San Juan, known as ‘La Ciudad Amurallada’ or The Walled City, was founded in 1521 by Spanish colonists.
It’s the 3rd oldest European-founded capital in the Americas after:
- Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (1496)
- Panama City, Panama (1519)
From there, San Juan experienced various takeovers, as happens with the nature of colonialism, involving the Dutch, British, and its eventual overseers, the United States.
And that’s just the start.
Intro – Contextualising SanJuan
San Juan has been a centre for major sporting events, ranging from baseball, basket and even wrestling.
It has a population of 300,000+, but the layout of the city and its zones means it urban area holds ~2.2 million people
Or around 70-75% of the island’s population!
Plus, if you weren’t aware, while San Juan is a capital city, technically, Puerto Rico isn’t a country but an unincorporated territory.
A who what now?
Essentially, Puerto Rico and so, San Juan are governed by the US and its constitution, which when you visit will quickly become apparent when compared to other Caribbean countries.
So, hopefully that clears up the question of if: is Puerto Rico a country state’ now!
Still, you didn’t come here for international law; you came here for The Best Things to Do in San Juan: A 7-day City Guide!
Intrigued? Then keep reading to sea more.
Ok, I’ll admit as puns go that was weak. I just wanted to start the post off light-heartedly.
Anyway, let’s keep palm and carry on.
Enough? Sure, let’s talk trips to San Juan.
How long to visit San Juan?
Well as indicative of this posts title, l went for a week, and l still didn’t touch enough of San Juan.
Let alone thinking about ‘Puerto Rico things to do’ – l didn’t complete all the things to do in San Juan!
But to be fair, it is unlikely you would spend the entirety of your trip only in the city. Much like me, you will likely aim to visit elsewhere, of which l will be producing a guide on soon!
Ultimately, it depends on you – but l find that a copout answer.
So, I will break it down.
1 to 2 nights:
This is the minimum you would need to say you had stayed and developed a taste for San Juan. Any less and its more like a day trip, which is, well, utterly a madness of an idea.
This is a weekend break – a great idea, but one you do once you already visited and have seen the sites and simply want to party or sunbathe.
Its definitely not worth a Puerto Rico vacation.
3 to 4:
If this is your initial trip, this is a decent time to visit. Enough time to properly explore the city sites while taking an afternoon or a day to indulge in the sun.
I made many new friends who were doing just this. That said, it may change if you want to go out of the city as well, however.
5 to 6:
For me, this is the optimal amount of time.
Its also what l did on my first trip and felt l still hadn’t fully explored San Juan. Granted, this duration may not be feasible for all. Again, there were plenty of people doing this length of time, from students to professionals.
Given this duration may not be possible for all – its simply what l found would get the most out any trips to San Juan.
But if you’re after a Puerto Rico vacation this still wont do the island justice.
How to do it green
Inevitably, the greenest way to visit San Juan is via Google Maps…
Ie, not to go.
As the fewer trips you make, the less of a carbon footprint you’ll produce.
But then, that defeats the entire purpose, and well, makes this blog post redundant.
So, jokes aside, when planning to visit you should:
- Ultimately, the longer you can plan to visit, the more cost-effective or further your money will go and thus, be greener
- Equally, when planning and buying tickets, use websites like Skyscanner or Atmosfair to see flights or companies that offset their emissions via green initiatives or better company practices
Swift Airlines for example, and who l flew with to San Juan airport, apply fantastic business practices – their fuel efficiency is 20-25% better than others in the industry.
They really are awesome.
When should l visit San Juan?
This is far easier to answer.
While temperatures never deviate from 85 Fahrenheit or 27 Celsius year-round, the type of seasonal weather can vary significantly.
Weather for San Juan Puerto Rico is nearly always idyllic.
Specifically, from late-May to November, the island is susceptible to hurricanes. But l use the word can, very purposely, because it is highly unlikely. Locals still talk significantly of Hurricane Maria in 2017 but are primarily driven by the response of the mainland US and subsequent changes to aid.
My suggestion would be anywhere from December to late spring.
Partially due to the weather, but equally down to the number of deals or reductions in accommodation and flights you will be able to encounter.
How to do it green
There is not really any specifically optimal way on when to travel and so be greener.
Essentially, it boils down to trying to avoid the busiest times of the year for one simple reason:
Not only isn’t it less of a pleasant experience for you, due to the sheer quantity of people, but it places more pressure on communities, infrastructure and facilities.
Consider the natural areas – they will be overcrowded and negatively affected as masses people visit at specific times of the year. This has repercussions for both the communities and any potential wildlife nearby.
And think about it.
Do you really want to visit when everyone else is? With all the additional crowds, traffic, noise or pollution that will influence your city escape?
No, I don’t think so.
So, check out San Juan in the first couple months of the year.
Heck, make a whole Puerto Rico vacation for this time.
Where should or could l stay?
Well, this mirrors how long to go for.
It depends on you.
But l shall summarise it as it depends mainly on what type of traveller you are, or, what your intentions/goals of the trip are.
Being part of the US means San Juan is graced with infrastructure and services that many neighbouring island’s don’t share.
This means accommodations adheres to US safety and legal standards.
With my initial trip l was a solo-traveller – very much looking to meet friends and socialise. However, l have done many a year as a student. So, l desired something more private than a hostel and with a few more amenities, like a double-bed.
Yes, yes, l know, I’m precious. But l wanted my creature comforts.
So, l opted for Airbnb. And it worked like a charm. Pricing didn’t vary too significantly to hostels which for February 2020 were ~30$ per night for reference.
Seriously San Juan airbnb is the way to go.
You could always go the whole hog and stay in one of the various hotels, ranging from the budget to big-budget. Again, this depends on you.
Old San Juan:
- The periodic and picturesque district to stay. Old San Juan will undoubtedly be the quaintest place to stay, with its colonial structures and vibrant atmosphere.
- But that’s just it; everyone desires to stay here for these reasons – increasing prices and demand. Plus, the nightlife, on the days you wish to escape it will be overbearing.
I cover this area in more depth later.
Puerta de Tierra:
- Eastwards and neighbouring Puerta de Tierra is the administrative district where the government facilities are located.
- While it is well-situated, sections of its southern area are questionable and not something scenic. It emits more of a functional vibe, so perhaps not best for immersing oneself in San Juan.
- This was my choice of where to stay. South of Puerta de Tierra, Miramar offers more features and services, alongside being more upmarket.
- But the primary reason was down to its location to various sites and attractions around San Juan, making it an ideal district to base oneself to explore areas of San Juan then.
- East of Miramar, Santurce is very historic and has some of the best areas, like art museums or La Placita – a square if you want to dance and immerse in Puerto Rico it’s where to go.
- Yet, like Old San Juan, this can make it noisy and problematic when you do wish to chill out. Then again, these are in concentrated areas and so will more able to avoid it when needed.
- The Condado area consists of longstanding hotels, having been renovated in the 1920s and 60s, this district is the highly coveted…unsurprisingly as it’s on the beach.
- It has the attractive Window of the Sea Park centrepiece, surrounded by guesthouses and hotels. But this all raises prices and even with their restoration, can, for me, take some of the authenticity away. You might as well stay in a full-on resort in that case.
- Ocean Park is relatively more residential than Condado but has what locals consider the most local-key beach – Ultimate Trolley Beach.
- It also resembles more of an adrenaline-junkie or active vibe with windsurfing, kite-sailing or paddle-boarding and tertial sports like football (soccer for my US readers). While ideal for some, this does limit its allure for others, unless you like gourmet dining along Calle Loiza.
- East of Condado, and mirroring its image, this district has various hotels and luxury private accommodation.
- But while Condado has location and facilities, Isla Verde has beaches, well one, actually – but one heck of a beach. It appeals most to those who desire everything in one place –not something for a city guide.
While there are plenty of other suburbs, their proximity to main points of interest makes them less practical – unless you are willing to uber around and increase your travel budget.
How to do green
For me, this is relatively simple.
The critical step is to avoid places like chain or corporate hotels and stay in more local accommodation. That said, there are two l found that do make more effort to be greener:
- Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach – which uses various recycled materials, low-energy bulbs and eco-friendly cleaning products. Good resort consideration.
- Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel – potentially a surprise, but a recipient of the LEED certification mean this hotel has modern, energy-efficient technology to be sustainable. Definitely a contender.
- The Dreamcatcher – probably the best choice, this urban oasis uses unique recycled furniture in each room, artisan and local shop, daily yoga and even communal kitchen. The hotel also provides a personalized map highlighting the various organic and sustainable shops or restaurants. Wow.
But, better than both is to simply:
- organise your own accommodation.
As l said, l used Airbnb – more supportive of locals trying to earn money by running a business and giving me greater over how much energy l used as well as when.
If you want to read more specific tips, click here.
Safety and Crime in San Juan
As Puerto Rico is part of the US, its laws and police function as in the US.
Both the islands and San Juan’s crime rates are well below national averages – especially when compared to California, New York or Texas as examples.
Major crimes, if any, occur in areas you as a visitor won’t venture.
Of the areas listed above, you will want to avoid visiting Puerta de Tierra after dark – but there is little there, so you should have little reason to.
As a simple rule, go around with others when you can and travel directly from one location to another, especially if it is further than 15 walking distance.
And as with any city, use common sense. Namely:
- Watch your possessions – pickpocketing is the primary issue for travellers
- Don’t carry tonnes of cash – plan and only take what you need
- Water quality is excellent – no need to use bottled water
- Use Uber for longer journeys instead of local taxis – they are astronomically cheaper
If you’re looking for more a terrific set of scam tips – as I how to avoid them, not conduct them – then l highly recommend checking out this travel scam post by Brbbusylivinglife.
She uses her own experiences so you avoid the suffering the same.
These tips will go for any trips to San Juan or an entire Puerto Rico vacation.
Overall, though, the bottom line is that you needn’t change your behaviour drastically. Only remember that you are on holiday and so it is wise to retain self-awareness.
How to do it green
Unfortunately, the trade-off between safety and sustainability is one we should ever have to make.
Ideally, you will want both.
But, when it comes to it, of course, ensuring your personal welfare takes priority.
That said, you can still be sustainable while being safe by sharing an Uber.
If staying out, beyond 11 pm especially, then ensure you’re doing so in a group, and then that might give you an option to walk back.
If it is not too far and no in the areas mentioned previously.
But, overall, in the grander scheme of things, there are many ways you will be able to be more sustainable, which don’t compromise your safety.
Making the effort to carbon offset your flights, or not stay in a hugely inefficient resort, will produce far more of an impact.
Now for what to do.
Old San Juan
No, l am not referring back on where to stay.
The entirety of the Old San Juan is THE place to visit during any length of stay to the capital.
Sort of obvious?
I know, but you’d be surprised how many people l encountered weren’t maximising their time there. Some even there just to tick it off some figurative checklist. Which so is not the way to appreciate Old San Juan.
What do l mean?
I mean that you need to experience Old San Juan both at day and night.
During the day the streets are lined with 400+ restored buildings from the colonial period with cobbled streets, ornate features or tiny balconies.
Multiple small cafes or restaurants are littering the many roads, some of my favs being:
- Pirilo: an Italian on Calle de la Fortaleza
- El Jibarito: Puerto Rican cuisine on Calle Sol
- Stuffed Avocado: cosy, a quirky little restaurant on Calle San Francisco
- St Germain: a vegetarian, boutique bistro on Calle Sol
- Café El Punto: a bistro partially hidden within a miniature gallery on Calle de la Fortaleza
Aside from eateries, there are plenty of historical sites and monuments to take full appreciation of:
- The Museum of the Americas
- The Plaza de Armas
- Casa Blanca Museum
- San Juan Bautista Cathedral
- La Fortaleza
All these are architectural masterpieces, deserved of some time spent wandering around.
And that’s during the day. As for the night, Old San Juan transforms into a ridiculously vibrant and entertaining area, especially on Calle San Sebastian.
Primarily because of one simple reason: La Factoria.
Made up of 3-5 different rooms (each with a bar) depending on what night you go, this is the venue where Despacito, the most viewed YouTube video, was shot. And you know what? It’s as impressive as it looked.
I met and made so many friends there by simply socialising and striking up conversations with people
It was the type of environment where everyone was open to conversing, encountering people of all backgrounds, free of judgement, and just there to have fun or a mojito.
Aside from there, plenty of other venues and bars littered the street, making it easy to flow from one place to another. You don’t have to be a hardcore clubber – it’s not that type of vibe, though you can find it in the main room of La Factoria. But even then, its all salsa themed.
Frankly, the night sums up best activities when thinking of ‘San Juan things to do.’
If you go for any reason, go for at least one evening visit to La Factoria.
That said, there is so much to do around this area, that you need to commit more than one single day to it.
I would refrain from trying to squeeze it all in a day, just to say you have done it – spread it out and visit some of the individual points of interest listed above.
You will thank me for it.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Northwest of Old San Juan is the El Morro¸ a citadel built over 200 years between the 16th and 18th centuries.
Now that’s not a building project l would have liked to have handled.
Jokes aside, over this time it acted as the main barricade for the San Juan Bay and was used militarily by the US up until the mid-20th century.
Well, it’s still a big deal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage, after all.
To top it off, the Castillo is surrounded by open green space, known as the ‘field of fire’. It was established when the US military left, restoring the lighthouse and area to their original appearances.
And if you visit on a cloudless evening?
You’ll visit one of the most exquisite sunsets on the whole of the island. Check out my Instagram, in case you don’t believe me.
It is part of the National Park Services, making entry $10 for 24 hours to this and Castillo De San Cristobal.
So effectively, $5 each – worth it if you ask me.
And there is never enough you can learn from history, so visit it.
The is usually a problem too, which is why a strong, polarised set of sunglasses are imperative.
Plus, they serve every fashionable occasion you could imagine, it fro colours to styles these 3 styles are versatile no matter what!
Castillo de San Cristobal
Situated east of Old San Juan, this fortress was built by 1783, over 150 years or so.
A smidge next to El Morro.
Interestingly, it is the LARGEST defence by the Spanish among its colonies. This makes it, well, expansive, but exciting to explore and you genuinely gain an appreciation for how Puerto Rico as we know it came to be.
Its spread over 27 acres, with its own moat and tunnels.
And I spent a solid 2 hours investigating various nooks and crannies, but then l can nerd out on these things.
Even if you cannot spare much time, l wouldn’t say you have adequately ‘seen’ San Juan until you visit this and El Morro.
They both just symbolise the city and how far it has evolved.
I mentioned this square and area earlier, but my goodness does it deserve its own subheading.
Simply, because if you want a properly authentic, not purely a Caribbean but Puerto Rican experience of dancing, socialising and activity, you MUST pay a visit.
I went on a Friday, initially alone, as my newly made friends were so tardy. Irrespectively, within 8-mins l think it was, l had a group of newer, punctual locals, who quickly introduced me to the Puerto Rican-style of salsa and generally partying it.
And the best part?
Everyone from all ages was out, enjoying themselves and simply loving life.
I met, or even danced with so many welcoming locals or older residents who just enjoyed the fact we as youngsters were enjoying ourselves too. Glad that we, as travellers, were embracing their customs.
For me, it was what travelling is all about.
Quickly the night went from starting at 9 pm to being 3 am – not something l had planned, and some would like, but l got lost in the delight of it all l just forgot about time.
Indeed, by around midnight, things were calmer, and the area shifted to more of a clubbing theme.
Also, locals assured me La Placita doesn’t experience crime anymore.
Even so, I would go on evenings when there is activity and locals around as you will get the most out of it anyway.
I would suggest visiting between 9-11 pm.
And if there is a special event, just go in a group – gives you a reason to meet new people.
But again, it’s not dangerous.
This was by far my best evening, spontaneous evening when thinking about San Juan things to do.
You will experience a happy time, meeting people, dancing and listening to live music. I also recommend either Thursday or Friday as locals say the area doesn’t have the same feel.
Condado, Escambron & Ocean Park Beaches
Now, l know what you’re thinking – he’s copping-out by using another example from before.
Well, have you SEEN these beaches?
Course not – that’s why you’re reading a city guide.
Point is the beaches surrounding San Juan are very Miami-Esque and within walking distance of the most popular or accessible areas to stay. Escambron Beach, especially, located north-east of Puerta de Tierra is just idyllic and where l spent one of my best evenings.
The white-sand beaches are well maintained and enjoyed by locals or tourists alike, but never seem overwhelmingly crowded – even during the busier seasons.
These beaches lie head-on to the Atlantic Ocean, making them windy. Condado can experience rather full-frontal winds, making it a bit less relaxing.
Best bet is to head to Escambron – it’s a Blue Flag beach.
You will also get amazing sunsets – check my Instagram for proof.
Museum of Puerto Rican Art
The name is somewhat indicative of the contents, right?
Regardless, this museum is a prominent player among the Caribbean cultural scene, with the building itself being an artwork.
The modern section to the gallery was built around a 1920s hospital – which houses the permanent collection while the newer area holds temporary and expressive exhibits.
Want to be nerdy about it?
Well, it has over 130,000 feet of space to display pieces – if that helps you put it in perspective. But, within the museum is also a theatre, a sculpture garden and a vibrant, contemporary restaurant.
I certainly thought so, which is why when l visited l did so via Viator. A simple, yet effective way to ensure l got see the exciting pieces, at a decent value.
It’s excellent for rainier days.
You can pass the time, but still, feel you are being productive with your day and getting something out of San Juan.
It decently sums up a case of Puerto Rico things to do.
Museum of Contemporary Art
This is a modern, yet imposing building showcasing the islands contemporary artists.
It is located between Santurce and Miramar. And it is ideal for spending an hour just browsing the frequently alternating exhibits as it’s a petit venue.
Guess you could say the effort required to visit is minimalist, ahem, minimal.
Puns apart, it is interesting to visit if you want to view more topical displays or gain insights into political, cultural or social issues underlying parts of Puerto Rican society.
And it’s free. Always a nice touch.
Visit it if you are not often in the Miramar and Santurce areas. Its size makes it a worthwhile quick visit, but one where you’ll come away with a lot.
Luis Ferre Performing Arts Centre
Lastly, but contrasting to the other points of interest, this centre is a trendy and diverse venue to visit for anything from ballets to operas to musicals.
It also houses the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra.
They play 52 weeks a year – i.e. every week, with a considerable variation to their performance repertoire. I chose to attend on a whim and had one of the best evenings by doing so.
The music was a fusion of modern Puerto Rican tones combined with classical elements, making for a lively and funky-themed night, where l again made several new friends.
Go on a weeknight/earlier on in the week.
The venue is an ideal place to spend an evening during periods when it’s quieter, but you still want to have an entertaining evening, or if you aren’t in San Juan for a weekend.
Visit it – l highly recommend it.
How to do them all green
Well, the best way to experience all these places is: walk.
Obviously, you can’t take a car or ride the bus in the museums (but you get the idea).
If, and when, it comes to indulging in the nightlife, be sure to ask for no straws and that any drinks are served in GLASSES.
Funny how glasses became so unfashionable eh?
For eats and drinks beyond partying? Check these:
- Caficultura – high-quality coffee in the heart of Old San Juan
- Hacienda San Pedro – a coffee shop and cafe in Santurce sources beans from their own farm
- Orozco’s – some sustainable mofongo is found here in Condado, so you can be a green Puerto Rican and its well priced too
- Berlingeri – an amazing plant-based restaurant with choices like vegan burgers, tacos or bowls as takes on traditional Puerto Rican foods
- Santaella – an authentic, but elegant place to dine found in Santurce with its ingredients found in the farmers market…next door. The restaurant itself reminds you of Puerto Rico’s tropical jungles and its just a great time.
And as for shopping, you can:
- Pure Soul – a women’s clothing boutique in Old San Juan, it has various causal apparels, jewellery and naturally-made bags
- Mundo Taino – a sustainable souvenir shop! Anything from food to coffee to rum and artwork this place is great
- Concalma – a quirky place which reuses totes and handbags made in another factory in Puerto Rico. Located in Old San Juan, they prioritise selling locally-produced merchandise with 1% of sales supporting organic farms too.
All these activities will make the most of any Puerto Rico vacation, be it if you stay only in San Juan or not!
So, there are my ideas for The Best Things to do in San Juan: A 7-day City Guide.
As you can see, there is enough for even more than a week.
And while at it, here some final pointers:
- While available, l wouldn’t bother with a tour operator.
Get a map, a pen and some mapping-reading skills – or just google, and you can navigate San Juan well enough.
- Or just get lost.
Part of a city trip is just to immerse yourself in an urban and cultural area unfamiliar to your own. So just do that.
- Don’t stress over disasters like Hurricane Maria
Though there are pockets of the island still struggling from the 2017 hurricane, these are all in rural areas and, thankfully, only affect a handful of people.
Which after reading this, you should already be planning for!
Get planning on one of likely many future trips to Puerto Rico!
Have you been to San Juan? Is there something l missed out that you think should be visited? What would you most wish to do?
Let me know with a comment.