Things to do in San Juan Puerto Rico
San Juan is the largest, most populous, and capital city of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The famous port city was founded by the Spanish as ”the Rich Port City”. And true to its name, San Juan is very rich and diverse in its history, culture, attractions, and cuisine.
San Juan sits on the Atlantic Coast of the North-East corner of Puerto Rico. This gives the city access to the best harbors in the Caribbean. Visit this place for an authentic Caribbean experience of scenic white sand beaches juxtaposed with crystal green ocean water and soft breeze.
Not only is it the largest, but it is also one of the oldest cities in the USA. So it also features lots of century-old architecture and attractions. It has a curious blend of Latin American culture with Spanish-based culture mixed with African traditions, Taíno culture, and an American influence. There are different diverse districts here – from historic Old San Juan to upscale El Candado, and a very active economic area in the Hato Rey district.
The abundance of historic sites, magnificent beaches, hotels, plazas, museums, markets, and dining places in San Juan make it a perfect holiday destination for all types of tourists and visitors.
From island lovers, nature enthusiasts, foodies, to history and art buffs, and adrenaline junkies- all of them find retreat in the tropical rainforest, turquoise waters, and colorful 16th-century Spanish colonial historic ambiance of San Juan.
Is San Juan safe for tourists?
Yes, San Juan is a safe travel destination for tourists. With friendly locals who are largely dependent on tourism, the island has a pretty low crime rate. Just make sure that you keep an eye on the weather broadcast of Puerto Rico because the island territory is prone to natural hazards.
However, make sure to be aware of Covid-19 guidelines issued by the government here before making your visit here.
Below is the list of things to do in San Juan that you must check out if you’re making plans of traveling to San Juan in near future.
Old San Juan
The colorful Old San Juan is the most famous point of interest. It is rich in Spanish colonial architecture. Musical cobblestoned streets and pastel-colored buildings are its highlights. This UNESCO world heritage site is meant to be explored on foot by walking. It is also known for its famous churches.
The most famous churches are El Catedral de San Juan Bautista and San Jose Church. The former has a tomb of a Spanish explorer. Other highlights of San Juan are neighborhoods like La Perla and ancient historical monuments like the Spanish fort El Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
El Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Also known as “El Morro”, El Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a citadel that was built in the 16th century as a part of Spanish military engineering work to safeguard the borders of the region. Named in honor of Spanish king Philip II of Spain, El Morro is situated on the northwestern-most point of the islet of Old San Juan. Declared as a World Heritage Site, it is one of the oldest existing Spanish architecture.
By visiting El Morro, you’ll understand the importance of the strategic location of this citadel in the Puerto Rican history of colonization. Now a part of National Historic Park, it is open to the public seven days a week. Children below the age of fifteen years enjoy free admission to the site. The guided tour is provided by the park rangers here both in English and Spanish, but the vast grounds of the site are free to self-exploration.
From El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, you’ll also be able to see an island across the water that has El Cañuelo and enjoy a view of the Atlantic Ocean, Old San Juan, the cemetery, and La Perla. If you have some extra time, access an entrance to the Paseo del Morro from the dry moat of the citadel to follow the city’s outer wall to the Gate of San Juan (approximately 1.5 miles).
You can also linger for a while on the giant lawn in front of El Morro and fly a kite, enjoy the sun, watch and interact with people, etc.
El Castillo de San Cristóbal
Castillo San Cristobal has been guarding the lands of Puerto Rico for centuries. The Castillo San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World covering over 10 acres of land. Located at the eastern gate of Old San Juan, Castillo San Cristobel is a fortress that compliments El Morro in safeguarding the borders of the island. It is also open to the public daily and serves as an exciting place to be explored.
Just like any other Spanish fortress, this fortress also has many sentry boxes. One of them called “La Garita del Diablo” offers a vantage point. Although it is currently inaccessible to the general public, it can be seen from the upper part of the fort.
Palacio de Santa Catalina
San Juan’s La Fortaleza or the Fortress is the oldest executive mansion in America. It is the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. Also known as Santa Catalina’s Palace or The Fortress, it was another structure built to protect the region from foreign invasions.
At present, the complex consists of a few attached buildings with formal living quarters on the second floor, and private quarters on the third. It overlooks the high city walls that front the blue waters of the bay of San Juan. The north perimeter of the house has beautiful sheltered gardens and a swimming pool.
The beautiful blue structure has a classic revival style of architecture. Guided tours of the place are provided here. And the gardens around the structure are free for self-guided tours during working hours.
El Catedral de San Juan Bautista
San Juan’s oldest building, the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist is a Roman Catholic church in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The church is the oldest cathedral in the USA.
A private Puerto Rican foundation is known as Fundación Protectora de la Catedral Metropolitana de San Juan, Inc. has been established to fund the historical restoration of the building and its art treasures for its 500th anniversary in 2021 and to protect it for coming centuries.
The church is located in the Old San Juan neighborhood and has great historic significance. It contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. It has intricate neoclassical design and decoration.
The municipal cemetery of Santa María Madgalena de Pazzis
It is a colonial-era cemetery located in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It is the final resting place of many of Puerto Rico’s most prominent natives and residents. The cemetery is located outside the walls of Fort San Felipe del Morro fortress, under the auspices of Ignacio Mascaro.
Built-in 1863, the cemetery has 1000 graves. The location of the cemetery is very strategic according to Puerto Rican beliefs and culture. It overlooks the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife.
Centro de Bellas Artes
The Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center or Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré in Spanish is a multi-use performance centre in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It hosts many concerts and theaters, plays, ballet, operas, and musicals around the year. It also has the largest fine arts center in the Caribbean. The Center is home to the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and the annual Casals Festival.
The Center features four main concert and theater halls, two eateries, and a central outdoor plaza, each with its own unique features. It is surrounded by various art expositions, including murals, paintings, and sculptures including La Plena by Rafael Tufiño and Form and Tropical Crystals by local artist Luis Hernández Cruz.
Near the entrance of the Center, various expositions greet guests and visitors, including a 40-foot (12 m) aluminum sculpture by Luis Torruella titled Melodic Reflection. The interiors are decorated on the theme of the Muses. Located along Ponce de Leon Avenue in the Santurce section of San Juan, the center is located near various retail shops and residential buildings, which produce a vibrant atmosphere around the center both day and night.
It has an underground parking garage offering 483 spaces for guests. So if you want to have an eventful evening in a festive environment, you must visit Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré. Visit their website to be aware of the performances they’ll be hosting at the time of your visit.
Bacardi Rum Factory
Puerto Rico is called the rum capital of the world and rightly so. The most popular rum in the world is made at Casa Bacardí, in Catano. It is the world’s largest premium rum distillery that was founded in 1862. The renowned distillery features historical tours, mixology classes, tastings & an outdoor patio. Also called the “Cathedral of Rum”, this distillery covers 51 hectares of area.
Free guided tours are provided in this historic building. Other attractions include a trolley ride around the premises. Visit this place to know the process of rum-making, and distilling and get yourself souvenirs packed at the gift shop.
San Juan is home to few of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. There are clear white sand relaxing beaches as well as beach resorts for all budgets and styles of traveler.
This Miami style beach in San Juan’s Condado is hipsters’ favourite. It has the most stunning beach lined with the most lively neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants.
SUN BAY BEACH
Just eight miles from Puerto Rico’s mainland, Isla Vieques is 21 miles long island which is home to beautiful Sun Bay Beach. Calm blue ocean view coupled with a wide stretch of sand and cool sea breeze makes up for the most tropical getaway. One of the most famous features of the island is also known for the presence of natural bioluminescence.
This happens on certain nights, when conditions are right, at a place known as Bioluminescent Bay (Mosquito Bay). The water in the bay glows bluish from the movement of phosphorescent dinoflagellates that house this bay in a large population. To experience this natural wonder, you can join an after-dark tour in a boat, canoe, or kayak.
Just walking distance away from Old San Juan, there is Escambron Beach. It is another beautiful beach loved by people who are into water sports. There is also a Luis Muñoz Rivera recreational park which is a perfect destination for families on vacation with kids.
This is another beach with Blue Flag classification, so be sure about the crystal clear water juxtaposed with perfect facilities.
Situated right behind El Yunque National Rainforest, Luquillo Beach is famous for its swimmable shallow waters and its crescent shape. Because of this reason, it is the family’s favorite spot. The beach is dotted with bathrooms, lifeguard stalls, and local vendors who sell various snacks and refreshing drinks here.
Luquillo beach is one of the four beaches in the city that has a Blue Flag classification, which is why if you’re not in the mood for swimming, you can also go kayaking or fly-boarding here.
The San Juan Bay
San Juan Bay is the inlet adjacent to Old San Juan in northeastern Puerto Rico. It is about 3.5 miles in length and has eight interconnected lagoons. San Juan bay has the busiest Puerto Rican harbor dating back to at least 1508.
San Juan Bay is rich in beauty. Its crystal blue water has ecological diversity and attracts tourism that hosts a variety of recreational activities.
Like any other city, San Juan also has many recreational state parks and gardens. San Juan’s Central Park is the place for indulging in activities like jogging, tennis, baseball, walking etc.
Munoz Rivera Park is a park by the ocean that features many tree-lined pathways and trimmed landscapes. Parque de las Palomas from where you can enjoy the views of La Princesa Jail, the mountains, the harbor, and the city.
Paseo de la Princesa
San Juan’s Paseo de la Princesa is the oldest promenade in Puerto Rico. This is the place where you’ll experience authentic Puerto Rico culture. Locals advised to feed pigeons and bask under its extravagant fountains.
The promenade is lined with antique street lamps, trees, statues, benches, food-vendor carts, and street entertainers. Festivals, carnivals, farmer’s markets, etc. also keep happening here from time to time.
El Yunque National Park
This is a tropical rainforest found in the north-east of the island, on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo mountains. It has all the features of a forest, be it lush foliage, or tall trees. It also has famous waterfalls like La Mina Falls, rivers, and extensive fauna.
The Taíno petroglyphs are also a great highlight of these forests. These indigenous people believed that El Yunque was the throne of their chief god Yúcahu. El Yunque National Forest was partially due to Hurricane Maria. Be sure to check out its website to know which areas are available to visit.
The forest has a tropical year-round growing season. The flora of this distinct type of species. There are at least 240 plant species endemic to this region. It is one of Puerto Rico’s most adventurous attractions the city.
There are many beautiful hiking trails, walks, waterfalls, scenery to explore, and animals to observe. Puerto Rican Parrot is found here.
If one needs a calming stress-relieving walk, head over to La Coca Trail for it. However, if you’re in the mood for some in the form of a rope swing and a dive into the lagoon, the El Angelito trail is there for you. Various packages of tours are offered in this region. Yokahú Observation Tower gives you a bird’s eye view of the island with an elevation of 1,575 ft.
Museum of Art of Puerto Rico
It is an art museum in the Santurce region of the city in San Juan, PR. The museum is dedicated to showcasing and spreading awareness about the culture and heritage of Puerto Rico. There are 18 exhibition halls here. Housed in a massive intricately decorated building, the museum exhibits artifacts showcasing the stories of the island and its people.
Art history lovers should visit this museum that hosts and promotes local artists who draw inspiration from their tradition and culture.
Casa del Libro
A museum holding nearly 5,000 early works of manuscripts and books, some as old as the 15th century. This museum is most known for having two royal mandates signed by Ferdinand and Isabella concerning arranging Columbus’ fleet for his second voyage.
It is a treat for history lovers and bibliophiles alike. It is open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday, 11:00 AM to 4:30 PM.
Although there are plenty of malls and markets that cover both international and local brands, the real deal here is shopping locally. The San Juan metro area has many neighborhoods where you can indulge in local and handmade goods.
Old San Juan is littered with jewelry stores and unique handicrafts stores. The Condado district offers luxury brands, upscale boutiques, and a variety of dining options. Local designers can be found in Santurce.
Plaza las Américas
Popularly known as the “center of it all”, it is the biggest mall in the Carribean. Home to over 300 stores, it features brands like JCPenney, plus Macy’s, Lacoste, American Eagle, A|X etc. There is also a movie theater and restaurants to energize your shopping spree.
Old San Juan
Old San Juan has diverse retailers littered on its colorful streets. From fine jewelers, arts, crafts and mercantil shops, to even outlets of various brands, it is a must explore spot for shopping fanatics.
It is advised to visit the market as early as possible because it gets difficult to shop in crowded and humid environments of the region. Many quirky cafes and fine dining restaurants can also be found here.
Also read about things to do in Puerto Rico.