Colonial-era house in Old San Juan
Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) is the historic core of San Juan. Although this eight by ten block district is part of 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 this is 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 from US naval ships during the Spanish American War (1898). Much of the district is intact architecturally, including the impressive fortifications.
Many tourists are caught unaware 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 cobblestone streets. Around the perimeter of the district the trade winds make it surprisingly comfortable, but along the interior streets it get much hotter, with closely spaced, multi-story buildings cutting off any breeze. Brief showers are quite common, so watch your step, the cobblestones can get quite slippery.
Old San Juan is a common stop for cruise ships, yet it is 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.
Today the port of San Juan annually accommodates nearly 1.4 million passengers in cruise ship travel alone, making it the third busiest cruise port in the world, according to the Cruise Industry Statistical Review published in 2000. The busiest docks are on the south side of the area near a large city bus station. Another pier adjacent to the old Pan American airport handles mostly Royal Caribbean cruise ships for beginning or ending their cruises; it must be reached by car or taxi. Otherwise, all cruise ships dock at Old San Juan.
You may arrive at San Juan/Luis Muñoz Marín Airport, then take a $20 cab ride to your pier. If cruising, you should reach San Juan at least a day before the cruise ship embarks to ensure you make it despite any airline troubles. This also provides time for sightseeing in Old San Juan, near your hotel, etc.
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 Old San Juan, day tours can usually be arranged with the concierge. During busy times, drivers may refuse those with significant luggage. For just getting around, you might also consider the city bus to and from Old San Juan. (see same subject for "San Juan")
Old San Juan is primarily made up of one-way cobblestone roads, and parking is practically non-existent. If you must drive, try to drive and park along Calle de Norzagaray or any other streets on the northern side, and park there if you can. It is near the main attractions and the trolley system which can take you into Old San Juan and out back to your car when you are done.
It is $20 to go within Old San Juan by taxi, and this option may be best if you are not practically dressed or not in comfortable walking shoes, or traveling as someone or with someone who cannot walk long distances easily.
By public transportation
Buses do not actually go into Old San Juan, and one walk across the cobblestone roads will show you why. However, they do serve a major bus station on the harbor side of the area, near one of the major cruise ship piers. There is a free, often-running trolley that takes people around the forts, museums, and the center of Old San Juan. Trolley stops are marked with yellow banners that show an illustration of a trolley and a number that indicates which stop it is. You can get on or off at any designated stop, and the trolley driver will help you find your stop if you aren't sure. If you're feeling a bit warm in the midday heat, hop on a white trolley which is open on the sides to catch a nice breeze while speeding to your destination. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when cruise ships bring in hundreds of tourists, the trolley is often completely full and does not pick up new passengers. Try to go early.
The attractions of Old San Juan are technically within walking distance of each other, although the climate and topography can make this untrue in practice. Even if the locals wear nice shoes or sandals, you should wear comfortable walking shoes, as you will scale a few hills and a lot of cobblestone while getting around. Mid-late afternoon temperatures may make walking a bit oppressive, with tall, crowded buildings blocking the breeze. Alternatives to avoid the humidity and tropical sun include going early as stores open (typically 10AM on weekdays) or catching the free trolley winding throughout the area, with opportunities to get off at marked stops wherever desired. The trolley tends to stay very full on afternoons when cruise ships are in.
Even within the pedestrian metropolis that is Old San Juan, cars will speed through intersections, so use the same amount of caution as you do in other parts of San Juan and wait for cars to stop for you. Do not try to stop traffic unless it is urgent that you cross the street, and if you must then make sure you have made eye contact with the driver and there is no possibility that the car behind it can bypass him from the side and proceed across the intersection. Sidewalks are very narrow and sometimes may have grooves or tripping hazards, so be careful.
While definitely part of Old San Juan's charm, the identical-looking architecture of Old San Juan's buildings can be a nuisance to tourists trying to use landmarks or memory to find something. Don't wait to get to Old San Juan to get a map, get one beforehand and study it so you know what streets take you to your destination and what streets don't. Don't try to use landmarks until you are used to navigating the city, especially since the heat and tiredness from walking can wear you out more quickly than you think. If you get lost or confused, find a bench and pull out your map, which should be readily available to you. Locals will also try to respond to simple requests for help. Don't try to walk yourself back into familiar territory. If you are trying to find a specific museum or restaurant that is not one of the major ones, memorize the address and street. If you know exactly where you are and where you are going, you should find navigating Old San Juan on foot very easy and enjoyable.
- San Juan National Historic Site, 501 Norzagaray Street, (787) 729-6960, . Open 9AM-5PM June through November, and 9AM-6PM December through May. The park consists of multiple sites. Castillo San Cristóbal is one of the largest Spanish fortresses in the new world, and has a National Park Service visitor center off of Avenida Luis Muñoz Rivera. The center offers English and Spanish versions of an introductory film to the Historic Site, exhibits, and a bookshop. Castillo San Felipe del Morro (or el Morro) is a citadel with a commanding view of the entrance to San Juan Harbor, located at the end of Calle Norzagaray. The extensive esplanade between the citadel and the town is popular for kite flying. A single entrance fee to both forts is $5/week (children under 12 are free). Allow at least an hour to explore each fort. The park also includes most of the historic city walls, and tiny Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (or el Cañuelo) located across the harbor on Isla de Cabras.
- Alcadia - San Juan's City hall, built in 1602.
- The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture
- Casa Blanca, western end of Calle San Sebastián, (787) 721-7000, ext. 2358. Ancestral home of the Ponce de Leon family, now a museum.
- La Fortaleza, western end of Calle Fortaleza, (787) 724-1454.- Oldest governor's mansion in continuous use in the New World.
- San Jose Church - (1532) Second oldest church in continuous use in the New World.
- San Juan Cathedral, 153 Calle Cristo. (1540) Burial site of Ponce de Leon.
- San Juan Gate - Traditional entrance to San Juan.
- Ballaja Barracks - Museum of Americas highlights colorful folk art.
- La Casa del Libro - Museum of the art and history books through five centuries.
El Morro from San Cristóbal
- San Sebastian Festival, annually in January, the weekend before the Martin Luther King holiday, it is one of the most popular festivals in the Caribbean, full of activities, parades, food and live music. It began as a neighborhood event for Saint Sebastian; now it's the Festival de la Calle San Sebastian - celebrating the street, rather than the Saint. It is pleasant, if insanely crowded early in the afternoon, with artisans and families, but after dark the artisans flee and it's jam packed with drunken teenagers. Remarkably crime free, except for rocking cars, and the predictable outcome of 10,000 people drinking for 8 hours in a 6 block narrow street with no facilities.
- Segway Tours, 787-598-9455 (email: firstname.lastname@example.org), . Daily 9AM-5PM, according to demand. Explore Old San Juan on a segway. 45 minute and 2 hour tours include riding lesson, individual segway and audio guide. $35-$70. Off season in September.
Shopping in Old San Juan is diverse, with retailers scattered among many narrow streets. Stores include many fine jewelers, arts, crafts and mercantile shops, two drug stores, and a few branded "outlets", e.g., Coach...genuine with good prices, but discontinued styles. You'll also find numerous cafes and a few fine restaurants. You'll find a well-stocked Walgreens (Rx services pending) at the corner of a large square in the central area, and a new/large CVS (with Rx services) opposite the cross-bay ferry terminal.
Puerto Rican Rums & other hard liquor as well as beer and wine are sold at good prices at the grocery store.
Unlike in most U.S. States, Puerto Rican laws make it easy for restaurants to sell alcohol. Even modest lunch counters will offer beer, wine, and some mixed drinks. Tipping is customary. There are restaurants which cater to tourists, particularly tapas bars and Latin "fusion" restaurants, but look at the menu before going in to make sure prices are in a comfortable range.
- Al Dente, Calle Recinto Sur 309, Old San Juan, Phone: 787-723-7303. M-F 12PM-3PM; M-Sa 6PM-11PM; Sun 12:30PM-4PM and 6PM-10PM. The oldest continuously operated Italian restaurant in Puerto Rico.
- La Bombonera, Calle San Francisco, west of Tanca, Phone: 787-722-0658. 7:30AM-8PM. Authentic local cuisine in an unassuming landmark atmosphere unchanged for decades. Serves lunch and dinner. Fresh pastries. Superlative coffee. Inexpensive.
- La Mallorca, Calle San Francisco 300 (east of Tanca). Called "the Platonic ideal of a diner" by the New York Times, this local cafe is operated by the owners of La Bombonera and has the same time-warp atmosphere. Serves breakfast and lunch. The Mallorca pastry and the sandwiches are recommended. Superlative coffee. Sandwiches around $5, mains under $10.
- Dragonfly, Calle Fortaleza. By far one of the best places to eat if you want a cuban Asian Fusion. Great food right across from Aquaviva in Old San Juan. No shorts or sandals allowed.
- El Meson Sandwiches at the intersection of C. San Francisco and C. San Jose, has a large selection (including many vegetarian items) at very reasonable prices.
- Mojito's, Calle Recinto Sur 323. Despite the Cubanesque name and its location on the cruise ship trail, this restaurant serves up big portions of no-nonsense pork, rice and beans local fare at reasonable prices. Try the chuletas (pork chops). Mains from $10.
- Ostra Cosa, Calle del Cristo 154, Phone: 787-722-2672. Daily 12PM-10PM. Reservations recommended. The ambience here is one of the most sensual and romantic in Old San Juan.
- Parrot Club, Calle Fortaleza 363, Phone: 787-725-7370. Daily 12PM-3PM; 6PM-11PM. One of the better Latin fusion restaurants: it's expensive, but at least the food is good, the decor bright and the service friendly. Live music, either Brazilian, salsa, or Latino jazz, is offered nightly as well as during the popular Sunday brunches.
- Siglo XX, Calle O'Donell (just south of Plaza Colón). Local cuisine. Good Cuban sandwiches and beans and rice. Serves lunch and dinner. Inexpensive.
- Countryside Tours, Condo Bahia A Suite # 1101 (1048 Las Palams Ave San Juan), ☎ 787 593 9014, . 9AM to 9PM. For all kinds of tours
- El Jibarito, 280 Sol Street, Old San Juan, ☎ 787-725-8375, . This is a moderately-priced restaurant serving authentic criolla food. $10.
- Diana Font Artworks, 205 San Francisco & 204 Luna Streets (Ground floor Cochera Parking Building), ☎ 787-722-4181. Diana Font, a nominee to the National Design Awards sponsored by the Cooper- Hewitt National Design Museum. designs and manufactures unique world quality furniture. The ship around the world and the prices extremely attractive to theknowledgeable.
- Pieria Restaurant & Lounge, 310 Fortaleza St. (SOFO Culinary District), ☎ 787-774-3742, . Pieria offers a combination of local dishes like their Paella Artesanal and Stuffed Mofongo, as well as international tapas, such as Yakitori, Chorizos al Vino. Their sangria is excellent.
- Maria's Tropical Drinks is a must see in Old San Juan. Located at Calle de Cristo 204, you can enjoy drinks like the "Orange Frost" and "Coconut Freeze." Be sure to pair these frozen treats with their excellently modest menu serving "Un Taco y Enchillada," or if you're hungry "Dos Tacos y Enchilladas."
- The bar called Barrachina is where the Piña Colada was invented and still served, is on Calle Fortaleza near San José. A stone marker on the outside wall marks the location. Some bloggers report most "Coladas" have compromised flavor because they are held in and served from automatic machines.
There is a public ordinance which bans drinking alcoholic beverages on the street. Although this is rarely enforced, it is recommended to consume all alcoholic beverages inside the establishments. This local ordinance is relaxed during the San Sebastian Festival, when drinking in public areas is allowed within the cordoned area of the festival if using plastic containers: no cans or bottles.
- Punto de Vista Restaurant, Plaza Covadonga (across from cruise pier 3/4), ☎ 787-729-7575. 11a to late. A local hotspot! Find out why the locals go to Punto de Vista for excellent Puerto Rican Food. Traditional Mofongo, Arroz y Habichuela (Rice & Beans), Churrasquitos (steak tacos). The staff is bilingual & friendly. Mojitos are made by hand with fresh mint. Great prices on drinks & featuring Medalla the local beer fo $1.50 all day every day. The owner is originally from New Jersey. $.
- Pieria Restaurant & Lounge, 310 Fortaleza St. (Located in the SOFO Culinary Districs in Old San Juan), ☎ 787-774-3742, . Pieria transforms into a Bar/Lounge Club after dinner, which caters mostly to fashionable locals. Their drink specialties include the Cava (Sparkling Wine) Sangria, their signature martinis and the mojitos. On weekends it stays open until about 4AM.
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.
- Castro Guest House, 205 Calle de Tanca, tel. (787) 722-5436. Small guest house with rooms from $20-40 per night. Shared bathrooms, can be a little grotty. No air-con, and cheapest rooms have no windows, but balcony rooms are breezy. Between Calle de la San Francisco and Calle de la Forteleza on the Eastern side of the street. Transportation from the Airport is $19.50 plus $.50 per piece of luggage.
- Posada San Francisco, 405 San Francisco street directly in front of Plaza Colon. Due to its cleanness and location, it's one of the best budget options in the Old Town. Has a variety for all types of budget options but all having Air-conditioning and kitchen facilities. One floor dedicated to hostel dorm-style accommodations for $23 per person. On a different floor, a guest house section with all private rooms $45 or with satellite TV, $60. The easiest way to book is through Hostelworld.com and you have immediate access to availability.
- ALaSol, ☎ (787)724.4456 (email@example.com), . In Old San Juan. Owners María Antonia and Monchy rent completely furnished, 1 bedroom apartments with futon in living room. They include kitchen, a/c in the bedroom, Direct TV, local phone and a parking space (great asset in Old San Juan) $100/ night (3 nights minimum), $500/ week, $1,500/ month,.
- The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Calle Norzagaray, Phone: (787) 722-1808, . A unique experience, its 22 rooms are in a complex of connected eighteenth-century houses. Owned and operated by an artist, works are displayed throughout the inn. Built on perhaps the highest point in the district, the roof deck has commanding views of the town and ocean.
- Howard Johnson Plaza de Armas, 202 Calle San Jose, ☎ 787-722-9191, . Not your typical HoJo, this is located smack dab in the middle of old town in a restored colonial house. Rooms are squeaky clean but tiny, often windowless, and equipped with noisy old air-con. Free breakfast in the downright stylish lounge, free wifi. Temperamental elevator, no parking. All in all, it's OK if you just need a place to crash, but not much more. $95-150.
- Milano, 307 Fortaleza Street, ☎ (787) 729-9050 or 1-877-729-9050 (firstname.lastname@example.org, fax: (787) 722-3379), . checkin: 3PM; checkout: noon. Small but nice rooms (the $80 room). Rooftop restaurant with nice view and lots of great places to eat & drink nearby. Casino nearby. Public parking deck 2 blocks away. Outstanding staff that is truly helpful & friendly. $80/90 to $145/175 for low/high season.
- San Juan Inbox, 6 Cruz Street, ☎ (787) 453-6657 (email@example.com, fax: (509) 356-2614), . checkin: 12PM; checkout: 4PM. Full furnished units. Lots of great places to eat & drink nearby. Casino nearby. Public parking deck 2 blocks away. Outstanding staff that is truly helpful & friendly. Online Reservations.
- San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, 1309 Ashford Avenue, ☎ 787-722-7000 (fax: 787-722-7000), . Along Condado Beach. Spectacular view of the ocean. Near great San Juan restaurants and shopping.
- Hotel El Convento, 100 Calle Cristo, Telephone: 787-723-9020 - Toll Free: 800-468-2779 - Telfax: 787-721-2877, . This small luxury hotel was a convent until the late nineteenth century. A four story courtyard connects the rooms, and the entire hotel has free wireless internet as well as free afternoon wine and cheese. The deck around the rooftop plunge pool has a world-class view overlooking the town. The courtyard features restaurants and a bar. All of the hotel is accessible by elevator. $225 and up
- Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino, 100 Brumbaugh Street , Phone: (866) 653-7577, . The Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino is a delightfully captivating upscale hotel in the heart of picturesque Old San Juan, a city as rich in history as it is in culture. A completely unique location highlights spectacular views of the bay and puts you mere cobblestone away from 16th century Spanish fortresses, fascinating museums, art galleries, restaurants and world-class shopping. From its uniquely Spanish-colonial architecture to its comforting in-room amenities, the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino offers guests the perfect blend of Old World charm and New World elegance. $$$ $225 and up.
Within the city walls, Old San Juan is quite safe. On the southern waterfront by the piers where cruise ships dock, local police line the area, keeping it safe for tourists, even at night. Along this waterfront and in front of the Sheraton hotel is the best place to catch a taxi at night if you need to.
While safe during the daylight hours, at night it is also best to avoid the bastions of the northern city wall that overlook La Perla. As in any other city, it is not advisable to go out alone late at night, unless you have a friend or guide to escort you. If you are traveling by bus, understand that buses that service stations in many of the outlying hotel areas stop running at around 9 or 10PM, and the exact time of the last bus is never sure. If you plan on being out at night in Old San Juan and you are taking the bus in, bring enough money for a taxi in case you stay out too late. Make sure you confirm with your hotel the price you should pay to get back, as cab drivers in Old San Juan are probably the most likely to add a dollar or so to the set fare. Many of the major resort hotels in the area have casinos, lounges, and discos with live music and restaurants which are mostly open until 3-4AM, along with taxis lining the entrance to take people back to their rooms when you're done.
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 many, many cabs standing at the southwest corner of Plaza Colón.
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