San Juan Old Town Visitors Guide
Travel Tips, Sightseeing, Hotels And The City
Waves crash against the edge of Old San Juan where original walls stand.
With its feet entrenched in history and its arms extended to greet today's tourists, San Juan, Puerto Rico is a city of excitement, enjoyment and enchantment.
It is a cultural gem, a casual community with the spice of the islands, a cordial launching pad to the Caribbean. Yet it's progressive enough to nicely fit into modern society – cell phones work, there's Internet connections, even satellite TV in select places – without intruding into its past and culture. In many ways, it's a perfect blend of old and new.
Castillo San Cristobal also looks out to the sea.
The centerpiece of the city is Old Town. Here one could – and should – enjoy the many pleasures of San Juan at their footsteps. There's shopping, great dining, historical sites and plenty of pubclubbing. In fact, just strolling the streets of Old San Juan and seeing what presents itself is an engaging activity.
San Juan was orginally an entirely walled city and some of this is still evident. Certainly the old Spanish forts are prominent and one, the landmark Castillo San Felipe del Morrow, is the city's top attraction, both for photos and visits.
This article focuses on the San Juan essentials – arrival at the airport, transportation to and in Old San Juan, accommodations, dining, the people, the culture and the climate. Plus it has travel tips to make for the perfect journey.
San Juan Travel Tips
This statue to Christopher Columbus is in Old Town.
• US Currency is cash and credit cards are widely accepted.
• Bank ATM machines are plentiful.
• Pack comfortable shoes for walking.
• Watch out for traffic in both directions. While some streets are one-way, several others are not. Many are narrow and may appear to be one-way but in fact are two-way streets.
• Tip 15%, more for outstanding service.
• When going out at night, most restaurants and bars have a dress code of long pants for gentlemen. Jeans and club-acceptable tees are okay, but save the shorts, sandals and more casual wear for daytime. Local ladies dress stylish.
• Old San Juan is an extremely safe city, even late at night or in the early morning hours after a full night at the bars.
• It takes a minimum of two days to see Old Town at an enjoyable pace.
Arrival and Transportation
The free trollies go thru Old Town and right up to the fort.
San Juan is served by the San Juan International Airport, or Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Munoz Main (SIU). Airlines flying into San Juan are: Air Canada, American, British Airways, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa, Northwest, United, US Airways and Virgin Atlantic It's a small, somewhat dated airport but serves its purpose to get people to the island as well as being a landing zone for the rest of the Caribbean.
Taxis are readily available but note they charge higher rates for loading more than two bags per person in the trunk or rear of their van. So put carry-ons on your lap. The rates to Isle Verde are $10 and $20 to Old Town.
Getting around Old Town requires nothing more than a good pair of shoes. And sturdy legs, for one is either going uphill or downhill in Old San Juan. The streets are narrow, many are cobblestone and the sidewalks are barely wide enough for two people.
But the pace is slow, drivers are so courteous they actually stop to allow pedestrians to cross in front of them (more on the ever-accommodating Puerto Rican people later in this article) and the area is compact enough to cover in about an hour. And that's at an island pace.
The Old Town plaza in San Juan is full of vendors and activity.
The street scene in San Juan has cobblestones and Old World architecture.
Taking a walk through the streets of Old Town is easy and enjoyable.
The streets are full of shops, restaurants, lounges and bars, so there's plenty of activities to last throughout the day. Or night. Or early morning.
An easy, causal way of seeing Old San Juan – as well as a great way to get orientated – is to take advantage of the free trolleys. Provided courtesy of Western Bank – its location on Calle Recinto Sur is adjacent to the starting point, as well as the bus terminal – they take visitors and even locals to spots throughout the city. The ones marked "City Hall" concentrate on the streets of Old Town while El Morrow Fort (as well as it's open-air cousin) takes a very scenic route by the sea up Calle Norzagaray, past the museums and eventually to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
And we mean right up to the entrance of the fort.
Because this is an uphill climb, it's advisable to take the trolley to the fort and return to town in a leisurely stroll.
For journeys outside San Juan, there are taxis and buses ($1.50). There's always a taxi to be found at the Old Town Sheraton.
Accommodations: San Juan Hotels
The Sheraton's ideal location is on the edge of the water in Old Town.
San Juan has several hotels in various locations. For those wanting to stay in Old Town – and the reasons to stay in this area are chronicled throughout this article – the Old Town Sheraton is an ideal property.
As the old real estate saying goes, the three most important words are "location, location, location." Situated directly across the new anchor-style Carnival cruise ship terminal and at the base of Old Town across from the water, the Sheraton has Old Town's prime location.
The sun-soaked patio is a good place to relax and read this city guide.
The nine-floor, 240-room hotel is the largest in Old San Juan. There are two restaurants, Fogata, a Latin American steakhouse that features breakfast and lunch buffets plus a Sunday brunch, and the more casual but quite filling Chicago Burger. Its casino is quite popular among locals and tourists and features live entertainment at night. Many of San Juan's top hotels have casinos, by the way.
An outdoor pool with an inviting patio overlooking the water is an ideal place to relax. The Sheraton also has a fitness room. One particularly nice touch at the Sheraton is the friendliness of the employees; the maids leave a "have a nice day" note by the elevators and there's always someone to open one of its many doors to the streets of Old San Juan.
Some longtime visitors still refer to it as the Wyndham, but in fact it became a Sheraton in 2005. Room rates in the high winter season start at $295. Read our Review of the Old Town Sheraton.
Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel
100 Brumbaugh Street
(787) 721-5100 á Fax (787) 721-1111
Overall, hotel choices directly in Old San Juan are limited. Accommodations are more plentiful in the resort-type area of Isle Verde, about a mile from the airport ($20 taxi ride to Old Town). Other hotel locations are Miramir (adjacent to Old Town) and Ocean Park (halfway between Old Town and the airport).
The People and Culture of San Juan
The people of Puerto Rico are casual, easy going and always smiling.
One of the first impression of San Juan – and Puerto Rico in general – is the friendliness of the people. They are so friendly, in fact, that skeptical travelers may think the locals are putting on an act.
It doesn't take long to realize that no, they really are that accommodating. Sure, they know tourism is an important part of their economy and personal livelihoods, but there's no pretentiousness here. Many first greetings involve not handshakes but a kiss to the cheek. It's all real.
Then again, they are used to mixing in with other people. Originally inhabited by Taino Indians, the area was overtaken by the Spanish, which ruled for centuries and influenced much of the culture. African slaves were brought to Puerto Rico and they were followed by Chinese, French, German, more Spanish and eventually Americans. In the early 60s, many Cubans came here to escape Fidel Castro.
So while Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon may have termed the land the "rich port," for the gold nuggets in the river, that richness today means the friendliness of the various people that inhabit Puerto Rico. .
San Juan Where to Go & What to Do
The del Morrow fort is one of San Juan's many attractions.
The fort provides an excellent, casual Old Town daytime activity.
A cannon at the fort looks out over the sea.
From shopping to museums to a day at the fort to a tour of a rum distillery, there's a myriad of activities available in San Juan. Rather than write about them all here, PubClub.com has devoted an entire article to sightseeing. Yet another story focuses exclusively on San Juan's pubs and clubs in our nightlife section.
Busy San Juan plaza has museums, locals, tourists and pina coladas (well sort of).
Pina Colada Stands
These street carts don't sell the real pina coladas.
Sonds great, doesn't it. A nice, chilled pina colada on a warm day to quench the sightseeing thirst. There are carts all over town selling "pina coladas" and even an inviting one by the Ralces La Princess fountain with large, "come hither" neon letters.
Alas, even though this frozen concoction was invented here, these pina colado stands are just mirages. The carts have pina colado flavored ice cream, while the one by the fountain is a non-alcoholic drink. Oh well!
For the real deal, head to the previously mentioned Barrachina on Calle de La Fortaleza, home of the original pina colada.
Weather/When to Go
As the gateway to the Caribbean, San Juan enjoys a year-round tropical climate. Of course, that can also mean heat and humidity, but San Juan is fortunate enough to brag about an average temperature of 82F (28C). In fact, the highest temperature ever recorded in San Juan is 98F. So it's rarely sweltering.
The high season is December-April when the temperatures are a pleasant mid-70sF. This is also the peak cruise ship period. May-November is the relative down time, though one may have to reason with the hurricane season. Fortunately, San Juan is rarely affected by these fierce storms.
There are several festivals and celebrations in San Juan, none bigger than the San Sebastian Street Festival (third weekend of January), a multi-day street festival. Locals love it and it's ideal for PubClubbers.