Locals call Puerto Rico la isla del encanto, “the island of enchantment”, and enchanting it is! There is an eclectic mix of architectural styles in San Juan from the neoclassical Capitol building to colourful colonial buildings, preserved Art Deco façades, and stunning cobblestoned streets.
San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico was a port of call on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas cruise. It’s always a good idea to venture away from the port to explore the country you’re visiting, but there is so much to see in Old San Juan that you could spend the day not far from the port. Read my Review of Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas Cruise
Old San Juan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist destination site. On this day, we had 7 hours to explore the highlights of San Juan on our own. Here are the highlights of San Juan cruise port:
Paseo de la Princesa
This is a scenic tree-lined promenade that overlooks San Juan Bay. The protective city wall, La Muralla, is on the other side of the promenade. At 8 am, it was still too early for the street performers and musicians who usually gather in this area.
Spanish Colonial Buildings
One major highlight for me was simply wandering the narrow cobblestoned streets admiring the Spanish colonial buildings. It was hard to take 2 steps without taking pictures of the charming buildings splashed out in brilliant pastels!
In the 1940s, many of the Spanish colonial buildings fell into a state of disrepair and the local government planned for a major renovation by replacing some buildings with modern ones. Fortunately, anthropologist Ricardo Alegria convinced the authorities otherwise, allowing a revitalization of the buildings while preserving its architectural style.
Free Trolley Rides
There are 4 trolley routes (all free) that take you to the most important sites around Old San Juan. Stops are clearly marked and all trolleys stop at the cruise ship pier. I would suggest walking a couple of blocks behind the cruise stop to avoid the mad rush of people getting on. Note that the trolleys do not run on a set pickup schedule so get ready to stand and wait.
Castillo San Cristobal
We took the trolley to Castillo San Cristobal, the massive fortification built by the Spanish to protect the city from land attacks. The immense fortress is a classic example of Spanish-colonial military architecture. Tour the underground bunkers, tunnel systems, dungeon cells, and the troops’ living quarters.
Look for the garitas, or sentry boxes, which are located all around the outer walls of the fort offering vantage points to soldiers guarding the shoreline. The admission fee is $5 for a self-guided tour.
Plaza de Armas of San Juan
We took a little break at the Plaza de Armas of San Juan, designated as the main square in San Juan. San Juan City Hall and the Puerto Rico Department of State are located here. Don’t miss the “Four Seasons” water fountain in the middle of the square with marble statues representing the seasons.
Parque de las Palomas
Just outside La Fortaleza (the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico) is Parque de las Palomas. Do not come here unless you love pigeons. This park is FULL of pigeons – and a complete nightmare for me. Some people buy food for pigeons to eat out of their hands. Nooo thanks!
The Birthplace of Piña Colada
My favourite highlight of the day was a visit to Barrachina Restaurant (104 Calle Fortaleza), the birthplace of piña colada! The bartender said the secret to making the perfect piña colada is not to over-complicate the ingredients. There should only be 3 ingredients in the drink: pineapple juice, coconut milk, and rum.
A Note About ZIKA
There was a high risk of the ZIKA virus in Puerto Rico but we took necessary precautions to avoid mosquito bites and everything was fine.
What We Missed in San Juan
El Morro is a 6-story tall military fortress overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. While San Cristobal protected the city against land attacks, El Morro protected San Juan against sea attacks.
Catedral de San Juan Bautista is the church that houses the tomb of Ponce de Leon, Spanish explorer and the first Governor of Puerto Rico.
The Bacardi Rum Distillery. This was a 20 minute taxi ride from the cruise port.
Not seeing everything in San Juan just means I’ll need to come back!