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San Juan/Old San Juan

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San Juan : Old San Juan
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San Juan/Old San Juan

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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. 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 dresses and often high heeled shoes. Although visitors are expected to dress more casually, a collared shirt, shorts with pockets and belt, and shoes and socks are minimally appropriate for most attractions.

Tourists should be aware that a 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. Individuals on the street selling handmade "flowers" made of palm fronds are often collecting the money to buy drugs, and they usually get the palms by stripping and often ultimately killing trees planted by the city or commonwealth.

Get in

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.

Get around

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.


  • San Juan National Historic Site, 501 Norzagaray Street, (787) 729-6960, Open 9-5 June through November, and 9-6 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 visitor center off of Avienda 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.
  • San Juan Cathedral, 153 Calle Cristo.
  • Casa Blanca, western end of Calle San Sebastián, (787) 721-7000, ext. 2358. Official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico.
  • La Fortaleza, western end of Calle Fortaleza, (787) 724-1454. Ancestral home of the Ponce de Leon family.



Multiple tourist shops are located near the cruise ship docks and along Calle San Francisco.


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.

  • La Bombanera, Calle San Francisco, west of Tanca. Authentic local cuisine in an unassuming landmark atmosphere unchanged for decades. Serves lunch and dinner. Fresh pastries. Superlative coffee. Inexpensive.
  • Cafe Majorca, Calle San Francisco, east of Tanca. Local cafe, operated by the owners of La Bombanera. Serves breakfast and lunch. The Majorca pastry is recommended. Superlative coffee. Inexpensive.
  • Siglio XX, Calle O'Donell just south of Plaza Colón. Local cuisine. Good Cuban sandwiches and beans and rice. Serves lunch and dinner. Inexpensive.


  • The bar 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.


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.

  • Hotel El Convento, 100 Calle Cristo, (800) 468-2779, This small luxury hotel was a convent until the late nineteenth century. A four story courtyard connects the rooms, outlooking views vary greatly. Complementary breakfast and afternoon wine and cheese. The deck around the rooftop plunge pool has a world-class view overlooking the town including the cathedral, governor's mansion, and harbor. Courtyard features shops, a restaurant, and a tapas bar. Most of the hotel is accessible by elevator.
  • The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Calle Norzagaray, (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.

Get out

For those staying in Old San Juan, organized bus/van day trips to other sights in Puerto Rico can be arranged through most hotels.

External links

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