Between the charm of Old San Juan’s candy-colored Spanish colonial buildings to the miles of pristine beaches with turquoise waves on the coast, there’s a lot to love about Puerto Rico. Safe, relaxed and friendly, the island feels like continental America with a twist, making it a worthwhile destination for new and seasoned jetsetters alike.
The invigorating city entices nearly every type of traveler: adventurers splash in waterfalls, snorkel, and paddle through mangroves night to a bay full of glowing microorganisms; foodies indulge in mofongo—Puerto Rican comfort food made from fried and mashed plantains or cassava then topped with savory meat, fish or veggie stew—along with just-caught seafood; history buffs explore citadels, forts, and barracks from the 16th century; and vacationers delight in speakeasy-style nightlife, fresh coconuts on the breezy beach, and romantic sunsets as the ubiquitous coquí tree frogs chirp their nightly chorus.
This guide to San Juan will help you plan the island getaway of your dreams. No passport necessary!
Eat and Drink: Restaurants in San Juan
Near the beach, you’ll find plenty of trendy restaurants with fresh caught seafood. Oceano, for example, boasts a delectable menu of fresh diver scallops, angus tenderloin, churrasco, Caribbean octopus salad and classic Puerto Rican dishes. The cosmopolitan restaurant entices a younger crowd with a trendy environment, creative bar and even salsa classes on the patio.
You can’t leave Puerto Rico without trying mofongo and washing it down with piña colada. After all, the blended pineapple-coconut cocktail was born on this island. Barrachina, a laid-back restaurant in Old San Juan, promotes itself as the birthplace of the piña colada, although this is contested by another local establishment.
No matter the truth of this legend, one thing’s for sure: Barrachina churns out frothy piña coladas as thick as milkshakes, perfectly balancing the tang of the pineapple with the rich, creamy coconut and, of course, smooth rum. Enjoy it with one of the hearty mofongo dishes—options include skirt steak, chicken, seafood, lobster and vegetables—and you’ll be full for days.
While Barrachina gives a taste of traditional San Juan, the contemporary dining culture is best discovered at The Parrot Club, a nuevo Latino bar and bistro in Old San Juan. The bustling spot, located in a colonial-style building with brightly colored walls and tropical decor, features a menu of local specialties—plantain-crusted mahi mahi, chicken rice, churrasco—along with Spanish-inspired snacks like ceviche, tostadas, coconut shrimp.
Author's Note: I highly recommend starting with the tower of empanadas, which wowed my group for both its presentation and the variety of flavors.
Old San Juan boasts tons of lively bars and nightlife options, such as La Factoría. The speakeasy-style club—with no sign—contains roughly a half dozen rooms, each with its own decor and vibe. Well-mixed cocktails, like the Lavender Mule—ginger beer, vodka and housemade lavender syrup—go down easily in the dark, edgy space. The endless opportunities to explore dim rooms filled with cool art make La Factoría the “it place” for 20- and 30-somethings in San Juan right now.
Things to Do in San Juan
Unlike other destinations which may cater mostly to daredevils, Puerto Rico offers something for every type of adventurer. There’s no need for travelers to come to the island with a lot of equipment or experience—most adventure tours include everything you need, and novices are always welcome.
Nature lovers should make a point to check out El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system. With 24 miles of recreational trails, El Yunque presents ample hiking opportunities.
One highlight is the trail to La Coca Falls, which takes travelers through the lush forest to a gorgeous waterfall. The paved path is easily traversed, making this hike a great one for young kids. Along the way, keep your eyes out for giant snails, bright green parrots and giant leafy ferns. The trail peaks at La Coca Falls, stunning cascades that plunge 85 feet onto a rock formation. It’s a refreshing spot for a dip and snapshots.
Before you leave El Yunque, stop at Yokahú Tower, which offers stunning panoramic views from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.
Puerto Rico is one of the few places on earth to experience bioluminescence, the emission of light from living creatures. Witness this wondrous phenomenon at Laguna Grande—also known as Bio Bay—with Island Kayaking Adventures.
The kayaking tour kicks off at dusk, with visitors coupling up into yellow kayaks. The paddle through the narrow mangrove forest isn’t easy, but frustration can be avoided if you choose to laugh when your boat bumps into the giant, gnarly mangrove trees.
Once in the expansive bay, the guides will line up the kayaks, side by side, and explain what you’re about to see: Millions of Pyrodinium Bahamense, a type of dinoflagellate, twinkle under the water whenever they’re disturbed by the touch of a hand. Island Kayaking Adventures cleverly drapes a tarp over tour groups to shield against light pollution, giving visitors a better chance to catch the magical show.
Landlubbers need not worry, as San Juan contains everything you need for a non-seafaring adventures.
The city’s two preserved forts showcase how generations of soldiers lived and worked to protect the strategic island of Puerto Rico. At Castillo San Cristóbal, a fort designed to protect San Juan from enemies on land, you can see where the Spanish-American War’s first shots were fired and step inside a dark-as-night dungeon. The expansive vistas from the top provide incredible opportunities to photograph the city and the coast.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, intended to defend the island from invasion by sea, is another must see. According to the National Park Service, it was one of the largest fortifications built by the Spanish in this region. Check out the restored lighthouse, humble cemetery, casemates and the chapel.
In the afternoon, locals fly kites on the grassy premises surrounding the fort, a sight that beautifully melds a modern pastime against a historic backdrop.
Old San Juan feels unlike anywhere else in the United States. The cobblestoned streets with colonial-style buildings in pastel colors feel Old World, yet contain modern retail options, like a Crocs store and luxury handbag boutiques.
Skip the guided tours and venture through the hilly town on your own, popping into old churches, shopping at chic boutiques like Luca—a contemporary boutique with local-made jewelry and apparel—resting in cafes and befriending locals in welcoming neighborhood that you won’t soon forget.
Where to Stay in San Juan
The InterContinental San Juan is a top destination for those seeking resort-style accommodations. The Morris Lapidus-designed hotel recently completed a $22.25 million facelift, giving many of the nearly 400 guest rooms luxurious upgrades. The hotel features a lagoon-style swimming pool, spacious hot tub, outdoor and swim-up bars and fantastic on-site dining options, such as Trattoria Italiana, which puts out a mouthwatering breakfast spread each morning. Between the hotel’s casino, fitness center and access to pristine beaches, there’s plenty of fun to be had without leaving the property—although you definitely should plan to explore.
Located just a few blocks from Condado Beach, Holiday Inn Express treats families to budget-friendly accommodations in the center of San Juan. The comfortable hotel includes a 24-hour fitness center and outdoor pool. Basic rooms have enough space for couples or parents with one child, but bigger families should opt for a suite, which includes a separate living room, an extra bathroom and additional in-room amenities, like microwaves and mini fridges.
Travelers in search of charming, artsy accommodations are in luck at CasaBlanca Hotel, a boutique property in Old San Juan. The colorful lobby features cool art, a giant chandelier and patterned furniture—motifs which are continued throughout the cozy, bright rooms.