Old San Juan Puerto Rico—a Europe City in the Caribbean

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

We just return from our third trip to Puerto Rico and this island has a great area to visit—Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan)—a true European gem in the Caribbean!  On this visit to Puerto Rico—the first two were by cruise ship and this visit was a four night hotel stay– we visited Old San Juan twice during this trip and it was a wonderful experience.  Our first visit was a guided food tour that included seeing and learning about some of the sights of Old San Juan.  The tour group was conducted by Spoon Food Tours and it was excellent.  Our tour guide, Caroline, did a fantastic job.  The tour was called “Old San Juan Walk & Taste Tour” and focused on locally produced foods along with a good tour of Old San Juan.  Our second visit was wondering with a couple of new friends we met at the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) training meeting we attended.  Both were awesome!

Our first tour started near San Juan’s most famous site—El Morro (actually Castillo de San Felipe del Morro but better known as “El Morro”) at the Plaza del Quinto Centenario square.  El Morro is a huge, six-level fortress built to protect the city from sea invaders and one of three forts protecting the walled city of Old San Juan.  This tour did not included El Morro but fortunately we had visited this massive, interesting fort on a previous visit.  Here is a couple of photos of El Morro:

The Plaza del Quinto Centenario square was designed to celebrate 500 years of the discovery of Puerto Rico and the Americas by Spain and Puerto Rico’s history.  There are 2 levels of the square.  The bottom fountain represents the first 100 years of Puerto Rico’s history.  Two needle-like structures stand on this end, pointing towards the North Star.  Explorers used the North Star to determine their latitude.  Two sculpted staircases, representing another centennial, lead up to the plaza’s upper level. The staircases have two wonderful Lamb of God sculptures.  The upper level is the highest point in the city, and features the Totem Telúrico.  The Totem Telúrico stands 40 feet tall, is decorated with historic pottery chards and is a tribute to the discovery of the New World.  A beautiful square—here are some pictures:





We continued on to the San Jose Church (it is the oldest church in San Juan), which is undergoing restoration and not open.  Here our guide Caroline explained about the famous blue cobblestones—they were used as ballast for the ships crossing from Spain and made in the exact size of gold bricks—pretty interesting.  We also saw a statue of Ponce De Leon in a small park—he never found his fountain of youth in Florida where he was killed by a poisoned arrow, but he lives on here in San Juan.  Here are some photos:


We continued along colorful streets to our next stop—a small café, La Tortuga (a pizza & baked pastry shop) were we ate some quesitos, a deep fried sweet pastry filled with cream cheese.  They were very good. 



We continued on to the San Juan Cathedral is a 450 year old church. Ponce De Leon is buried here.  The Cathedral was the first stop most made upon entering the city wall through the San Juan Gate—to praise God for their safe passage to the New World.  Very close to the Cathedral, is a former convent that has been converted into a hotel.  Caroline pointed out the construction of this old structure that used techniques learned from the Moors by the Spanish that produced a natural air conditioning by increasing air flow.  Here are some pictures:



The small park in this area is interesting.  It has two unusual cat sculptures.  Cats seem to be everywhere in Old San Juan, and we learned that they are protected by an organization called Save a Gato (Spanish for cat).  They care for the animals, neuter them and let them roam.  Some photos:



As we wandered the colorful old streets, our guide Caroline, pointed out the two different styles of balconies.  They are wrought iron and wooden.  There are also vibrant buildings.  Here are some photos:


Old San Juan is a preservation area–any renovations of buildings must maintain the historical characteristics.  Here is an old building waiting to be fixed:

Our next stop was the shopping area on Cristo Street.  They have brand name outlet stores (Anne bought a pretty purse in the Coach Factory Outlet), and other great shops featuring quality jewelry, handmade items and souvenirs.  We continued on to Fortaleza Street, where we got a glimpse of the Governor’s Residence.  The next stop was at Melt, owned by a local woman dedicated to using local foods.  Located in the lobby of Plaza de Armas Hotel, Melt Local Artisan Diner is a cozy restaurant specializing in comfort food that will take you back in time to a 1950s diner with its décor.  We had had a breakfast snack of locally sourced scrambled eggs with homemade sausage and hash browns made from yucca.  It was really good and served with a killer homemade hot sauce—we brought a bottle home.  They also have very good alcoholic drinks with homemade mixers—we returned a couple of days later to sample their great drinks and, as expected, they were great!  What an awesome find—we will visit again on our next trip.


Our guide, Caroline, talking about the snack we are going to sample

To help you get around Old San Juan, there is a good trolley system of 30 stops.  Here is what the stops and trolley look like:

We continued on to an ice cream store.  It was called Senor Paleta and offers many tropical flavors of ice cream bars.  Great break—refreshing in the heat and humidity of Puerto Rico.    We enjoy our treat while looking out on the wonderful views from the Bastion de Las Palmas.  On our return visit on Saturday there was a line of over 20 waiting to get into this hole in the wall shop.


We continued on to an organic fruit store to sample some locally grown products—very flavorful and great tasting.  Cosecha Mía (my harvest) has fresh eggs, Puerto Rico coffee (we bought some) and wonderful vegetables and fruits.


Our exotic fruit sampler in front of some of their eggs for sale

We ended our tour at Plaza de Colon.  There is a statute of Christopher Columbus (“Cristobal Colon” in Spanish) in this square.  From the square we could see the huge fort Castillo de San Cristobal (San Cristobal Fort) that was started in 1634, and completed in 1771.  The fort is 150 feet high, and is actually a number of different units connected by tunnels.  Each unit was self-sufficient, so if another part was invaded and captured, the defenders could still fight on.  It was a really good 3 hour tour—we would highly recommend Spoon Food Tours.



We returned to San Juan a couple of days later.  Our first stop was La Forteleza.  La Fortaleza was built in the early 1500′s as the first fort to protect the city from sea invaders but proved inadequate to guard the entrance to the harbor.  So, in 1846, the building was remodeled from a fort to the mansion and now it is the official Governor’s Residence, and a World Heritage Site.  Although we have some good pictures of this awesome blue mansion, it really can only be appreciated from the sea, to see how grand a place it really is.


Next we followed the walls on our way to Paseo de la Princesa.  We viewed a small Cathedral, a pigeon park and a bastion.  This beautiful old chapel is Capilla del Cristo (Cristo Chapel).  It was built in 1753 and has a stunning silver altar but sadly was not open for us to view. 


We then went into Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park).  There were many children feeding the pigeons and we learned it was created by a former female Governor of Puerto Rico to help the children enjoy this wonderful city.


We wandered down to the Paseo de la Princesa, outside the walls of Old San Juan. This tree lined street has lovely gardens, benches, statutes and during our visit, a lot of street vendors.   We bought an orange variety—called China in Spanish—good, not too sweet.  They have a cool peeling machine. 



Our walk took us past the old city jail which is now the Puerto Rico Tourist Company and ended at a beautiful fountain with a bronze sculpture by Luis Sanguino called “Raices“, which symbolizes the island’s cultural roots.  Here is a picture of this fountain:


We then continued on to the red-painted San Juan Gate, the only remaining gate from the old city.  It was one of six original massive wooden gate doors that were closed at sundown to protect the residents.  Above the gate is inscribed “Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini.” It is in Latin and in English means “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.  Here is a photo of the gate:


The city wall or La Muralla was built around the city. Started in the early 1500′s, it is almost 20 feet thick in places, up to 60 feet tall in places, and was finally completed in 1782.  This protective wall is one of the best preserved walls in the world.  More photos:

We ended our night eating at the Princesa Gastrobar.  Wow, was this place great—it is an outdoor café shaded by over 20 trees and earned the first Rum Bar by Rums of Puerto Rico certificate.  The menu is tradition Puerto Rican food, based on recipes from an 1850 cookbook.  Anne had a wonderful shrimp meal and I went for the lobster au gratin.  Great choices!

As you can see, this is an exciting, vibrant place to visit.  We hope this will inspire you to give me a call at 713-397-0188 or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so I can help you visit this Europe city in the Caribbean or any other destination on a cruise, tour or on a river cruise and help you:  Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!