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 Islands Information

San Juan, Puerto Rico - Overview and Essential Travel Information

Puerto Rico’s capital city (pop. 1 000 000) the Caribbean’s commercial hub is an intriguing mixture of old and new. Start your tour in charming Old San Juan which is perched atop a hill on a small peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean. (Parking is limited so it’s best to tour the area on foot.) This walled city—seven-square blocks of which are now a designated historic landmark—was founded in 1510. Today it is a showcase for four centuries of architectural treasures and the heart of the island’s unique cultural identity. Great efforts have gone into preserving this part of the city including millions of dollars that were spent prior to 1993 when the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage was celebrated.

Take time to stroll along the narrow cobblestone streets and investigate the pastel-colored buildings restaurants boutiques museums mansions and nightclubs. The Paseo de la Princesa a newly revamped promenade that follows the waterfront and the Paseo de la Muralla which winds along the city walls are particularly romantic. These two beautiful walks are even illuminated at night. (While that would be the best time for a relaxing stroll after the day’s heat subsides it is also the most dangerous time because of street crime.)

Save some energy and time for the three trademark forts that have resisted attacks by foreign invaders as well as city developers: El Morro the largest which commands San Juan Bay with six levels of gun emplacements and walls that tower 140 ft/43 m above the Atlantic; San Cristobal which dates from the 18th century and has an intricate network of tunnels used for transportation and to ambush enemies; and San Jeronimo which is east of Old San Juan and has an interesting military museum.

Another must-see is La Fortaleza which was built in 1540 and is the oldest governor’s mansion still in use in the Americas. You can also visit two places associated with Ponce de Leon: the San Juan Cathedral (where the explorer is entombed) and Casa Blanca—his family home a gift from King Charles I. The house is arranged to show how Spanish aristocrats lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Along Calle del Cristo one of San Juan’s most interesting streets visit the Parque de las Palomas where thousands of pigeons have made their home alongside the city walls and the small Capilla del Cristo (Christ Chapel). Other sights include the Pablo Casals Museum (a collection of music and photographs of the famous cellist-conductor); Casa de los Contrafuertes (oldest house in San Juan) and the Dominican Convent (a white domed structure dominating the Plaza San Jose). The multilevel Quincentennial Plaza is a park and cultural complex that overlooks the ocean and celebrates Puerto Rico’s rich history.

Nearby the Ballaja barracks once home to the city’s Spanish troops now serve as the Museo de las Americas (exhibits include a permanent collection of Latin American folk art and changing exhibits highlighting artists from Latin America and the Caribbean). The city’s harbor which is the premier cruise port and container-ship terminal in the Caribbean has been extensively renovated and a new hotel and shopping gallery now face the ship’s berths. Many of the down-at-the-heel buildings nearby have had or are undergoing facelifts.

While sightseeing in Old San Juan requires a lot of walking several plazas invite rest stops. Allow a full day for the old city and prepare yourself for heavy traffic and crowded sidewalks which get worse as the day goes on.

In the San Juan suburb of Catano visit the Bacardi rum factory the Museum of Anthropology (worth an hour or so) and the botanical gardens (also worth an hour—they’re located at the Rio Piedras Agricultural Experiment Station). New San Juan is spread out and you’ll want to hire taxis or use a rental car to get from place to place. (If you’re feeling energetic the walk between Old San Juan and the beach resort area Condado is not out of the question but most tourists will find that there’s really little of interest between the areas.) For an interesting view of the city and the harbor there are also bay cruises that last an hour and a half. There are also hosted half- and full-day tours of outlying areas that leave from San Juan

When you are tired of sightseeing head for the beach. There are beaches right in San Juan but the best are east of the city at Condado and Isla Verde. Condado’s beachfront is a wall of hotels restaurants and boutiques which can make beach access difficult for nonguests. (Don’t be intimidated—all beaches in Puerto Rico are public. You may have to pay to use the facilities however.) Isla Verde is lined with big chalk-white blocks of condos and luxury hotels. Though crowded on weekends it’s still one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.

Note: Remember that some areas of San Juan have high rates of crime so make inquiries about a neighborhood’s safety before exploring.Also if you are to stay in San Juan you can go to the Dorado Hyatt which is a lovely hotel or Cerromar Beach Hotel nearby.Always lock your car and keep valuables out of sight.


Your two feet are the best means of exploring Old San Juan and the immediate vicinity. There's a free tourist trolley within the old city - look for the 'parada' sign indicating where the bus stops. Getting farther afield can be trickier. Public bus service is cheap but less than reliable leaving taxis and car rentals your best options for getting around greater San Juan and making excursions. Metered taxis are plentiful. Tourist taxis (white with a sentry box logo on the door) offer fixed-rate travel within tourist areas from the airport to Old San Juan.

International car rental agencies are well represented on the island and there are plenty of local operators. Your home driving license is valid. Note that local driving habits are erratic (to be kind) though relatively free of aggro (to be fair). Also watch out for the speed limit signs which are in miles per hour even though distances are in kilometers. Drive on the right-hand side of the road.

San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is on the eastern fringe of the city about 16 km (10mi) from Old San Juan. There are car rental agencies at the airport and plenty of taxis and buses for the short jaunt into town.
Information provided by cctraveler2 at