Mar 17, 2020
San Juan is one of my all time favorite cities I have been to in my travel experiences. Working on cruise ships I have had the opportunity to visit this city enough to know that it is a gem and a must see. From the Latin music you hear while walking the cobblestone streets to the history that encompasses it, it is full of life.
San Juan is the capital and the largest city of Puerto Rico. With tasty dining, fabulous shopping and historical sites, it offers something for everybody, young and old.
Read along as I share with you what I think are the 12 things to do when in Old San Juan that I experienced and enjoyed.
1. Visit the Old Forts
Just a five min walk from the the ship port in Old San Juan is Castillo San Cristóbel fort. In addition, 20 minute walk to the hilltop is Castillo San Filipe del Morro. For only $5 for both forts, spend the day learning about the history of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean as well as how the forts served as protection to them.
2. Walk the cobblestone streets
This city is known for its cobblestone streets and alley ways that have something amazing to see every corner you turn. Have on comfortable shoes as the walk may get uncomfortable and to avoid the risk of injury from slippery stones.
3. Visit the San Juan Bautista Cathedral
This landmark is a magnificent piece of architecture that sits gracefully in the streets of Old San Juan. For no fee you can marvel at the amazing ceiling art, say a little prayer or just take in the beauty of the building. It is said to be the oldest cathedral in San Juan and also the oldest in the Americas.
4. Shop at the many factory stores
San Juan is known for its shopping and brand factories that most cruise ship guests come solely for. If you are looking for more reasonably priced branded items then this city is for you. Brands such as Guess, Coach and Tommy Hilfiger, to name a few. There is also a three story Marshalls where you can get all your brand name items at a much cheaper price. If you want more options then you can take a $20 cab to Plaza Las Americas which is expensive however will work out cheaper if you are in a group. Note that tax in Puerto Rico is pretty steep and will throw you off a little during your shopping. Besides that the shopping experience is one of the best I have ever had.
5. Hang out with the cats of Old San Juan
There is a place in Old San Juan where you can watch cats play all day. They roam the cobblestone streets freely as well as the fortified walls and basketball court. The cats were brought in to control the rat population in San Juan instead continued to multiply as they reproduced. Now you can apparently adopt a cat as their way of controlling the cat population. Regardless, this place is definitely a cat lovers dream.
6. Fly kites near Castillio San Filipe del Morro
If you are looking for a more relaxed day then you can join the hundreds of locals that come to the hilltop for some down time and kite flying. You can purchase a kite in one of the many shops you will com across on your way to the fort. The wind picks up very well in that area because of the openness and ocean nearby making it a kite flyers dream.
7. Take photos of the flag wall paintings
During your leisure walk you will come across wall paintings of the flag of Puerto Rico. They serve as an amazing background for those vacation pictures so do not miss the opportunity to snap away.
8. Feed the pigeons
Parq Las Palomas is a beautiful park filled with pigeons and beautiful ocean views of Old San Juan. For $0 you can bring pigeon peas to feed the birds not to mention the beautiful views while doing so.
9. Visit the Bacardi distillery
A 20 minute ferry ride and a short cab ride will get you to the Bacardi distillery where you will learn all things Barcardi (yes, the rum). You can choose from the tours they offer such as the full rum distillery tour, the historical tour, the rum tasting tour or mixology class. Alternatively you can spend the day at the open field bar and enjoy a few Bacardi signature drinks.
The ferry cost $1 for a return ticket and the cab was around $8 for my friends and I.
Book well in advance on their website as it can get very busy and sometimes fully booked, especially during high season. Visit their website for more information.
10. Stuff your face with some Mofongo
Mufongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish made from fried plantain and stuffed with a meat of your choice. The options are usually chicken or beef but you may also find vegetarian and sea food options. I am obsessed with plantain so this was my go to dish almost every San Juan visit. Seasoned to perfection, it is packed with so much flavor that gets the taste buds excited. Try it for yourself and let me know what you think.
11. Catch the beautiful sunset
Old San Juan has one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen that have me in awe every time. You can catch the sunset from the fort, on a roof top bar/restaurant or just hanging out by the fortified walls. The sun hits the ocean with gorgeous orange hues that create the most beautiful silhouettes in pictures. If you are there in the evening then take time to watch this beauty of nature.
12. Sanse san Sebastian
Every year around the 15 – 21 of January the San Sebastian street festival takes place and Old San Juan comes to life. San Sebastián (Saint Sebastian) was a Christian who was martyred for his faith and also has a street named after him in the north side of Old San Juan. Thousands of people gather to enjoy some good food, live music as well as great company throughout the streets. This festival is so lively with people dancing and singing in the streets and drinks flowing from every restaurant. It was an unforgettable experience and I plan on doing it again at my leisure and not having to worry about getting back to work.
In conclusion, if you are looking for some good music, good food and a little historical experience then Old San Juan is the perfect city. Be it you have a couple of hours or the whole day, ultimately there is always something to do. It is great for the whole family and you will not be disappointed.