Old San Juan is a quaint and beautiful city which makes it a perfect spot to see many historic buildings and forts in a day or less! Here is a quick guide of the essential spots to visit in Old San Juan if you’re looking to wander at your own pace and time.
San Cristobal Fortification
Starting from the South-East area of Old San Juan, you’re greeted with one of the original Spanish fortifications that protected the city from mainly land invasions. Built in the 1500s and finished in 1783, the fort is an incredible site to see. If you’re feeling extra curious you can also go inside and tour the site.
A great next stop after seeing the Castillo San Cristóbal is the Plaza de Colón, a 2-minute walk from the fortress. This public square is most likely the most important one in Old San Juan. The plaza was formerly known as the Santiago Square because it used to have the main city gate, Puerta de Santiago, that, in tandem with Castillo San Cristóbal, was the access control to the city. After that section of the wall was torn down, the Statue of Christopher Columbus was erected in the plaza in 1893 to commemorate 400 years of the Spaniards arrival in Puerto Rico. While it was still officially named Plaza Santiago, because of the Colón statue people colloquially started naming it Plaza de Colón, its official name today. The other perk of Plaza de Colón is that it is also surrounded by local shops and cafes (Caficultura highly recommended) if you’re looking to buy souvenirs or catch a bite to eat.
Teatro Tapia y Rivera
From Plaza Colón you can also view some parts of the oldest theatre in Puerto Rico, El Teatro Tapia. Highly recommended is taking a peek inside because it has a beautiful Italian-designed interior. Tapia Theatre is a gorgeous historical stop during your adventure in Viejo San Juan. Built in 1824, it is named after Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, a Puerto Rican poet and dramatist. The Tapia theatre accommodates a little over 600 people. While small and quaint, it is a beautiful space to experience operas, ballets, orchestras, and plays.
Norzagaray Street and La Perla View
From Plaza Colón you can then start your way up the city by taking Norzagaray Street. It is a steep slope, but once you get to the top it is a beautiful scenic route with the breeze and smell of the blue sea. You’ll walk by Spanish wall fortifications that connect San Cristobal to another stop later on, El Morro. While you walk Norzagaray street, to the left you’ll see both residential and commercial spaces. A good and very local place to stop for food and drink is La Vergüenza, which has a rooftop overlooking La Perla and the ocean. To your left, you’ll see views of La Perla and its colorful houses. La Perla has been the home for locals since the late 18th century.
Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi Cemetery and Castillo San Felipe del Morro
At the end of Norzagaray Street you’ll see the start of a massive beautiful lawn with El Morro as backdrop. To the right, you’ll see the Santa María Cemetery. The lawn area is a spectacular place for incredible pictures with El Morro, the sea, and the cemetery. The lawn area is also great for picnics, to fly kites, and view incoming cruise ships! If adventurous, take a peek inside of the main historic fortification that guarded Old San Juan from naval attacks. Inside there are Spanish uniforms and artillery.
Cuartel de Ballajá
From El Morro, cross over and start to take Morovis Street where the entrance to Cuartel Ballajá is. Constructed from 1854 to 1864, this building served as infantry barracks and permanent housing for a little over one thousand soldiers. The huge building consisted of rooms for officers, soldiers and their families, storage, kitchens, dining rooms, jail cells and stables for horses. The ascending vaulted gothic ceilings above the main staircase are unique in Puerto Rico. Currently, there is a wonderful and quaint small theatre that still holds plays in one of the rooms, a restaurant, and the Museum of the Americas. During Christmas festivities, the open central space is used to house booths for diverse artisans from around the island.
Plaza Quinto Centenario and El Totem
Right next to Cuartel Ballajá you’ll see the Plaza Quinto Centenario, which commemorates the founding of the Americas. But more impressive than the plaza is the structure right in the middle, El Totem. The Totem Telúrico is a 40 feet tall sculpture. The totem was designed by Puerto Rican artist, Jaime Suarez, as part of the anniversary celebration. Made from black granite and ceramics, Totem Telúrico, is meant to signify the origins of the people of the Americas.
La Iglesia San José
From El Totem you can walk 30 seconds and see la Iglesia San José. At this church, you can view Juan Ponce de Leon’s armor. He was the first governor of Puerto Rico. Constructed from 1532 until 1735, This church is also a wonderful stop on your historic visit since it is a great example of Gothic architecture in the Western Hemisphere. Ponce de Leon’s grandson is buried there as well as the Puerto Rican painter, José Campeche, mentioned previously. It is now prime time to finally enter the Church since it has been restored since 2002 and recently finished in March of this year.
La Calle San Sebastián
Next to San José Church and after a cute, little plaza area, you’ll be on San Sebastián Street. Now, while the image shown is when we hold our annual Calles de la San Sebastián Festival in January, the street is always a great go to for bars. If you’re feeling thirsty, grab a drink at La Taberna Lúpulo, La Factoría, or Nono’s. This street is a great hangout spot especially at night on weekends.
San Juan Bautista Cathedral
From la Calle San Sebastián, you’ll start to make your way down the city by taking la Calle del Cristo. Heading down you’ll see the most famous hotel in Old San Juan, El Convento, and further in front you’ll get to la Catedral San Juan Bautista. The cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan and is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas after the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Apart from the Cathedral’s beautiful interior designs and historical art, one of its main attractions is the tomb of Juan Ponce de León (referenced above).
Capilla del Cristo
You’ll continue straight down la Calle del Cristo until you see one of the most treasured sites in Old San Juan, La Capilla del Cristo. It is a small chapel with an exquisitely decorated interior that is a “must” to view. Inside the altar is inlaid with silver and gold. The chapel also contains paintings by José Campeche, one of the most important late 18th early 19th century painters in Puerto Rico. Its architectural construct is also incredible, built in the Spanish Baroque style, it has its singular arch and a small, yet endearing belfry atop. The gate was added in the 1940s to protect it from looting. The chapel holds limited hours to be able to view the interior. In addition to its architectural and artistic significance, La Capilla del Cristo has a folkloric story surrounding its construction. It is said that during a horse race, rider Baltazar Montañez took a fall and went over the precipice, but survived due to divine intervention. It is said that the chapel was built in honor of this miracle and to prevent other accidents like those from occurring. On the basis of this religious story, devout Catholics visit the site to leave gifts and pray.
Palacio de Santa Catalina (La Fortaleza)
The next historical stop at Calle de la Fortaleza (the adjacent street to La Capilla del Cristo) is the Puerto Rico governor’s home: La Fortaleza, also known as Palacio de Santa Catalina. La Fortaleza was built between 1533 and 1540 and it is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use of the “New World.” It was originally erected as the first defensive fortress for the San Juan harbor and became a governmental residence in 1544. After its reconstruction in 1640, which integrated the Santa Catalina Chapel’s part of the fortresses walls, it also became known as Palacio de Santa Catalina. An important note many tourists look for, the umbrellas currently aren’t on display anymore! They might come back or might not, but currently there is a big Puerto Rican flag displayed instead.
Coquí el Original®
Keep going down Fortaleza Street and you’ll visit the most authentic place to purchase high-end jewelry pieces from Puerto Rico. Located at 200 Fortaleza Street, Coquí el Original® is a brand that crafts pieces in both solid 14k gold and sterling silver .925 inspired by the island’s nature and culture. The perfect memento or gift to commemorate Puerto Rico. It is a 4th generation family-owned business you will not want to miss, even if it’s just to see their unique and antique interior.
For the cherry on top of a full Old San Juan day, book in advance a reservation at the best restaurant in Puerto Rico: Marmalade. It is an exquisite fine dining experience with curated menus you will not want to miss if eating delicious food in your travels is your passion.
An alternate walkthrough of the old city would be starting from the South West area. This is another lovely way to explore Viejo San Juan since you initially walk through the promenade known as Paseo del Princesa. The most impressive part of Paseo de la Princesa is reaching the only remaining original city gate: Puerta de San Juan. Formerly, the gate was named Puerta de Agua (water gate) because it leads to the Western harbor of Old San Juan. During your stroll, you can also stop and eat at Princesa Gastrobar which has delicious authentic food or stop at different street vendors for artisanal snacks and art.
Printable Map of the Walking Tour
¡Salud y Éxito!