With over five centuries of history, Old San Juan is a must-visit destination in the Caribbean. The historic district of the Puerto Rican capital is both colorful and captivating. Read on to discover the best things to do in Old San Juan!
Also known as Viejo San Juan, Old San Juan oozes charm from every pore. Its cobblestone streets and colonial architecture will remind you of Spain, but Old San Juan also has its own unique ambience.
Located on a small narrow island, Old San Juan was settled in the early 16th century. Heavily fortified to stave off attacks from other nations looking to invade, Old San Juan is a National Historic Landmark District.
Old San Juan definitely deserves to be at the top of any Puerto Rico itinerary. It is also only a short drive from the beaches of Isla Verde, the resorts of Condado, and the edgy street art of Santurce, other parts of the Puerto Rico capital that you should visit.
Excited? Let’s get started discovering the most exciting things to do in Old San Juan!
Things to Do in Old San Juan
Without question the most interesting part of the city, Old San Juan deserves at least a couple of days in your itinerary for the Puerto Rican capital.
You’ll find a wealth of activities and sights in Old San Juan to keep you engaged for much longer, but in two full days, you can explore quite a bit of the fascinating district.
If you’re on a cruise and pressed for time, you can still take in some of the major sights of Old San Juan in one day, because the district is compact. Pick the Old San Juan sights and attractions that appeal to you the most, from the many choices you have!
Old San Juan is walkable: in fact, walking the streets was one of the most enjoyable things we did here. Get set to enjoy amazing architecture, splendid sculptures, lively squares, and delicious food and drink during your time in the old city.
Here, then, are the very best things to do in Old San Juan!
Visit the historic El Morro Fort in Old San Juan
Part of the San Juan National Historic Site and Old San Juan’s UNESCO World Heritage site, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro is one of the city’s most popular attractions, and should be at the top of your list of places to visit in San Juan.
Known popularly as El Morro, the impressive fort was built by the Spanish over a period of 250 years to quell attacks on the city from the sea. It sits on a high rocky headland overlooking San Juan Bay.
You’ll be impressed even before you enter El Morro! In front of the fort is a vast green lawn, where locals fly kites on good weather weekend afternoons.
The fort is built over six levels, and you can explore many parts of it, using the map you’ll receive when you enter. Gawk at the gorgeous garitas, from where sentries looked out in times past.
Get great views of the water from the Cannon Water Battery. Admire the Torre Antigua, the oldest part of the fort. Snap photos of the picturesque lighthouse. And if you have the time, join the locals and fly a kite on the green lawn of the fort!
The fort is open everyday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day). The entrance fee covers both El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal. National Parks passes are valid at both forts.
Do you have your National Parks Pass yet? Valid for one full year from the month of purchase, the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass costs USD 80.00 and offers admission (one vehicle or 4 persons) to over 2,000 Federal recreation sites, including national parks, national forests, and more! Get yours online at REI now!
Wander the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan
Old San Juan is very historic, very colorful, and a joy to stroll. The cobblestone streets are reminiscent of Europe, but with a unique character all their own, and you’ll come across lively squares, beautiful architecture, and stunning Spanish tile work.
Your Old San Juan sightseeing is not complete until you’ve walked the many alleys to gape at all the bright color and intricate detail!
San Juan’s old cobblestones have a lovely blue sheen on them. The original cobblestones were actually salvaged ballast from ships that arrived from Europe in the 18th century. Many have since been replaced, but you can still see the original blue stones in streets like Calle Cristo.
The streets are narrow, but full of character. Neighborhood cafes and bars offer great spots for a drink and some people watching. We clocked up lots of steps just wandering around in Viejo San Juan, and it is easily one of the most fun things to do here.
If you want to learn about the city and its history and culture as you walk, join a guided walking tour! It’s a great way to get acclimated and one of our favorite activities in any new destination. It’s led by a local, who will answer your questions and point out good places to eat as well.
Explore the fascinating Castillo de San Cristóbal
Old San Juan is home also to the Castillo de San Cristóbal, built by the Spanish to protect against land-based attacks. Also part of the National Historic Site and UNESCO World Heritage site, the Castillo de San Cristóbal was built over a period of 150 years.
Also located along the water, the San Cristobal fortress features an impressive main entrance and is built over three levels. From the top level, you get beautiful views over the water as well as over the city.
You can wander around the fort, walk through the tunnel, admire the old cannonballs, look out from a sentry box, and view the old military quarters. There are information panels all over the fort, if you wish to learn more about the fort and the history of Old San Juan.
With their many ramparts, passageways, and sentry boxes, the forts of Old San Juan are fun places to explore: one of the best things to do with kids in Puerto Rico!
Admire La Fortaleza, One of Old San Juan’s Prettiest Buildings
La Fortaleza is the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. Its powder blue facade, architectural detail, and stunning location on a bluff overlooking the water make it one of San Juan’s most attractive buildings.
Originally built as a fortress to defend San Juan’s harbor, La Fortaleza is part of the San Juan UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also known as the Santa Catalina Palace, and has more than three dozen rooms.
You can tour parts of the interior, as well as the gorgeous gardens, on a guided tour. Tours are offered on week days, but check when you visit as they may be canceled for various reasons.
Step into the San Juan Cathedral
The San Juan Bautista Cathedral on Calle del Cristo is both historic and beautiful. It is the second oldest church in the Americas, and the oldest in the United States.
Visiting the beautiful old church is one of the best things to do in Old San Juan.
The structure you see today was built in the mid 15th century, after the original wood building was damaged by a hurricane. The beautiful pale yellow facade, accented with white, looks stunning.
Step inside to view the gorgeous interior. The cathedral holds the remains of Juan Ponce de León, the famous Spanish explorer. You will see lovely works of art and stained glass windows. Many works of art are sadly reported lost to looting by attackers in colonial times.
Admire the decorations at Calle de la Fortaleza
Calle de la Fortaleza is a street in Old San Juan that runs up to the Governor’s mansion. It is a lively street most of the day and into the evening.
During the two days we were in the city, there were some performances on the street, with lots of music and dancing.
Calle Fortaleza is definitely one of the top places to visit in Old San Juan.
The street is known for its decorations. When we were planning our visit, I saw photos of colorful umbrellas hanging above the street, and I was hoping to get some photos of my own.
When we were in town, however, a gigantic flag of Puerto Rico was stretched above the street.
We walked the street, under the canopy of the flag, to the gates of La Fortaleza, where we saw a lovely Nativity display for Christmas. Visit early in the day to enjoy the historic feel of the street without crowds, and later in the day to enjoy all the goings-on.
Visit Casa Blanca, the home of Juan Ponce de Leon
If you visit one museum in Old San Juan, make it Casa Blanca, built for the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Touring the historic house and its lovely garden is one of my most favorite memories from our visit to Old San Juan.
Casa Blanca is actually a fortification, built in the 16th century. Although it was built as the residence for Ponce de Leon, he died before he could move in. His family did live here.
The interior contains simple furnishings: a living room with beautiful views, a dining room, and a bedroom. The rooms upstairs are not furnished, but we saw some lovely signed murals on a couple of walls.
The gardens are simply gorgeous. From the terraces, you get great views of the water, and the plantings are beautiful. Casa Blanca is definitely a must-visit attraction in Old San Juan!
Photograph the cool facades of Old San Juan!
Looking for lots of color to light up your Instagram account? You’ll find walls in every color of the rainbow in Old San Juan. The bright in-your-face colors reminded me of the colorful island of Burano outside Venice.
While the colors of the facades are lovely, don’t miss the beautiful detail you’ll find on many buildings. Beautiful balconies and windows, touches of greenery and flowers, and decorative designs in tile and metal will make you want to stop every steps for yet another photo.
On some of the streets, the house numbers are encased in beautiful art. And finally, many of the doors and windows are gorgeous. Give yourself lots of time to admire the houses of Old San Juan!
Sip a Piña Colada in the Place it was Created!
The piña colada was created at the Caribe Hilton in Condado, San Juan, in 1954. Recognized as the official drink of the territory of Puerto Rico, the fruity cocktail features rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice. Yum!
Most bars and restaurants in Old San Juan offer the piña colada on their drink menus, so if you enjoy cocktails, be sure to have it when you are in the historic district. Many places serve a non-alcoholic version as well: we had it instead of dessert a couple of times in Puerto Rico.
And if you enjoy rum, you can join this highly-rated craft cocktails tour of Old San Juan! The 2-hour evening history and walking tour will take you to three bars along the way, to sample rum-infused cocktails. Book this tour now!
Do a Fabulous Food Tour of Old San Juan!
If the drinks in Old San Juan are delicious, the food is fabulous too!
From mofongo and tostones to pasteles, you’ll find a variety of must-try Puerto Rican dishes. While there are plenty of sit-down restaurants in the old district, you will also find food trucks and street vendors.
One of the best parts of visiting Old San Juan is the wonderful food on offer in the old city: and the best way to experience all the culinary delights of the region is on a guided tasting tour with a knowledgeable local.
This highly rated 3-hour walking and tasting tour includes several delicious stops. You will also learn how mofongo, one of the staples of Puerto Rico cuisine, is made!
Admire Old San Juan’s architecture and learn about its history and culture on this fascinating food and culture tour.
Walk the old San Juan cemetery
Just outside El Morro, you’ll find the Old San Juan Cemetery. Built overlooking the water and located between El Morro and San Cristobal, the cemetery makes for an interesting stop if you have the time.
Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, to give the cemetery its official name, holds the remains of many famous citizens of San Juan. It contains a wealth of white stones, and literally dazzles in the sun against the bright blue of the ocean.
You have to walk through a tunnel to get to the main gate of the cemetery. There’s generally an attendant on duty when the cemetery is open, and you can walk among the tombstones and step into the little chapel.
Snap a photo of colorful La Perla
Between El Morro and the Castillo San Cristobal lies the community of La Perla. You can see the colorful houses as you walk from one fort to the other. Take photos from the street above, or from one of the forts if you have a zoom lens. La Perla is one of the most Instagrammable spots in Puerto Rico!
Along the road that connects the two forts, you can see some street art as well. And, if you look closely, remnants of old Spanish tile work as well.
Admire the charming Casa Rosa
You’ll never believe it when you set eyes on the pretty-in-pink Casa Rosa, but it was actually built as barracks for Spanish soldiers. Later it served as officers’ quarters.
Later the restored villa became a crafts museum, serving as a repository for the creative talents of Puerto Rican artists. Today it is a day care center for the children of government employees.
Both functional and beautiful, the Casa Rosa makes for delightful photos. Stop by the Pink House when you are in Viejo San Juan, for a visual treat!
Check out the gate of Old San Juan
Old San Juan used to be a heavily fortified walled city, and you had to go through one of its six gates to get inside. Today, La Puerta de San Juan is the only surviving old gate.
The San Juan Gate served as the point of entry for people arriving to the city via the water. The gate is painted a lovely deep red on the outside, and the inscription at the top welcomes those “who come in the name of God.”
If you walk out through the gate from the city, you will find yourself on a beautiful walkway that hugs the water. And if you look up from the pathway, you can see La Fortaleza right above you!
Feed the pigeons at the Parque de las Palomas
I had never seen so many pigeons in so small a space before we visited Parque de las Palomas. The small park, on Calle de Tetuan, features mature trees and a cobblestone pavement, and is one of the more unique places to see in Old San Juan.
Parque de las Palomas overlooks the Bay of San Juan, and you get beautiful water views from here. But the star attraction in the park are quite definitely the hundreds of pigeons!
If you enjoy feeding birds, you can buy some food from one of the vendors at the park. The pigeons aren’t shy, and we saw them land on the heads and outstretched arms of park visitors.
Stroll through the Plaza de Armas
One of the main squares in Old San Juan, Plaza de Armas is lively during the day and into the evening and night. The square is lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops.
The square is a fabulous place for people watching. Just park yourself on a bench, in the sun or in the shade, and relax for a bit, watching locals and visitors go about their day. Here, too, you will see lots of pigeons!
You can also walk around and admire the architecture of the buildings surrounding the square, and view the fountain that depicts the four seasons.
Admire the totem pole at the Plaza del Quinto Centenario
Built in 1992 to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the discovery of the New World, the Plaza del Quinto Centenario features the Totem Telurico, a 40-foot tall totem pole designed by Jaime Suarez. This tall sculpture is definitely one of the most popular Old San Juan attractions!
Depicting the origins of the people of the New World, the ceramic sculpture looks spectacular if you see it on a bright sunny day, or looming up into the night sky. The plaza, with its fountains and sweeping staircases, is also worth a stroll.
Enjoy the lights display at Cuartel del Ballaja
One of the fun things to do after dark in Old San Juan is to walk over to see the lights at Cuartel del Ballaja, the old military barracks building. We visited over the holidays, and the barracks were lit up in holiday shades of red and green.
If you visit during the day, admire the gorgeous architecture, and pop into the Museum of the Americas on the second floor, or get a drink at the Don Ruiz coffee shop.
Stroll the Paseo de la Princesa
Walking down the Paseo de la Princesa is a must-do when you visit San Juan. It’s a beautiful and historic walkway, dating back to the mid 19th century.
The walkway hugs the city wall of Old San Juan, and is lined with mature trees. Along the way you can step inside a small garden, and admire the architecture of La Princesa, once a prison but now the offices of Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
At the end of the promenade is the famous Raices fountain, with its beautiful sculptures. Walk up to the edge of the water for great views across the bay. If you continue around the corner along the water, you will some to the San Juan Gate.
The city wall is lit up at night, making the stroll magical. And sunset is a great time to be at the water’s edge as well.
Admire all the statues around town
As you walk around Old San Juan, you will see lots of lovely sculptures. The Raices Fountain is an impressive example. Made of bronze, it features dolphins, horses and people emerging from the water.
Near the San Juan gate, don’t miss La Rogativa, another work in bronze that depicts a bishop and some women. According to local legend, the procession, when it happened in the late 1700s, actually disrupted a British invasion of San Juan.
Just outside the San Juan Cathedral, you’ll see some whimsical animal sculptures. And near Casa Blanca, stop to admire the statue of Eugenio María de Hostos.
Of all the beautiful things to see in Old San Juan, I thought the various sculptures around town were some of the most beautiful.
Shop for Souvenirs
You’ll see souvenirs for sale all around the old town, so if you love shopping, get ready to browse everywhere you go! From traditional lace to jewelry, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to souvenir shopping in Old San Juan.
If you are looking for something unique, consider a vejigante mask: a colorful reminder of medieval Spain. Or shop for local jewelry: you will find gold and silver jewelry here, but also local designs made from glass or shells. You’ll find lovely ceramic items here as well.
And of course, rum (in many flavors!), and great coffee, are everywhere in Puerto Rico.
Photograph the beautiful Capilla del Cristo
Old San Juan is home to lots of lovely structures, and the Capilla del Cristo is both stunning and historic. Built in the mid 18th century, the chapel is located close to the Parque de las Palomas, and is a must-see in Old San Juan.
Local lore goes that a divine intervention took place at the site. A horse with a young rider, competing in a race, fell over the cliff. The horse reportedly perished, but the rider miraculously escaped death. The chapel was built at the site in recognition of the miracle.
The chapel was not open when we visited, but it makes for beautiful photos, so be sure to stop by!
Do a night walking tour
While walking around Old San Juan during the day is awesome, also consider walking it at night, for a totally different and delightful experience.
The old town takes on a mysterious old world aura after dark, with laughter and voices drifting out of dimly lit bars and cafes. Churches and historic monuments are illuminated, as is the city wall.
Cool down with a local ice cream bar
Enjoying an ice cream bar from Señor Paleta is a quintessential Old San Juan experience, especially welcome on a warm day. The paleteria is located on Calle de Tetuán and boasts a wide range of unique flavors.
From coconut to tamarind and limonada to strawberry, the store features some fabulous sweet ice cream treats. We sampled quite a few of the flavors during our time in Old San Juan and every single one was delicious!
Take photos of the cats of Viejo San Juan
Reminiscent of European towns along the water like Kotor in Montenegro and Dubrovnik in Croatia, Old San Juan is home to lots of cats. You’ll see them sunning themselves on ledges and walls, and slinking along the narrow alleys.
Cats were likely brought to the city by Spanish sailors looking to eliminate rodents. Now you will see them all around town. Take photos, but don’t feed the cats. Consider donating to the local Save-a-Gato Cat Sanctuary instead. You can visit the sanctuary as well!
Enjoy everything chocolate at Chocobar Cortés
From soup to sandwiches and desserts, everything on the menu at Chocobar Cortés features chocolate! My husband and I are both chocolate lovers, so we visited more than once during our stay in Old San Juan.
Try the grilled cheese with chocolate, or the roasted pumpkin soup with white chocolate. We thought both items were exceptional. And the desserts are to-die-for delicious.
Enjoy a San Juan Bay boat ride at sunset!
For a truly magical experience, consider a boat ride around San Juan Bay in the evening, with the warm ocean breezes ruffling your hair and a brilliant Caribbean sunset to close out your day.
The highly rated boat tour leaves from the San Juan Bay Marina and lasts about 90 minutes. You’ll see El Morro and La Fortaleza from the water: the old city looks beautiful in the mellow light of late evening.
You can also opt for a sunset sailing tour of San Juan Bay. The 2-hour cruise offers great photo ops. Look for dolphins!
Tour the Beautiful Capitol Building
The Puerto Rican Capitol building is located just outside the walls of Old San Juan, and you can either walk (or take an Uber if you do not have a car). It is a stunning building, well worth visiting.
El Capitolio de Puerto Rico is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Impressive columns, the gorgeous dome, and the plaza in front make the exterior of the Capitol a great photo subject.
You can tour parts of the interior on a guided tour. Walk through a corridor featuring art work to the inside of the dome, where you can view murals and mosaics that showcase the history of the island.
Visit the Beaches of Isla Verde
Located just about seven miles from Old San Juan, the idyllic resort strip of Isla Verde offers many beautiful beaches where you can soak up the Caribbean sunshine and enjoy the turquoise waters.
If you don’t have a car, you can easily get from the old town to the beaches of Isla Verde by taking a rideshare or a taxi. There are lots of restaurants at Isla Verde, as well as hotels and shopping.
Isla Verde Beach is a long strip of heavenly sand, and is actually made up of three beaches: El Alambique, Pine Grove Beach, and Balneario de Carolina, also known as Carolina Beach.
Carolina Beach is a swimming beach that’s considered great for families. It has bathrooms, showers, and picnic areas, and is perfect for a few hours of sun, sand, and sea (or even for a full day at the beach). Water quality here is monitored, and, because the beach is long, it usually doesn’t feel super crowded, even though it’s hugely popular.
Pine Grove Beach offers a section that’s more suitable for surfing and boogie boarding, and parts that are calm and suitable for swimming or snorkeling.
Enjoy the Resorts of Condado
Just over three miles from Old San Juan, you will find the plush resorts of Condado, a completely different experience from the atmospheric alleyways of the historic district.
If you have a hankering for a pampering day at an upscale spa, or you want to browse boutiques and brand name shops, or eat at a water-facing fine dining restaurant, consider a few hours in Condado.
You can take a rideshare or a taxi to Condado from Old San Juan if you do not have a car. We didn’t rent a car while we were in Old San Juan: we used Uber and it worked great, because we didn’t have to worry about finding parking.
Love snorkeling? Check out this highly-rated jet snorkeling with turtles tour that leaves from Escambron Beach, walking distance from Old San Juan or Condado! The group is restricted to 6 participants.
Book this tour now!
Take a Day Trip to El Yunque National Forest
If you have more time to spare, a visit to El Yunque National Forest is the perfect way to get in a dose of nature while you are visiting Old San Juan. The only tropical rainforest in the US national forest system, El Yunque features lush and exotic vegetation, rivers and streams, and waterfalls.
You can drive through the forest, hike, enjoy the views from the top of the observation tower, and look for wildlife and birds. The new visitor center, rebuilt after Hurricane Maria, is also a must visit.
While you can conveniently visit El Yunque on your own if you have a car, a guided tour is an efficient and hassle-free way of El Yunque. This highly-rated full day tour offers guided hiking and is great for visitors seeking adventure. This equally well-reviewed tour is a half-day tour, and while it includes hiking, is more a scenic trip.
You can also combine a visit to El Yunque National Forest with a stop at Luquillo Beach (famous for its food kiosks), or a bioluminescent bay. Check the full range of tours here.
Where to Stay in San Juan
Old San Juan
Hotel El Convento is a charming luxury option in the heart of Old San Juan. The 350-year-old building has been beautifully restored, and the rooms elegantly furnished. The hotel offers a rooftop pool and hot tub, and an onsite restaurant. Book a stay here!
Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel is another great option in Old San Juan, with its fabulous views of San Juan Bay, and a location that is within easy walking distance of most major sights in the Old City. The Sheraton features a rooftop swimming pool, onsite dining options, and the beds are rated super comfy. Book a stay here!
Palacio Provincial Hotel is housed in a carefully restored colonial building, and offers both rooms and suites with large windows. The hotel is right off Plaza de Armas, central to major sights in the old town. Restaurants, bars, and bakeries are within walking distance. Rooms are well-appointed. Book a stay here!
The Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is one of the best-known luxury resorts in San Juan, with a location overlooking the water and a terrace and pool that will have you wanting to indulge in some serious relaxing. There’s an onsite spa, and the restaurants offer delicious options.
O:live Boutique Hotel makes for an intimate stay, with just 15 beautiful rooms, individually decorated. Rooms come with luxury linens and bathrooms with rain showers. The hotel has a rooftop terrace and an outdoor pool.
Best Western Plus Condado Palm Inn is a great family option, with a location very near the beach. The hotel offers an outdoor pool with sun loungers and spacious rooms. There’s also an onsite restaurant that features Cuban cuisine.
More Information for Your Trip to Puerto Rico
The Perfect Puerto Rico Itinerary for Your First Visit
Best Things to Do in Ponce, PR
A Guide to Visiting El Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
A Guide to Visiting Castillo San Cristobal in Old San Juan
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