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Our Favorite Things to Do & See In San Juan

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Cait K
7 min read

San Juan: What Makes It So Special

San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a city where the sun dances on cobblestone streets, and ocean waves whisper tales of the old and new. As you walk, the scent of freshly brewed coffee mingles with the sea, teasing your senses and inviting exploration.

From the ancient majesty of El Morro to the pulsating nightlife, San Juan is a symphony of experiences and intoxicating charm.

Let's delve into the allure of this Caribbean gem!

Where is San Juan?

San Juan capitol San Juan, the sunny and vibrant capital of Puerto Rico, sits on the northeastern coast of this island paradise, relishing its strategic position between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The city is surrounded by water on three sides, with the Atlantic Ocean to the north and east and San Juan Bay to the south.

While technically an American territory, Puerto Rico boasts its own distinctive culture and history, with Spanish, African, and indigenous Taino influences mingling to create a unique blend. This diverse heritage is evident in everything from the colorful architecture to the flavorful cuisine.

The History of San Juan

San Juan's history is a rich tapestry woven through centuries of exploration, conflict, and cultural exchange. Established by Spanish colonists in 1521, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas.

This colonial period was marked by the construction of iconic fortresses like Castillo San Felipe del Morro (informally just called "El Morro"), symbolizing the city's historical importance. However, the colonization of Puerto Rico was not without its complications.

The indigenous Taino population was often subjugated and exploited; their culture gradually eroded as Spanish influence grew. Moreover, the island became a strategic point for military conflicts, enduring attacks from the likes of Sir Francis Drake and enduring the realities of war and conquest. Despite these challenges, San Juan has preserved its past, reflecting a resilience that carries into the present day.

Visiting San Juan Today

Streets of San Juan. Stepping into San Juan today, you are immediately embraced by a city that celebrates its vibrant past while welcoming the future with open arms. The streets echo with the excitement of progress yet retain the charm and dignity of their historical roots.

When to Visit San Juan

San Juan is a city with diverse offerings throughout the year. Depending on your interests, the best time to visit can vary:

Beach and Water Sports Enthusiasts: If you love beach activities, surfing, or snorkeling, the best time to visit is from mid-December to April. During these months, the weather is warm and dry, perfect for water activities.

History and Culture Buffs: For those who want to explore the city's rich history, museums, and cultural sites, there is no particular season that stands out. However, the months from December to April provide pleasant weather for walking tours in Old San Juan.

Music and Festival Lovers: If you're interested in experiencing San Juan's vibrant music and festival scene, plan your visit around the San Sebastian Street Festival in January or the Heineken Jazz Festival in March.

Nature and Adventure Seekers: For hikers and nature enthusiasts, the best time to take a day trip to visit El Yunque National Rainforest is during the off-peak travel months of May to November. Although it's the rainy season, the rainforest is lush, and hiking trails are less crowded.

What You'll See When You Arrive at San Juan

You won't be lost for things to do and see in the Walled City. Below are a few must-dos that mix classic tourism with a touch of local flair:

Step back in time at Castillo San Felipe del Morro

When you Google San Juan, El Morro will always be among the first items to pop up. Did you really visit San Juan if you didn't swing by this UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Eat lunch at Deaverdura

A favorite lunch spot of locals is Devardura. There is no menu; instead, the owner will tell you what you will eat. Generally, a sampling platter of traditional Puerto Rican Cuisine is available.

Get lost in Old San Juan

Get lost in the cobblestone streets and colorful buildings of Old San Juan, a historic district still home to over 400 restored Spanish colonial buildings.

Treat yourself to a drink at Casa BACARDÍ

While Bacardi ships all over the globe, there are a few rums specific to the island of Puerto Rico you won't find anywhere else in the world. Casa BACARDÍ offers tasting and tours on their gorgeous property. Note: Casa BACARDÍ is technically in Cataño, just a short drive or ferry ride from San Juan.

Dance the night away at La Factoría

La Factoría, one of the world's top 50 bars, offers a sophisticated nightlife experience. Known for its innovative cocktails and sultry ambiance, it's an excellent place to unwind and experience San Juan's more stylish side.

Get up close and personal with pigeons at Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud

Located on a hill in Old San Juan, this chapel is famous for its intricate architecture and a resident flock of pigeons. Don't worry about getting pooped on–it's considered good luck!

Enjoy a gourmet dinner at Princesa - Cocina Cultura

One of the hottest restaurants in town, Princesa serves up creative and flavorful dishes with a local twist. They serve up a delicious Piña colada (the staple drink of Puerto Rico).

Staying Safe & Fitting In While Visiting San Juan

Waves crashing on the rocks. Staying safe and comfortable while traveling is paramount, and San Juan is no exception. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Be vigilant: Like any popular tourist destination, it's always wise to keep an eye on your belongings, especially in bustling areas. D
  • Respect local customs: As a visitor, it's important to respect local customs and traditions. This includes dressing appropriately, particularly in religious or culturally significant places.
  • Safety in numbers: While San Juan is generally safe for tourists, it's always a good idea to travel in groups, especially after dark.
  • Stay hydrated: San Juan can get quite hot, so make sure to stay hydrated, especially if you plan to be out and about exploring the city. (Yes! You can drink the tap water.)
  • Learn Some Spanish: While many locals speak English, learning some basic Spanish phrases can go a long way in making connections and showing respect for the local language.

San Juan Weather & Climate

San Juan experiences a tropical monsoon climate, with warm temperatures throughout the year and two distinct seasons.

Dry season (December to April): This is the most popular time to visit due to less rainfall and slightly cooler temperatures averaging around 28°C or 82°F. The dry season is the perfect time to explore the city's outdoor attractions without worrying about rain.

Wet season (May to November): This is San Juan's rainy season, with August and September being the rainiest months. During this period, temperatures can rise up to 31°C or 88°F. Despite the rainfall, the wet season offers a lush, vibrant landscape, and you can often find deals on accommodations and flights during these months.

Remember, while San Juan is a tropical destination, it's always a good idea to check the latest weather forecast before your visit to ensure you pack appropriately and plan your activities accordingly.

Getting To & Around San Juan

A trolly in San Juan San Juan is well-connected by air and sea, making it easily accessible for travelers worldwide. There are two main options for reaching San Juan from the United States:

  • By Air: San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) is the main gateway for international and domestic flights. Major airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest, and Delta, frequently serve San Juan from many U.S. cities.
  • By Sea: As a popular cruise ship destination, San Juan sees many visitors arriving via the Caribbean Sea. The city boasts a modern cruise terminal in the San Juan Bay, accommodating some of the world's largest cruise ships.

Navigating through San Juan itself is an adventure of its own, with various modes of transportation at your disposal. Here's what you need to know to make the most of your journey in and around town: Public Buses: The Metropolitan Bus Authority (AMA) operates bus services throughout San Juan. It is inexpensive and covers many tourist sites, but services can be slow and unreliable.

Taxis: Taxis are widely available and operate at fixed rates within tourist zones. However, rates can be higher when traveling outside these zones.

Rideshare Services: Uber operates in San Juan, offering a convenient and often cheaper alternative to traditional taxis.

Car Rental: Renting a car can be a good option if you plan to explore beyond the city. Keep in mind that parking in San Juan, particularly in Old San Juan, can be challenging due to narrow streets and limited spaces.

  • Walking: Many attractions in Old San Juan are within walking distance of each other, making it easy to explore on foot. Just remember to wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water!

  • Bicycles: San Juan is becoming increasingly bike-friendly, with dedicated bike lanes and even scooter-sharing services like Skootel.

  • Ferries: Ferries operate between Old San Juan, Cataño, and the outlying islands, providing a scenic way to travel and see more of Puerto Rico's beautiful coastline.

As you can see, San Juan offers a rich blend of history, culture, cuisine, and natural beauty, making it a must-visit destination on any travel itinerary. Its vibrant city streets, stunning beaches, and warm, welcoming people promise an unforgettable experience for any traveler.

Whether you're wandering through the cobblestone lanes of Old San Juan, savoring a locally-inspired dish, or dancing the night away, San Juan invites you to dive in and embrace the rhythm of this Caribbean paradise.

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Cait K
Local Writer
Cait is a Chicago-based Greek-American but spends most of her year floating around the globe. She holds a B.A. in Communications and a M.A. in Nonprofit Management. Her favorite destinations include visiting her homeland in Greece, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and wherever her partner is stationed abroad.

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