San Juan, Puerto Rico‘s capital city, is famous for its beauty, gastronomy, shopping, and the historic district of Old San Juan. There’s a lot for visitors see and do in the city, and it lives up to the hype. Check out the following attractions when in town and you’ll want to keep coming back for more.
Thought to be the biggest fortress on the American continent, Fort San Cristóbal is similar to El Morro Castle. It evolved over the years, with many changes made until it became what it is now. Along with other historic fortifications, it’s a part of the San Juan UNESCO World Heritage Site. Check it out at the entrance of Old San Juan, just past the El Capitolio capitol building.
A public plaza in Old San Juan overlooking the San Juan Bay, Plaza Dársenas has a lovely view and good vibes. Street vendors sell their products there, in addition to food trucks that offer tasty treats on site. On Saturday nights its common to see a group of people, many of them elderly, enjoying a free musical sing-along. If possible, make sure to bring a chair so you’re sitting comfortable to take in the show.
El Morro Castle is known in Spanish as the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and is a major attraction for locals and tourists. As part of the fortifications in Old San Juan that were built under Spanish rule, this castle overlooks the entrance of the San Juan Bay and faces the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can explore the inside of the former military structure, fly kites on its large lawn, or take stroll around the area.
The Cuartel de Ballajá was formerly the military barracks for Spanish soldiers, and now houses the Museum of the Americas, as well as a music school and a number of eating establishments. The barracks were also used by American soldiers from the end of Spanish rule until about 1939. One of San Juan’s key architectural landmarks, it boasts a large courtyard and three floors among its important features.
One of the largest and busiest malls in all of Puerto Rico, Plaza las Américas is a mandatory stop for travelers shopping on the island. Open since the late 1960s, it has been expanded three times over the years, and currently has three floors of stores. The mall’s directory, lists stores for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, as well as electronics and shoe stores, to name a few. There are also various restaurants and a food court.
San Juan Cathedral is a memorable church in the Old San Juan area that dates back to 1521, close to other impressive structures like El Morro Castle and the Cuartel de Ballajá. The doors of the cathedral are often open, so visitors can take a look at the historic building that has undergone various changes over the years, largely because of damages to the structure.
A two-level mall very close to San Juan International Airport, The Mall of San Juan features many upscale stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Giuseppe Zanotti, Gucci, and Salvatore Ferragamo. There is also an area for children to play which is convenient for travelers and shoppers with children, and a couple of places to eat.
With seating for 640 in attendance, many spectacular shows have graced the Tapia Theater’s stage for ballet, opera, drama, among other performances listed on the official site. The Tapia Theater is the oldest permanent theater of Puerto Rico – once its construction was complete, it was inaugurated in the year 1832. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was known as the ‘Municipal Theater’ or ‘Coliseum’. It is located in Old San Juan, at the entrance of the Islet, Fortaleza Street across from Plaza Colón, and is named after the Puerto Rican writer Alejandro Tapia y Rivera.
El Escambrón is one of the most beautiful beaches in the San Juan area. Not only is it a great place to spend a day by the ocean, its location is also convenient for checking out Old San Juan and Condado, which are both nearby. There are popular coffee shops and restaurants in Old San Juan, and bars and restaurants in Condado with delicious dishes and drinks that visitors won’t want to miss.
San Juan is home to an active art community, and there are various art galleries that add to the scene. Widely considered to be among the best galleries in Puerto Rico, they include the Walter Otero Contemporary Art Gallery, Galeria Botello, and Galeria Petrus, to name a few.
The Puerto Rico Museum of Art is home to a variety of artwork, and has pieces from many talented Puerto Rican artists in its collection including Antonio Martorell and Lorenzo Homar. Open since 2000, this museum is a must-visit attraction for art and museum lovers visiting San Juan, and has several educational programs that visitors of different ages can enjoy.
The San Juan area of Santurce is known for its street art and graffiti as part of the capital’s emerging art scene. Street art in particular can be found across Santurce, but if you’re short on time then take a look at Calle Cerra, where there’s a high concentration of artwork on display addressing social issues in colorful forms. Remember to bring water though, since the sun shines almost year-round in Puerto Rico.
Located in Carolina next to San Juan, Ocean Park beach is an Atlantic Ocean hotspot, and a good place for water-based sports in the metro area. Nearby there are restaurants, hotels and the 15 Knots Kiteboarding School. Its proximity to the capital city is definitely a plus, since visitors can check out San Juan before or after a trip to this picturesque beach.
An architectural landmark situated in Old San Juan, La Fortaleza is the Governor’s mansion, residence and primary place of work. The blue building stands out, and like many other structures in the area, also dates back to Spanish-rule in Puerto Rico. This building makes for a pretty photo opportunity, as does Calle Fortaleza, one of the most Instagrammable streets in the historic district which leads to the mansion.
Around the Condado lagoon are various hotels from which guests can have a first-hand view of this peaceful body of water, which is part of the San Juan Bay estuary. Many visitors choose to engage in different watersports in the lagoon, such as paddle boarding and swimming – if you plan on doing likewise, bring a swimsuit and sunblock to be able to fully enjoy this majestic place.
The Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art was once located at the Sacred Heart University in Santurce, until it was permanently moved into the capital. Different artwork such as paintings and mixed-media pieces can be viewed on both floors of the museum, while the most memorable part of the museum’s building is arguably the open courtyard towards its center.
This produce market in Santurce turns into a lively hotspot at night, where visitors can enjoy themselves as they eat, drink, and dance at this unique location. The Plaza del Mercado in Santurce is one of the best markets in Puerto Rico and upon visiting, it’s easy to see why.
Perfect for taking a stroll or going for a bicycle ride on a sunny day, Luis Muñoz Marin Park in San Juan has a lot for visitors to enjoy. It’s home to one of the great cycling routes in the capital, and is named after the first elected governor of Puerto Rico. Perfect for visitors of all ages, it’s an especially great place for families looking for a fun activity.
Among the attractions lining the Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan are the Casa Alcaldía de San Juan (City Hall), as well as places to eat, shops and other government buildings – the Casa Alcaldía de San Juan in particular is a delight for architecture lovers taking a walking tour in the historic district. The Plaza de Armas is also a focal point of San Juan in January as part of the Festival de la Calle San Sebastián in January, when many activities take place within its boundaries.
The Jardín Botánico belongs to the University of Puerto Rico, and is home to diverse flora and fauna as well as two small ponds and a sculpture garden. You don’t want to miss everything on site, so do bring comfortable shoes for walking and exploring.