Founded in 1521 by Ponce de León, the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan, is the oldest city on US territory. The metropolitan area of San Juan is home to half of the island's almost four million citizens; it is also the heart of Puerto Rican tourism. The city is best known for its beautifully restored historic district, Old San Juan, situated on a rocky peninsula girded by twenty-feet thick walls jutting into the crashing Atlantic surf. Unlike other such gems of Spanish colonial architecture, San Juan also offers miles of smooth, clean beaches, a wide range of accommodation, fabulous restaurants and a lively nightlife.
Along with Old San Juan, resort-filled Condado is the most popular neighbourhood for visitors thanks to its excellent beachfront and fine boutiques, and these two sections of the capital share the highest concentration of restaurants and lodging options. There's plenty more to explore: further east is up-and-coming Santurce with its numerous art galleries and trendy nightclubs; and the beachfront neighbourhoods of Ocean Park and Isla Verde, beyond which are the deserted palm-fringed beaches of Piñones. To the south lies the financial district of Hato Rey, and then Río Piedras with its easygoing college-town vibe.
Excellent day-trips can be made to some of the island's top attractions: east to El Yunque rainforest and famous Luquillo Beach; or west to the Río Camuy Cave Park and the striking Arecibo Observatory in the karst country.
Many believe San Juan is a small Spanish colonial town with but a few bustling avenues. However this impression does not aptly describe the breath and depth of this fine old-world city. Modern-day San Juan encompasses a vast metropolis that covers seven unique and distinct districts. This makes for an eclectic combination of sights and sounds that is essential to the wonder and joy of visiting San Juan.
Old San Juan/Puerta de Tierra
San Juan is a traditional, colonial city that is bordered by walls. As the seat of the island's bicameral government, it houses La Fortaleza , home of the Governor and El Capitolio , the seat of the House of Representatives. The Senate, on the other hand, is located in nearby Puerta de Tierra. However, both districts can be found on the islet of San Juan and are connected to the mainland via several bridges. Old San Juan itself consists of narrow streets encompassing over four hundred years of history and tradition. Dine in one of the great establishments on Fortaleza Street, party in San Sebastián until dawn, or simply stroll along the charming avenues and thoroughfares. Similar to Europe, a famous tradition in Old San Juan is to people-watch, and there is no better place to indulge in this activity than from one of the several plazas that are located throughout the city. This town has something for all ages, young and old. A must-see is the impressive Spanish fort El Morro located on the north side of the islet. While a lot of Old San Juan has been in a state of disrepair, the current renovations are making this once decrepit community an acceptable tourist destination.
El Condado, as the locals say, is the island's most glamorous district, featuring boutiques, a variety of restaurants, and some of the finest hotels on the island. Contrary to popular belief, many nationals do reside here in the exquisite turn-of-the-century mansions. You'll notice the populace on any given day to be a good balance between tourists and locals. If you are an avid jogger, you'll love the expanse of open area.
Isla Verde is home to high-rise apartment buildings, huge clubs and luxurious hotels. This area is actually part of the municipality of Carolina, connected to San Juan via several highways and streets. It spans from the Punta Las Marías area (adjacent to Ocean Park) to the land just beyond the International Airport. Its nightlife is exciting, and the enormous balneario, or public beach, is where locals and guests come to sunbathe and get their fill of people-watching.
Hato Rey is several miles from Old San Juan but is easily accessible. It is the island's central commercial district, where the local wheelers and dealers conduct their business. Thus, its restaurant scene caters to more business people than anywhere else on the island. Roosevelt, the district's residential area, can be found just off Highway 52. It is one of the most famous venues for nightlife in San Juan, and the Plaza Las Americas , the Caribbean's largest mall, is also located here.
Both the Santurce and Miramar districts are located just off Condado and Old San Juan, but north of Hato Rey. Santurce was originally an upper-class neighborhood and entertainment. Today, there are office buildings and abandoned structures with a small but very good marketplace (Plaza del Mercado). A major campaign is under way by City Hall to restore the sector's vitality.
This district is known as University City because it houses the University of Puerto Rico. Visiting Río Piedras is enlightening for those who want to explore the real Puerto Rico first-hand. The district has a traditional Plaza del Mercado and a very hometown atmosphere.
Puerto Rico is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world. The eclectic choices are truly global and are dependent upon your individual preferences. Here you can find French, German, Greek, Asian, Italian, Spanish and of course Caribbean, just to name a few. You'll delight in Nouveau Latino cooking (traditional Puerto Rican creations updated with modern cooking techniques). From casual to haute cuisine, dining in Puerto Rico offers travelers an international taste sensation.
Old San Juan
In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico's most historic wining and dining neighborhood, one can choose from Il Perugino (one of the best Italian eateries on the island), Bombonera (Caribbean traditional) or Siglo XX (Spanish tapas delights). Another fine Italian dining experience can be found at the quaint Ambrosía on Calle del Cristo . Discover fine-dining excellence at El Picoteo and Cafe del Níspero, both located in the Hotel El Convento . If you favor American, Old San Juan has a Hard Rock Cafe . Gourmets will enjoy the gourmet creations at Trois Cent Onze . Nouveau Latino cuisine can be experienced at its best at The Parrot Club or Amadeus . The Cafe Berlin is known for its vegetarian specialties. Also, La Mallorquina and El Patio de Sam offer the some of the best Puerto Rican cuisine in the old city. Grab a drink at the very popular Nono's . Perfect for a pre or post-theater meal, Toro Salao is located adjacent to the Tapia Theatre .
The Isla Verde district is not to be overlooked when seeking restaurant alternatives. Some of Puerto Rico's top choices are tucked away inside Isla Verde's hotels. Some very excellent choices include the Ritz-Carlton , InterContinental San Juan and El San Juan Hotel & Casino . Oriental cuisine is served at Momoyama , and Yamato . Love Italian? Try Ciao Mediterranean Restaurant and La Piccola Fontana . Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine can be sampled at the excellent Metropol or Casa Dante . The Ranch offers American specialties. Steakhouses include the superb Ruth's Chris and the elegant The Palm . The Tequila Bar and Grill offers excellent Mexican cuisine. For cocktails with lots of atmosphere, try the lobby lounges within some of these hotels or stop in at Lupi's (Mexican cantina) for one of their special margaritas.
Condado is a real find for those who crave gourmet seafood. Some of the island's best restaurants are to be found in Condado. Prime examples include the award-winning Spanish eatery, Compostela. Magdalena Street showcases several great restaurants including Antonio's , Cielito Lindo , the very cosmopolitan Urdín and JoseJose . Also included on Condado's recommended dining spots are Pikayo (featured in Conde Nást magazine). The Tuscany inside the San Juan Marriott are also highly rated. Condado's dining options seem endless! Try to plan at least one meal at Miró (Catalan seafood) or the famous Ajili-Mójili. Martino's serves up great Italian cuisine and the Greenhouse is often a stop-off point for an after-concert taste treat. If you hunger for a down-to-earth, hearty, grab a bagel from the Big Apple .
The island's main business district offers ample lunch and dining options. Restaurants include the elegant Zipperle , the popular Yuan , and the Coachman Steakhouse . For a fun atmosphere and something different at reasonable prices, go Middle Eastern at Al Salam , and Tierra Santa . Or, for an Oriental meal you may want to check out the Yum Yum Tree or Kimpo Garden . Sample Puerto Rican home-style dining at Cueva del Chicken Inn . Upscale cuisine is available at the intimate Los Chavales . You'll find that Il Cuoco and Metropol offer two distinctly different styles of cuisine (Italian and Cuban) at affordable prices. Grab a casual drink and a bite from El Mesón y Algo Más on Roosevelt.
In recent years this San Juan suburb has increased its share of fine restaurants. Guaynabo is home to Burbuja's Cafe (Spanish) and El Caribe . This district is gaining in popularity and will surely be offering more choices in the upcoming years.
The University City offers its share of fine restaurants, but excels in pubs and hangouts catering to the university crowd. Among the notable restaurants are Cafe Valencia , El Isleño and the El Tropical (delicious!).
Miramar hosts three of the best restaurants in Puerto Rico, namely the ultra classic Augusto's, the chic and eclectic Chayote (Nouveau Latino) and the exquisite La Casona. Stop into, Havana's Cafe or the excellent Pizzeria Uno at Centro Europa for more casual fare.
Old San Juan
This walking tour highlights the most important sights in San Juan's Old City, including Fuerte San Felipe del Morro (El Morro Fortress), Cristo Street , San Juan Cathedral and La Muralla (city wall). Old San Juan runs from the south to north end of the islet where Puerto Rico's Spanish roots are preserved. It's connected to the mainland by bridges and a causeway. Contemporary high-rise resorts hug the waterfront to the east and across the bay to the west. Strap on your walking shoes and commence your tour at the Doña Fela parking lot on Recinto Sur Street. Or as an alternative, begin at the Plazoleta Rafael Carrión (just in front of the Banco Popular Building). Heading west you will pass the San Justo, Cruz, and San Jose intersections. This stretch is a bit steep but worth the effort, as it offers great views of the bay. Once you reach the Capilla del Cristo (Christ Chapel) you will be on Cristo Street. To your left (heading north), discover the lush landscaping at the Parque de las Palomas . Along the way, you will have plenty of opportunities to enjoy a respite at one of the lovely traditional Puerto Rican street cafes.
When you reach the Fortaleza Street intersection, the Governor's mansion is located on the left. Its official name is the Palacio de Santa Catalina, but it is known popularly as La Fortaleza . As you continue north, the San Juan Cathedral is visible on your right, across from the Grand Hotel El Convento. As your stroll continues, you'll pass Plaza San Jose , which leads to the historic church of the same name. From this strategic vantage point, you will be able to spy Plaza del Quinto Centenario on your left. Here the imposing six-level fort, El Morro will loom onto to the horizon. Now part of the San Juan National Historical site, it operates under the auspices of the National Park Service. Tours are conducted via guides (free from 10a-4p), or you may choose to conduct a self-guided exploration. Wander through its dungeons, lookouts, barracks and vaults. Don't miss a visit to the small museum for a history lesson dating back to the 1500s.
Here the imposing six-level fort, will loom onto to the horizon. Now part of the San Juan National Historical site, it operates under the auspices of the National Park Service. Tours are conducted via guides (free from 10a-4p), or you may choose to conduct a self-guided exploration. Wander through its dungeons, lookouts, barracks and vaults. Don't miss a visit to the small museum for a history lesson dating back to the 1500s. Old San Juan is small—a seven-square-block area of pastel-colored colonial buildings surrounded by a 140-foot wall built to fend off invaders. From El Morro, go south via the trail off the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (plastics art school) and the Asilo de Beneficiencia (home for the indigent). After you pass the pink Casa Rosada you'll reach La Rogativa, which is a small plaza with a huge bronze sculpture depicting a religious procession. Note La Fortaleza's guarded patio. Then continue your walk through the Puerta de San Juan (San Juan city gate) into the promenade and you'll reach the beautiful avenue, Paseo de la Princesa. From here the view of the bay is simply breathtaking. Proceed east and you'll be back at the Banco Popular Building, ready to begin your next adventure.
San Juan's Plazas
One thing for sure is that there is no shortage of plazas in San Juan. Begin this tour at the Doña Fela parking lot on Recinto Sur Street in Old San Juan. Walk east along Recinto Sur Street, where you will approach the beautiful Tapia Theatre and the If you need a distraction, take a short detour over to the Casino of Puerto Rico, where you can try your hand at a game of chance. Afterward cruise down San Francisco Street until you reach the intersection of Tanca and San Justo Streets. Your first destination is the Plaza de Armas, which is the central plaza in front of City Hall. Here you can rest or enjoy an afternoon concert at the Plaza, if your timing is right. If not, you'll want to take the opportunity to explore the many shopping opportunities in the area surrounding Plaza de Armas . This short tour is great for the daydreamer or the shopaholic!
The Arecibo Observatory , featured in movies like James Bond's "Goldeneye," is remarkable. It runs on a continuous 24 hour basis and all of the research is made available to the public. It is the world's largest single dish radio telescope and use of the telescope is available to scientists throughout the world. A true wonder of human invention. Operated by Cornell University, it consists of a large 20-acre radar dish laid on a sinkhole more than 550 feet deep. The Observatory is a center for the SETI program, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Rio Camuy Cave System
Puerto Rico's northernmost region features the extensive Río Camuy Underground Cave System , 268-acres of impressive caves. It is the largest system of its type in Puerto Rico and it is one of the largest cave systems in the world. Located in the town of Camuy on Route 129, the world's third longest subterranean river runs through the attraction. The largest cavern is called Cueva Clara de Enpalme and it is 688 feet in length and 213 feet in height. The Tres Pueblos sinkhole is another fascinating feature in this cave system, it is 426 feet deep and 705 feet wide. Don't fall in!
The island's east coast is perfect for those who love nature. Here you will find breezy beaches and a very unique rain forest. A must are the roadside "kioskos" (informal restaurants) in the town of Luquillo that serve delicious local specialties. Luquillo's beaches are some of the finest on the island. Soft sand and a tranquil atmosphere make them a great option to the crowded beaches in San Juan. The Balneario de Luquillo is a government-operated beach that opens daily and offers full facilities. The El Yunque Caribbean National Forest is the crown jewel of Puerto Rico's natural resource portfolio and makes an excellent family day trip. More than 25,000 acres of lush vegetation, including 240 different tree species, are found here. The very rare Puerto Rican parrot is one of the most notable species living in the reserve.
Mayaguez & Rincon
Puerto Rico's western coast is just coming into its own. Long overlooked as a tourist destination, only the Rincon area was even in mentioned in the guidebooks. Although there are many small beach villages here (such as Boqueron, Combate and Parguera), the standouts are Mayaguez and Rincon. Mayaguez offers visitors the only zoo in Puerto Rico, located right in the center of town. Art lovers should visit the city's Teatro Yaguez (a performing arts center), built in the Art Deco style. The downtown area's architecture recalls the Spanish colonial style. Rincon is known as the surf capital of the Caribbean and has several world-class surfing beaches . As a result, the town has evolved into a bustling tourist haven.
The colonial city of Ponce is one of Puerto Rico's most beautiful and classic attractions. A full day is appropriate to appreciate its cultural wealth. Among the most important sights to visit is the Serralles Castle, built on top of a hill that overlooks the city. It would be a shame to miss a visit to the Ponce Museum of Art , one of the Caribbean's best and host to several major international expositions. Love Native American cultures? The Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center is located off the town and depicts life five hundred years ago. The city center is a great district for leisurely walks, and at the Plaza de las Delicias, you'll find the Ponce Fire House (Parque de Bombas), one of the most photographed buildings in all of Puerto Rico.
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