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One of the busiest cruise ports in the world, San Juan is often a quick stop on the way to somewhere else—and that's a shame. This 16th-century capital has experienced a modern renaissance, and it deserves a longer stay. From the Spanish fortresses of Old San Juan to the beachfront casino resorts of Condado and Isla Verde to the lush rain forests of El Yunque, this Caribbean destination offers enough history, beauty and entertainment to fill any travel itinerary.
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Sara Demko / AAA
In DepthOne of the oldest capital cities in the Western Hemisphere, San Juan is the principal city of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Enveloped within the metropolitan core are the inner districts of Hato Rey, Río Piedras and Santurce, all bonded to San Juan by the public transportation system. The sprawling urban area also encompasses the municipalities of Bayamón, Carolina, Cataño, Guaynabo and San Juan. The Aqua Express, a daily ferry service, connects Old San Juan at Pier 2 with Cataño and Hato Rey.
Luxury hotels lining Avenida Ashford distinguish the Condado Beach section, known as the Gold Coast. Attractive shops, dining spots, supper clubs, casinos and beachfronts dotted with umbrellas, palm trees and Spanish residences grace this popular resort area.
On Avenida Ponce de León is one of the last buildings to be erected by the Spanish, the General Archive and National Library of Puerto Rico. Built in 1877, it also has functioned as a prison, a cigar factory and a rum plant. Red-tiled floors, stained-glass windows, chandeliers and a chapel make this building interesting.
The 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center, which opened in 2005, is considered the largest and most technologically advanced meeting facility of its kind in the Caribbean. Featuring a "techno-tropic" architectural style, the convention center can accommodate up to 25,000 delegates.
EssentialsStroll the El Paseo de La Princesa and pass through the Puerta de San Juan, the gate through which sea-faring travelers have entered the city for centuries.
Explore the bastions, dungeons and secret tunnels of Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Fort San Cristóbal . Both are part of San Juan National Historic Site , which preserves the largest Spanish fortification in the New World.
Make a pilgrimage to the statue of La Rogativa , a tribute to the fabled religious procession in 1797 that ended a British siege.
Treat yourself to a piragua. Carts selling these tropical-flavored snow cones are parked on every corner in Old San Juan, and there's no better (or more delicious) way to beat the heat.
Spend an afternoon wandering the cool galleries of an art museum. Works by some of the island's greatest talents are featured at the Art Museum of Puerto Rico (Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico) , Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico) and Museo de San Juan .
Shop for island rum, designer labels, carnival masks and hand-carved santos on Cristo and Fortaleza streets, the prime retail districts in Old San Juan.
Take a sightseeing trip to the El Yunque National Forest . Rare orchids, ferns and palms flourish in this lush preserve in the Luquillo Mountains, one of the last habitats of the Puerto Rican Parrot.
Light a candle in the Catedral de San Juan Bautista and visit the marble tomb of Juan Ponce de León, the island's first governor.
Dine in a moonlit courtyard and listen to the two-note love song of the coqui frog, Puerto Rico's tiny national symbol.
AttractionsIn a city with dozens of points of interest, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
The towering masonry walls of Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) must have been an awesome sight to 17-century sailors entering San Juan Harbor, and the fortress remains a memorable landmark for cruise-ship passengers today. This AAA GEM attraction rises 145 feet above the rocky shore, encompassing six tiers of cannon batteries, dungeons, barracks, bastions and secret tunnels. The lighthouse at the very top was added in the 1800s. From land, El Morro is deceptive—its low profile belies its massive size. You can spend hours rambling through the fort and its museum displays. This fort and its counterpart, Fort San Cristóbal, are protected as part of San Juan National Historic Site .
Fort San Cristóbal was the city's main defense against land attacks. The 27-acre fortification, another AAA GEM, was the largest ever built by the Spanish in the New World. Irish-born engineer Thomas O'Daly designed its impenetrable system of high walls, hornworks and moats and supervised construction from 1765 until his death in 1781. U.S. troops used the fort as an observation post in World War II. Fascinating exhibits describe military life, battles and weaponry.
San Juan's colonial history is preserved in dozens of historic buildings throughout the old city, all within walking distance of the forts. The Fortress (La Fortaleza) is the oldest executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere still in use. Puerto Rico's governors have lived in this stately blue-and-white palace since 1640. The neoclassical gardens—open for English tours on weekdays—offer a fine view of the western harbor; wear casual but proper dress.
Built in 1523, White House Museum (Casa Blanca) was intended for Puerto Rico's first governor, Juan Ponce de León. The conquistador died before he could take residence—on his ill-fated trip to find the Fountain of Youth—but the home remained in his family for 250 years. Its museum pieces include antiques, paintings and Taíno artifacts. Ponce de León found his final resting place at the Catedral de San Juan Bautista , the spiritual heart of the city. Today, visitors come from around the world to see the explorer's marble crypt and light a candle at one of many gilded shrines and altars. Masses are held daily; services are in Spanish. Hand-crafted cuarto guitars and a collection of wooden santos are highlights of The National Gallery of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture , a few blocks north.
Calle Cristo (Christ Street) was named for its many religious sites: the oldest and largest—La Iglesia de San José and Catedral de San Juan Bautista—and the smallest, Christ Chapel (Capilla del Cristo) . This tiny stone chapel sits at the foot of Calle Cristo atop the city wall. Legend says that during a festival race, a horse and rider plunged over the 70-foot cliff, but one (or both) was saved by prayer. The 1753 shrine was built in thanks. Though it's usually kept locked, visitors on Tuesdays are treated to a rare glimpse of the golden altar and its somber madonnas.
The Museo de las Américas features another beautiful collection of religious icons and folk art. This vibrant museum is on the second floor of the Cuartel de Ballajá, a former barracks for Spanish soldiers and their families. The massive yellow and green building with its vast inner courtyard covers nearly 3 acres.
The art and history of the city are on display at the Museo de San Juan . If you have the chance, attend a concert in the inner patio of this former marketplace—music under the stars here is magical. The poignant strains of a violin fill the rooms of the nearby Museo Pablo Casals , which honors the famous Spanish cellist who lived in San Juan for nearly 20 years.
One of the city's proudest cultural achievements is the Art Museum of Puerto Rico (Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico) in the Santurce district, a treasure trove of Borinquen paintings, sculpture, photography and folk art. Surrounded by 5 acres of botanical gardens, the neoclassical museum has become a favorite weekend retreat for residents. To cover the art spectrum from the colonial period to the present, continue to the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico) . This museum features the works of 20th-century artists from Latin America, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.
Among its many parks and plazas, the city's most popular outdoor space is the 300-acre Botanical Garden of the University of Puerto Rico (El Jardín Botánico) . This urban oasis in Río Piedras showcases the island's native species, from orchids, heliconia and bromeliads to herbs and water plants. Highlights include a lotus lagoon, a palm plantation and the Monet Garden, which re-creates the French painter's landscapes with tropical plants.
Though San Juan is famous for its graceful Spanish churches, the “Cathedral of Rum” is perhaps its best-known tourist attraction (the free drinks don't hurt). The largest distillery in the world, the Bacardí plant in the suburb of Cataño produces 100,000 gallons of rum a day. It's a quick ferry ride across the harbor, and taxis wait at the terminal to shuttle visitors to the Casa Bacardí Visitor Center . You won't see the production facilities, but video exhibits and hand-held audio guides describe the process and the history of the Bacardí family, which began producing rum in Cuba in 1862.
East of the city, the El Yunque National Forest blankets the cooler elevations of the Luquillo Mountains. El Yunque (JOON-kay) is one of the last habitats of the Puerto Rican Parrot, and the national forest service has launched an ambitious breeding program to restore this colorful bird to the wild. On the snaking road to El Toro Peak, you'll see La Coca Falls, the Yokahú Observation Tower and the Palo Colorado Recreation Area. At the El Portal Rain Forest Center , you can learn about the world's tropical ecosystems and take a walk above the forest canopy, 60 feet off the ground. Pack waterproof sandals and rain gear—this region gets more than 200 inches of rain a year.
Information on sightseeing excursions is available at the visitor information center at La Casita, the little yellow house on the waterfront near Pier 1, and at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company's headquarters at La Princesa on the Paseo de la Princesa.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, San Juan hosts a number of exceptional festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
Flags of the United States and Puerto Rico line the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge for the annual running of the World's Best 10K Race in February. The event draws more than 13,000 international participants—from professional athletes to costumed groups to family walkers—and offers a $100,000 bonus for a new 10-kilometer world record. The route crosses over the San José Lagoon near Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Spectators are invited to a weekend fitness festival and a giant pasta party at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Shuttles run from hotels in Condado and Isla Verde; parking is available on the University of Puerto Rico campus.
Art aficionados flock to Old San Juan on the first Tuesday of the month for Gallery Nights (Noches de Galerias), when more than two dozen galleries and museums stay open late. Here's a chance to mingle and sip a glass of wine while admiring the works of top Puerto Rican artists. The series runs from February through May and September through December.
One of the most prestigious events on the island, the nearly 3-week long Casals Festival in February and March presents world-renowned orchestras, conductors and guest soloists in concert at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center. Violinist Pablo Casals, who spent the last two decades of his life in San Juan, founded this classical festival in 1957. Visitors to the Museo Pablo Casals can listen to the maestro's festival recitals; the museum preserves hundreds of his sound and video recordings.
Now in its second decade, the Heineken Jazz Fest in March offers a four-day lineup of international stars and local favorites. This outdoor happening at the Tito Puente Amphitheatre in Hato Rey is one of the Caribbean's premier events in Latin jazz, a tropical fusion of samba, merengue and salsa rhythms.
May brings the celebration of a traditional genre to Old San Juan with Puerto Rico Danza Week . Sponsored by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, this romantic event features concerts, competitions and live performances of the danza, an expressive style of choreography and classical music once popular among the Spanish elite. Most events take place in the inner courtyard of The National Gallery of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture .
During SoFo Culinary Week in May the trendy South Fortaleza district in Old San Juan becomes an open-air restaurant and music club. Streets are closed to traffic, and more than two dozen eateries set up tables and tents to show off Brazilian, French, Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican and Spanish cuisine—with a Puerto Rican edge.
Head to the beach on the eve of June 24, San Juan Bautista Day , to honor the island's patron saint and the capital city's namesake, St. John the Baptist. A week of religious processions and block parties commences on the night of June 23, when celebrants gather on the beach. At the stroke of midnight, everyone walks backward into the water three times—falling in at the end—to ensure good luck for the coming year. If you're not close to the ocean, the nearest swimming pool will do.
Every town has its own patron saint, and almost every weekend is dedicated to a different religious festival. A summer highlight is the Fiestas Tradicionales de Santiago Apóstol in Loíza, famous for its Afro-Caribbean food, bomba music and parades of vejigantes—brightly costumed characters in horned masks. This coastal village northeast of San Juan retains one of the highest populations of African and Taíno descendants on the island, and its 3-day carnival in mid-July is a unique blend of folk traditions.
One of the longest-running fishing competitions in the world, the International Billfish Tournament has been attracting deep-sea anglers to Puerto Rico since 1953. Challengers hook and release scores of Atlantic blue marlin during the week-long event in October; record catches in the waters off San Juan have tipped the scales at 1,000 pounds. The Club Náutico marina near Condado hosts the event; trophies are awarded for teams, individuals and best boat in the nautical parade.
The $300,000 Clàsico del Caribe is considered the richest horse race in Latin America. Entries are restricted to horses bred in countries of the Caribbean Horse-Racing Confederation: Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela. The annual Thoroughbred championship for three-year-olds begins in late November with an international jockey challenge and stakes races, leading up to Sunday's finale at Hipodromo Camarero horse-racing track in Canóvanas.
With its plazas decorated in glittering ornaments and its Colonial buildings outlined in lights, Old San Juan is a magical place for the holidays. The season begins with the Lighting of the Christmas Tree on the Paseo de la Princesa, where families in shorts stroll beneath the twinkling branches of banyans and palms. The Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico presents its annual Nutcracker Suite at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, and Christmas scenes adorn the grounds of the Art Museum of Puerto Rico (Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico) and the Botanical Garden of the University of Puerto Rico (El Jardín Botánico) . Año Viejo , New Year's Eve, starts with a day of house-cleaning—out with the old, in with the new—before the big party. Some good luck traditions include sprinkling sugar outside homes, throwing a bucket of water out the window and eating 12 grapes at midnight.
While most folks are experiencing the post-holiday blues, families in Puerto Rico extend their celebrations through January 6, Three Kings Day (also known as the Feast of Epiphany). This traditional gift-giving day commemorates the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. On the eve of the Día de los Reyes, children put grass in a shoe box under their beds to feed the camels—and awake to find presents from the kings. Thousands line up on the holiday morning at The Fortress (La Fortaleza) to receive a gift from the governor. Games, puppet shows, music and food are all part of the festivities. Special events on the eve of Día de Los Reyes include the Concierto de Reyes (Concert of the Kings) at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, a traditional performance by the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra and local children.
The holiday season officially comes to a close with the San Sebastian Street Festival in mid-January. Old San Juan's version of Mardi Gras is marked with nightly parades of masked and costumed characters, along with folkloric dances, music, traditional foods and crafts.
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
The San Juan Metro AreaThe 1521 settlement of Viejo San Juan—the district most tourists see—is an area of about seven square blocks. The city of San Juan covers nearly 48 square miles, encompassing dozens of municipalities and nearly half the island's population. Driving from one end of the metropolitan area to the other can be a daunting prospect; the capital is famous for its traffic congestion. As the joke goes, there are 1.5 million registered cars, and they're all on the road at the same time. Tren Urbano, a high-speed transit system, now links the suburbs of Hato Rey, Río Piedras and the outlying municipalities of Guaynabo and Bayamón.
Old San Juan sits on the western half of a small islet, connected to the mainland by causeway. The walls of Fort San Cristóbal separate the old city from the district of Puerta de Tierra, base of central government offices including The Capitol (El Capitolio) .
Across the causeway are the beachfront hotels, casinos and condominiums of Condado. This was once San Juan's wealthiest neighborhood (the Vanderbilts had a summer home here). The quiet beaches of Ocean Park and Punta Las Marías are popular with windsurfers and sun worshippers. Farther east along the coast is Isla Verde and its mile-long stretch of high-rise luxury resorts. Visitors who fly into San Juan see this area first; it's the home of Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
Isla Verde is part of the larger district of Carolina, birthplace of baseball hero Roberto Clemente. Once a sugar-producing region, Carolina is now a major center for pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. All major U.S. drug firms have manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico, due to favorable U.S. tax laws, and the bulk of America's prescription drugs—including insulin, Prozac and Viagra—is produced at factories in Carolina, Barceloneta and Fajardo.
San Juan's first airport was southeast of the old city on the peninsula of Isla Grande, where the 113-acre Puerto Rico Convention Center opened in 2005. The largest and most technologically advanced meeting facility in the Caribbean, this waterfront complex will include hotel rooms, office buildings and retail and entertainment venues.
East of Isla Grande are the suburbs of Miramar, which overlooks the Condado Lagoon, and Santurce, the city's former marketplace. La Placita del Mercado de Santurce is still a popular place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, wooden santos and handmade mundillo lace. Today, Santurce is the city's cultural heart, boasting the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, the Art Museum of Puerto Rico (Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico) and Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico) .
Southeast of Santurce is the downtown business district, Hato Rey. Here are the high-rise banking and financial buildings, along with the Plaza las Américas, the Caribbean's largest indoor shopping mall. Hato Rey's sports complex includes the 18,000-seat Hiram Bithorn Baseball Stadium (former home of the Montreal Expos) and the Roberto Clemente Coliseum for basketball and other indoor events. A venue for concerts and entertainment, the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, opened in Hato Rey in 2004.
Farther south, Río Piedras is home to the University of Puerto Rico with its museums and art galleries and the 300-acre Botanical Garden of the University of Puerto Rico (El Jardín Botánico) . While in Río Piedras, you can visit the home of the island's first democratically elected governor, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín , at Trujillo Alto. Some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods are found in Guaynabo, where Juan Ponce de León built the island's first settlement in 1508. The ancient foundations are visible at Caparra Ruins Historical Museum and Park .
South across the harbor from Old San Juan by ferry is the suburb of Cataño, which most visitors know for the “Cathedral of Rum” and the Casa Bacardí Visitor Center . Nearby Bayamón, the second most populous city on the island, has been a sugar-producing center since 1548.
Driving east from San Juan, you'll pass the famed Hipodromo Camarero horse-racing track at Canóvanas . Beyond is the town of Río Grande, gateway to the El Yunque National Forest . It's a 45-minute trip from the narrow streets of Old San Juan to this vast rain forest preserve in the Luquillo Mountains—and if you really want a change of elevation, hike to the top of 3,533-foot El Yunque.
Places in Vicinity