by Bill Alvarez
What is now known as Old San Juan is now only a small portion of the city of San Juan, but was once a town in its own right. Founded in 1509, after the original “capital” of Caparra (founded by Ponce de Leon in what is now Guaynabo) was abandoned, the area was first known as ‘Puerto Rico”, until it was rechristened as “San Juan Bautista” in 1521. Old San Juan is about seven square blocks in size, and you can see most of it by foot, although this can be made difficult by the steep hills and the heat. OSJ is in reality an island itself, and rises from the area by the cruise ship piers and the Paseo de la Princesa up towards Calle San Sebastian and El Morro castle. An ancient city wall surrounds it, and its narrow cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial architecture give it a unique, charming look.
Old San Juan boasts two major Spanish colonial forts: San Felipe del Morro, or just “El Morro” (built in the 16th century) and San Cristobal (built in the 18th century). Both are managed by the United States Park Service. El Morro has numerous rooms, staircases, guard posts (known locally as “garitas”) and a lighthouse. Admission to El Morro is $3.00 per adult (or you can pay $5 to visit both El Morro and San Cristobal). Children 15 and under get in for free. San Cristobal is smaller, and located along the northern edge of the old city, east of El Morro. Entrance fees are the same for both fortifications, and guided tours are available for both. El Morro has a huge, green lawn in front of the fort, which is a great place to walk, picnic or fly a kite. More information here:http://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm
Old San Juan has various museums to meet different tastes (and most of them are air conditioned, which I’m sure you will appreciate). Several museums are located at Cuartel Ballaja, a former Spanish military headquarters, which has been turned into a cultural center. It is located across the street from the El Morro grounds. For example, Ballaja hosts the Museum of Coffee, Tobacco and Rum as well as theCasa del Libro (‘House of the Book’) on its first level. Both of these museums are free of charge. On Cuartel Ballaja’s second floor, you can find the Museum of the Americas (http://www.museolasamericas.org/), which deals mostly with the history and culture of the Americas (“from Alaska to Patagonia”). Admission to this museum is $3 each for adults and $2 for children and seniors.
Inside the Convento de los Dominicos at San Jose Plaza (uphill, on the way to El Morro), you can find the excellent Galeria Nacional, which highlights visual art (mostly paintings) from Puerto Rican artists from the 18th century onwards. The museum is divided into three separate rooms. No photography is allowed. Admission as of summer 2013 was $2 per adult.
You can also visit the Museo de San Juan, which showcases the city’s history, on 150 Norzagaray Street, not far from the Galeria Nacional. It is roughly located between El Morro and San Cristobal castles, facing the ocean. Admission is free.
As the name suggests, this is a small park inhabited by hundreds of pigeons, many of whom live in square holes along an ancient wall on the south side of the park. You can usually buy some corn or other type of feed from someone at the park for a dollar a bag which you can use to feed the birds. But watch out! These pigeons are not shy about not just going up to you to get their grub on, but they will get ON you as well. It’s a lot of fun to feed them, but I would recommend bringing a hat, some hand sanitizer and napkins. Maybe a spare shirt, too. The park is located at the very bottom of Calle del Cristo (next to the “Capilla del Cristo” or “Christ’s Chapel”) and admission is free.
A free trolley which covers the great majority of Old San Juan is available. Stops are scattered throughout the old city. The Puerto Rico Governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, is conveniently located on the street of the same name. Walk along thePaseo de la Princesa (located at the bottom of OSJ) and take a look at the ancient wall surrounding the city, right in front of the ocean. Very romantic.
If you want to gamble, casino gambling in licensed establishments is legal (more on that in the Casino section). Old San Juan has one main casino, the one at the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel at 100 Brumbaugh Street (downhill, across the street from the cruise ship piers). Their website can be found here:http://www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1497
Old San Juan has several bars for those wanting either a cold drink during a day of walking or a fun spot to hang out after dark. My favorite ones are El Batey on Calle del Cristo and Nono’s. As far as restaurants go, there are too many to list, but I personally recommend Mojito’s and Dragonfly.
San Juan, Puerto Rico Facts
Atlantic (UTC -4)
Spanish (main), English
Want more information about visiting Puerto Rico? Check out The Real Deal Guide to Puerto Rico, available for the Amazon Kindle.