Home to beautiful beaches, romantic hotels, unique museums, gardens and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Juan offers plenty to see and do. Explore the three forts around the city that comprise San Juan National Historic Site, enjoy the cafes and restaurants in Old San Juan, and sunbathe on the mile-long Ocean Park Beach. Here are the best things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
1.San Juan National Historic Site, San Juan, Puerto Rico
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Puerto Rico and especially San Juan were crucial areas for Spanish defense efforts and Spanish control of the route to and from the Caribbean. To protect this valuable holding, they spent 250 years building three large, strong forts (Castillo San Cristobal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Juan de la Cruz) that guarded the entrance into San Juan Bay. Today, the three forts, most of the city fortifications, and the San Juan Gate comprise San Juan National Historic Site and have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The best way to learn about the site and the fascinating history of San Juan is with the help of one of the Rangers, who offer short presentations every hour. You can also take a peaceful stroll around old San Juan, climb the ancient walls, enjoy spectacular views of the city and the ocean, and get a feel of the spirit of old Puerto Rico.
501 Norzagaray Street, 787-729-6777
2.Old San Juan
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There are several excellent reasons to visit Old San Juan, and one of the most compelling is the thrilling history that every cobblestoned street, ancient gate, or imposing fortress exudes. The whole city is old, but so much of it has been wonderfully restored and preserved that visitors feel like they’ve stepped into the past. There are many fun ways to explore Old San Juan: you can take an organized tour through the Old San Juan Heritage Walking Tours company or rent a bike, boat, or even a hydroplane. If you are wondering what to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico today, this is a great place to start exploring. Depending on your interests, you might want to take a cultural tour, a tour of the countryside, or food tour, which are just a few options. Alternatively, you can just walk around and soak up the atmosphere, sample tasty street food, and listen to one of the many street musicians.
3.Things to Do in San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ocean Park Beach
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Your trip to San Juan has to include at least one visit to Ocean Park Beach. This one-mile stretch of sugar fine sand is a favorite place among locals for morning strolls, making sand castles with the kids, enjoying a refreshing swim, or taking a nap under an umbrella. The beach is lined on one side with numerous condos, hotels, restaurants, and shops. On the beach side you can find a few shady spots under swaying palm trees. Most days, is not terribly crowded, making it perfect for relaxing. There are few entrances to Ocean Park Beach, but the most convenient one is located at the end of Condad through the Parque del Indio.
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For the last 30 years, Castillo Tours have been introducing tourists from all over the world to the authentic Puerto Rico. First, they take you on a tour of the Historical Old San Juan. After that, you get to choose which direction you want to go: Explore the Rainforest, see how they make rum at Bacardi Tour, hike through El Yunque Rainforest, or do some spelunking at Camuy and Window Caves.
If you would rather be on the water, you can try your hand at deep sea fishing for marlin, do some snorkeling on one of the many deserted islands, or take a romantic Sunset Cruise. Your itinerary depends on how much time you have, how much money you want to spend, and what you really like to do for fun. In and around San Juan, there is something for everyone.
101 Doncella St., Punta Las Marias, 787-791-6195
5.Things to Do in San Juan, Puerto Rico: Walter Otero Contemporary Art
© Walter Otero Contemporary Art
Walter Otero Contemporary Art (WOCA) is a progressive and modern art gallery in San Juan. It is dedicated to supporting and promoting young Puerto Rican contemporary artists. The gallery, designed by Luis Luis Gutiérrez and Pedro Muñoz Marín, is located in the Old San Juan’s Historic District in Puerta de Tierra. It has more than five thousand square feet of gallery space spread out among three floors.
There is also a rooftop garden that serves as a venue for outdoor exhibits, parties, and other gatherings. The gallery represents a large number of Puerto Rican artists with international reputation. It is the brainchild of celebrated art dealer Walter Otero, and the gallery has acquired a reputation for being the most influential modern art gallery in Puerto Rico and one of the best things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
855 Ave. Ponce de León, PMB 425, 787-998-9622
6.The University of Puerto Rico Botanical Garden
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The University of Puerto Rico Botanical Garden is a live laboratory featuring the country’s tropical plants and their ecosystems. The garden is spread out across 289 acres of land that includes magnificent lakes, waterfalls, sculptures, and 30,000 plant species, some endemic and some endangered.
The garden is not only a popular spot for locals and tourists to enjoy the lush greenery, but it is also a place where kids come to do their school assignments, experts hold seminars and workshops, and scientists determine the best ways to preserve these live treasures under pressure from human development for future generations. One of the most beautiful of the many thematic gardens is the re-creation of Monet’s water garden in Giverny. The entrance to the Botanical Garden is located on Guaracanal street. Phone: 787-758-9957
7.Felisa Rincon de Gautier Museum, San Juan, Puerto Rico
© Felisa Rincon de Gautier Museum
Located just across from the historic San Juan Gate, there is a lovely 300-year-old house that was the home of Felisa Rincon de Gautier, one of the most prominent and influential Puerto Rican women of the 20th century. She was the first woman mayor of an American capital city, and she served as a mayor for 22 years.
The museum holds many of her personal effects, awards, and memorabilia. It is open to the public and offers a rare glimpse not only into the life of a remarkable woman, but into the way of life of an influential Puerto Rican family. The museum frequently holds conferences, seminars, and workshops. The Felisa Rincon de Gautier Foundation manages the museum.
Caleta de San Juan 51, 787-724-7239
, From LA
8.Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico
© Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico
If you get tired of eating and walking your way through San Juan, Puerto Rico, you should consider seeing the country from the point of view of some of its fine contemporary artists. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico, one of San Juan's top attractions, is located in the historic Rafael M. Building, which used to be school, and it is part of the San Juan Sacred Heart University. Established in 1984, the Puerto Rican Museum of Contemporary Art not only displays the works of modern Puerto Rican and Caribbean artists, but it also introduces the general public to all forms of modern art expressions.
The galleries are located around an open courtyard on two floors. The art ranges from paintings and sculptures to sound, video, and multimedia installations. A small gallery in the museum’s basement displays art created during the museum’s various workshops.
Av. Juan Ponce de León, corner of Ave. Roberto H. Todd, Parada 18, 787-977-4030
Where to stay: 15 Best Romantic Getaways in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
9.Spoon Food Tours
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For foodies, every trip is an opportunity to sample the best foods each new place has to offer. Taking this journey with the help of knowledgeable insiders who are part of Spoon Food Tours makes the experience so much more enjoyable. Their guides will take you off the beaten path to visit places tourists normally do not have the chance to see. You will savor real authentic Puerto Rican dishes in restaurants and cantinas that are the favorite spots frequented by locals.
By experiencing the food, you will learn so much about the culture, history, and everyday life of the island. Morning people will particularly enjoy Old San Juan Walk & Taste Tour, which starts at breakfast. With the San Juan Drive Around Lunch Tour, you will explore San Juan’s lunch menu from the comfort of an air-conditioned car, while the Sip & Savor Drinking Tour will take you around San Juan’s most popular drinking establishments.
Next read: Best Time to Visit San Juan, Puerto Rico & Other Travel Tips
10.Akuazone Dive Center
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After exploring San Juan on land, you should make a point to visit its underwater world. Akuazone Dive Center is the oldest and best-known San Jose dive shop. You can take one of their many courses, from the short Discover Scuba course to the Dive Master and Instructor course. They have a number of highly qualified and experienced instructors.
If you are already a certified diver, you can visit some of the magnificent reefs around Puerto Rico using Akuazone’s high tech dive equipment and in the company of one of their dive guides. The number and variety of the sea life in the warm tropical waters will amaze you. If diving is just not your thing, Akuazone will be happy to take you snorkeling.
Calle Parana 1715, 787-754-3363
10 Best Things to Do in San Juan, Puerto Rico
- San Juan National Historic Site, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Old San Juan, Photo: Courtesy of Cameron - Fotolia.com
- Things to Do in San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ocean Park Beach, Photo: Courtesy of demerzel21 - Fotolia.com
- Castillo Tours, Photo: Courtesy of anakin13 - Fotolia.com
- Things to Do in San Juan, Puerto Rico: Walter Otero Contemporary Art, Photo: Walter Otero Contemporary Art
- The University of Puerto Rico Botanical Garden, Photo: Courtesy of Oleksii Sergieiev - Fotolia.com
- Felisa Rincon de Gautier Museum, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Photo: Felisa Rincon de Gautier Museum
- Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, Photo: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico
- Spoon Food Tours, Photo: Courtesy of Fanfo - Fotolia.com
- Akuazone Dive Center, Photo: Courtesy of sigalpetersen - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of solraknauj - Fotolia.com
Attraction Spotlight: Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal
Located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, San Juan National Historic Site preserves the remains of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal, two 16th-century fortresses formerly occupied by Spanish colonists. Spanish colonization of the Puerto Rico area dates back to the early 16th century, when settlers from Caparra arrived at what is now present-day San Juan.
Construction of defenses for the settlement was ordered by Spanish King Charles V in 1539 in order to protect the city’s harbor. A proto-fortress was initially constructed at the area to defend the settlement while the full design of Juan Bautista Antonelli and Juan de Tejada, based on existing military fortifications in Spain, was completed and erected. The fortress was named Castillo San Felipe del Morro, honoring Spain’s King Philip II. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the fortress successfully withstood a number of attacks from British and French forces, including a 1595 attack by Sir Francis Drake and a Dutch attack by Captain Balduino Enrico which destroyed much of the city of San Juan. In 1630, construction began on a complete wall around the city of San Juan, which was completed in 1678.
Beginning in 1765, Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly and engineer Colonel Tomas O’Daly embarked on a campaign to transform the city’s fortress following the 1762 siege of Havana by British forces. Significant modifications were added to the El Morro complex and the 27-acre Castillo San Cristóbal was constructed, which was finished in 1783. At its peak, the fortress sealed entry to the city with a set of double gates and contained more than 450 cannons. In 1797, the fortress successfully defended the city from a legion of 13,000 British soldiers led by General Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Henry Harvey.
Following the end of the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the fortress was used by the United States as a military installation during World War I and II. In 1961, care of the fortress was transferred to the National Park Service following the establishment of the San Juan National Historic Site. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and throughout the 1990s, significant restorations to the fortress returned the structures to their 18th-century appearance in honor of the quincentennial celebration of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas.
Today, the remains of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal are operated as part of San Juan National Historic Site, which also preserves the former Fortín San Juan de la Cruz facility and remains of the city’s wall fortifications. As one of the island’s leading tourist destinations, the site attracts more than two million annual visitors. The fortress encompasses more than 70 acres within San Juan, featuring six levels that range in elevation from sea level to 145 feet above water. Dome-covered garita sentry boxes can be seen along the city wall fortifications, including the 1634 La Garita del Diablo vantage point, one of the oldest extant portions of the fort, which has become a cultural landmark in Puerto Rican culture. The site also preserves the open glacis killing grounds and cannon esplanade, along with a lighthouse replica reconstructed in 1908 to replace the former 1943 Lighthouse of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, which was destroyed in 1898.
Visitors may explore the site’s Paseo del Morro Trail, which was designated as a National Recreation Trail in 2001 and traces the remains of masonry walls dating back to 1630. Historical exhibits are also offered at the park’s San Cristobal’s Visitor Center and within both fortress remain areas, and a 20-minute orientation film is shown periodically throughout the day, detailing the history of Spanish occupation of Puerto Rico. A variety of ranger-led talks are also offered on weekends throughout the site’s peak season, including informational talks at the fortress’ main plaza, Tunnel Tours of the outer defenses of Castillo San Cristóbal, and an Outworks Walk exploring the fortress’ “Defense in Depth” system.
Ongoing Programs and Education
More than 20,000 students attend San Juan National Historic Site’s educational programming annually, including curriculum-incorporated field trip opportunities for elementary and secondary students. Guided and self-guided field trips are offered for student groups of up to 40 students, with guided tours lasting approximately one hour. The facility may also be rented for private special events, including weddings, film shoots, and photoshoots with the reservation of a special use permit. All organizations obtaining special use permits must submit an application and deposit, with the exception of groups using the facility for First Amendment-protected assemblies.
501 Norzagaray Street, San Juan, PR 00901, Phone: 787-729-6777
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