Old San Juan
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico needs visitors now more than ever. Like many Caribbean islands, tourism is a huge part of the economy in Puerto Rico
and the livelihoods of so many depend upon travelers like you. There are many parts of Puerto Rico that are worth exploring, not just the main area of San Juan. If you're considering a trip, I hope this guide is helpful, and now that your support means so much to me and the people of this beautiful island.
For all it's glitter and flash, the high-rise hotels and casinos, there's so much more to San Juan than meets the eye. While Old San Juan has become a major port of call, with outlet shops and Italian restaurants catering to the hordes of cruise goers who filter into this tiny city daily, those willing to dig deeper are in for a treat. Ancient, blue cobblestone streets, candy colored stucco and Moorish architecture are all waiting if you're willing to peel back a layer or two...
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel El Convento is a restored convent from the 1500’s and boasts a supreme location right in the heart of Old San Juan. The interior courtyard is lovely for lunch or cocktails and the service is outstanding.
Condado Vanderbilt is part of a new wave of development in the Condado area (about 15 minutes by car from Old San Juan). Recently refreshed, it has a beachfront location and several pools for guests to choose from. Their on-site restaurant Tacos & Tequila makes for great poolside fare.
WHERE TO EAT
In Old San Juan, El Jibaro is the best for authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. Popular with locals and tourists, the menu features regional specialties like pasteles (mashed plantain and pork wrapped in banana leaves and steamed) and mofongo (mashed plantain and flavorful broth). Don’t miss the housemade Tres Leches cake for a little something sweet.
Hecho En Casa is good for a drink and appetizer (try the alcapurria; fried ground beef fritters).
St. Germain Bistro offers a European bistro-style menu, focusing on fresh salads. They also have a reasonably priced prix-fixe dinner menu.
Jose Enrique has made quite a name for himself in Puerto Rico; he’s the most talked about chef on the island. His namesake restaurant in Santurce (about 20 mins ride away from Old San Juan) is all about what’s fresh and local, with a whiteboard menu changing daily. Cocktails here are designed to highlight local fruits like parcha and tamarind and the food is modern, but deeply rooted in traditional flavors. Go early if you don’t feel like waiting; the space is small and the queue is long.
La Cubanita (a stone’s throw from El Convento) is a former general store. Shelves lined with detergent and dish soap memorialize the locations former glory. The drinks here are expertly crafted and the space is cool with a hidden speakeasy inside.
La Factoria is a series of adjoining bars and makes for a fun night out. Each space feels different with the front bar serving global tapas. The wine bar is intimate with a handful of signature wine-based cocktails. A full bar and food menu is available in the front bar.
Cuatro Sombras is a coffee lover’s dream with an on-site roastery. The coffee here is strong; linger over a cup in their courtyard. Tip: Try the croissant sandwich with ham, local cheese and house made guava butter.
La Perla in Condado is a retro dream and harkens back to Puerto Rico’s heyday in the 1960’s. The vibe is fine dining, and the views spectacular.
Grab a popsicle at Senor Paleta to beat the heat (I like the coconut/pineapple combo).
WHAT TO DO
El Morro is a must for history lovers; this ancient fort is a study in masonry with beautiful stonework and sweeping views of the ocean. Entry fee is $5.00.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one place to shop in San Juan (skip the outlet stores). Ole Curiousidades features Puerto Rican made crafts (most in other tourist traps are Made in China) and the big draw here are the Panama Hats. Hats are custom fit and shoppers select their choice of ribbon. If the shopkeeper is feeling jolly, ask him to see the famed $3,000 hat. They also sell beautiful hand made espadrilles.
Paseo de La Princesa is a beautiful, waterfront park great for walking or jogging. Great spot to the watch the sunset.
GOOD TO KNOW
A rental car in Old San Juan is useless; the streets are so narrow and parking is next to impossible. Luckily, it's a very walkable city and Uber is now widely available!
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States and US dollars are accepted everywhere.