San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and is very eclectic in its personality. White sand beaches, rich history, and traditional food make this Caribbean island a top destination. With so many things to explore, it’s impossible to see everything in one trip. But there is definitely more than something for everyone to love about Puerto Rico. Visitors should be aware that many parts of the island are still recovering from Hurricane Maria. While San Juan is pretty restored, there are still many streets, storefronts, and areas around the island that are not. It’s important to check on the sites you’ll be visiting before you go.
Old San Juan is quite small, spanning only 7 square blocks and can really be seen in a day. Every street is lined with colorful houses and iron balconies. It’s easy to get lost in the winding cobblestone streets but you’ll inevitably find your way out. Some buildings or driveways are painted with the Puerto Rican flag and rustic bars are open to the street serving the island’s favorite drink, Piña Colada. Some points of interest that you’ll want to pin:
Plaza de Armas is the main square in Old San Juan decorated with a beautiful fountain in the middle. The City Hall building is located here as well as many cafés and shops surrounding the perimeter.
La Casa Estrecha is quite literally, the narrowest house ever constructed. It is only 5 feet and 3 inches wide, but it has all of the essentials of a habitable home. The 2 story house has a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and even a dining room. The best part is the balcony at the very top overlooking the San Juan Bay. The exterior is bright yellow so really hard to miss.
Capilla del Santo Cristo is the oldest chapel on the island and sits on the edge of a cliff. Legend has it that a horse rider fell from this cliff and was miraculously saved. After the incident, he built this church and ever since Puerto Ricans have been coming here praying for their physical ailments to be healed. It is over 200 years old and beautiful in every way. It is very small and looks like ruins from a one time church, but inside it is decorated with gold-framed paintings and immaculately taken care of.
Sitting on the northwestern-most point of the Old San Juan area, the citadel was built in the 16th century with a bird’s eye view of the bay. Standing strong over 400 years later, it has withstood attacks from several countries and still stands proudly today as a symbol of Puerto Rico’s resilience. As you spend time walking through the fortress and exploring the lighthouse, the many garitas (wall-mounted turrets), the Cannon room, and the Old Tower—make sure to have a bottle of cold water in hand. There are many stairs and very little shade from the sun.
As you follow the wall down you will see the old Cemetery. Decorated in almost all white and situated right along the ocean, it is so beautiful. However, it is located right near the La Perla neighborhood which is not considered to be the safest at night. Make sure to visit only during the day when staff is on duty.
Just about 40 minutes from San Juan is the El Yunque rainforest. This national reserve is a must-see for nature lovers as you will find some beautiful hiking trails, rare birds and animals, waterfalls, unique trees, and lush greenery.
Culebra Island is rated to have one of the top five most beautiful beaches in the world, and rightfully so. The sand feels like butter, the water is clear turquoise and warm, and the palm trees drape over you ever so lovingly. There are only 3 ways to get here; by ferry, by a quick flight, or by taking a catamaran tour with Viator. We suggest the latter option. The ferry is unreliable and you can’t book tickets in advance. Although the flight is short, you still have to spend time getting to and from the airport, but the Catamaran is perfect. A small group of people is taken to the island where they can snorkel by the coral reefs and enjoy some time by Flamenco Beach. The tour includes lunch and alcohol (what else do you need really?), all of the snorkel supplies, and transportation to and from San Juan. The guides are awesome and attentive and it’s really just a great way to spend half of a day.
Undoubtedly the better beaches are on the west coast of the island, but San Juan still has some beautiful coastlines. Condado Beach and Playita del Condado are worth a visit. Playita del Condado is actually a “kids” beach. It’s very shallow, the waters are still, and it’s mostly family-oriented. However, if you’re not a good swimmer or just like to take a quick dunk, this is the place for you. At the entrance of the beach is also a food stand serving Piña Coladas in pineapples and chicken kebab skewers fresh off the grill. Yum!