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.
But wait, there’s more. This Caribbean capital of Puerto Rico is dripping with history and culture.
There are more than enough things to do in Old San Juan to keep you busy for an entire week. But if you’re a cruise visitor and only have a day, don’t worry – you can cover most of the top sights in the time you have in port.
Things to do in Old San Juan
Old San Juan was an eye-opener for us.
It’s pretty well recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The city is full of life and bustling just like normal. We had to look hard to spy remaining evidence of hurricane damage.
In-the-know tourists are enjoying Old San Juan’s comeback.
And if you’re visiting on a cruise, we promise you the city will turn out to be one of your favorite ports-of-call.
About Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Founded by Spanish colonists back in 1521, San Juan is the oldest city under U.S. sovereignity and the second oldest European-established capital in the Americas.
The old fortified city (partially encircled by an ancient wall) – Old San Juan – is quite compact, comprising some seven square blocks, so you can easily see everything in a day.
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 the old city and its historic landmarks are right there for you to explore, just a short walk away.
Do you love exploring walled cities? Then you’ll get high walking the Dubrovnik city walls in Croatia!
What to do in Old San Juan
Ready now to visit Old San Juan?
1) Explore the colorful streets of Old San Juan
One of the best things to do in Old San Juan is simple. Just walk – and gawk.
The cobblestoned streets, lined by colonial churches and historic buildings, are made for walking.
In the Old Town, there are some 400+ restored Spanish colonial-style buildings, all dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Plaza de Armas, with the city hall on the north side, is the main square in Old San Juan.
Delight in the ornate wrought iron balconies, the profusion of flowers and the lemon, pink, peach, baby blue, mint green and other splashes of color the buildings sport.
We joined a guided walking tour, which helped orient us and fill us in on the years of history that have shaped the old town. Here’s a highly-rated culture-and-cuisine walking tour.
But with a map (or even without one), you can get around on your own.
2) Stroll along Fortaleza Street
As you walk around the historic district, you’ll come across Fortaleza Street – one of the prettiest streets in Old San Juan.
And you never know what art you might see overhead!
We saw pink, purple and blue umbrellas floating above the street. The art installation, known as the Umbrella Sky Project, was intended to bring color back into the lives of the people after the hurricane.
Now the umbrellas have been replaced by pink kites.
But the umbrellas were apparently more popular with locals, so who knows, maybe they’ll come back!
3) Take a peek at the governor’s house (La Fortaleza)
At the end of Fortaleza Street, you reach the governor’s mansion known as La Fortaleza (or Palacio de Santa Catalina).
Originally built in the 16th century as part of a huge fortress structure to defend the island, it was remodeled in 1846 and turned into the official residence for the sitting governors.
The frothy blue-and-white confection, with its tiled roof and lots of wrought iron curlicues, has housed every Puerto Rican governor since then.
Guided walking tours (30 minutes) are offered Monday through Friday. You’ll see the gardens and can get a short peek inside when the government isn’t in session.
4) Admire the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan
As well as looking up, you must look down – 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. 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.
5) Sip a pina colada
Did you know that San Juan is the birthplace of pina coladas?
Back in 1954, a bartender working at the Caribe Hilton blended a mix of rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice – and the refreshing frothy pina colada was created. Today, the pina colada is the official cocktail of Puerto Rico.
You can sashay over to the iconic Caribe Hilton, located between Old San Juan and the oceanfront Condado beach area to try the drink there.
But many bars in Old San Juan also serve pina coladas.
Hey, interested in making pineapple cocktails at home? See these 15 margarita recipes, including a pineapple jalapeno margarita (#5) and frozen pineapple margarita cocktail (#13)
6) View the sculpture at Rogativa Plaza
Plazuela de la Rogativa (Rogativa Plaza) is a small corner of the city near the San Juan Gate. In the plaza, a large weathered bronze sculpture overlooks the Bay of San Juan.
The sculpture shows several women, led by a priest, holding torches up high in their hands.
The story goes that in 1797, the British were planning to invade San Juan. However, they abandoned their attack when they thought a religious procession of women walking through the streets were actually reinforcements of soldiers who’d arrived to help defend the city.
7) Pop into the historic San Juan Cathedral
The oldest cathedral in the United States is actually on Puerto Rican soil – in Old San Juan.
Originally built from wood in 1521, then refashioned over the years, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (Cathedral-Basilica of Saint John the Baptist) is where the Spanish explorer and former governor Juan Ponce de Leon is buried.
The cathedral is free to visit, so you can walk inside and admire the vaulted ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows.
8) Browse the shops in Old San Juan
Old San Juan has some lovely independent boutique shops. Jewelry, souvenirs, clothing, arts and crafts. You name it. You’ll find it. Needless to say, one of the top things to do in Old San Juan is to browse the many interesting stores.
Keep an eye out for a good guayabera, the traditional Cuban linen shirt for men with four pockets.
We poked our heads into several shops. But without room in our suitcases (we packed light), we resisted the urge to buy, deciding to collect only memories of this trip.
9) Visit Castillo de San Cristobal
You may have heard of the military fort, El Morro (see #12 below) – probably the most famous attraction in Old San Juan.
But there are actually two impressive forts you should see.
Saint Christropher’s Castle (Castillo de San Cristobal or Castillo San Cristobal) is the other younger fort.
It was built between 1765 and 1785 to protect the city from a land invasion.
Castillo San Cristobal – together with El Morro, La Fortaleza (#3 above) and a large part of the old city walls – is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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).
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.
Oh, and can you see your cruise ship in the distance?
10) Eat at a food truck
The food in Puerto Rico is a real treat. The local food trucks, especially, serve up some tasty traditional dishes that are fun to try.
Check out the different food trucks that line the waterfront off Plaza Darsena (near the cruise ship dock). Food trucks and street food vendors are often found on Paseo de la Princesa too (see #14).
You can pick up pinchos (kebabs), alcapurrillas (plantain fritters stuffed with ground meat), empanadas, tostones (deep fried plantain slices) and the like. Quench your thirst too with some great fresh lemonade.
When your stomach is growling, but you don’t feel like a proper sit-down meal at a restaurant, Puerto Rican street food is the perfect answer.
11) Walk the Paseo del Morro
Designated a National Historic Site in 2001, this scenic seaside path leading to El Morro (see #12) is part of Old San Juan’s larger UNESCO site.
From the San Juan Gate, the flat walkway skirts the city walls.
To the right, you look up at the soaring stone walls – imagine the enormity of the task to build such mammoth fortifications centuries ago! To the left, you have gorgeous views of the San Juan Bay and the blue sea.
The trail is about ¾ mile from the San Juan Gate to the end of the Paseo del Morro, where it currently dead-ends, so from there, you must turn around and walk back. (Good thing the views always look different on a return walk.)
We walked this path late in the afternoon when the sun wasn’t as strong and the heat of the day had waned. With the sea breeze, it was a very enjoyable walk. But as there’s no shade, if you do this walk any time other than early morning or late afternoon, know it will be hot – so wear a hat and bring water.
12) Wander about El Morro
Perched on the northwestern tip of Old San Juan, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) was constructed to protect the city against attacks from the sea.
It’s 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. To reach the fort, you walk along a path that crosses a giant lawn in front of the fort.
Like Castillo San Cristobal, there’s an entrance fee of $7 USD (the ticket allows you to visit both El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal).
13) Photograph the kitties
One curious thing we noticed on the Paseo del Morro was all the wild stray kitties.
It’s cat heaven there!
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. They’re feral.
14) Enjoy the Paseo de la Princesa
A very pleasant walk can be had on the Paseo de la Princesa.
The tree-lined promenade is sprinkled with fountains and sculptures, and you usually find street vendors and food-trucks.
If you’re visiting Old San Juan on a cruise and looking for some exercise, make your way from the cruise ship dock to the Paseo de la Princesa, which then turns into the Paseo del Morro (# 11). You can go for a great run or walk along this combined path.
15) Eat mofongo
You can’t go to Puerto Rico and not try mofongo.
This popular savory dish – one of Puerto Rico’s most-loved dishes – consists of green plantains, mashed with garlic and crispy pork rind. The mixture is then formed into balls and fried. It’s often topped with (or accompanied by) pork, beef, chicken or seafood.
Related reading: Check out the 5 best Puerto Vallarta restaurants for foodies
16) Listen to live music
Fancy a free sunset concert?
One of the most delightful things to do in Old San Juan at night is to listen to some live music outside. On Sunday evenings, locals and visitors alike gather at Plaza Darsena between 5:30 and 8:00 pm to listen to local bands playing a mix of traditional and modern music.
And if you get into the groove, don’t be shy. Shake those hips and join the locals dancing in the plaza.
17) Soak up the sun at Isla Verde
True, Isla Verde isn’t located in the heart of Old San Juan – but it’s pretty close (about 7 miles away). You can get there by taxi in less than 15 minutes.
We’re telling you about Isla Verde because it would be a shame to miss this beautiful stretch of beach. After all, you are on a Caribbean island!
Isla Verde (Green Island) is a resort strip, lined by hotels, all fronting one of the best beaches in San Juan (indeed all of Puerto Rico).
The water is usually calm, so it’s perfect for swimming. Trees provide lots of shade, and plenty of restaurants and bars welcome you for a bite to eat or a drink. You can rent beach chairs and an umbrella to enjoy a beach day.
18) Hike and swim in El Yunque
No list of things to do in Old San Juan isn’t complete without at least mentioning El Yunque rainforest.
The only rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service system, El Yunque is about 45 minutes to an hour away from San Juan (depending on traffic).
Comprising some 29,000 acres, the lush forest is home to 240 tree species, waterfalls, rivers and freshwater pools. As for wildlife, you may spot lizards, the scarlet-crowned Puerto Rican parrot and singing coqui frogs.
Several hiking trails lead to waterfalls and natural rock pools, where you can cool off with a swim.
Climbing the Yokahu Observation Tower is also popular. Evocative of a Scottish castle, the tower is perched at an elevation of 1,575 feet and offers expansive views of the surrounding green hills and blue ocean in the distance.
To get to El Yunque, it’s possible to take an Uber from Old San Juan. But finding a return Uber can be difficult because cell service isn’t the best in the park.
If you don’t have a rental car, your best bet is to take an all-day guided tour, like this hiking, swimming and kayaking tour from San Juan (which combines El Yunque and Laguna Grande Bio Bay).
Map of Old San Juan
See this interactive Google map. Zoom in or out for various Old San Juan attractions.
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).
Where to stay in San Juan?
The following are our picks for the two best luxury hotels in San Juan if you’re staying overnight in the city. (And if you’re wondering whether you should tack on a few days in the city before or after a Caribbean cruise, wonder no more – just do it!)
El Convento is a 350-year-old Carmelite convent that’s been turned into a lovely boutique hotel.
Smack-dab in the old city, it’s perfect if staying for just one night before or after a cruise.
El Convento: Check rates and availability
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
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Photo credits: 3 to 12, 16, 19, 20, 27 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Hotel photos courtesy of the two respective Old San Juan hotels