San Juan Travel Guide
Introduction to San Juan
Founded in 1508, the city of San Juan was one of the first settlements in the Americas, as the Spanish planted their flag here and on the neighboring island of Hispaniola.
Due to the protective effects of its formidable fortress, much of the old city of San Juan has been preserved over the years, making it an attractive tourist destination for those visiting Puerto Rico.
In order to properly appreciate this city, we recommend that you spend at least three days before heading off to a beach resort elsewhere on the island.
Cultural Attractions in San Juan
There are many sights to see within San Juan National Historic Site, but if you have limited time, make sure that you at least see Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
Built in the 16th century to defend the city of San Juan from foreign invaders and pirates, this fortress has seen battle action in confrontations with the English, the Dutch, and the Americans, eventually falling to the latter force during the Spanish-American war in the late 19th century.
The scale of this fortification is massive, so be sure to give yourself a couple of hours to explore it properly.
The Spanish view death in a very different way than other cultures do; as a result, the final places of rest for their dead are often a point of interest for foreign visitors.
San Juan Cemetery is no different; it was built in the location that it was for a very specific reason, as its view out over the Atlantic Ocean symbolized the passage of their loved ones from this life to the next.
The gravestones here are elaborately crafted, with stylish crosses, above-ground sarcophagi, and statues of religious figures such as the Virgin Mary forming many of the final tributes to those that have been laid to rest here.
Those looking to tour the most important church in San Juan needn’t look any further than the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista.
Though the current building is not as old as the cathedral that exists in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the original structure here was built in 1511, making this church the oldest center of a Christian diocese in the Americas.
After the original wooden church was demolished in a hurricane, a more sturdy version was built in its place.
Be sure not to miss the grave of Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, and the mummy of St. Pio, a Roman martyr killed for defying authorities by keeping his faith in the church (covered in wax to preserve his remains).
Other Attractions in San Juan
Much of the city centre of Old San Juan has been preserved over the years, making it one of the top tourist attractions in Puerto Rico.
In addition to viewing the above-mentioned cultural attractions (all of which are situated within its boundaries), simply walking the alleyways (or callejons) between the brilliantly painted houses can be a worthwhile use of one’s time while in San Juan.
When your feet begin to get sore, have a seat on a park bench in the Plaza de Armas, or find a sidewalk cafe along one of its major streets and watch the world go by.
If you are suffering from the high humidity that is often the rule in Puerto Rico, a day trip to Palomino Island will grant the beach time that you need.
Spending time in this paradise isn’t free though, as this island is privately owned. Those not staying at the resort are required to purchase a day pass for the princely sum of $129.
Given this price tag, it’s worth it to spend a night at the resort for only a few dollars more. If you are a budget traveler, give this place a miss, as there are places outside the city of San Juan that are just as gorgeous, and they won’t cost you a single dime to access them.
Finally, those looking to spend their final evening in San Juan in grand style should go for a walk along Paseo de la Princesa.
Built in 1853 to resemble European-style promenades, the highlight of this walk is the stunning Raices Fountain, which pays tribute to the cultural diversity of Puerto Rico.
Along its length, there are numerous food vendors and street musicians, making it a great place to experience Puerto Rican culture from a gastronomic and musical perspective.