Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
The Walled City
Old San Juan is actually an island connected to the main island by bridges on the eastern side. The oldest section is on the west side and walled in on 3 sides. The historic city is divided into seven square blocks. The northern side of the city is uphill and is comprised of the residential area of town. The southern part, or port area (ports 1-4), is the commercial and tourist section that is comprised of shops, piers, and most of the restaurants. The city’s eastern side is protected by Fort San Cristobal. The western area of the city contains Paseo dela Princesa, La Fortaleza (Governor’s Mansion) and Fort El Morro.
The city is characterized by its cobblestone streets and colorful buildings that date back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the island was Spanish. The district is also characterized by the large number of public squares and churches, including the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Juan, which houses the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. With the abundance of shops, historical places, museums, restaurants, its ancient beauty and architectural peculiarity, Old San Juan is one of the touristic axes of the island.
Old San Juan is the most preserved city in America since the 15th century, where you can see the true style of life and architecture made by the Spaniards of those times. Old San Juan transports you to a provincial era in the 21st century.
Today, Old San Juan is a busy center for tourism. San Juan is the main port Caribbean cruise and hosts more than 28 cruise lines, attracting millions of tourists to the city every year. You can tour the entire city that is 465 years old on foot. The El Morro and San Cristóbal forts are open for tourists just as many of the houses and buildings of the 16th and 17th centuries have been restored to their original architectural splendor and now house several museums full of fascinating stories and artifacts that tell the story of this ancient city.
Attractions – Places to Go Around Old San Juan
San Juan Bay
San Juan Bay is the busiest ocean port in the Caribbean, bringing in half of the region’s trade and over one million cruise ship visitors a year. San Juan Bay’s beauty and ecological diversity attracts tourism and a variety of recreational activities. Bayside shops carry everything from gold jewelry to island arts and crafts.
San Juan Gate
Built in 1635, it’s the oldest and last gate standing since. San Juan was a gated city with five gates including the San Juan Gate “La Puerta de San Juan” which was the main gate to the city. As you approach the gate you will be able to see the inscription “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” Blessed who comes in the name of the Lord.
City Wall “La Muralla”
The City Wall is one of the most valuable historical monuments and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Puerto Rico. Built with the purpose of protecting the city from enemy attacks. Its construction began in 1634 and its masonry walls 20 feet thick were completed in 1782. From here, you can see across the bay the “Isla de Cabras” and a small Spanish fort “Fortín San Juan de la Cruz”.
Fort San Cristóbal
The largest fort ever built by Spain in the New World. The imposing “Castillo San Cristóbal” was completed in 1785. It was intended to protect against an invasion of land, so it was ingeniously designed according to a model of “defense in depth” that created numerous successful barriers against the advance of enemy forces. In 1983, the site was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Castillo San Felipe del Moro
Located on the Northwestern most point of old San Juan, the Castillo San Felipe del Moro was built on the orders of King Charles V of Spain. Construction began in 1539 and over the next 400 years additions were added to keep up with military technology. During World War I and World War II, the US Military occupied the fort and continued to until 1961. In 1983 the fort was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort, known simply as El Morro, consists of six levels.
La Fortaleza was built in the early 1500’s as the first fortification in San Juan Harbor. Built to defend against invaders, the fort was only successfully conquered twice, once by the British in 1533 and once by the Dutch. Today the fort is the residence and working offices of the Governor of Puerto Rico and is the oldest functioning Executive mansion in the western hemisphere. While the fort is still a functioning building, tours are offered where you can see examples of early Spanish architecture and old stone fortifications.
The beach of Condado is a very popular beach among tourists in San Juan craving for a Caribbean beach resort experience with all the vibrant life of a city just steps away. Condado is often compared to the vibe of Miami Beach, the cultural experiences, nearby beaches and world class attractions make Condado Beach even more attractive, not to mention the weather is warmer all year round.
El Capitolio – Puerto Rico’s Capital Building
El Capitolio de Puerto Rico was to become the House of Representatives and the location for senators’ offices. The building faces the Atlantic Ocean and has a somewhat intimidating design. With its spectacular architectural design and beautiful friezes and mosaics added as a finishing touch, the Capital Building of Puerto Rico is an impressive feat of construction and décor that instills respect and awe into all that come through its doors. There are two main entrances to the Puerto Rico Capital Building; one entrance is to the south and the other to the North.
Plaza de Armas
This is the city’s nominal ‘central’ square, laid out in the 16th century with the classic look of plazas from Madrid and Mexico. A highlight of the plaza is the Alcaldía, which dates from 1789 and has twin turrets resembling those of its counterpart in Madrid. This building houses the mayor’s office and is the site of periodic exhibitions. As one of the main squares in San Juan, Plaza de Armas often serves as a meeting point for both locals and tourists. The square is dominated by an impressive round fountain, surrounded by four statues that personify the four seasons.
Playita del Condado Beach
Playita del Condado Beach will feel like a surprise when you visit the district of Condado. As you cross Puente Dos Hermanos bridge east onto Ashford Avenue, you’ll find a small beach tucked away on the northeast corner with soft golden sand shaded by palm trees and almond trees. Although small, this beach certainly makes up for it with its clear, calm, aquamarine waters. This beach is also a historic site. Across from it, you can enjoy views of Fortin (Fort) San Geronimo contrasting with the modern architecture of Plaza Caribe Hilton.
Things to Know Before You Go
- The neighborhood is a must-see for history buffs and those seeking postcard-worthy views.
- Visitors flock to Old San Juan year-round, so be prepared for crowds, especially in the busy summer season.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes to help navigate the cobblestones, and pack lightweight clothing and sun protection for the near constant warm weather.
How to Get to Old San Juan
Old San Juan is located on an islet, attached to the mainland of Puerto Rico by three bridges. If you’re coming from the mainland or the airport, book an airport transfer or drive over the bridges. Those arriving as Caribbean cruise ship passengers will likely dock at one of the many cruise ship piers in the neighborhood. Once in Old San Juan, getting around the area is easy by foot or taxi, and a free trolley system also runs through the area.