Writing about Puerto Rico will not be easy for me as writing about other places. I lived in Puerto Rico since I was 2 years old until I finished high school so my experience of Puerto Rico is not just a trip or an extended visit. However, I will try to highlight, through a few of these entries, what one who visits Puerto Rico can expect to see and experience.
There are many places in Puerto Rico worth seeing. However, for me, Old San Juan is tops. Consider that Old San Juan is a decade or so short of having been in existence 500 years. Santo Domingo is older but, for the Americas, 500 is impressive enough.
The best way to appreciate the uniqueness of Old San Juan, which refers to the area formerly surrounded by a wall and the immediate vicinity, is by coming into the bay in a cruise ship (or maybe some other boat). The tip of the island where Old San Juan is houses the El Morro fort, a very impressive fortification built centuries ago to protect San Juan de Puerto Rico from pirates from other European countries (even the mighty Francis Drake tried -and failed- to take San Juan).
From the fort, a huge wall surrounded Old San Juan with several gates (only one survives) controlling access. A good bit of the wall remains, especially from the fort of San Cristobal towards El Morro, then to La Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion) to the Capilla del Cristo. Seeing the old city surrounded by this wall, especially at sunset or nighttime is a sight to behold.
The fort of El Morro is a must see for anyone visiting PR. Get a guide so you can understand how the fort operated, how it was used to defend the city, etc. Step into a “garita” and feel what a Spanish soldier must have felt centuries ago serving as a sentry keeping an eye out for ships. The fort is huge (take a water bottle if it is hot!).
As kids we loved going to the fort. The fort of San Cristobal is smaller but still an impressive site. There is a cemetery below the ground of the fort of El Morro. Local luminaries are buried there; however, be warned, getting to it is risky so I would actually recommend not going but, instead, cross the El Morro grounds and look down on the cemetery from the gaps in the wall.
The area around Plaza de Armas is the center of the town, where city hall is. It is your typical Spanish plaza. Nearby, you also have the Plaza Colon. Anyone around will happily direct you to these places. The Capilla del Cristo and the next door Parque de las Palomas are local favorites. The Capilla (chapel) was built on the edge of a cliff in honor of a jockey not dying (a very long time ago) when he and his horse went off the cliff on a downhill race down the Calle del Cristo. People leave items as thanksgiving for prayers answered. It is a charming site.
Old San Juan is a great place to explore on foot as it is very compact. Walk to the Cathedral, enter the hotel across the street (“El Convento“, a former convent), walk down by the waterfront, explore the backstreets and examine the architecture. If you get lucky, take a peek inside any of the houses (people do live there!); worst case, at least go into shops or eateries that retain the inner courtyard so you can appreciate how people lived and still live in these magnificent buildings. The cobblestone streets and the architecture really take you to a different time (if you can ignore the cars!).
As you approach the cruise ship area, the number of souvenir shops increase exponentially but in the rest of Old San Juan, you will find shops where the locals also shop and souvenir shops that are more reasonable. I remember as a child my mother going to Old San Juan on a Saturday to go shopping. There are many places to eat and many of those being oriented to tourists but, for a local style lunch, el Siglo XX is a classic (Calle O ‘Donnell). Other well known eatiers are La Bombonera and La Mallorca (some of these may be closed by now…). If the day is hot, stop at a piragüero, and get the piragua (shaved ice with a syrup with the flavor of your choosing).
Nightlife in Old San Juan is abundant. The bars in the Calle del Cristo were famous in my time in PR and are likely still popular with the local crowd. I believe that Calle San Sebastian has also developed as an area to go out at night. The area by the cruise ships also has places to eat and drink but, to me, having known another side of Old San Juan, that would feel too touristy and I would avoid it. (Anyone with more current info and perspective, please comment if all this is outdated info!! I don’t claim to be current on where to go for nightlife, but I know there is!)
If you have kids, the forts and adjoining grounds will clearly be fun for them – but get a kite and be ready to fly it!
Check out this link for more info on what to do with kids: http://www.puertoricodaytrips.com/kids-in-old-san-juan/
It is hard to do Old San Juan justice in any write-up. It is a charming, deeply historical, and beautiful location to see and explore!