San juan Travel Guide

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Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort

Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort

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Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan, (pop. est. 500,000, 1.1 million in Metropolitan area) the Caribbean’s commercial hub is an intriguing mixture of old and new. Start your tour in charming Old San Juan which is perched atop a hill on a small island facing the Atlantic Ocean. (Parking is limited so it’s best to tour the area on foot.) This walled city—seven-square blocks of which are now a historic landmark—was founded in 1510. Today it is a showcase for four centuries of architectural treasures and the heart of the island’s unique cultural identity. Great efforts have gone into preserving this part of the city including millions of dollars that were spent prior to 1993 when the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage was celebrated.

Take time to stroll along the narrow cobblestone streets and investigate the pastel-colored buildings restaurants boutiques museums mansions and nightclubs. The Paseo de la Princesa a newly revamped promenade that follows the waterfront and the Paseo de la Muralla which winds along the city walls are particularly romantic.

These two beautiful walks are even illuminated at night. (While that would be the best time for a relaxing stroll after the day’s heat subsides it is also important to stay safe and vigilant as one would be in any large city at night. However, there are place strolling on foot and cars everywhere.)

Save some energy and time for the three trademark forts that have resisted attacks by foreign invaders as well as city developers: El Morro the largest which commands San Juan Bay with six levels of gun emplacements and walls that tower 140 ft/43 m above the Atlantic; San Cristobal which dates from the 18th century and has an intricate network of tunnels used for transportation and to ambush enemies; and San Jeronimo which is east of Old San Juan and has an interesting military museum.

Another must-see is La Fortaleza which was built in 1540 and is the oldest governor’s mansion still in use in the Americas. You can also visit two places associated with Ponce de Leon: the San Juan Cathedral (where the explorer is entombed) and Casa Blanca—his family home a gift from King Charles I. The house is arranged to show how Spanish aristocrats lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Along Calle del Cristo one of San Juan’s most interesting streets visit the Parque de las Palomas where thousands of pigeons have made their home alongside the city walls and the small Capilla del Cristo (Christ Chapel). Other sights include the Pablo Casals Museum (a collection of music and photographs of the famous cellist-conductor); Casa de los Contrafuertes (oldest house in San Juan) and the Dominican Convent (a white domed structure dominating the Plaza San Jose). The multilevel Quincentennial Plaza is a park and cultural complex that overlooks the ocean and celebrates Puerto Rico’s rich history.

Nearby the Ballajá barracks once home to the city’s Spanish troops now serve as the Museo de las Americas (exhibits include a permanent collection of Latin American folk art and changing exhibits highlighting artists from Latin America and the Caribbean). The city’s harbor which is the premier cruise port and container-ship terminal in the Caribbean has been extensively renovated and a new hotel and shopping gallery now face the ship’s berths. Many of the down-at-the-heel buildings nearby have had or are undergoing facelifts.

While sightseeing in Old San Juan requires a lot of walking several plazas invite rest stops. Allow a full day for the old city and prepare yourself for heavy traffic and crowded sidewalks which get worse as the day goes on.

In the San Juan suburb of Cataño visit the Bacardi rum factory. The Museum of Anthropology and the University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens in the San Juan district of Río Piedras is also worth a visit. Modern San Juan is spread out and you’ll want to hire taxis or use a rental car to get from place to place. There is also a bus system (though complicated and not always on time) as well as a newly functioning mass transit rail system that travels from the Sacred Heart University in the Southern section of the San Juan borough of Santurce to the western suburb of Bayamón. (If you’re feeling energetic the walk between Old San Juan and the beach resort district of Condado is not out of the question but most tourists will find that there’s really little of interest between the areas.) For an interesting view of the city and the harbor there are also bay cruises that last an hour and a half. There are also hosted half- and full-day tours of outlying areas that leave from San Juan

When you are tired of sightseeing head for the beach. There are beaches right in San Juan and the best are in the district of Ocean Park and in the Isla Verde district of the suburb of Carolina where the LMM International airport is actually located. Condado’s beachfront is a wall of hotels restaurants and boutiques which can make beach access difficult for nonguests. (Don’t be intimidated—all beaches in Puerto Rico are public. You may have to pay to use the facilities however.) Isla Verde is lined with big chalk-white blocks of condos and luxury hotels. Though crowded on weekends it’s still one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.

San Juan’s pace never flags; if anything it picks up after dark. Most casinos in the larger hotels stay open until the wee hours (among them the hopping Marriott’s San Juan Resort Caribe Hilton Condado Plaza Ritz-Carlton Wyndham El San Juan and San Juan Grand). Keep in mind that liquor is not served in the gambling areas and jackets are required for men in some of the casinos. Many of San Juan’s best clubs and discos are also in the large hotels including the Babylon nightclub in the San Juan Grand and the dance floors at the Condado Plaza and Marriott. The Caribe Hilton’s orchestra is a local landmark and keeps the dance floor full. After hours in Old San Juan El Convento Hotel offers smooth jazz and piano music.

Throughout the year San Juan celebrates its rich heritage with festivals and music events. LeLoLai is a folklore show put on Tuesday nights at the Convention Center in the Condado. There is also the annual Casals Festival (classical music with world-renowned artists—June) and the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazzfest (jazz with a Latin flair—June). Other festivals are San Juan Bautista Day (all-night celebration for the patron saint St. John the Baptist—June) International Light Tackle Tournament (premier game-fishing tournament—September) Inter-American Festival of the Arts (classical popular and folk music—September-October) Bomba y Plena Festival (celebration of the Afro-Caribbean heritage—November) Bacardi Arts Festival (largest artisans’ fair on the island—December).

Note: Remember that some areas of San Juan have high rates of crime so make inquiries about a neighborhood’s safety before exploring. Also if you are to stay in San Juan you can go to the Dorado Hyatt which is a lovely hotel or Cerromar Beach Hotel nearby.

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