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.
If you are taking a cruise that stops in San Juan for the day, here is a list of recommended tours.
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 José 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 cafés.
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 José, 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.