Loosely speaking, the Puerto Rican capital San Juan can be separated into two: the sprawling neighbourhoods of the metropolitan area and coastal strip with their high rises and wide boulevards, and the densely packed Old San Juan town with its characterful cobbled streets protected by imposing fortifications. The latter is one of the jewels of the Caribbean and a must-see for any visitor to the area. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Tips for visiting Old San Juan
Double up and do both forts together
Old San Juan has two forts: El Morro, the smaller of the two, was built to protect the city from attack by the sea. It is also older, with construction beginning in 1539. In comparison, Castillo San Cristóbal was built in the 17th century as a way of repelling attackers from the land. It’s huge, covering an area of 27 acres. Both offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of the city and its history with detailed information about what it was like to live there over the centuries as well as affording incredible sea views. Take advantage of the combo ticket on offer to save money on the entrance fee and visit both fortifications on the same day.
Make the most of the free trolleys
To walk between the two forts you’ll cover a distance of about a mile. It’s a pleasant walk, with the sea to one side and landmarks such as the Museo de San Juan on the other. But there’s little shade, and in the heat of the day, it’s not always best to be on foot. Fortunately, the city runs several trolley services within Old San Juan and one of them links the two forts; stay on the trolley when you reach El Morro and it will take you right up to the moat. Best of all, it’s free, so you can hop on and hop off as you please without worrying about fares. Stops are clearly numbered and the tourist office can supply a map which shows where each is situated.
Do your own food tour
Several companies offer excellent food tours which offer the chance to sample some of the country’s signature dishes. However, these can be expensive. You can do your own food tour and save a bunch of dollars. You’ll need to try mofongo, Puerto Rico’s iconic dish consisting of a base of mashed plantains topped with shrimp or chicken; try it at La Mallorquina restaurant which has been serving customers since 1848. Grab a mallorca, one of the country’s signature pastries, served with cheese and guava jam and topped with icing sugar. They’re found everywhere – look in the city’s bakeries or at the kiosks in the Plaza de Armas. Sip the rich, smooth local coffee at Cuatro Sombras, Finca Cialitos or Caficultura before heading to Casa Cortés to pick up some chocolate.
Many visitors to Old San Juan arrive on the cruise ships which dock at the centrally located piers to the south of the old town and stay for a few hours. If you can, however, allow at least a couple of days to explore those cobbled streets at a more leisurely pace. You’ll be richly rewarded: listen to musicians playing in the city’s squares, visit the tomb of the city’s founder and first governor Juan Ponce de León in the pretty cathedral or feed the pigeons in Parque Las Palomas. The architecture is Spanish colonial and many of the buildings are worth a closer look, with heavy wooden doors, iron balconies and myriad colours on their walls. Don’t miss Casa Blanca, the family home of Ponce de León and the city’s oldest continually occupied dwelling.