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Vibrant, colorful, and historic San Juan is the largest city and capital of Puerto Rico. Visitors on San Juan cruises will find massive fortresses, charming boulevards, and a plethora of music and cuisine. A worthy destination in its own right, Caribbean cruises from San Juan stop in other enticing island destinations, making for the ideal tropical vacation. Spend a few days before or after your cruise in Puerto Rico so you can experience even more of San Juan’s beauty and culture.
The first fort many travelers visit before embarking on one of our cruises from San Juan or calling in port for the day is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, commonly referred to as El Morro. Put on your walking shoes so you’re comfortable as you trek up the long sidewalk leading past the gorgeous green lawns that stretch out on either side. The lawns provide a gorgeous base to the stately standing fort at the top of the gently sloping hill, with the ocean sparkling all around it.
Once you’re in El Morro, you’ll explore the fort via ramps and steps leading you up and down six different levels. You’ll see old sleeping quarters, dungeons, and ramparts. Informational signs spread out around the fort will enlighten you about the history of El Morro and how it played a strategic military role for many centuries.
On the other side of Old San Juan stands Castillo San Cristobal, which was built to better protect El Morro and the city from land attacks. Though it doesn’t have the same scenic splendor leading to it like El Morro, Castillo San Cristobal is still a worthy site to visit as it was the biggest European fortification built in the Americas. Its towers and ramparts jut out right to the edge of the ocean, and its massive walls are enthralling to walk around. Castillo San Cristobal was used in wartime as recently as World War II, though today it serves as a historical landmark visitors can walk around.
This is one of the most visually striking buildings in Old San Juan and was actually the first fortification built in the city, making it a top sight to see during San Juan cruises. It’s been turned into a stately mansion and serves as the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico.
Another governmental building to see in San Juan is El Capitolio, which is the capital building of San Juan located just outside of the city walls of Old San Juan. El Capitolio is where the Legislative Assembly for Puerto Rico meets. You can also see the constitution of Puerto Rico exhibited in the building when you tour it.
The beautiful Cathedral of San Juan is situated next to a pretty little park adjacent to some of the most charming streets in Old San Juan. In addition to its lovely setting, the Cathedral of San Juan is prominent for being the second-oldest cathedral built in the Americas and the burial site of Juan Ponce de Leon.
Located within a light-filled square in Old San Juan, the impressive Raices Fountain is adorned with statues reflecting Puerto Rico’s cultural influences: the Tainos, the Spaniards, and the Africans. The monument, whose name means “roots,” acknowledges Puerto Rico’s vast history and heritage.
La Rogativa is the name of another culturally significant statue in Old San Juan. It reflects the story of the procession of faith with torches, crosses, and chanting that a Catholic bishop and his followers made in the city during an attack from the British. The British military thought it was the Spanish Army coming and abandoned their invasion plans.
Be sure to leave time in your schedule to wander around Old San Juan, an area filled with colorful buildings, pretty plazas, and small parks situated alongside cobblestoned streets. Old San Juan is where you’ll find a wide assortment of shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s also home to some of San Juan’s most beloved sites, including two separate forts, cathedrals, and iconic statues. Adding to Old San Juan’s allure is the fact that it was built on an islet and is connected to the rest of the city by three bridges. This geographic location provides stunning water views from practically every part of Old San Juan.
Learn more about Juan Ponce de Leon when you visit Casa Blanca Museum, located in the mansion built for him and his family. Casa Blanca’s other claim to fame is being the oldest home in Puerto Rico, dating back to 1521. When visiting the museum, you’ll get to see the living spaces set up with artifacts and learn about the history of the mansion and Puerto Rico. Casa Blanca Museum also has gardens you can walk around.
San Juan is home to soft sand beaches in shades of white and gold, lined by the turquoise hue of the Caribbean Sea. The beach ambiance you’ll encounter differs quite a bit depending on what beach you visit, since some are laid back while others have more of a party vibe. The popular beaches of Isla Verde and Condado offer both relaxation and fun in the sun, with spots where you can rent lounge chairs and water sports equipment, and even get an oceanfront massage.
Puerto Rico has often been called one of the best Caribbean islands for foodies, and the focal point of all that delicious cuisine is San Juan. Try some tapas at a local cafe, or go all out with a waterfront dining experience at a fine restaurant. At some local restaurants, you’ll get to hear traditional music and watch dance performances during your meal. The can’t-miss food item to try in Puerto Rico is mofongo, a side dish that accompanies most meals made from fried green plantains mashed up with salt, olive oil, and garlic. For drinks, don’t miss some locally distilled rum or a glass of sangria.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Its location in the northeastern Caribbean near the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands gives it a mix of Caribbean, American, and European influences. Adding to that cultural background is the history of the indigenous tribes who once lived here, African slaves who were brought to the island, and the colonial past that brought the Spanish, who built great forts and settled the town of San Juan in 1521.
Today, you’ll find a city with a focus on the future while still striving to preserve its own unique culture of dance, music, cuisine, and folklore. Travelers on cruises from San Juan or visiting San Juan as a port of call will find that tourism is a big part of the economy and will be charmed by its residents, who are known for their warm hospitality to visitors. Behind the scenes, however, you’ll find one of the most robust economies in the Caribbean, which is largely influenced by the industries of service and manufacturing. Agriculture also plays a role in Puerto Rico’s economy, though not as much as it once did.
Cruises that call in San Juan for a day conveniently pull into port right in the heart of Old San Juan. The Old San Juan Cruise Pier has a trolley stop, taxi ranks, and many places to shop and dine just steps away. If you’re embarking on one of the cruises from San Juan to the Caribbean, you’ll depart from the Pan American Pier, located in the Isla Grande neighborhood across the Cano de San Antonio bay from Old San Juan. The cruise terminal has a parking lot, taxi rank, and an air-conditioned lounge inside. If you’re heading straight to the airport after your cruise ends in San Juan, expect a 20-minute cab or shuttle ride between the cruise terminal and San Juan airport.
The bus system in San Juan stops at all the major attractions and is an affordable way to tour the city, both in Old San Juan and beyond to the neighborhoods of Condado and New San Juan. Old San Juan also has a free trolley service that visits many of the top sites. Look for the marked trolley stop signs and wait for the next one to arrive, which typically doesn’t take long as trolleys are frequently running. There are three different routes and two types of trolleys to choose from: open-air and enclosed with air conditioning. Taxis are also easy to hail in San Juan, where they line up outside the cruise terminal or in ranks around the city.
Old San Juan has a plethora of souvenir shops located throughout the town. You’ll find typical souvenirs mixed in with locally made handicrafts. For a fun souvenir from San Juan, pick up one of the tourist-favorite Panama hats. Though not in walking distance for cruisers stopping in San Juan for the day, those taking one of the cruises from San Juan and flying in early will enjoy taking a stroll down Ashford Avenue in Condado, a part of New San Juan with a variety of boutiques and luxury stores. Plaza Las Americas, the largest mall in the Caribbean, has many popular brand name stores.
The official currency in Puerto Rico is the U.S. Dollar. You’ll find ATMs all around the city dispensing dollar bills. Expect to tip what you’re used to in the U.S., which is typically 15% to 20% of the total bill.