Things to Do in San Juan
The cobblestone streets of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, lined with brightly colored Spanish colonial houses, lend themselves to aimless yet inspired wandering, but don’t let yourself pass by the neighborhood’s key attractions. From the UNESCO World Heritage-listed forts of Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristobal to restaurants serving plates of aromatic rice and fried plantains, Old San Juan charms travelers at every turn.
The El Yunque National Park is the only tropical rain forest under the protection of the US Forest Service and also the largest nature reserve in densely populated Puerto Rico. The site is situated in the mist-wreathed Luquillo Mountains, where year-round precipitation ensures lush, green landscapes and a healthy diversity of animal life. This includes mongoose, non-venomous snakes, the rare Puerto Rican parrot, and the Coqui frog, whose distinctive croak provides El Yunque's soundtrack.
A small, uninhabited island located just a 15-minute boat ride from the Puerto Rican town of Fajardo, Icacos Island (Cayo Icacos) is part of Cordillera Keys Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural los Cayos de la Cordillera). Its white-sand shores, pristine waters, and colorful reefs make it a popular day-trip destination for snorkeling and diving.
A World Heritage-listed fort, a cobblestoned old town and a nearby rainforest make San Juan a perennial favorite with Caribbean cruisers. The second-oldest European-settled city in the Americas is a history buff’s delight with a 16th-century cathedral and city walls, but if you’d rather see Puerto Rico’s natural or modern-day attractions, take a shore excursion to El Yunque National Forest or the Bacardi rum distillery.
Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Beach (Playa Luquillo), also known as Balneario Monserrate, is a tranquil crescent famed for its coconut palm trees and long stretch of powdery white sand. Considered one of the island’s best public beaches, the calm waters here are perfect for swimming, wading, kayaking, and other water sports.
Just north of Old San Juan, within the San Juan National Historic Site, stands 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northwestern tip of the islet of San Juan, kept watch over the Atlantic and protected Old San Juan and the Bay of San Juan from incoming enemies for centuries.
Built in 1521, San Juan Cathedral(Catedral de San Juan Bautista) is one of the highlights of Old San Juan. The second-oldest cathedral in the Americas, this landmark in the heart of Old San Juan has an impressive array of religious and historical artifacts. The church is still operational, with services held throughout the week.
The blue-and-white Santa Catalina Palace (Palacio de Santa Catalina), otherwise known as La Fortaleza (The Fortress), is the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. Situated in Old San Juan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site occupies a spot that was long one of the most contested strategic positions in the Caribbean.
The Bacardi Rum Factory (Casa Bacardi) is entwined with the history of the Caribbean itself, and the factory’s new visitor center traces the company’s early roots as a small distillery in Cuba through American Prohibition, the Cuban Revolution, and beyond. Today, Bacardi is a well-known brand with a global presence, and its factory in Puerto Rico is the largest premium rum distillery in the world.
San Juan Bay sits at the heart of the city of San Juan, with innumerable sites, neighborhoods and attractions ringing its shores. The most iconic spots on the bay are the pair of fortresses that face each other at the bay’s mouth. On the eastern side sits El Morro, flanked by the 500-year-old cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. Across the way, the Islas de Cabras National Park boasts the San Juan de la Cruz Fort. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but visitors can only walk around the outside walls of the San Juan de la Cruz Fort, as the inside in closed to the public. Just south of Isla de Cabras, you’ll find another icon of Puerto Rico overlooking the bay—the Bacardi Rum Visitor Center, where you can take a tour and enjoy a rum tasting.
More Things to Do in San Juan
Located just outside the city walls south of Old San Juan, the Paseo de la Princesa is one of the most pleasant and popular walks in the city. Dating back to 1853, the lovely pedestrian promenade is lined with trees, antique street lamps, benches, gardens, sculptures, and fountains, and offers wonderful views of San Juan Bay.
Forested white-sand beaches and sapphire-blue water make Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco) as picturesque as a Caribbean postcard. Hidden away on the island of Culebra, just off the coast of Puerto Rico, Flamenco is a hot spot for water adventures. With its colorful aquatic life, beachside bars serving up cocktails, and flamingo-filled lagoons, this strip of sand provides an ideal day trip for those looking to go beyond the bustle of San Juan.
Standing guard at Old San Juan’s eastern gate is Castillo San Cristóbal. Built to protect San Juan against land attacks, the ancient Spanish fort is now part of the San Juan National Historic Site. It is the largest Spanish fortification built in the New World and offers spectacular views of the bay and nearby Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
Palomino Island (Isla Palominos) is a tiny tropical escape boasting clear Caribbean water, white-sand beaches, and a balmy breeze. With not much to do except explore the island’s coral reefs, seagrass beds, and craggy coastline, visitors come to Palomino Island—located east of Puerto Rico—for the ultimate in peace and relaxation.
The Chapel of Christ (Capilla del Cristo) is a small, 18th-century sanctuary tucked away at the end of a pedestrian street in a corner of the old walled city of San Juan. Built to commemorate what believers say was a miracle, the chapel has become a place to pray and leave offerings, which decorate the walls.
Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second city and a complete change of pace from the capital San Juan. Ponce's low key charm speaks louder to architecture buffs than it does to party animals. Starting at the central Plaza Las Delicicas you’ll find two defining landmarks of the city, the twin-towered cathedral and the vivid scarlet and black stripes of the whimsical Parque de Bombas, once a fire station, now a museum of fire-fighting.
In the streets near the square you’ll soon come across the lemon-yellow Teatro La Perla and the delightful candy pink Museum of Architecture. Head north for the Castillo Serrallés, a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion which houses a museum relating to the island’s all-important sugar and rum industries. It’s just one of the imposing residences you’ll see throughout the city.
After all that visual richness cleanse your palate with the tropical Modernism of the highly-recommended Ponce Museum of Art.
Known for its soaring interiors, million-year-old stalactites and stalagmites, and namesake underground river, Rio Camuy Cave Park (Parque Nacional de las Cavernas del Río Camuy) in Puerto Rico attracts nature lovers and casual visitors alike. The 268-acre (108-hectare) complex is most famous for its cave tour, but it also offers picnic pavilions, walking trails, and a playground.
Established in 1949, the San Juan National Historic Site (Sitio Histórico Nacional de San Juan) is home to some of the city’s most famous attractions. Here, visitors can climb Castillo San Felipe del Morro, which overlooks San Juan Bay, and Castillo San Cristóbal, built to protect against land attacks. The site also encompasses most of the city walls, the San Juan Gate, and Fort San Juan de la Cruz.
Caguas is one of Puerto Rico’s most diverse and important historical areas – a town rich in Creole heritage and home to an abundance of natural beauty and superlative shopping. Once the home of the indigenous Taino group, Caguas has also known Spanish, British and Dutch residents, the remnants of which can be best experienced by simply walking the town, exploring the beautiful boardwalk or following the Route of the Creole Heart at the Traditional Urban Center.
Those who appreciate the beauty of Puerto Rico’s outdoors will also be impressed by the Caguas Botanical Gardens, which feature some of the most amazing waterfalls and natural greens in the Caribbean. The San Juan town also serves as the starting point for many day-trip adventures and excursions to Puerto Rico’s interior.
San Juan’s most important cultural institution, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (Museum of Art of Puerto Rico) was established in 2000. The museum’s core is a neoclassical building dating to 1920 that once belonged to the city’s hospital, with a more recent addition housing a theater and space for temporary exhibitions.
The collection here stretches from religious art and portraiture of the 17th century to cutting edge contemporary pieces. Seeing how local artists have reacted to foreign influences to create something unique to the island makes for a fascinating journey.
There is also an excellent sculpture garden where you’ll find works from 15 different local artists in lovingly landscaped surrounds, featuring waterfalls, ponds and a huge range of plants.
You’ll find the beachside Caribbean escape you’re looking for at Isla Verde in San Juan. A quick and accessible beach, Isla Verde is a posh paradise of luxury resorts and urban settings with a wild pristine coastline. On the westside of the beach, you’ll find food vendors and a bustling party scene. Further east, the shoreline becomes more untamed and serene.
Also known as the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré is San Juan’s premier performance center. The center, located in downtown San Juan, hosts some of the best concerts, operas, theater, and ballet performances on the island and contains works by Puerto Rican artists.
Enjoy avant-garde films at Fine Arts Miramar in the Miramar area of San Juan. Fine Arts Cinema is known as the premier cinema in San Juan to see foreign and independent films, particularly those with artistic, cultural, and social relevance, all the while grabbing a bite to eat and a drink.
Learn about the historical and cultural development of Puerto Rico and the Americas at the Museum of the Americas (Museo de las Américas). Located on the second floor of the Cuartel de Ballajá, the museum features four permanent exhibits and a number of temporary exhibits that highlight the region’s history, sociology, anthropology, and art in a thoughtful way.