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Best Things To Do in San Juan

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The top things to do in San Juan are strung along the crooked cobblestone streets of Old San Juan like pearls on a necklace. San Juan’s top attractions sit in the old city that sprang up on the island when Spain wrested Puerto Rico away from the local Taino tribes more than 500 years ago and decided to set up shop permanently. The resulting colonial splendors—great architecture, old cathedrals, massive shows of military strength through seaside forts—are still around for you to enjoy. Wander Old San Juan’s quaint byways and 16th-century buildings to your heart’s content; there are museums and shops as well as historical monuments on every corner. From there, it’s an easy walk to the busy port, which explodes with vendors whenever a traveler-laden cruise ship pulls in, plus a rum factory to explore, and—perhaps the top attraction in all of San Juan—there’s a cool, misty rainforest untouched by modern development just a short drive away.

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
Brooding and obdurate, Castillo de San Felipe is commonly known as "El Morro." It's a six-level fort topped by a lighthouse that looms threateningly at the height of a tall cliff in Old San Juan. Built to deter invaders who sought to topple the Spanish Empire, this fort has 140-foot walls (15-feet thick), some of them dating back to 1539. El Morro is believed to be one of the oldest—if not the oldest—Spanish fort in the Caribbean. A small museum and video display on-site document the construction of the fort, which took 200 years, plus the El Morro's role in protecting the rule of the Spanish Empire. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is the large blue and white mansion on the same grounds. Called La Fortaleza, it’s now the Governor’s mansion. You can take a guided tour through the whole complex, but even just a solo walk across the large swath of green grass leading up to the old fort, and along its ramparts (with gorgeous views of the sea) will have you quivering as you imagine the prisoners who were tossed into its damp chambers to await their fate centuries ago. 

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Castillo de San Felipe del Morro  

Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
Inside the building that houses another famous San Juan historical attraction (the Casa de los Contrafuertes, or House of Buttresses, the oldest colonial resident on the island), you'll also find this museum, which is dedicated to West African culture and its influence on Puerto Rico. Masks, art work, prints, maps and more are on display, including a recreation of slave ship living conditions. Musical instruments from West Africa highlight the strong connections between the slaves who arrived in the New World and the native Taino tribes who had already been enslaved by Colonial powers and put to work in the sugar cane fields.

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Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana  

Museo Pablo Casals

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
Spain claims renowned cellist Pablo Casals is its own, since he was born and raised there. But his mother was Puerto Rican, and it was to her homeland that he fled in 1956 when repressive dictator Francisco Franco rose to power in Spain. Casals lived quite happily in San Juan, and started the annual Casals Music Festival for classical music that’s still held today (February through March). This museum contains his cello, videos of some of his concerts, manuscripts and photos of Casals and his family. The museum is inside a small, 18th-century house off Plaza de San Jose.

Cathedral de San Juan Bautista

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
There’s a church for every plaza in most Colonial Spanish cities, and San Juan’s is a beauty. Stretching for about a block, in the shadow of Hotel El Convento, St. John the Baptist Cathedral dates back to 1521. The façade, white-washed with just the faintest blush of pink, is neoclassical, courtesy of an extensive restoration that was completed in the 19th century. Inside you’ll find the marble tomb of Ponce de Leon, the famous explorer who thought he’d found the fountain of youth on Puerto Rico, and the body of religious martyr St. Pio (displayed here under glass).

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Cathedral de San Juan Bautista  

El Yunque

Neighborhood: San Juan
About 40 minutes outside busy San Juan metropolis is a jungle of a different kind: El Yunque, a national rainforest that is protected and maintained by the US Forest Service. Inside its misty, dense vegetation you’ll find rare Puerto Rican parrots, hear the constant cheep of the tiny coqui frog and come across small waterfalls with picturesque pools to take a dip in. There’s a road to the top of the mountain so you can drive in, or you can park below and try to hike up. The visitor’s center about mid-way up the mountain has useful information on the rainforest’s plant and animal life, plus maps, restrooms and a cafeteria. Hikes can start there or at the top of the mountain as well, which (unless you are a hard core outdoors person) is the most pleasant way to enjoy El Yunque.

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El Yunque  

Bacardi Rum Factory

Neighborhood: San Juan
It’s called the ‘Cathedral of Rum,’ and to faithful lovers of this sweet elixir, a pilgrimage to the factory is a must-do. The six-story pink tower—where rum is distilledi—is visible across the San Juan bay from Old San Juan. There are free tours of the plant leaving every 30 minutes (public buses take you around the bay to the entrance, and there’s a ferry as well to bring you to the door as well). The Bacardi family used to produce its rum in Cuba, but moved to San Juan in 1936. You’ll get to see all the inner workings of this factory, which pumps out over 100,000 gallons of rum daily. Did we mention the free samples? You'll want some of those.

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Bacardi Rum Factory  

Iglesia San Jose

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
Small, simple and blindingly white, this old Church was built in 1532 by Dominican friars from the St. Aquinas monastery. It was a work in progress until 1735, and remains one of the most significant examples of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture in the New World. For 300 years it was the final resting place of Ponce de Leon, until he was moved to the bigger Catedral de San Juan Bautista (his grandson is still buried here, however). Jose Campeche, a major Puerto Rican painter, is also buried here. Inside there’s a treasure trove of 19th-century murals painted along the walls.

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico

Neighborhood: Santurce
The island’s newest and flashiest art museum is worth visiting just for its impressive botanical garden, which doubles as an outdoor exhibition space for durable sculptures. Built in 2000, MAPR has a collection of artwork dating to the 17th century. Most of its pieces are from island artists like Williams Carmona, Rafael Tufino or Jose Campeche, but there’s an impressive range of modern artists who utilize different mediums, like digital art, outsider art and avant-garde installations. The garden outside has contemporary sculptures from 15 artists placed along small pathways, amid three cascading waterfalls, fish ponds and flowering Puerto Rican plants and trees.

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Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico  

Museo de Arte e Historia

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
Formerly a city market and now a renovated cultural center, you’ll find art and history at this lovely old museum. It’s mostly Spanish-language, but English handouts can be found at the front desk. In the side galleries (East and West Galleries, officially), you’ll find the latest paintings from young islanders. Elsewhere in the museum you’ll find displays that tell the story of how the city evolved, with maps, graphics and cutouts galore. There are occasionally live performances—dancing or music—in the inner courtyard at night.

Fuerte San Cristobal

Neighborhood: Old San Juan
Once the Spanish had El Morro up and running, the Empire’s first line of defense for Puerto Rico, it needed a second fort to guard against attacks on the eastern tip of the island. Built over a century, starting in 1643, San Cristobal once covered a full 27 acres. Now it’s much smaller, but the National Parks Service (which runs El Morro) has a put up a recreated soldiers’ barracks, plus a tiny store and military archive. It’s much less visited than El Morro, and crowds are sparse. Entry is free if you bring your receipt from El Morro.

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Fuerte San Cristobal  
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