Exploring Castillo San Felipe del Morro, often known simply as El Morro, is one of the top things to do in Old San Juan. The historic Puerto Rican citadel is part of the San Juan National Historic Site and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read on for the complete guide to visiting iconic El Morro!
One of the oldest fortresses built in the Caribbean, El Morro is a fascinating place to visit in San Juan, especially if you enjoy history and military architecture. And don’t forget your camera: you will love the beautiful views over the water!
The History of El Morro
El Morro, which means “the promontory,” was built to protect the city of San Juan from sea attacks, and is considered probably the foremost fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. The iconic fort rises 140 feet from sea level, and its walls are as much as 18 to 25 feet thick in some places!
Named for King Philip II of Spain, El Morro stands as a historic landmark of the time of the exploration and colonization of the Americas. Construction on El Morro started in 1539 at a site overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay, and modifications continued until about 1790.
Over the centuries, other European powers tried to wrestle the coveted harbor of San Juan away from the Spanish. In 1595, Sir Francis Drake, the famed English seaman and explorer, attacked San Juan. But the Spanish defenders of El Morro, aided by a mistake by Drake, managed to fend off the attack.
In 1598, the English attacked San Juan again, and this time they captured El Morro, but had to forsake it and withdraw after dysentery killed off many English troops.
In 1625, the Dutch attacked San Juan, but despite a siege, were unable to take over El Morro. They eventually gave up, but burnt the city before they left. In 1797, the English tried again, and failed again.
It was only a century later, with the Spanish-American War of 1898, that El Morro’s defenses were powerless against newer and more technologically advanced artillery employed by the American naval troops. With this war, Puerto Rico came under the rule of the United States of America, after centuries of Spanish rule.
The US military used El Morro as a base in both World Wars. In 1961, El Morro became a part of the San Juan National Historic Site, and its proud status as an active defensive site came to an end. In 1983, El Morro, along with the other fortifications in San Juan, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to see at El Morro
El Morro is set on a promontory overlooking the water, and in front of the main entrance is a vast expanse of undulating green lawn. From the road, take photos of the beautiful scene, before you make your way to the entrance.
On nice weather weekends, you may see locals flying kites on the lawn. And from the pathway, or the lawn, you can see the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery on your right as you face the fort.
Passing through the entrance, you come to the main courtyard of El Morro, with its cheery yellow walls accented with white. On this level, you’ll find lots of boards with information on the fort and its history.
From the courtyard, or one of the terraces, you can take a photo of the three flags that fly at the fort: the flags of the USA and Puerto Rico, and the Cross of Burgundy flag, a historical flag flown by Spanish military sites during the 16th to the 18th centuries.
The fort is not very large in terms of area, but it is built over six levels, and ramps or flights of stairs connect the different levels. You can walk and explore almost all areas of the fort.
Admire the modest chapel, view the kitchen area, and walk through the living quarters. Peruse the old cannons, walk the old tunnels, and take in the views from the terraces.
Take photos of of the picturesque sentry boxes (called garitas), and step inside one to look out over the water like the sentries of colonial times. You’ll see the sentry boxes not just at El Morro but all along the fortifications of Old San Juan.
On a bright sunny day, the views of the bay from the fort are spectacular. And the blue of the water contrasts beautifully with the tan walls of the rugged fort, making for gorgeous photos.
Over to the right of the fort is the Old San Juan Cemetery, and further out, you can see the colorful houses of La Perla, the edgy coastal community just outside the old cit, Castillo San Cristobal, and the highrises of San Juan.
The lighthouse at El Morro is the first lighthouse built in Puerto Rico. The original lighthouse was built in 1846, and a new tower was built in 1876. After it was hit during the Spanish-American War, a new lighthouse was built in 1899 but had to torn down after structural issues developed. The current stylish gray structure dates back to 1908.
Learn more about the fort as you explore, by joining a Ranger-led tour or by reading the many interpretive plaques and boards (in English and Spanish) located all over the fort.
And don’t forget to watch the film that tells you more about the park: it is shown at both El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal, and is super informative. At El Morro, the theater is on the level where you enter.
Tips and information for visiting El Morro
El Morro is one of San Juan’s most popular attractions, and the sight at the top of many visitors’ itineraries for San Juan. Here is my guide to visiting El Morro, with tips that will hopefully make your visit enjoyable and memorable!
Where is El Morro located?
El Morro is located at 501 Calle Norzagaray in Old San Juan, the historic district of the Puerto Rican capital. It overlooks the San Juan Bay.
Getting to El Morro
If you are staying anywhere within Old San Juan, you can walk to El Morro. You can also ride on the Old San Juan Trolley, which is free and drops you right at the entrance to the fort. From other districts in San Juan, you can drive yourself or take a taxi or an Uber to the fort.
If you arrive by car, there is an underground parking area at the end of the Norzagaray Street at the Fifth Centennial Plaza, from where you can walk to El Morro in about 5 to 10 minutes.
Admission to El Morro
There is an admission fee to visit El Morro. At the time of writing, the admission fee for an adult is USD10, and the fee covers both El Morro and the nearby Castillo San Cristobal.
If you have an America the Beautiful National Parks pass, it covers admission to both El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal, so make sure you have your pass with you when you visit!
You can buy tickets at the entrance to El Morro on the day of your visit. Pick up a brochure at the entrance desk.
How much time should you allow at El Morro?
Allow at least two hours to explore El Morro. We spent about 3 hours, but we explored every nook and cranny and took lots and lots of photos. Check about Ranger-led tours scheduled for the day you plan to visit, to maximize your time at the fort.
If you have more time to spare after the tour, wander around on your own and take photos at leisure, or simply enjoy the views and the sense of history at El Morro.
El Morro is built over six levels, and involves stairs and ramps, sometimes steep. There are tunnels and narrow dark passages. Wear comfortable shoes and a light wrap for wind protection.
If you have mobility issues, you can still visit the main courtyard and other areas on that level, including the theater and the bookstore.
The best time to visit El Morro
As one of San Juan’s top attractions, El Morro tends to get crowded during the day, especially if you visit during the peak season (mid December through mid April). Visit early in the day for a much more pleasant experience and the opportunity to explore and take photos in relative solitude.
We were at the entrance at opening time, and there were just a handful of other visitors in the fort at the time. When we walked past later in the day, we saw lots of visitors on the lawns and walking on the path leading to the entrance.
The San Juan National Historic Site, which includes the El Morro fort, is generally open every day from 9a.m. until 6 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Amenities at El Morro
Restrooms are located on the entrance level. There is a bookstore and gift shop with snacks, drinks, and souvenirs, also located on the main level. There is a water fountain, so bring your refillable water bottle and stay hydrated!
Viewing El Morro from San Juan Bay
El Morro looks stunning from the waters of San Juan Bay as well. Take a sunset sailing cruise in the bay to enjoy the views of the fort from the water! Check availability and book your tour now!
So there you have it: the complete guide to visiting the El Morro fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico! Have you been? I would love to read your thoughts, if you have! Comment below to respond.
If you haven’t yet visited, consider planning a trip to San Juan: it’s a fascinating city with lots of interesting sights and great food and drink. And if you are planning a visit to Puerto Rico, check out my Puerto Rico itinerary for a fun-filled trip to the beautiful Caribbean island!
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