Old San Juan, Puerto Rico may be small (around 7 square blocks), but there are still lots of attractions to see. You can easily spend a full day exploring the walled city of San Juan, but if you only have a few hours to spare, you can still get a feel for the place.
This self-guided walking tour of Old San Juan will be split into two parts. The first part will take you from near the cruise ship piers at the La Casita (Tourist Information Center) along the Paseo La Princesa, through the San Juan gate and then on to El Morro. In Part 2 we will then head back into Old San Juan and take you to La Fortaleza, the shopping district, San Cristobel Fort and back to the Tourist Information Center.
The first thing that you will notice about Old San Juan is that it is a walled city that looks today as it did 300 – 400 years ago, when the Spanish defended the city from the invading British. As you wander around the city, enjoy the Spanish colonial buildings that make up the heart of the city.
To orientate yourself, take a look at the Old San Juan map that highlights attractions and related articles.
The tour starts at the La Casita which is now the Tourist Information Center. The building is located close to the cruise ship piers at Plaza de la Darsena.This is a great place to start your tour of Old San Juan, as you can get information on attractions, maps, restaurants and more from the helpful staff (bilingual).
La Casita is open daily from 8am – 8pm, but the free drinks only start at 1pm and are not available on Thursday / Friday. 787-729-6777
Coqui bonus: Sample a free drink courtesy of ‘Rums of Puerto Rico’
Coqui note: On Saturday / Sunday (late afternoon / evening) the area around the La Casita is a popular spot as local artisans display their crafts and local musicians fill the air with traditional music.
Paseo La Princesa
From La Casita keep the San Juan bay on your left and head towards the Paseo La Princesa promenade. This is a tree lined walk (and one of my favorite spots) with gardens, benches, and street vendors. The promenade takes you along the outside of the city wall. The wall is impressive and you can see how it would be so imposing to anyone attempting to take the city by force. The wall is about 20ft thick raising to heights of around 60ft in places.
Further along the promenade you will pass the Old San Juan Jail – La Princesa. No longer a jail, it is the home of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The building is open weekdays to the general public, where you can take a tour of the cells.
Continue past the jail towards the Raices fountain; a bronze sculpture fountain designed by Luis Sanguino. This is a great photo opportunity spot.
Past the fountain the Paseo La Princesa continues to follow the city wall and the San Juan Bay. The walkway curves to the right and leads you to The San Juan Gate (city gate).
At this point, you can continue to follow the walkway towards El Morro or head through the large city gate.
Coqui note: The walk towards El Morro is nice with some great photo opportunities of El Morro, but unfortunately it is a dead end and you will need to retrace your steps back to the San Juan Gate
San Juan Gate
To enter into the city, pass through the large red gate. This gate is the last remaining gate that is still standing in the city. As you pass through the gate, look up to view the inscription ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini’ – translated ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. Here you can see just how thick the wall of the city is. Once through the gate, head up the hill towards the San Juan Cathedral. As you reach the top of the hill, you will see the Cathedral straight ahead and the Hotel El Convento on your left.
Coqui note: The Hotel El Convento has a great tapas restaurant that has an open air courtyard; just in case you are feeling hungry. Also close by is the Children’s Museum, which is open daily except Mondays.
San Juan Cathedral
The small; San Juan Cathedral was built 400 years ago and contains the remains of Ponce De Leon. Mass is offered Daily in Spanish.
With the Cathedral on your right, head up the hill (you are currently on Cristo Street). This street contains craft shops as well as ‘outlet stores’ for Coach, Ralph Lauren and others. There are also art galleries and restaurants to check out if you have the time.
At the top of Cristo Street you will find the Pablo Casals Museum, the African Heritage Museum and the Puerto Rico National Gallery (open daily except Sunday and Monday form 9am – 4:30pm).
At the top of Cristo Street turn left. You should see a large Totem pole. This is the Plaza del Quinto Centenario. The plaza is a popular spot, especially on hot days, due to the fountain, that is a big hit with children.
From the plaza you will see in the distance, the impressive structure of El Morro. El Morro is situated on the cliff edge with a large expansive field in front. If you are fortunate to be here on a weekend with good weather, you should see the field filled with families enjoying the sea breeze, as both young and old fly their kites.
Coqui note: You can purchase small kites from the street vendors located along the roadside.
Coqui caution: If you plan to walk to El Morro when the kites are flying, just be careful. You never know, when one might decide to come back down to earth…
As you approach El Morro you will get a sense of just how impressive this fortress is. Built on 6 levels to defend San Juan from sea attack; the fort was initially completed in 1589, with improvements made to the walls in the 1700’s.
El Morro is a National Historic Site maintained by the US National Park Service. Entrance costs a few dollars and you can either tour the fort on your own or join one of the regular ranger tours that are given in English (on the hour) or Spanish (30mins past the hour). Inside you will find a chapel, kitchen, latrine, barracks, all with informational displays.
El Morrow is open daily from 9am – 5pm (June to November) and 9am – 6pm (December – May).
Coqui note: The views from El Morro are striking at any time of the day and you will have plenty of photo opportunities from around the fort. It is also possible to arrange a wedding at the fort.
Coqui note: If you now want to see San Cristobel fort, jump on the free trolley that will take you to San Cristobel. If you are feeling energetic, you can walk along Nozagaray Street with the ocean to your left. (this walk is not recommended at night).
The Self Guided Walking Tour of Old San Juan will continue in Part 2.