San Juan/Old San Juan
Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) is the historic core of San Juan (Puerto Rico). Although this eight block by eight block district is part of the San Juan, it is quite geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of the city. It occupies the western half of the islet of San Juan, which it shares with Puerta de Tierra. As a tourist destination, English is relatively common, but not universally spoken.
Founded in 1509, San Juan became a walled city protected by multiple forts. It guarded an important entrance into the Spanish Main, and withstood multiple attacks by the British and Dutch (some partially successful). It was considered the Gibraltar of the West Indies. Due to its military significance, the government kept the growing population within the city walls until 1897, when a few bastions were demolished. The forts received some naval bombardment during the Spanish American War (1898). Much of district is intact architecturally, including the impressive fortifications.
Many tourists are caught unawares by the sun exposure received from simply walking around the sites of this tropical city. Sunblock is available at many stores in town. Wear good walking shoes to deal with the hills and uneven pavement. Around the perimeter of the district the tradewinds make it surprisingly comfortable, but along the interior streets it is much hotter. Brief showers are quite common.
Old San Juan is a common stop for cruise ships, yet it if definitely not a beach resort. It is a real town within a city, where people work and live. Men typically wear collared shirts and long pants, and businessmen wear suits. Women tend to wear skirts or dresses and often high heeled shoes. Although visitors are expected to dress more casually; a collared shirt, shorts with pockets and belt, and shoes are minimally appropriate for adults at most attractions.
Old San Juan is one of the largest cruise ship ports in the Caribbean, with the docks within walking distance just south of the city walls. It is a $20 cab ride from San Juan/Luis Muños Marin Airport. There is also ferry service from across the harbor. Although one can easily drive to Old San Juan, it is not easy to drive or park within the district due to the narrow streets.
For those staying at major hotels outside of Old San Juan, day tours can usually be arranged with the concierge.
The city offers a "trolley car" bus looping the district. Most distances are walkable, although due to the often hilly topography and tropical climate, one should allow proper time for getting around Old San Juan.
Multiple tourist shops are located near the cruise ship docks and along Calle San Francisco.
Individuals on the street selling handmade "flowers" made of palm fronds are often collecting the money to buy drugs (see Stay safe below), and they usually get the palms by stripping and often ultimately killing trees planted by the city or commonwealth.
Unlike in most U.S. States, Puerto Rican law make it easy for restaurants to sell alcohol. Even modest lunch counters will offer beer, wine, and some mixed drinks. Tipping is customary.
Old San Juan
Although Old San Juan is almost entirely surrounded by water, no hotels have beach access. A few modern chain hotels are located near the cruise ship docks, some with casinos. Hotels within the city walls tend to be more colorful.
Puerta de Tierra
These two resort hotels are on the same islet as Old San Juan, and are a 5-minute cab ride away.
For those staying in Old San Juan, organized bus/van day-trips to other sights in Puerto Rico can be arranged through most hotels.
Some cabs wait at the end of the El Morro esplanade footpath. There are usually several cabs standing at the southwest corner of Plaza Colón.
As a general rule, Old San Juan within, and south of, the city walls is quite safe. Tourists should be aware that a small neighborhood, La Perla, between the northern city wall and the ocean is a notorious illegal drug market. Visitors are recommended to avoid this area for their own safety. However, it is not easy to accidentally wander into La Perla, as there are only a few access points through or over the city walls. At night it is also best to avoid the bastions of the northern city wall, overlooking La Perla.