Last Updated on December 15, 2023
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Jim Ferri
I was walking along Norzagaray Street, one of the many exciting things to do in Old San Juan, admiring beautiful views of the Caribbean, when I heard it.
It was a Latin rhythm, a near-perfect score to accompany the cinematic view of the picturesque coast below.
I soon found a crowd around a small band outside a bar on a little side street. Young and old sang and danced as the beer flowed from local bars.
It was pure San Juan and Puerto Rico, and I was quickly drawn in by the color and the rhythm.
You find color and rhythm throughout Puerto Rico, especially in Old San Juan. Too often, though, people think of it as only a port for Caribbean cruises.
The truth is, Old San Juan is a great destination in itself and an affordable one, with a lot of things to do.
Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, American citizens do not need passports to visit. Moreover, San Juan is only 2 ½ hours from Miami and enjoys good air connections from most large East Coast cities.
Today there are several luxury hotels in San Juan, most along the beachfront. But with only 48 hours to explore, I chose the Old San Juan Sheraton at the entrance to the old city. It’s well located across from the piers, making it a favorite for many cruisers. It was also well situated for all the things to do in San Juan that I had planned.
A Must Do – Visit El Moro and San Cristóbal
With only two days in Old San Juan, I found plenty of things to do. On my first day, I wisely took the tourist trolley from near the pier to El Moro Fort, one of the city’s famed fortresses. More of an old bus than a trolley, it’s an excellent way to avoid the uphill walk to the fort. Trolley or taxi there, I thought, and walk back downhill.
The crowded trolley left me off on the vast plain in front of Castillo San Felipe del Moro, where people were lolling about on a sunny morning, many flying kites.
The Fort, a National Historic Site, took more than 200 years to build and is fascinating to explore. It’s one of the most popular things to do in Puerto Rico.
When you exit and walk back across the plain, you’ll see Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery on the left. Below the plain near the ocean, it’s a beautiful cemetery and the final resting place of many San Juan notables.
From here, I walked along Norzagaray Street, the main street where I found my neighborhood party, to Castillo de San Cristóbal. It’s another of the good things to do in Old San Juan since it’s another famous fort that is quite fascinating.
San Cristóbal took 150+ years to construct and is a massive fort with seven defense lines connected by tunnels and moats. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and U.S. National Park Rangers provide free tours. With a fascinating small museum, I found this castle fort more beautiful and exciting than El Moro. From it, you can often see cruise ships in port across the sea of mauve-, pink-, and apricot-colored rooftops.
Another Good Thing to Do in Old San Juan: Stroll Down Calle del Cristo
Simply walking around Old San Juan is a fascinating thing to do. The buildings are a sea of pastels, many with bougainvillea-draped balconies. There are also lovely plazas throughout the Old City, some with little kiosks.
For many, one favorite thing to do is to visit the Plaza de Armas, the original main square of Old San Juan.
It’s notable for its fountain with four 100+-year-old marble statues representing “The Four Seasons.” Nearby are a bronze bench and a seated figure dedicated to a local composer.
Just a block away is another must-see, the Neo-Classical Cathedral of San Juan, with the tomb of Ponce de Leon. De León founded San Juan in the 16th century and, from here, set out to find the “fountain of youth.”
The Cathedral is on Calle del Cristo, one of the city’s most comfortable and colorful streets. It runs from the Cathedral down to the harbor, filled with upscale boutiques and shops and peppered with plenty of art galleries.
Blue cobblestones, originally brought to the island as ballast in Spanish galleons, cover Calle del Cristo and other streets. (They were initially cast from furnace slag, hence the blue color.) Many of the roads have been paved over but are now being restored to show their original cobblestones.
Museo de Las Americas and Casa Blanca
Even though time limited my visit, I found the Museo de Las Americas quite interesting. The museum focuses on Latin American art and is set in the old Spanish Army barracks.
Since I was short on time, however, I only visited the exhibit on the natives of the American continents. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by a fist-sized shrunken head, which the docent explained just how the Indians shrunk it.
Nearby the museum is Casa Blanca, the oldest continually occupied building in the Americas. It’s not a popular tourist site, and there’s not much to see, but it is historic and quite atmospheric. Although built for Ponce de Leon, he never lived in it; his ancestors made their home there.
When exiting Casa Blanca, you can turn left towards El Moro or continue straight ahead down Calle de San Sebastian. The area’s main street is also one of the prettiest. And it’s an easy walk since everything tumbles downhill to the harbor.
Another of the good things to do in Old San Juan is to go down and walk along the old city walls to San Juan Gate. It’s the old gate through which dignitaries once entered the city. After entering, they walked up Calle del Cristo to the Cathedral to thank God for a safe voyage.
You can walk back to the harbor along pretty Paseo de la Princesa. It’s a lovely little thoroughfare with a park on one side and a parking lot on the other. Even on a hot day, it’s an enjoyable walk since large trees shade the pavement.