Things to Do in San Juan
Quite literally meaning walkway of the princess, Paseo de la Princesa does indeed have enough romance and beauty fit for royalty. A perfect spot to enjoy the Old World charms of San Juan – strolling through this romantic 19th century avenue is perhaps one of San Juan’s most romantic escapes – and yet it’s located just outside the city walls. Lined with antique street lamps, shade trees, and fruit cart vendors – walking the Paseo de la Princesa embues a leisurely sense of ancient romance and serene beauty. With the impressive Old San Juan fortifications towering above you and the glistening San Juan Bay on your left, the Paseo de la Princesa stands a good chance of being your favorite simple escape while in San Juan.
Just north of the Old San Juan district, within the San Juan National Historic Site, lies Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century citadel, or fortress.
It is a World Heritage-listed site on the northwestern tip of the islet of San Juan – a perfect spot to keep watch over the Atlantic Ocean and protect Old San Juan and the Bay of San Juan from incoming enemies. Its more recent history includes the American military, which occupied the site from 1898 to 1961.
The citadel, surrounded like it is by an expansive green lawn and the dramatic rocky coast, sits on quite a beautiful spot; the imposing fortress walls create an interesting contrast to the sparkling blue sea. When the wind blows, the lawn that connects the citadel to the town is a popular kite-flying spot.
Built in 1521, The San Juan Cathedral (aka La Santa Catedral San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico) is one of the highlights of any trip into Old San Juan. The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, this historic landmark lies right in the heart of Old San Juan and boasts an impressive array of religious and historical artifacts including the tomb of notorious Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon and the mummy of St. Pio. An operational cathedral, you can attend mass here Saturdays at 7 pm, Sunday at 9 and 11 am, and weekdays 7:25 am and 12:15 pm. And experience a traditional catholic mass, or, when service isn’t being conducted, you can wander the nave free of charge, gaze at the huge stained glass windows, or marvel at the construction of the oldest church on U.S. soil.
Standing guard at Old San Juan’s Eastern Gate is the Castillo de San Crisotbal. Built to protect San Juan against land attacks, the ancient Spanish fort is now part of the San Juan National Historic Site and a great opportunity to see the largest Spanish fortification built in the New World and see some spectacular views of the San Juan Bay and El Morro. The massive structure, which was built in the 18th century to compliment the El Morro fortification which was designed to guard the bay, rises 150 feet above sea level and occupies most of the northeast edge of Old San Juan. Proven to be an effective fortification which helped repel a 1797 land invasion by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, the Castillo de San Cristobal is one of the premier attractions of Old San Juan.
Established in 1949, The San Juan National Historic Site is home to some of the city’s most famous attractions. Visitors can climb to Castillo San Felibe del Morro, overlooking the San Juan Bay, for an up close look at military efforts more than 250 years ago. Travelers can learn about historic battles that took place against the English and Dutch while visiting the restored lighthouse, chapel and vintage cannons.
History buffs will also love Castillo San Cristobal, near the gate of Old San Juan. While El Morro protected Puerto Rico from seaside attacks, Castillo San Cristobal was designed to stop intruders approaching by land. With grounds stretching some 27 acres, this is Puerto Rico’s largest fortification site, as well as the biggest built by the Spanish after discovering the New World.
More Things to Do in San Juan
Preserving the identity of the indigenous cultures of the Americas and, in particular, those that populated the island of Puerto Rico before the Spanish invasion, the Museo de las Americas is a small but powerful museum that not only serves to enlighten, but also to entertain. While wandering the halls here, you’ll find that some exhibits tell the history of the Native Americans, while others display folk art from contemporary artists of the island. Most of these exhibits are available for sale, while other pieces of art serve only for appraisal and admiration. See what originally made Puerto Rico the desirable island it is today with a trip down history lane with the Museo de las Americas.
El Yunque Rainforest is the only tropical rainforest under the protection of the US Forest Service and also the largest nature reserve in densely-populated Puerto Rico. It 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 mongooses, non-venomous snakes, the rare Puerto Rican Parrot and the Coqui frog whose distinctive croak provides El Yunque’s soundtrack.
El Portal Rain Forest Center provides a good introduction to the area. There you can pick up a map and set out on well-defined walking trails which will take you past such sights as the La Coca Falls and the observation points of Yokahú Tower and Mount Britton Lookout Tower.
When you first set foot on Cayo Icacos and take a look around, it looks exactly like a deserted island you’d see in a Hollywood film. White sand rings a forested grove at the center of the tiny island, and the sound of waves and gusting wind is the only break in the silence. Then, when you turn around and notice the boat that brought you there is gone, the reality of being on a deserted island suddenly begins to sink in. Despite being only 15 minutes from the mainland town of Fajardo, Cayo Icacos is an undeveloped island that feels like the middle of nowhere. It isn’t the isolated seclusion, however, that draws visitors to Icacos; rather, it’s the pristine snorkeling and offshore reefs where schools of colorful, tropical fish all flit and sway with the waves. If you don’t want to simply be dropped off on shore and left to fend for yourself (until the boat comes back, of course, a few hours later), there are snorkeling cruises to Cayo Icacos that make the trip more comfortable.
San Juan is the home of world famous Bacardí rum. Even if you’ve never given much thought to how this Caribbean staple gets from the cane fields to your mojito, the Casa Bacardí Visitor Center offers a surprisingly interesting experience. See the distillery, bottling plant and a museum which traces the company’s origins in Cuba to its current global domination.
Naturally it would be cruel to lead you all the way through this grown-up version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and not let you sample the wares, so pure rum and cocktails are handed out towards the end.
Also known as Balnearnio Montserrat, Luquillo Beach is beautiful tranquil crescent of powdery sand famed for its palm trees and long stretch of fine yellow sand. A fringe reef protects the beach from raging surf and calms the water to tranquility, so families find it a popular stop to bring young kids who are often found frolicking on the shore. The fried food kiosks that dot the area are well-liked for beachside eating, though locals often bring their grills to set up and do a little beachside bbq-ing. With El Yunque National Forest blooming in the background, Luquillo Beach is some of the best of San Juan beaches.
You don’t have to be a seasoned spelunker to enjoy Río Camuy Cave Park, one of the largest such sites in the world. The caves, sculpted by the underground river from which it derives its name, were only discovered in 1958 and haven’t yet been fully surveyed.
The most accessible part is Cueva Clara. Descending into this subterranean chamber, pierced by shafts of sunlight, lined with luxuriant ferns and echoing with bat screeches, is an unforgettable experience.
Back on ground level you can peer into the enormous Tres Pueblos Sinkhole or set off on a walking trail to explore more of this thickly-forested area.
Playa Flamenco is a stunningly scenic beach that is an ideal day trip for those vacationing on Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Playa Flamenco isn't actually located on the main island of Puerto Rico, though. Instead, you'll have to take a short boat ride to the smaller island of Culebra.
It is worth the trip as Playa Flamenco has a wide, white sand beach that is bordered by clear aqua sea water on one side and bright green hills on the other. High quality food stands line the beach serving a variety of treats, ranging from ice cream and fruit smoothies to ceviche and empanadas. Bathrooms are available onsite and there are also beach chairs and umbrellas you can rent to use for the day. Playa Flamenco also holds remnants of Puerto Rico's military past; on the northern edge of the beach are two old military tanks which are worth an amble along the beach to see.
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.
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.