San Juan, Puerto Rico, with stunning beaches, is one of the busiest leisure and business travel destinations in the Caribbean. It is especially convenient for U.S. citizens, because they do not need a passport to go to Puerto Rico and the currency there is the U.S. dollar.
Old San Juan's walled enclave delights visitors with a treasure trove of Spanish colonial architecture. The venerable San Juan Cathedral, gray cobblestoned streets and pastel-colored buildings give the Puerto Rican city the glamorous look of a movie set. Visitors will find a deep respect for the past combined with passion for the trends of the present.
San Juan houses cultural attractions such as the stunning Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, the state-of-the-art Coliseo de Puerto Rico that has welcomed major superstars and athletes, and a multimillion-dollar convention-center facility—the largest in the Caribbean. Historic neighborhoods offer sophisticated restaurants that combine Latin, Caribbean and Asian flavors. Cosmopolitan lounges, restaurants and nightclubs all around town fuel the city's reputation as a late-night haven for beautiful people.
Puerto Rico sustained severe damage during Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Recovery efforts may take years, but great strides have been made. Cruise operations have resumed, and air travel at Luis Munoz Marin International is functioning at its pre-hurricane level. Most hotels are now open, and newly renovated properties are opening steadily. Some larger luxury properties will continue to reopen into 2020.
Most touristic attractions are open, although a few may have reduced hours or limited access. Call ahead to confirm. All utilities—ATMs, hospitals, telephones, bus routes—are 100% operational.
Must See or Do
Sights—Castillo de San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal; Catedral de San Juan for its beautiful stained-glass windows; the Bacardi Rum Distillery; the popular beaches of Isla Verde and Condado; the lush vegetation of El Yunque National Forest in nearby Rio Grande.
Museums—The regional art and sculpture garden at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico; the Museo de las Americas, located inside the 19th-century Spanish-built Cuartel de Ballaja; contemporary works by Puerto Rican and Latin American artists at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo.
Memorable Meals—Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), mofongo (mashed plantains and garlic) or other classic Puerto Rican dishes at La Casita Blanca; extraordinary tasting menus and wine pairings at Marmalade Restaurant and Wine Bar; excellent French food at Trois Cent Onze (311).
Nightlife—Grab an icy Medalla and sign the wall at El Batey's, the city's oldest pub; roll the dice at any of the swanky hotel casinos; mingle with the local elite at La Concha Lobby Bar & Lounge; dance at the eclectic La Respuesta music venue.
Walks—Explore Old San Juan on foot; catch a breath of air while passing by the oceanfront at La Ventana al Mar in Condado; take in the fresh ocean breeze on a stroll through the Luis Munoz Rivera park at the entrance of Old San Juan (opposite side of Escambron beach area); a walk along the Paseo Pinones Recreational Trail in nearby Loiza; the pleasant surroundings of the Rio Piedras Botanical Garden.
Especially for Kids—A bike ride at the Luis Munoz Rivera park in Hato Rey; feeding the birds at Plaza de las Palomas.
San Juan is located on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The city is made up of five urban centers: Old San Juan, Santurce, Hato Rey, Rio Piedras and Condado. Most tourist attractions are located in the Old San Juan, Condado and Isla Verde areas.
Old San Juan occupies a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, with the ancient Spanish fortress of El Morro (at the tip of the peninsula) marking the city's northernmost point. Moving eastward from Old San Juan, the modern hotels of the Condado and Isla Verde areas rise along the sands of the beach, and farther south, the gleaming glass towers of the Hato Rey banking district reflect the sun.
Miramar, an upscale area between Santurce and Isla Grande, is bordered on one side with a path that provides spectacular views of the Condado lagoon. SoFo, the district south of Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan, is one of the city's trendiest entertainment hubs. South of the city are the cool green mountains that crisscross the center of the island.
After Columbus arrived on the sparsely inhabited island of Puerto Rico in 1493, Spain sent Juan Ponce de Leon to establish a stronghold in a protected harbor on the northern coast. Spain used the city for the next four centuries as its gateway to the New World, as well as the base from which it defended its possessions in the Americas. Although the Dutch and eventually the British held the town for brief periods, the Spanish managed time and again to recapture San Juan. In 1898, however, the U.S. Army landed on the island during the Spanish-American War, and Puerto Rico was later ceded to the U.S. as part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict.
In 1917, the U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. Two decades later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched Operation Bootstrap, which provided agricultural development, public works and electricity to the island. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. commonwealth since 1952. There have been five nonbinding plebiscites on statehood, the most recent in 2012 and 2017, with the majority (though voter turnout was low) voting to become a state; however, Congress holds the power of making that decision.
Proponents of statehood are continuing efforts in Washington, D.C., for a congressionally mandated referendum on the island's political status. Islanders enjoy U.S. citizenship and pay no federal income taxes, but they cannot vote in presidential elections and do not receive the same aid and opportunities found in the States.
San Juan continues to thrive as the business center of the island and the region. It's a manufacturing powerhouse that set the foundation for the island's growing presence of biotechnology developments, and it is a processing hub, with petroleum refineries and the famed Bacardi Rum distillery. Its port is one of the most active in the Caribbean—both for cruise and cargo ships—and Luis Munoz Marin International Airport is the region's busiest airport.
Tourism is an important economic driver for the island, as evidenced in the metro area's ongoing industry developments, including the Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest and most technically advanced meeting facility in the Caribbean.
Founded by Ponce de Leon in 1521, San Juan is the oldest city in U.S. territory—older than St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565.
The coqui (a type of frog) can be found all over Puerto Rico. Its name comes from the lovely melody it sings in the evening: ko-kee, ko-kee. It is considered the island's unofficial animal.
Puerto Rico is a featured destination for a limited edition of the Parker Brothers Monopoly brand board game. The El Morro fort in San Juan is the board's main picture.
With more than 120 years of history in horse racing, the island has produced famous jockeys and Thoroughbreds including Angel Cordero Jr., who rode the Puerto Rican-trained horse Bold Forbes to wins in the 1976 Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.
San Juan native Jose Miguel Agrelot—a beloved Puerto Rican comedian, radio and TV host—was the first Hispanic inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago.
The Puerto Rican band Calle 13 has won 21 Grammy Awards, more than any other Latin artist, including 19 Latin Grammy Awards and two American Grammy Awards. Other well-known recording artists from Puerto Rico include pop megastars Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Robi Draco Rosa and Luis Fonsi; Latin reggae leaders Cultura Profetica; Latin hardcore rock icons Puya; reggaeton stars and actors Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee and Don Omar; jazz megastar Miguel Zenon; guitarist Mars Volta; and singer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.
Movies filmed in Puerto Rico include: Assassins, Contact, Bad Boys II, Amistad, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Che, Fast & Furious: Fast Five, Havanna Nights, Golden Eye, Captain Ron, Hector Lavoe, The Losers, Rum Diaries and Christmas in Paradise.
Puerto Rico is considered the rum capital of the world. Besides its 450-year history of rum production, Puerto Rico is the only rum-producing nation that regulates production with laws to ensure great quality and taste. It's also the birthplace of the refreshing pina colada cocktail.
The Port of San Juan is the center of ship traffic in the Caribbean—in addition to being a popular port of call, it is home base for dozens of luxury liners. More than 1.5 million cruise passengers sail in or out of San Juan annually, and those figures continue to grow as increasing numbers of megaships visit the island.
Several piers sit right on bustling Calle Marina. When you get off your ship, you can walk straight into Old San Juan. There's tourist information across the street from Pier 1 on Calle Marina. The newer cruise-ship piers are Pier 3 and Pier 4, which are directly south of Pier 1 and lead up toward the Pan American Pier, at the far south end of Old San Juan on Calle Lindbergh in the Isla Grande area—it's a little farther from the main tourist attractions. For the Puerto Rico Ports Authority, phone 787-723-2260; or contact Terminal de San Juan at 787-729-8714. http://prpa.pr.gov.
Although you won't find restaurants on piers 1, 3 or 4 or the Pan American premises, they are plentiful in Old San Juan. Options range from chain eateries to local-cuisine restaurants and cafes. Pier 4 has a duty-free store. And the ferry terminal, marked Pier 2 Acuaexpreso, offers a variety of eateries such as the terminal cafeteria, an ice-cream shop and a coffeehouse.
Most hotels provide internet access; Cafe Berlin at 407 Calle San Francisco in front of Plaza Colon also has Wi-Fi for patrons.
Taxis are readily available at the port, and a free trolley stops across from Pier 4 with hop-on, hop-off service through Old San Juan. Charlie Car Rental has an office in the nearby Condado area (phone 787-721-6525; http://www.charliecars.com). Hertz has a location at the Sheraton Old San Juan on Calle Brumbaugh (phone 787-721-5100).
If you're flying into San Juan to catch a ship, know that most cruise lines provide transportation from the airport to the pier; otherwise, a taxi ride to the port costs about US$22.
Typical excursions may take you on a tour of the city, a rum distillery or the rain forest, or you can choose more vigorous activities, such as golf, rock climbing, hiking, kayaking or a trek through the mountains on horseback. You can also tour the forest canopy via a zipline or take an excursion to the west shore.
Check with your travel agent for additional information. To experience San Juan on your own, be sure to stop by the Old San Juan Tourism Office.
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