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Top things to do in colorful Old San Juan

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

Colorful!

If there’s one word that captures the essence of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, that’s it. The city is full of color.

Colorful buildings. Colorful food. Colorful people.

Things to do in Old San Juan

We spent a day in the city at the end of our Caribbean cruise on the Viking Sea.

Remembering the news about how Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, we weren’t sure there’d be too many things to do in Old San Juan.

So it was a big eye-opener to see the city full of life and bustling like normal. We had to look hard to spy remaining evidence of hurricane damage.

Things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico? Walk the colorful streets!

Restaurants and shops are open.

Buildings have been repainted and re-roofed.

In-the-know tourists are enjoying Old San Juan’s attractions and its comeback.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Indeed, visiting Old San Juan turned out to be one of the best days on our cruise!

Things to do in Old San Juan

Founded by Spanish colonists back in 1521, San Juan is the second oldest European-established capital in the Americas.

The old fortified city (partially encircled by an ancient wall) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s quite compact, comprising some seven square blocks, so you can easily see everything in a day.

Things to do in Old San Juan? Walk the colorful streets!

What’s particularly convenient for cruise passengers is that the Old San Juan cruise port is right in Old San Juan.

Simply walk off your ship, and you have the old city right at your fingertips to explore.

Old San Juan Puerto Rico

Do you love exploring walled cities? Then you’ll get high walking the Dubrovnik city walls in Croatia!

Visit Castillo de San Cristobal

Castillo de San Cristobal, Old San Juan, was built between 1765 and 1785.

Most people have heard of the military fort, El Morro – probably the most famous of Old San Juan’s attractions.

But there are actually two impressive forts you should see.

What to do in Old San Juan? Visit the impressive Castillo de San Cristobal.

Saint Christopher’s Castle (Castillo de San Cristobal) is the other younger fort.

It was built between 1765 and 1785 to protect the city from a land invasion.

The castle fortress is operated today by the U.S. National Park Service, so there’s a small entrance fee ($7 gets you into both this fort and El Morro).

An old wooden cart in Castillo de San Cristobal, Old San Juan

Walk the parapets, take in the beautiful views of Old San Juan below, hold a bayonet in the soldier’s barracks and squeeze through dark tunnels burrowing below the fort.

One tunnel leads to a dungeon.

There are incredible views from Castillo de San Cristobal, Old San Juan!

Oh, and can you see your cruise ship in the distance?

The cruise ship, Viking Sea, docked in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Stroll the colorful streets of Old San Juan

The Old City’s cobblestone streets, lined by colonial churches and buildings, are made for walking.

Look at the wrought iron balconies on the buildings when you visit Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

We joined a complimentary guided walking tour, organized by our ship, which helped orient us and fill us in on the city’s history.

But with a map (even without one), you can get around on your own.

Nuns stroll a street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Fortaleza Street is one of the prettiest streets.

You can’t help but notice all the pink, purple, green and yellow umbrellas floating above the street.

It’s a new art installation, known as the Umbrella Sky Project, intended to bring color back into the lives of the people after the hurricane.

Be sure to stroll colorful Fortaleza Street when visiting Old San Juan, Puerto Rico!

At the end of Fortaleza Street, you reach the 16th century governor’s mansion known as La Fortaleza (or Palacio de Santa Catalina).

The frothy blue-and-white confection, with its tiled roof and lots of wrought iron curlicues, has housed every Puerto Rican governor since Juan Ponce de Leon.

Dating back to the 16th century, La Fortaleza is the governor's mansion in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Be sure to look at the cobblestones on the streets themselves. Do you notice that they’re blue?

Called adoquines, these cobblestones were the blocks of ballast (made from the waste of iron smelting) placed in the early ships that sailed over from Spain.

Blue cobblestone street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

When the ships reached San Juan, the ballast was dumped and replaced with gold, which was taken back to Spain.

And the streets of Old San Juan were paved with the ballast.

Walk to El Morro

In the late afternoon, we headed out into town again and walked along the seaside path that leads to El Morro (Castillo de San Felipe del Morro).

Perched on the northwest tip of Old San Juan, it was constructed to protect the city against attacks from the sea.

El Morro fortress in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Morro is the older of the city’s two forts – dating back to 1539. Divided into six levels, the imposing citadel includes dungeons, storerooms, barracks, ramps and towers.

One curious (and cute) thing we noticed on the grounds around El Morro was all the wild stray kitties.

It’s cat heaven there!

There are lots of cats outside El Morro in Old San Juan!

We read that the fur balls are lovingly looked after by a non-government cat rescue group (which helps to neuter and feed them).

Volunteers leave lots of kibble piles for the kitties to eat, and there are plenty of rocks for the felines to shelter under or sunbathe on.

But, we discovered, the kitties don’t like to be petted.

What to do in Old San Juan? More things

Old San Juan restaurants:

Cobblestone street in Old San Juan with outdoor cafes

If we’d had more of an appetite, we would have sat down at one of the many inviting restaurants to try some Puerto Rican food.

(San Juan is dubbed the “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.”

Related reading: Check out the 5 best Puerto Vallarta restaurants for foodies

Old San Juan shopping:

Old San Juan also has some lovely independent boutique shops. Jewelry, souvenirs, clothing, arts and crafts. You name it. You’ll find it.

We poked our heads into some stores. But without room in our suitcases (we packed light), we resisted the urge to buy, deciding only to collect memories of this trip.

Map of Old San Juan

Here’s an interactive Google map showing the location of El Morro in Old San Juan. Zoom in or out to see what you want.

Here also is a good map of Old San Juan that you can print off as a PDF from your computer (courtesy Moon Travel Guides).

Printable map of Old San Juan

Where to stay in San Juan?

We unfortunately dithered about whether to stay on in San Juan after our cruise.

Had we known at the time that San Juan was so ready to receive visitors again, we definitely would have tacked on a few days in the city!

Here are our picks for the two best luxury hotels in San Juan if you plan to stay in the city:

El Convento:

Hotel El Convento guest room

On our guided walking tour, we stopped in at El Convento, a 350-year-old Carmelite convent that’s been turned into a lovely boutique hotel.

Smack-dab in the old city, it would be perfect if staying for just one night before or after a cruise.

El Convento: Check rates and availability

Condado Vanderbilt:

For two or more nights, we’d probably prefer to stay in a hotel by the sea, with a larger pool too.

Originally built in 1919, the uber-luxurious Condado Vanderbilt is now open again and shining like new after its post-hurricane restoration. It looks gorgeous!

Condado Vanderbilt: Check rates and availability

More on Puerto Rico

See the official Puerto Rico tourism website

Where else in the Caribbean is great to visit?

Read our posts on:

Antigua | Discover how to holiday like royalty at Blue Waters Antigua.

St. Martin | Mmmm… Stay at Hotel L’Esplanade and Le Petit Hotel and you can walk to all the fabulous restaurants in the Caribbean’s culinary capital of Grand Case.

Caribbean villas | Vacation like a multi-millionaire at these posh Caribbean villas. (They’re not as expensive as you may think!)


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Top Things to Do in Old San Juan

Photo credits: 2 to 7, 10 to 17, 19 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Hotel photos courtesy of the two respective hotels


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Lori

Monday 22nd of June 2020

We visited there right after the hurricane. One of the things we also enjoyed was the cemetery at the base of one of the forts. The gleaming white statuary set against the blue ocean was stunning.

Janice and George

Wednesday 24th of June 2020

Hi Lori! Glad you also enjoyed Old San Juan!

Alistair Langfield

Wednesday 30th of January 2019

Nice post! Thanks for sharing!

Janice and George

Wednesday 30th of January 2019

Glad you like it. It's important people know that many of the hurricane-damaged Caribbean islands are back to normal (or almost there).

Wendy

Tuesday 22nd of January 2019

Janice and George, really enjoyed reading this article. I would definitely love to visit San Juan! I recently read a Facebook post from a young woman concerned that she couldn't visit San Juan due to the damage of hurricaine Maria. If I see something like that again I'm going to direct them here. Puerto Rico needs our tourism dollars more than ever.

Janice and George

Tuesday 22nd of January 2019

There's still a perception among many people that Puerto Rico is not ready to welcome tourists. We thought that too before going! We can't speak from personal experience about the rest of Puerto Rico, but we can certainly say that Old San Juan is all dressed up and waiting with open arms -- and it's a beautiful place to visit :-).

Irene S Levine

Tuesday 22nd of January 2019

What an inviting post! I want to return to Puerto Rico!

Janice and George

Tuesday 22nd of January 2019

Now might be the time -- before everyone else hears that Old San Juan is back in business! (Several hotels outside of the Old City have also recently re-opened, so you get to benefit from newly refurbished places.)