The capital city of Puerto Rico, San Juan, is more than just a port of call on your Caribbean cruise or a layover on your way to the BVIs. It is a fun place to experience some culture--a mix between European (from its history with Spain) and latin (from its location)--along with the usual sun and sea you get with a Caribbean vacation. And perhaps the best part is that it is a direct flight from several major cities on the east coast making it very convenient. In just about 4 hours you can be transported from the 30-degree snowy weather in Boston to the salsa club, mojito in hand. It is these two things--culture & convenience--that give San Juan an advantage in my book. Here are my reccos on what to see/do/eat/drink and where you should call home on this island.
WHERE TO STAY
San Juan has an old, historical center where most of the action (and culture) is however there are not many hotels to choose from in this area and it is sans sand. To hit the beach, you must venture outside of the old city walls to areas like Condado or Isla Verde. If you want the nicest beaches in the area, appreciate being close to the airport and don't plan on spending much time in Old San Juan then Isla Verde fits your bill. But if you want the best of both worlds--having a (small) beach AND being close to the cultural city center--then Condado is the better choice.
Condado is located about 10-15 min by car from Old San Juan and has a good selection of hotels and resorts to choose from. I had the pleasure of staying at the Condado Vanderbilt, a 5-star hotel that opened in a historical mansion in December 2014, and highly recommend this to anyone who can afford it. Rooms during high season can be pricey but sites like Expedia often offer discounts and recently I've seen rooms going for less than $300/nt (the Zika effect maybe?). This luxurious hotel boasts 3 pools with an oceanview (perfect for enjoying your piña colada), glasses of champagne upon check-in, one of the best spas on the island (Turkish hammam anyone?) and comfy rooms with gorgeous marble bathrooms. It is located on a small, rocky beach but guests have access to the public beach next door or can use the amenities at the La Concha hotel also located next door. (Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, 1055 Ashford Ave. San Juan)
WHAT TO DO
- Explore Old San Juan - The old city is a must-see with its cobblestone streets, colorful buildings and historical fortresses. Get as far away from the cruise ships as possible to truly experience the charm this place has to offer (the area around Calle Sol, Calle San Sebastián, Calle Luna, and Calle del Cristo is wonderful) and enjoy spectacular views from Castillo San Cristóbal. Oh and of course, no trip is complete without getting a custom-made Panama Hat from Ole Curiosidades! (105 Calle de La Fortaleza San Juan)
- Visit El Yunque Rainforest - For a little taste of nature, make the 45-minute trek out to the tropical rainforest, the only one of its kind in the U.S. There are many trails for hiking, waterfalls for swimming, or for a little adrenaline rush rent an ATV or zipline through the treetops. (El Yunque Portal Visitor Center, PR-191, Río Grande)
- Go Salsa Dancing - To really get a taste for some Puerto Rican spice, get those hips moving at Nuyorican Cafe in Old San Juan and experience some salsa music. Don't worry, a little liquid courage is acceptable. (312 Calle San Francisco, San Juan)
- Charter a boat - Whether you prefer hoisting the sails or living the lux life there are several ways to hit the high seas. Options include a private luxury yacht charter around San Juan Bay with Charters Puerto Rico and a group catamaran & snorkel tour aboard the Spread Eagle II to the picturesque islands off the shores of Fajardo in northeastern Puerto Rico.
- Experience a natural wonder - Take a kayak through the Laguna Grande bioluminescent bay located off the shores of Fajardo. The bright blue glow emanating from the water at night is worth the hour drive from San Juan.
WHERE TO EAT
- Marmalade - The best of the best that Old San Juan has to offer so don't expect to have a cheap meal here but do expect it to be life-changing. Mediterranean meets Caribbean cuisine using the freshest ingredients. Chef's tasting menus available for a really special occasion. Reservations are a must. (317 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan)
- Santaella - One of the most-sought after tables on the island is at this hip, chill restaurant located in the lively Santurce neighborhood. Cuisine is Puerto rican using fresh, local ingredients and the craft cocktails are creative and fun. Reservations are a must. (219 Calle Canals, San Juan)
- Aguaviva - Cute little place in Old San Juan with yummy seafood. Order the ceviche sampler with tostones (fried green plantains) and some pineapple mojitos. Que delicioso! Reservations recommended. (364 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan)
- Pirilo - Great for a casual night of pizza and beer. Fun atmosphere. Also in Old San Juan. Does not accept reservations. (207 Calle Tanca, San Juan)
- Oceano - This is the place for upscale Caribbean dining in a modern, beachfront mansion located in Condado. Snag a table outside for lunch with a view or head indoors for dinner in a trendy, sleek atmosphere. Reservations recommended. (2 Calle Vendig, Condado)
WHERE TO DRINK
- La Factoria - Delicious craft cocktails in a hip, rustic speakeasy (yes, there are hidden bars in the back!) with great music in Old San Juan. Ambiance gets A++. Order the Lavender Mule and if you're lucky it will be served in a stainless steel mug with a lavender sprig. Best drink all week. (148 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan)
- The Mezzanine at St. Germain - Another great craft cocktail bar in Old San Juan that has a more vintage, lounge-like, living room feel to it. This is the place to go if you want a little history with your mojito. Turns out, this place used to be the headquarters for the Puerto Rican nationalist party. (156 Calle Sol, 2nd Floor, San Juan)
- La Taberna Lupulo - If you need a rest from all the rum, head to this bar in Old San Juan for a lengthy craft beer list served with some proper 80s tunes to delight the ears. (151 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan)
- La Barrachina - The piña colada originates from Puerto Rico and this place in Old San Juan is where it all started. There is a nice outdoor patio to enjoy your creamy coconut and pineapple creation. (104 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan)
- Caribar - Located at the waterfront Caribe Hilton hotel in Condado, this place also claims to be where the piña colada was invented. Give both places a try and see for yourself which one does it best. (1 Calle San Gerónimo, San Juan)
So the next time you're looking to plan a trip to the Caribbean, consider San Juan. The quick, direct flights make it a great destination for a long weekend or you have more time, spend half of your week in San Juan and the other visiting Puerto Rico's gorgeous islands of Vieques and Culebra. Buen viaje!