Founded in 1510, San Juan the capital spreads several kilometres along the north coast and also inland. The nucleus is Old San Juan, the old walled city on a tongue of land between the Atlantic and San Juan bay. It has a great deal of charm and character, a living museum; the Institute of Culture restores and renovates old buildings, museums and places of particular beauty.
The narrow streets of Old San Juan, some paved with small grey-blue cobblestones which were brought over as ships’ ballast, are lined with colonial churches, houses and mansions, in a very good state of repair and all painted different pastel colours.
Some of the restored and interesting buildings to visit include La Fortaleza, the Governor’s Palace, built between 1533 and 1540 as a fortress against Carib attacks but greatly expanded in the 19th century. It is believed to be the oldest executive residence in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Access to the official areas is not permitted. 0900-1600 Mon-Fri, T7217000 ext 2211; guided tours in English on the hour, in Spanish every 30 mins.
The Cathedral was built in the 16th century but extensively restored in the 19th and 20th. The body of Juan Ponce de León rests in a marble tomb. Daily 0630-1700. The tiny Cristo Chapel with its silver altar, was built after a young man competing in 1753 in a horse-race during the San Juan festival celebrations plunged with his horse over the precipice at that very spot. Tue 1000-1600. Next to it is the aptly-named Parque de las Palomas, where the birds perch on your hand to be fed. This practice is best avoided, however, as we have heard of people contracting a lung virus and ending up in hospital.
San Felipe del Morro was built in 1591 to defend the entrance to the harbour, and the 11ha Fort San Cristóbal was completed in 1772 to support El Morro and to defend the landward side of the city, with its five independent units connected by tunnels and dry moats, rising 46m above the ocean. Good views of the city. Both open daily 0900-1700. Free. T7296777. Tours of El Morro in English at 1100 and 1500, tours of San Cristóbal in English at 1000 and 1400.
The Plaza del Quinto Centenario, inaugurated on 12 October 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, is a modernistic square on several levels with steps leading to a central fountain with hundreds of jets (good view of El Morro, the cemetery and sunsets). The restored Cuartel de Ballajá, once the barracks for Spanish troops and their families, was also inaugurated 12 October 1992 with the Museum of the Americas on the second floor tracing the cultural development of the history of the New World. Mon-Fri 1000-1600, Sat-Sun 1100-1700. Free. T7245052. Guided tours available weekdays 1030, 1130, 1230 and 1400.
The Dominican Convent built in the early 16th century, later used as a headquarters by the US Army, is now the office of the Institute of Culture, with a good art gallery. Cultural events are sometimes held in the patio, art exhibitions in the galleries. Open Wed-Sun, 0900-1200, 1300-1630. T7240700. The 16th-century San Jose church, originally a Dominican chapel, is the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and once the family church of Ponce de León’s descendants. Ponce was buried here until moved to the Cathedral in the 20th century. Mon-Sat 0830-1600, Sun mass at 1200. The early 18th century Casa de los Contrafuertes believed to be the oldest private residence in the old city, now has periodic art exhibitions on the second floor and a small pharmacy museum with 19th-century exhibits on the ground floor. Wed-Sun, 0900-1630. T7245949.
The Casa Blanca, 1 Calle San Sebastián, was built in 1523 by the family of Ponce de León, who lived in it for 250 years until it became the residence of the Spanish and then the US military commander-in-chief. It is now a historical museum which is well worth a visit. Tue-Sun 0900-1200, 1300-1630. US$2 adults, US$1 children. T7244102. Guided tours Tue-Fri by appointment. The Alcaldía, or City Hall, was built 1604-1789. Mon-Fri 0800-1600 except holidays. T7247171, ext 2391. The Intendencia, formerly the Spanish colonial exchequer, a fine example of 19th-century Puerto Rican architecture, now houses Puerto Rico’s State Department. Mon-Fri 0800-1200, 1300-1630. T7222121. The naval arsenal was the last place in Puerto Rico to be evacuated by the Spanish in 1898, exhibitions are held in three galleries. n Wed-Sun, 0900-1200, 1300-1630. T7245949. The Casa del Callejon is a restored 18th-century house containing two colonial museums, the architectural and the Puerto Rican Family. T7255250. Both closed for restoration.
Apart from those in historic buildings listed above, there are the Pablo Casals Museum in an 18th-century house beside San José church, with Casals’ cello and other memorabilia. T7239185. US$1 adults, US$0.50 children. Tue-Sat 0930-1730.
The San Juan Museum of Art and History, Norzagaray y MacArthur, built in 1855 as a marketplace, now a cultural centre with exhibition galleries. Tue-Sun, 1000-1600. T7241875.
The Casa del Libro is an 18th-century house on Calle Cristo, has a collection of rare books, including some over 400 years old. Tue-Sat, except holidays, 1100-1630. T7230354. And the Museum of the Sea on Pier One, with a collection of maritime instruments and models. n Open when the pier is open for cruise ships. T7252532.
The Indian Museum at Calle San José 109 on the corner of Luna concentrates on Puerto Rican indigenous cultures, with exhibits, ceramics and archaeological digs. Tue-Sat 0900-1600. No admission charge. T7245477. Another museum in the old city is a military museum at Fort San Jeronimo. Wed-Sun, 0930-1200, 1300-1630. T7245949.
The metropolitan area of San Juan includes the more modern areas of Santurce, Hato Rey, and Río Piedras. Río Piedras was founded in 1714 but became incorporated into San Juan in 1951. On the edge of Río Piedras, the gardens and library of the former governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, are open to the public, with a museum showing his letters, photos and speeches. T7557979. Tue-Sat 0900-1300.
The University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras is in a lovely area. The University Museum has archaeological and historical exhibitions, and also monthly art exhibitions. T7640000, ext 2452. Open Mon-Fri, 0900-2100, weekends 0900-1500. The Botanical Garden at the Agricultural Experiment Station has over 200 species of tropical and subtropical plants, a bamboo promenade (one variety can grow four feet in a day), an orchid garden (over 30,000 orchids), and an aquatic garden. T7634408,Daily 0800-1630.
Hato Rey is the financial district of San Juan nicknamed ‘the Golden Mile’. The Luís Munoz Marín Park on Avenida Jesús T Piñero covers 35ha, which can be toured by a 1 km cable car. Open Tue-Sun 0900-1700. The Sacred Heart University with the Museum of Contemporary Puerto Rican Art is in Santurce. T2680049, Tue-Sat 0900-1600, Sun 1100-1700. The modern Fine Arts Center, opened in 1981, with theatres and halls at the corner of De Diego and Ponce de León. T7244751.
The residential area Miramar has several moderately priced hotels as well as some expensive ones. Miramar is separated from the Atlantic coast by the Condado lagoon and the Condado beach area, where the luxury hotels, casinos, nightclubs and restaurants are concentrated. From Condado the beach front is built up eastwards through Ocean Park, Santa Teresita, Punta Las Marías and Isla Verde. Building is expanding along the narrow strip beyond Isla Verde, between the sea and the airport. Along this road, Avenida Boca de Cangrejos, there are lots of food trucks selling barbecued specialities.