Narrow cobblestone streets, colorful colonial buildings, centuries-old fortresses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, fascinating museums and art galleries, handcrafts on the corners – and everything bathed by a tropical breeze – these are some of the characteristics of legendary Old San Juan.
Wear comfortable shoes and light clothing, grab your camera, and get ready to marvel at the perfect marriage of the past and the present on the very lived-in streets. A walking tour is a wonderful way to get acquainted with the Old City. If you need a break, hop aboard the no-charge trolley cars that make the rounds to and from La Puntilla and Covadonga parking lots at one of the clearly marked stops.
La Casita – Your Old San Juan adventure begins at La Casita, or The Little House, the yellow building located in Plaza de la Dársena that houses a Puerto Rico Tourism Company Information Center. Open Mon. through Wed. from 8:30 AM to 8:00 PM; Thur. and Fri. until 5:30 PM; Sat. and Sun. from 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM. There is an outdoor crafts market around the building that is open Sat. and Sun. from 9:30 AM to 10:00 PM and Mon. and Tues. from 11:00 AM to 9:30 PM. The crafts market schedule may vary according to cruise ship itineraries. Tel. (787) 722-1709.
San Juan Bay – La Casita overlooks San Juan Bay. It is the busiest ocean port in the Caribbean, bringing in half of the region’s trade and over one million cruise ship visitors a year. Bayside shops carry everything from gold jewelry to island arts and crafts. At Casa Don Q Puerto Rico, located across the street from Pier 1, you can learn about Destilería Serrallés, a rum distillery established in 1865… and sample its award-winning products.
La Muralla – As the promenade continues, it follows the curve of the bay and leads you to La Muralla, or city wall. Built mostly between 1539 and 1641 using sandstone blocks up to 20 feet thick, the wall was completed in 1782. It protected the city against enemy attacks. At the western mouth of the bay you will see Isla de Cabras (Goat Island), and a small Spanish fort built in 1610.
Museo de Doña Fela – From La Fortaleza, go to Recinto Oeste Street and turn right on Caleta de San Juan Street. There you will find Museo de Doña Fela, the original residence of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first woman to become Mayor of San Juan. This museum features personal belongings, period memorabilia, and awards granted to this exceptional woman. Open weekdays from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM Tel. (787) 723-1897.
Casa Rosada – The lovely house in front of La Rogativa is Casa Rosada, or Pink House. It was built in 1812 for the Spanish army and is now a day care center for government employees’ children.
Plazuela de la Rogativa – From Museo de Doña Fela, return to Recinto Oeste Street and climb the hill to reach Plazuela de la Rogativa, a small plaza with a bronze sculpture by Lindsay Daen. The work recreates the day a bishop and his companions frightened away British troops during a 1797 attack on the city by carrying torches and chanting. The enemies thought the procession was local troop reinforcements.
Casa Blanca – Take the upper road along a plant-decked wall to a doorway above Casa Rosada. This is one of the five entrances to Casa Blanca, or the White House. For 250 years it was the residence of the descendents of Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico. The house is now a museum of 16th and 17th century family life and houses a miniature replica of a Taíno village. The garden is open daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Entrance fee is $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for senior citizens and children. Tel. (787) 724-1454.
Fuerte San Felipe del Morro – Exit Casa Blanca through Recinto Oeste Street. Straight ahead is Fuerte San Felipe del Morro or El Morro fortress, rising majestically 140 feet above the sea. El Morro (meaning “promontory” in Spanish), surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and San Juan Bay, is the most striking of the city’s military fortifications. It was built between 1540 and 1783 to protect San Juan from attack by sea. Among its many attractions is a maze of secret tunnels and dungeons, and a small museum with information on its history. Along with San Cristóbal Fort, El Morro has been designated a National Historic Site and is part of a World Heritage Site. It is administered by the U.S. National Park Service. Open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. English tours depart at 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Entrance fee is $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for senior citizens and children. No entrance fee for children under 12. Tel. (787) 729-6960.
Plaza de Hostos – The small square in front of Plaza de la Dársena, near La Casita, is Plaza de Hostos. This square features artisans’ displays, snack stands, and the traditional piragüeros, vendors who sell shaved ice topped with tropical fruit syrups.
Paseo La Princesa – Near Plaza de la Marina and a statue honoring the Puerto Rican immigrant, you will find Paseo La Princesa. It is a promenade lined with trees, pocket parks, sculptures, and benches, and leads to a magnificent fountain with a bronze sculpture by Luis Sanguino depicting the island’s cultural roots.
La Princesa – Midway through the promenade is La Princesa itself, a former jail and now headquarters of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The restored building features a gallery of Puerto Rican art with permanent and visiting exhibitions. Tel. (787) 721-2400.
Puerta de San Juan – The promenade leads to the red-painted Puerta de San Juan or San Juan Gate, where you re-enter the city. This is one of six original massive wooden doors that centuries ago were closed at sundown to protect the residents.
La Fortaleza – Go through the doorway and make a right on Recinto Oeste Street to La Fortaleza. It is a palatial structure built in 1540 and the oldest governor’s mansion in the Western Hemisphere still in use. Guided tours are available weekdays, except holidays, from 9:00 AM to 3:30 PM; tours in English every hour, in Spanish every half hour. Schedules are subject to change. Proper attire required. Tel. (787) 721-7000, ext. 2358.
How to Get There
Take Road 26 towards Old San Juan. This will connect to Road 25, which leads directly to the Old City. Click here to reserve your walking tour.