Overview

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.

Note: Puerto Rico sustained severe damage during Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Recovery efforts may take years. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.

Geography

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.

History

After Columbus discovered 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 three nonbinding plebiscites on statehood—the most recent in 1998—but the majority of the voters apparently prefer their current status to becoming the 51st U.S. state.

Proponents of statehood have not given up, however, and 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.

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.

Sightseeing

With its narrow cobblestoned streets, lovely Old San Juan is best explored on foot. Begin your tour in the southwest corner of the walled city at Paseo de la Princesa, a promenade with a spectacular view of San Juan Bay. Midway down the promenade is La Princesa, a former prison that currently houses the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. and displays rotating art exhibits that are open to the public.

Walk northwest along Paseo de la Princesa toward San Juan Gate, one of the old city's original seaside entrances. You can head into the city through the gate or continue walking the promenade all around the outer border of the colonial walls that surround Old San Juan, which leads to El Morro, the fortress at the tip of the peninsula.

If you pass through San Juan Gate, take an immediate right to visit La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion built in 1533, or continue walking eastward toward the Catedral de San Juan and Casa Blanca, which lie a few blocks beyond the gate.

Be sure to linger among the charming streets of the old city, especially in Plaza del Quinto Centenario, Plaza San Jose or Plaza de Armas. Beautiful Spanish colonial buildings border each square.

Nature lovers will want to make time for the dramatic rain forest at El Yunque, a U.S. National Park located about an hour outside the city. For those wishing to stay closer to San Juan, the Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanico de Rio Piedras) is located on Route 1 about 15 minutes by car from the city center. This nature reserve serves as a research center for the University of Puerto Rico and offers the public 200 acres/80 hectares of strikingly beautiful tropical flora and fauna.

Nightlife

San Juan lights up after dark. There's always plenty of action in the island's casinos, many of which are located in the larger hotels along the strip in Condado and Isla Verde. Most are entertaining whether you're gambling or not. Casinos open at noon and don't close till 4 am—some stay open 24 hours. Remember that there is a law prohibiting smoking inside establishments in Puerto Rico; this includes bars, casinos, clubs, hotels, shopping centers and restaurants.

Most of the larger hotels also have discos or live-music clubs—the Condado Plaza, Caribe Hilton, La Concha Renaissance Resort, San Juan Marriott and El San Juan often have bands playing salsa and other Latin rhythms into the late hours. The Water & Beach Club Hotel is the area's hottest spot: Its ground-floor and rooftop bars attract San Juan's most attractive night owls, Brava at El San Juan Hotel draws big crowds, and the lounge at La Concha is the ultramodern place to be.

Old San Juan is full of small, interesting music venues. If you're visiting the island mid-January, be sure to participate in the wild festivities of the Fiestas de La Calle San Sebastian (the San Sebastian Street Festival); it is similar to Mardi Gras, but with a Latin kick. You'll usually find the streets around Plaza San Jose packed with partygoers who are either drifting between bars or listening to a plena band (traditional Puerto Rican music) playing on a street corner. On weekends, the nightspots in hotels don't close their doors until 3-5 am. Outside the hotels, clubs usually stay open till 2 or 3 am. Although there is heightened police presence, take caution when in Old San Juan at night, especially during the San Sebastian Street Festival—there has been an increase in random assaults and street shootings by passing motorcyclists.

Although San Juan's drinking age is 18, many of the city's trendiest places have a policy that requires patrons to be at least 23-25 years old. The restriction preserves the clubs' exclusivity and their sophisticated appeal.

Dining

San Juan's restaurant explosion has breathed new life into the local dining scene. The assortment of eateries is multicultural, reflecting both international trends and the increased interest in ethnic cuisine.

Some of the most popular places—many of which are in the restaurant hub of SoFo, the trendy Old San Juan dining and nightlife area south of Calle Fortaleza—specialize in creative cuisine that reinvents traditional dishes using Latin, Caribbean and Asian flavors.

Condado, beyond Old San Juan, also has experienced an infusion of diverse dining options.

Be sure to sample typical Puerto Rican cocina criolla—a Creole cuisine that's a blend of Spanish, African and Taino Indian food and includes roast pork and chicken, seafood, rice, beans, tubers and plantains. It's spiced with peppers, garlic, cilantro, oregano and ginger. There are plenty of small, out-of-the-way restaurants, called mesones, where locals eat. When you find one, try the wonderful Puerto Rican barbecued chicken, mofongo (mashed plantains with garlic) or sancocho (beef stew with vegetable roots).

A great variety of delicious fried dishes can be found at kiosks near the beach or on the street, such as alcapurrias, arepa-like dumplings made of a mixture of yucca or plantain and filled with crab, chicken, fish or ground beef. Other good kiosk food includes bacalaitos (a deep-fried mixture of wheat flour, spices and pieces of codfish), piononos (ground beef, corn and spices wrapped in a mixture of ripe plaintain and wheat and deep fried); and empanadillas, which are larger than South American-style empanadas, filled with ground beef, cheese, pizza mix, fish, shrimp, lobster or chicken.

General dining times are 7-11 am for breakfast, noon-3 pm for lunch and 6-11 pm for dinner (although some restaurants serve dinner as late as midnight). Please also note that Puerto Rico enforces its law against smoking inside establishments, including restaurants, hotels and casinos.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a single meal, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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