Did you know that San Juan, Puerto Rico has the largest and busiest cruise port in the Caribbean? With a capacity of up to nine cruise ships at once, you’re almost guaranteed to see from one to five ship in port at a time on any given day - either stopping for the day or getting ready for embarkation to a new adventurous journey in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, the Americas and even Europe.
Whether you’re just stopping for the day or starting your journey in Puerto Rico, here are a few ways to enjoy the best the charming city of Old San Juan has to offer.
Old San Juan is small enough to walk it all in a day. But, while it might be small, it is packed with historical attractions that’ll keep you busy.
Walk aimlessly through the narrow cobbled streets lined with 18th-century Spanish colonial buildings. Notice the iconic blue cobblestones on the streets. These were used as ballast to weigh ships coming from Spain, which was then replaced by gold for the return trip. Visit the impressive fortress of El Morro, built in the 16th century to guard the Bay of San Juan and the city from seaborne enemies. Don’t forget to explore its windswept ramparts, old passageways, and prison cells. Equally impressive is Castillo San Cristobal, the “sister fortress” of El Morro.
Additionally, there’s La Fortaleza, dating from 1540. It is the most ancient fort in San Juan, and it is currently used as the governor’s official residence. Not too far is San Juan’s Cathedral, dating from 1592, and just down the street you’ll find Paseo de la Princesa and Paseo de la Muralla, two beautiful walkways along the old city walls and the waterfront.
If your cruise is docking at the Old San Juan pier, you can just hop off and walk straight into the city. But, some cruises dock at the Pan American Pier, on the opposite side of the bay. You’ll need to take a five-minute taxi ride that will cost you around $10 to reach the old city.
Puerto Rico has gorgeous beaches everywhere, and while in my opinion the best beaches on the island are far from San Juan, the city still offers some good beach options for those who don’t want to stray too far from their ship. Escambron Beach is the closest beach to the pier where you can spend a leisurely day enjoying the breathtaking views of the coastline, including El Morro Fort. A bit farther you’ll find Condado Beach, which is popular among tourists; and Ocean Park Beach, where there’s always a blend of locals and tourists. A bit further, but only 15 minutes away from the pier, there’s Isla Verde and Piñones. These areas are famous for their beaches and watersports. In my opinion, Piñones has the most beautiful beaches mentioned here but go with caution, as waves and currents can be strong at times.
Old San Juan has all kinds of stores, from international high-end brands to local souvenir shops. You can mix your history-hopping with shopping, as it is all blended in the city streets. Should you want more options, you could take a taxi to the Mall of San Juan – a high-end mall just 15 minutes from the city – or to Plaza Las Americas –the largest mall in the Caribbean with over 300 stores.
I know your cruise is full of delicious food, but you can’t come to Puerto Rico and not try the local cuisine, or Comida Criolla, which is a blend of Spanish, African, and Native Taino dishes. Rice with beans, meat, and plantains is one of the local dishes to try, but my top recommendation is to try the Mofongo, which is plantain filled with steak, shrimp, pork, or seafood, served with a sauce of preference and side dishes. Of course, do not miss drinking a Piña Colada, invented on the island in 1954 and now the national drink of Puerto Rico. San Juan is full of delicious restaurants, but I can highly recommend going to Café Manolin, Raíces, and Inaru.
If your embarkation port is San Juan, then I recommend arriving in Puerto Rico one or two nights ahead of your cruise’s departure for two reasons: 1) Avoid missing your cruise if your flights are delayed, and 2) getting to know San Juan’s nightlife. If you’re only stopping for the day, you might have the chance to at least take a peek during the early evening as some cruises depart as late at 10 pm. I recommend checking your cruise’s schedule to know how much time you have in Old San Juan.
Should you have the night available, I recommend both walking along San Sebastian Street and Calle del Cristo in Old San Juan. These two streets are full of bars, lounges, and restaurants, including La Factoria, which was recently ranked as one of the top 50 bars in the world. If you’re staying outside of the old city, you can walk along the Ashford Avenue in Condado, which is always active at night. If you are in San Juan a Friday night, do not miss going to La Placita in Santurce for the best local nightlife you’ll find on the island.
While this is not in San Juan, a lot of cruise tourists love going to El Yunque Rainforest – the only tropical rainforest in the US national forest system. Most cruises arrive at 6 am, or 7 am, which gives you enough time to book a tour to the rainforest, visit its waterfalls, and do some hiking in nature. Again, consult your cruise’s schedule to see how much time you can spend there.
There’s a lot more to do in San Juan, but these six alternatives will keep you more than busy during your short time there.
Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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