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Travel the Caribbean: What to See in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Catherine is an avid traveler and applies her experience in the environmental sciences to give a global view of travel domestic and abroad.

El Yunque Rainforest Waterfall

El Yunque Rainforest Waterfall

VIsitors to Puerto Rico flock to Old San Juan; known for its year round festivities, cuisine, and rum. San Juan is also right next door for beautiful beaches and great oceanide resort hotels. Old San Juan is also a convenient destination to travel to with the airport being only 10 miles away, allowing you to be in this main hub in a quick 20 minutes by taxi. From the US, you can travel to this island territory by plane or by cruise boat, with a major cruise port being directly off the Old San Juan center. If you only have one day here for your excursion day during your cruise, there are plenty of attractions you can squeeze. If you're flying or have an overnight stay with your cruise, there are even more great attraction options and places to stay, from moderately priced hotels to the delicious local cuisine. This is a list of what to see, eat, and do during your visit to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, based on my experiences when I've visited before.

Where to Stay

There are hotels within Old San Juan that allow you to stay among the colorful buildings that line the cobbled streets there. This includes the Fortaleza Suites Old San Juan and the cheekily named CasaBlanca Hotel, both great options if you want to stay in the center of it all. These hotels allow you to step outside your front door and be instantly surrounded by the sites and smells of this vibrant city.

If you're interested in staying just outside Old San Juan, you can try the Embassy Suites Hotel & Casino in San Juan. There are many options for places to stay along the main strip in San Juan on Ashford Ave. These towering resorts allow instant access to the beach without having to cross any streets or major roads. The towns near Old San Juan include Puerto de Tierra, Condado, Miramar, Santurce, Ocean Park or Isla Verde and run along the northern coast. These hotels also offer rooftop restaurants, bars and dance clubs, with a breathtaking view, as you could imagine, of the beach, San Juan, and you can even see Old San Juan from there. There are also cafes and bars attached to these hotels lining the beaches right on the sand, for an easy way to get a quick drink before exploring for the day.

There are plenty of moderately priced hotels too, sprinkled throughout Old San Juan and San Juan, if you can't afford the big oceanside hotels. It's a short walk over to the grand hotels from yours if you stay at those only a few blocks away from the beach. You would just have a small walk through small streets and only one major road to cross from there. Some of the more glitzy options along the coast right on the beach include the El San Juan Hotel & Casino, The Inter-Continental Hotel & Casino or the Ritz-Carlton San Juan Spa & Casino for massive gaming and beachside dining.

The City Wall, Old San Juan

The City Wall, Old San Juan

Food

There are three options when it comes to dining in Puerto Rico: the hotel restaurants, the recognizable chains, or the authentic local cuisine. I think it’s good to delve a little into all three for money savings while still being able to enjoy some authentic food. When visiting Old San Juan, some great authentic Puerto Rican cuisine can be found at Casa Borinquen, El Buen Samaritano and La Bombonera.

For restaurant on the beach with some local flavor, check out Oceano. They're known for their seafood options but you can also come here to enjoy drinks and an amazing view. For a more modern, hip option try Punto de Vista (Point of View) Rooftop Restaurant which has amazing views of San Juan. This restaurant sits atop the Hotel Milano and offers authentic, Puerto Rican food in stunning setting.

If you're a coffee connoisseur, there are some wonderful options, such as Cafe Finca Cialitos. For your chocolate fix visit Chocobar Cortes, a trendy dessert bakery and cafe where the menus central theme is chocolate. But don't go here for just dessert, they also have great breakfast including french toast with chocolate sauce. Senor Paleta is known for their fresh ingredient popsicles with chunks of real strawberries right in the frozen bars. They also have some unique ice cream flavors such as salted caramel macchiato. It can be a refreshing stop on a hot day.

Old San Juan Coast

Old San Juan Coast

Sights

There are a number of great things to do during any given day in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. You can visit the Bacardi Distillery across San Juan Bay with free samples, a tour, and inexpensive bottled Bacardi Rum. The convenience of the location bring directly across from the cruise port makes this an easy first stop when you arrive.

Old San Juan is home to Fort Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, built in 1540, and Fort San Cristobal, built in 1634, and are now museums. Several battles have taken place here, both repeatedly attacked by the English and the Dutch, and San Cristobal fired some of the first shots from its cannons for the Spanish-American War.

The city walls are also a huge spectacle to see, built in 1630 and surrounding all of San Juan, they were built to protect against European invaders and Caribbean pirates. La Casita, a visitor information center, can give you all the info on the many other museums and historical sights. It’s located on Pier 1 in the heart of Old San Juan. Also go for the free mini bottle rum samples for tourists or even get a mixed drink made for you free at their mini bar.

If you have more time, you can take a trip outside of Old San Juan to Puerto Rico’s National Rainforest, El Yunque. It's a 45-minute drive away from Old San Juan. This lush rainforest is one of the best preserved in the US National Forest Service system. It’s a great way indulge in the tropical aspects of the island, with various tropical plants and birds not found anywhere else in the world.

The best way to see the rainforest is in a guided tour. The tour guides are knowledgeable, actually receiving Puerto Rican rainforest certificates, and friendly, in my personal experience. Simply book through your hotel, as many hotels work directly with the tour guides. The cost for a guided tour, which includes transportation, can range, but I went for $75 per person, which is well worth the money - Taking a cab or rent-a-car from San Jaun to the Rainforest is that price alone. Also, ask how many people the guide is taking on the day you want to go. You don’t want to pay to be struggling to hear your guide over a large party of people.

© 2013 Catherine Stolfi

Comments

Casimiro on April 07, 2013:

Puerto Rico is such an obvious, but often overlooked, destination for U.S. citizens. Thanks for such a great quickie tour of the island.

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