieques and Culebra; and natural areas like El Yunque Rainforest and the central mountains.
But the majority of Puerto Rico’s population lives in the San Juan region, and it’s the city everyone arrives into. So you may as well get out and explore!
Read on to learn about all the best things you can do in and around San Juan. (And I’ve organized this list into various parts of San Juan, starting with Old Town.)
Top things to do in Old San Juan
Viejo San Juan, AKA Old San Juan, is the most historic part of the city, where you’ll find colorful colonial buildings, Spanish forts, bars, and nightlife. This is the most popular and touristy part of San Juan, too – but for good reason.
There are many things to do in Old San Juan, whether you’re interested in history, food, or just some good cocktails. Here are the best things to do in Old San Juan:
1. Visit Castillo San Cristóbal
One of the best things to do in San Juan is to visit Castillo San Cristóbal, part of the San Juan National Historic Site. The historic site comprises two different fortresses, as well as old city walls and gates. I recommend starting with Castillo San Cristóbal on the northeast end of Old San Juan, because it’s within easy walking distance from most hotels.
Castillo San Cristóbal is one of the fortresses built by the Spanish to defend Puerto Rico. Construction on this fortress began in the 1600s, and it was used all the way through WWII, when US troops used the sentry boxes and lookouts to scan the waters for German U-boats.
This fortress was the one that protected the land entrance into Old San Juan, back when it was an entirely walled city. It’s large, too, covering 27 acres – it’s the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World, in fact.
Entry to the historic site is just $10 per person, and there’s a lot to see. You can visit former prison cells, stand in sentry boxes, and explore much of the 27 acres that the fortress covers (San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World).
You can also get some fantastic views over San Juan in all directions.
Pro tip: Get to Castillo San Cristóbal as close to opening time as you can; the cruise ship tour buses will start rolling in 1-2 hours after opening, so get there early if you want to have the site mostly to yourself.
2. Castillo San Felipe del Morro
The other Spanish fortress in San Juan is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or El Morro. This more-famous fort up on a hill overlooks the entrance to San Juan Bay. The Spanish started building this in 1539, and continued adding onto it until 1787. It was attacked several times, most recently suffering damage during the Spanish-American War, when Puerto Rico still belonged to Spain.
You can visit El Morro with the same ticket you used to visit San Cristóbal, but note that it’s a long walk across the lawn to the fort itself! At the fortress, you can visit casemates, a chapel, and of course see the ocean views.
In front of El Morro, also be sure to visit Cuartel de Ballajá, a building from the mid-1800s that was originally built as military barracks. The building was purchased by the government, and refurbished/remodeled in the 1990s. Today it is home to the Museo de las Américas, as well as schools dedicated to dance, music, and Spanish language.
3. Take a historic walking tour
Another one of the top things to do in San Juan is to take a walking tour around Old San Juan to really learn about the city’s history. Even though Puerto Rico is technically “part” of the United States, the relationship is a tenuous one, and it feels like a completely different country.
And this makes sense, of course, thanks to its history. A walking tour of Old San Juan will cover a lot of that history – from Columbus’ “discovery” of the island all the way through to the present day – and give you a taste of what makes the city so special.
A walking tour like this won’t delve too deep into the complicated relationship Puerto Rico has with the United States (I invite you to read more about it on your own), but it’s nevertheless a great introduction to the island, and especially to San Juan.
Book a San Juan walking tour here.
4. Go on a San Juan food tour
One thing that you can’t miss in San Juan is a food tour! I love taking food tours when I travel; you learn so much about an area’s history and culture through its food.
In San Juan, the go-to food tour company is Flavors of San Juan, and the tour I’d recommend is the classic Old San Juan Food Tour. This 3-hour small group tour is a great introduction to Puerto Rican food and drink. It mixes history and good eats – and a bit of walking to help you burn off some of those extra calories!
I won’t give away everything included on this tour, but you’ll visit at least 5 different locally-owned spots and taste everything from Puerto Rican coffee to pastries to chocolate. My favorite part of the tour was when we made our own mofongo!
The Old San Juan Food Tour is offered several times throughout the day. I recommend going with a late afternoon option (there’s usually a 3 p.m. tour), which will fill you up enough that you won’t have to go out for a separate dinner.
Book your food tour in advance here.
5. Get a piña colada at Barrachina
On your wanderings, be sure to stop at Barrachina, a restaurant in Old San Juan that claims to be the birthplace of the Piña Colada. This is contested by the Caribe Hilton, which also claims to have invented the drink. Regardless, though, Barrachina does mix up a very tasty drink.
Other great spots for cocktails in Old San Juan include:
- La Vergüenza – Not far from Castillo San Cristóbal, this spot has a rooftop terrace and drink specials throughout the day.
- La Factoría – Whether you’re looking for craft cocktails or a night of dancing, you can find it here in one of seven different bars.
6. Visit La Fortaleza
La Fortaleza means “The Fortress,” and the current governor’s house wan indeed built to be a fortress back in 1540.
Short, 30-minuted guided tours are offered of La Fortaleza (AKA Palacio de Santa Catalina) Monday-Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The tours are free, but it’s advised you call in advance to make sure tours are running. (More info here.)
And even if you don’t plan to tour La Fortaleza, it’s worth it to visit the street leading up to the mansion, known as Calle de la Fortaleza. In past years, this street has been hung with colorful umbrellas and giant Puerto Rican flags, and is a favorite Instagram spot in San Juan.
7. Walk the Paseo del Morro at sunset
You won’t want to miss watching the sunset while in San Juan. I recommend strolling down the tree-lined Paseo de la Princesa and then walking along the Paseo del Morro for sunset. You can actually walk along Paseo del Morro all the way from La Fortaleza to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and watch the sun set over the Bay of San Juan.
Top things to do in Santurce
Santurce is a hip and trendy area in San Juan, home to various sub-barrios (smaller neighborhoods) like Condado and Ocean Park.
The stylish Condado neighborhood is popular with tourists because of its great hotels and beaches. However, there’s much more to see in this vibrant and artistic part of San Juan.
Here are the best things to do in Santurce:
1. Visit the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
One of the best things to do in the Santurce area of San Juan is to visit the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico*. This art museum showcases and celebrates Puerto Rican and Caribbean art spanning from the 17th century to the present, and is a must-visit for art lovers.
*Note: The museum building is currently only open Thursday-Sunday.
I’m not actually a huge fan of art museums, but the variety of styles represented in this museum (plus seeing so much work by Puerto Rican artists!) held my interest for a couple of hours. There are several indoor galleries, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden.
The best part is that tickets for this museum are just $6 per adult.
2. Stroll and admire the street art
From the art museum, you can easily walk to other parts of Santurce, keeping your eye out for the colorful street art that the neighborhood is known for.
Often compared to Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, Santurce has incredible murals to be found around every corner. Stroll up Calle Cerra or Calle Loíza for the greatest concentration of art – and artsy cafes. Read more about Santurce’s street art here.
3. Have a beach day
Santurce is home to Ocean Park beach (AKA Playa Último Trolley), a long public beach that’s laid-back and not very touristy at all. This is a perfect spot to take a walk along the sand, or go in for a dip if you bring your swim gear.
You can also watch people trying out windsurfing, kiteboarding and other water sports, as this is a popular beach for all of those.
Other nice beaches a little further east along the coast include Isla Verde Beach, Carolina Public Beach, and La Posita de Piñones.
4. Experience La Placita
If you’re looking for a great nightlife experience in San Juan, head to La Placita de Santurce after dark.
During the day, this two-tiered market square is pretty quiet with a farmer’s market and some restaurants. At night, though (and especially on weekend nights), it’s where locals flock for street food, drinks, and live salsa music (and dancing) in the square.
Not all parts of Santurce are regarded as being safe after dark, but La Placita is an exception; the atmosphere on a weekend night is so vibrant. I recommend taking an Uber there/back from your hotel, and practicing basic safety precautions to keep yourself and your stuff safe. But this spot makes for a truly fun night out.
5. Get out on the water
Pick up a rental paddleboard or kayak from VIP Adventures to explore the Condado Lagoon on your own.
Or, you could book a sunset cruise from the San Juan Bay Marina to head out into the Bay of San Juan. This sunset catamaran cruise includes 2 hours of sailing, plus cocktails.
Top things to do in Cataño
Cataño sits across the Bay of San Juan from Old San Juan, and there’s one very popular thing to do there:
1. Tour the Bacardi factory
If you’re interested in rum, then you won’t want to skip a visit to Casa BACARDÍ, or the “Cathedral of Rum.” Even if you don’t like drinking rum very much (guilty), touring Puerto Rico’s Bacardi factory to learn about the company’s history is pretty fascinating.
Casa BACARDÍ is located in Cataño. You can get there by taxi or Uber, or you can save some money by taking a ferry across the bay from Old San Juan. Ferries leave from Pier 2 in Old San Juan (sandwiched between the cruise ship docks) roughly every 15-30 minutes. Tickets cost only 50 cents per person (yes, really, $0.50!), and the ferry ride takes about 10 minutes.
Once you get to the Cataño pier on the other side of the bay, you can either catch a taxi or call an Uber for the short ride to the Bacardi factory. (There’s a taxi stand just outside the ferry terminal, but it was empty when we visited; we called an Uber, and it only cost $5 to get to Bacardi.)
At Casa BACARDÍ, you can choose from a variety of tours. We opted for the Legacy Tour, which is a 45-minute tour that covers the history of Bacardi and their rum production process. This tour costs $35, and includes a free cocktail from the outdoor pavilion bar.
Other tour options include a 90-minute rum tasting tour ($75 + tax) where you get to taste a handful of rums; or a mixology class ($75), where you learn how to make three classic rum cocktails – including a mojito, of course! More info on current tours here.
Even though I don’t really love rum, I really enjoyed the historical tour at Casa BACARDÍ. We learned all about the brand’s history (did you know it was started in Cuba, and is still owned by the Bacardi family?), and how Bacardi has evolved in Puerto Rico. I especially loved learning how the factory has worked to reduce waste, and how it produces almost all of its own energy.
Pro tip: Not interested in Bacardi? You could also consider visiting the home of Ron del Barrilito, a small-batch rum made at the oldest distillery in Puerto Rico. Ron del Barrilito just recently opened up a visitor center in Bayamón called Hacienda Santa Ana, which is only about a 15-minute drive from Old San Juan.
Day trips from San Juan
While there is plenty to do in San Juan, you should also dedicate some of your trip to day trips that allow you to explore more of Puerto Rico.
These are the best day trips from San Juan that I recommend:
1. El Yunque Rainforest
El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, and makes for a great day trip from San Juan. The forest was largely closed for years after damage from Hurricane Maria, but is now open again to the public!
The most popular thing to do in El Yunque is to visit waterfalls and swimming holes – and this is best done on a tour. This El Yunque tour includes some fun water play in El Yunque (waterfalls, natural waterslides, and more!), plus a visit to Luquillo Beach. Pick up/drop off in San Juan is included for a small extra fee.
Book a day trip to El Yunque
2. Catamaran trip to Culebra
On my first trip to Puerto Rico, I went on a day trip to Culebra island by catamaran. Culebra is a smaller island off the coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. It’s not super touristy or commercialized, and is known for its beautiful beaches.
This day trip included a couple of snorkeling stops, lunch, drinks, and music on the boat, and a stop at Flamenco Beach on Culebra, often listed as one of the best beaches in the world.
A day trip to Culebra does require more time on a boat since the island is further away, though, so keep that in mind.
Most tours can include pick-up in San Juan for an extra fee.
Book this day trip to Culebra.
3. Catamaran trip to Icacos
On my second trip to Puerto Rico, my husband Elliot and I booked another catamaran trip. This time, we booked a day trip to the deserted island of Icacos.
There were two different options for this tour: to book onto a bigger boat (with a water slide!) with more people, or to book onto a smaller boat with fewer people. We went for the smaller boat option, and it ended up being perfect!
We didn’t actually get to Icacos because of rough seas and bad weather on the day we sailed, but our captain still found us a nice beach and a separate spot for snorkeling. And the crew was fantastic, keeping the pina coladas and rum punch flowing, and cooking up a great BBQ lunch for us all.
Book a day trip to Icacos.
Pro tip: Don’t forget your sun protection! While most catamarans offer up a bit of shade, you’ll be out in the sun plenty. Sunglasses, a hat, UV-blocking clothing are all must-haves!
4. La Parguera Bio Bay
Lastly, another unique trip you can take from San Juan is to La Parguera to visit the only bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico that you can swim in. A bioluminescent bay “glows” due to tiny creatures called dinoflagellates, which emit a blue-ish glow when the water around them is disturbed.
The most famous bio bay in Puerto Rico is Mosquito Bay on Vieques, but if you want a unique swimming experience, this day trip to La Parguera is a cool option. It includes dinner, a boat ride through mangroves on the way to the bay, and then time to swim after dark.
(Just note that the bay will be brightest around the New Moon each month, and that this is an evening tour, so you’ll return to San Juan pretty late!)
Book a bio bay tour here
Where to stay in San Juan
There are a couple different areas where tourists will stay in San Juan, with the most popular being Old San Juan and the hotel strip in Condado.
1. Old San Juan
If you want to stay in the heart of the action, then you want to stay in Old San Juan. Hotels in this part of San Juan tend to be historic (and slightly more expensive), but the area is very safe, and you can walk to most of the major sites.
My hotel picks in Old San Juan are:
- Hotel El Convento – If it’s historic you want, you can’t go wrong with this boutique hotel housed in a former convent. The luxury hotel is right next to San Juan’s Cathedral square. (Book a room here)
- The Decanter Hotel – This is where Elliot and I stayed on our visit together. The small boutique hotel is found in an historic building, and many of the rooms have beautiful terraces (see the photo above). There’s also a great rooftop bar to enjoy at night. (Book a room here)
- CasaBlanca Hotel – This small hotel is in a great location, and comes complete with a rooftop terrace and local artwork throughout the property. (Book a room here)
This hip and trendy beach district is east of Old San Juan. It’s known for fancy hotels and nightlife, along with its stretch of beach and ocean views.
My hotel picks in Condado are:
- Condado Ocean Club – The first new hotel to open in San Juan after the 2017 hurricanes, this hotel is the one Elliot and I chose for our 2020 trip. It sits right on the beach, with a small infinity pool that overlooks the ocean. The ocean view rooms here have incredible floor-to-ceiling windows, and the beachy vibe extends throughout the whole property. (This used to be called the Serafina Beach Hotel.) (Book a room here)
- Condado Vanderbilt Hotel – Usually ranked as one of the best hotels in Puerto Rico (and certainly in San Juan), this luxury hotel sits right on the beach and delivers a resort-like experience. (Book a room here)
- La Concha – The La Concha is a Renaissance property, and is one of the iconic hotels in Condado. The hotel was recently renovated, and has a modern design and great on-site dining options. (Book a room here)
- Caribe Hilton – I stayed at this property on my first trip to Puerto Rico, and especially loved the pool area. The Caribar here is regarded as the birthplace of the Piña Colada, and this is one of the more family-friendly hotels in Condado. (Book a room here)
Other neighborhoods you could consider include:
- Santurce – A more “local” neighborhood, filled with street art, galleries, and shops. It’s a bit grittier, and you’ll find more vacation rentals available here than hotels.
- Ocean Park and Carolina – These are more residential neighborhoods, but they are right on the beach.
If you’re looking for affordable rental options with ocean views, here are a few:
- This 1-bedroom condo in Condado has unblocked ocean views, and access to a pool
- This beachy studio sits ocean-front and has a balcony
- This Ocean Park penthouse can sleep 8 and has its own private rooftop pool
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