Things To Do

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Old San Juan (San Juan Viejo)

Showcasing almost 500 years of history, the streets of Old San Juan (San Juan Viejo) are windows to the past, with historic forts and Spanish colonial architecture setting the scene. This World Cultural Heritage Site is the second oldest city in the Americas and the oldest city under the US flag. The seven-square-block area contains more than 400 beautifully restored 16th- and 17th-century colonial buildings, many of which contain shops, restaurants, museums, hotels, and other public buildings. The most dramatic feature, and the real showpiece of Old San Juan is the Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, known more commonly as El Morro, set out on a point of land overlooking the sea in the San Juan National Historic Site. Experience the city's real charm by simply wandering the streets, admiring the old architecture, and enjoying a meal on an outdoor patio. Other highlights are Fortaleza, the San Juan Cathedral, and Castillo de San Cristóbal. As you stroll, be sure to pop into some of the museums, many of which are worth stepping into just to appreciate the architecture of the structure housing the collections. This whole area can be explored on foot, although the walk out to El Morro fort adds considerably more to the length of a walking tour.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Fuerte San Felipe del Morro (El Morro)

Protecting the entrance to San Juan Bay, the fort, commonly referred to as El Morro, is dramatically perched above the sea on a point of land jutting out into the ocean. A designated National Historic Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, El Morro was built in 1539. Construction continued for another 250 years to make it one of the largest Spanish forts in the Caribbean. A majority of the additional construction took place between the 1760s and 1780s, when many of the walls you see today were added. The fort today is a maze of ramps, outposts, barracks, dungeons, and tunnels, dotted with small, circular sentry boxes called "garitas." These garitas are unique to Puerto Rican forts and have become a national symbol. The area approaching the fort is open lawn looking out to incredible views on every side, either back towards San Juan, including a view to San Juan Cemetery, or out to sea.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Castillo de San Cristóbal (Fort San Cristóbal)

While El Morro gets all the fame, Castillo de San Cristóbal is equally fascinating and well worth a visit. San Cristobal is bigger than El Morro, and is the largest fort the Spanish ever built in the New World. Spread over 27 acres, it features five independent units connected by moat and tunnel, each designed to be self-sufficient should the others fall. The fort was built between 1634 and 1790 to guard the eastern gate to what is today, Old San Juan. It was designed to protect against a land attack, making it quite different from El Morro, which was designed to guard against attacks by sea.  

San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan Cemetery (Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery)

Set along the coast, adjacent to El Morro, and high above the ocean, is the beautiful San Juan Cemetery. Elaborate tombstones, statues, and a circular red-domed Neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene are some of what make this cemetery outstanding. From its hillside setting above the sea are lovely views out to the ocean and towards El Morro. The graves are all above ground, similar to those found in New Orleans. The chapel in the cemetery dates to the 19th century, and many of Puerto Rico's earliest colonists are buried here.  

San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan Cathedral (Catedral de San Juan)

The San Juan Cathedral, begun in 1540, is known for being one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas and one of the oldest buildings in San Juan. The interior, with its black-and-white checkered tile floor and yellow décor is surprisingly ornate and cheery. The body of the great Spanish explorer, Ponce de León, has laid here in a marble tomb since 1913. Also entombed here since 1862 is San Pío, a Roman Catholic martyr. The cathedral still holds regular services, and tours are available.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Museo de las Américas

The Museo de las Americas, in Old San Juan, explores the history of Puerto Rico, with a focus on the art, the ethnic groups, and the colonization of the country. Permanent exhibits offer a solid overview of the country's history, but temporary exhibits round out the experience, with interesting themes that include anything from contemporary art to traditional practices. This museum is a good place to start before embarking on a tour of the country's cultural and historic sites.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

La Fortaleza

La Fortaleza was completed in 1540 as a defense against the Carib Indians and other foreign invaders. It was occupied twice by invaders; first by the Earl of Cumberland in 1598 and then by the Dutch General Bowdoin Hendrick in 1625 when fire damaged the building. The Fortaleza eventually lost its military value and became the residence of Puerto Rican governors, a role it still maintains today. La Fortaleza is the oldest governor's mansion still used as such in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 150 governors having lived or stayed here. The building itself has undergone many changes in its long history. The result is a blend of 16th-century military architecture with the refinements of the 19th century.