A fascinating historical site, a tropical beach paradise, a world center for cocktail making, and one of the most welcoming cities in the Caribbean - it's amazing that more people haven't discovered San Juan.
If you want to get away from the climate of mainland USA, there's no better place to escape. Travel back in time by taking historical tours of sites like the Castillo and the Governor's Mansion, both of which date back to the 16th century. Live a life of decadence and pure enjoyment with the finest mojitos you will ever taste. Dine on the island's unique fusion of world cuisines, and relax during the day on beautiful beaches like el Condado.
San Juan is the kind of city where you really can get away from it all. The colorful architecture, superb food, endless array of beaches, and compact, walkable core make it one of the most enticing city break destinations around.
San Juan is in the Caribbean, which usually means sandy, palm-fringed beaches, and the capital of Puerto Rico doesn't disappoint. Spend lazy days on a towel at Condado, paddle with kids in the shallow water at Escambron, or enjoy the spacious private beaches at Playa Peña.
Puerto Rican food is a unique mixture of indigenous Taino, African, Spanish, and American cuisine - with a strong Asian and Italian influence recently added to the mix. Try the Asopao (fish stew) at Barrachina in Old San Juan and the sticky rice and fruit desserts at El Jibarito.
San Juan is the modern home of Bacardi rum, and there's no better place in the Caribbean to enjoy rum-based cocktails like mojitos, pina colada, and coquitos. Head to the Mezzanine at St Germain in the Old Town or El Bar Bero in Condado for the best drinks in town.
San Juan was founded in the early 16th century, soon after the Spanish decided to settle (and conquer) large areas of the Caribbean. This has left a legacy of stunning architecture, from the Cathedral of St John the Baptist to the elegant Governor's Mansion and the impressive fort of San Cristobal.
The Caribbean is a playground for tourists who love to get out on the water. Charter yachts, head out on fishing tours, get friends together for a paddleboard excursion, or strap on a scuba tank and descend to local dive sites like Cayo Raton.
San Juan's Old Town is the most picturesque part of Puerto Rico's capital city, and the preservation of 16th and 17th-century homes has been prioritized in this neighborhood. Today, walking the blue cobblestone streets is as atmospheric as its ever been. Boutiques and open air cafés are found left and right, interspersed with historic houses, museums, and plazas. Don't miss the Castillo de San Cristóbal or the colonial Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery for a historical fix.
At the entrance to the Bay of San Juan, this 16th-century fortification looks over the water from atop a craggy hill. Explore the expansive citadel for yourself to understand how the fort protected the island from seafaring enemies. Cannons still face the horizon from the battalions, a sinister reminder of the past. Outside the walls, lush green fields welcome visitors to relax after a historical tour.
This is the ultimate urban beach - it's just far enough from the bustling blocks of the city to be a getaway, but close enough to play host to city-slickers eager for some fun in the sun. Besides swimming and sunbathing, this stretch of sand along the Caribbean is full of thrilling activities too. Gear rentals and water sports galore take over the blue ocean, while on land activities from beach volleyball to sand castle building keep everyone happy for hours.
One of the oldest buildings in San Juan is also one of the oldest church in the Americas - the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. The historic landmark is time-worn but beautiful. Visitors can enjoy elegant stained-glass windows, religious relics, and the fascinating tomb of the explorer Juan Ponce de Léon. More than just for sightseeing, the church is still active and frequented by locals and tourists alike for the memorable Roman-Catholic mass.
Azure blue water laps right up to this centuries-old gate, once the only formal point of entry into the city of San Juan. Who was and was not allowed to enter into the city was a highly monitored business, and between gates and castles the city was incredibly well fortified. Beyond the age-old city walls of San Juan, the National Historic Site comprising the entire Old City unfolds. Latin text adorning the gate reads: "Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord."
The best time to visit San Juan is just after the sweltering summer (in the northern winter) but before the rainy season - around May and June is usually ideal. The crowds from January to April have melted away, and accommodation prices are also be much lower.
Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is the major entry point to Puerto Rico for visitors from the USA, and it's around 10 miles from the center of town. Taxis from the airport to Downtown cost around $20 but it's much cheaper to take the bus (which costs just $0.75). Remember to use exact change and pay when you board.
Some travelers also choose to fly into Rafael Hernandez Airport, in the west of Puerto Rico. In this case, you can rent a car at the airport terminal and reach San Juan by car in a couple of hours. Take Route 2 to Arecibo, then switch to Route 22 tothe capital city. If you are driving from Ponce in the south, Route 52 crosses the island and is the road to take.
Whether you are looking for 5-star business accommodation, a family hotel or somewhere cheap for backpackers, San Juan wil have somewhere that suits your needs. At the lowest end of the scale, check out the Palace Hostel, where dorm beds are around $5 per night. For a comfortable experience in the center of town, Alasol offers furnished apartments, while at the highest level, the Gallery Inn is the finest place to stay in town. This 300 year-old boutique hotel enjoys beautiful sea views and features an on-site art gallery which showcases the owner's works.
Old San Juan – San Juan has a history that stretches back to the earliest days of European settlement in the Caribbean, and the best place to explore this history is in Old San Juan. Head to historic landmarks like the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and Casa Blanca, home of the explorer Ponce de Leon. In January, the area is also the venue for the San Sebastian Festival, one of the Caribbean's liveliest fiestas.
El Condado – Probably San Juan's most prosperous neighborhood, El Condado is also the place to go for pristine beaches, cocktail bars, and watersports. It's also a fine place to eat, with great Italian dishes available at Di Parma Trattoria, Asian food at Budatai and Puerto Rican food at Orozco.
Hato Rey – San Juan's economic center, Hato Rey is the district to visit if you feel the need to go on a shopping trip. It's also the cultural hub, being home to the Coliseo, San Juan's major music venue as well as the Teatro Coribantes, the city's major place to watch contemporary comedy and plays.
Navigating the city by bus is an attractive option, not least because of the affordable fares ($0.75 per ride). The network has good coverage, but beware of big gaps in the published schedule. Buses in San Juan often fall 15 minutes behind their schedules, so expect the odd wait of 15-30 minutes for a bus. Useful routes include the T21 to Condado beach and the D53, which runs from the airport to the city center.
Taxis are a good way to get around the city and all cabs are supposed to be metered within the city limits. Each journey has a meter drop of $1.75, then $1.90 per mile after that and $1 for every piece of luggage. A 10-15 percent tip is also customary. Uber is another option, offering a basic charge of $0.70, then $0.50 per subsequent mile.
Drivers in San Juan can seem a little unpredictable to American motorists, but you should soon get used to their habits. Navigating the city is fairly simple, with a compact downtown core and plenty of clear signage to help you get around. If you need a place to park in the center of town check out the garages on the Calle Recinto Sur (and remember to take your ticket with you when you walk out of the garage as you have to pay the cashier before you pick up your vehicle).
San Juan has plenty of conventional shopping malls. In fact, it's probably the best place in the Caribbean to shop for branded goods. That's mainly due to the Plaza Las Americas, the Caribbean's largest mall, where you'll find stores like Lacoste, Macy's, and American Eagle. For a slightly more atmospheric shopping experience, head to Old San Juan, where you'll find quirky stores like the Butterfly People (who sell real exotic butterflies preserved in clear plastic) and Poet's Passage, a great place to pick up souvenirs and artworks.
If you are staying in self-catering accommodation, the best places to shop for groceries in San Juan are supermarkets like Pueblo, Famcoop, and SuperMax, which offer prices that are usually well below those on the mainland. A gallon of milk costs around $6.70, while a pound of apples is just $1.50, making it easy to live well in the city while on a tight budget.
Puerto Rico has its own distinctive cuisine featuring heavy use of beans, coriander, chillis, cassava, and coconuts, and there are many great restaurants which will be happy to show off local dishes. If you love grilled meat, El Asador is the place to go, while Café Puerto Rico serves the best seafood broth in town. Pamela’s Caribbean Cuisine serves up regional curries and other dishes in a seaside location, while Al Dente and Luigi's are highly-rated Italian eateries. Expect to pay less than $10 for a high-quality meal.