The streets of Old San Juan are probably the image that sticks with most travelers to Puerto Rico.
Cobblestone streets, brightly painted spanish colonial, architecture, and the massive fortification of El Morro. It is old in a kind of way you don’t often see in the mainland US. This is a city that inspires people to stay a little longer, move a little slower, and take up hobbies like painting and poetry.
Of course we did not have time to find such inspiration, but rather burned through the streets of OSJ on our first and last days in Puerto Rico.
Whether you’re staying for hours or days, the biggest piece of advice I can give is, DITCH YOUR CAR. Driving in circles and looking for parking is not the way you want to spend your time here. Simply find a parking structure and don’t plan on going back until you leave. The lots may look a little rough, but they are safe, secure, centrally located, and relatively cheap. (I think we spent $5 for overnight parking.) The actual area of Old San Juan is not all that big and we managed to park on the south side and still see most of the town, including el Morro on the northwest, without much trouble. There are a few steep hills, and it gets pretty hot during the day, but it shouldn’t bother the average traveler. Just bring a bottle of water or stop for a coco frio if you’re starting to feel sluggish.
Besides, this is a part of San Juan you really need to see by foot. Don’t feel too silly when you kneel down in the middle of the street to take pictures of the road. Everyone does it, and for good reason. Just about everywhere you turn is a great opportunity for a photo. Our second visit to the city was mostly in the evening, and that was equally good for snapping photos. Old San Juan is well aware of its own beauty and has no problem supplying dramatic lighting where it is needed.
Normally it would be recommended to visit El Morro during the daytime. It is, obviously, easier to see, and it is actually open. We didn’t have much of a choice though, and that’s okay. We crossed the huge, grassy, field leading up to the fort just as the sun began to set. Natural light gave way to artificial light. The air cooled. And, stray cats became a little braver even despite the young families racing strollers across the hill. (I can’t imagine this being enjoyable for the buckled-in children…) If we ever come back, we’ll visit during the day, but for now I’ll pretend our view was better.
We weren’t in San Juan long enough to DO much other than a quick exploration. We did have an opportunity for two nice meals, breakfast at Caficultura, and a fancy dinner at Restaurante Airenumo. I’d highly recommend both. Caficultura is good as both a coffee shop and a restaurant. The coffee was some of the best we had, the food was perfect, and the building itself is pretty neat. (Also one of the most vegetarian friendly places we encountered.) Restaurante Airenumo is fancy. Maybe even more so than we had intended, but it was our last night in PR, so why not splurge a little. Despite being right in the middle of tourist-central, this was one of our more authentic eating experiences. Everything was conducted in Spanish, most of the dishes were variations on Puerto Rican dishes you probably wouldn’t find in the states, and the sangrias were uncommonly tasty.
If you’re wondering where to stay, you can expect my usual response. Find something on Airbnb. Hotels in Old San Juan are not cheap, and they’re the same ol’ hotels you’ll find anywhere else. For the same price as a nice hotel, you can have a house to yourself right on one of the main streets. We were even able to book ours with less than a days notice. I’m sure you could find tons of great options if you planned a little ahead.
Here’s my list of blog entries for Puerto Rico.
- Vieques: The Island We Couldn’t Leave
- El Yunque: Spanish for “The Yunque”
- Cabo Rojo: Southwestern Puerto Rico
- Lechon: You’ll have to be a stronger vegetarian than me…
- The Western Coast: Boqueron & Bacalaito, Mayagüez & Maize, and Rincón
- Bosque Estatal De Guajataca, y la cueva del viento: Guajataca State Forest, and the Cave of the Wind
- So, this guy has a waterfall in his backyard…
- Arecibo Observatory
- Old San Juan