There’s more to Puerto Rico than sunshine and piña coladas, including the many things to do in Old San Juan. On my trip to Puerto Rico, I discovered incredible places, colourful streets, and the fascinating history of Old San Juan after just a couple days of exploring this part of the city. If you’re looking for the best things to do in Old San Juan, you’ve come to the right place!
Puerto Rico is perfect if you’re looking for a bit of everything. It’s interesting, great for photography, and once you’re done exploring for the day you can enjoy the beach. We balanced out our visit with a couple of days finding things to do in Old San Juan, and some days out exploring by snorkelling and hiking in El Yunque rainforest.
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What to Expect in San Juan, Puerto Rico
The local language is Spanish, but many people speak English. While it’s always advisable to brush up on your Spanish before travelling to Central or South American countries, you will be able to get by in Puerto Rico either way. This is at least true of areas like Old San Juan and on organized tours, though I cannot speak to more remote and less visited areas.
Tourism is up and running since Hurricane Maria. Tourism is an important industry and source of income for many Puerto Rico citizens, and the island made fast work of rebuilding and ensuring the safety of tourist areas. It’s safe to visit, and great for the local economy.
Things move slowly in Puerto Rico. The pace in Puerto Rico might seem a little slow, depending on where you’re from. As a Canadian, I forget just how fast paced my life is until I’m somewhere like Puerto Rico. Don’t be alarmed if the bus comes… whenever. Even for organized tours, the start time was of little concern so if something seems to be running late, jut relax and enjoy the sunshine.
The city gets a late start in the morning. I visited Puerto Rico in January, and in the mornings it took quite a while for Old San Juan to get busy. Right up until around mid day, it’s very quiet and you will have places like the fortresses essentially to yourself. Come afternoon, Old San Juan is bustling!
Things to do in Old San Juan
Visit Castillo de San Cristobal and El Morro
This place was a great find, and a spot that I didn’t know about before arriving in Puerto Rico. Castillo de San Cristobal is the largest Spanish fortification in the New World, built to protect San Juan. It was used to guard treasure from pirates. Today it’s a great place to explore, learn about Puerto Rico’s history, and take breathtaking photos.
Explore all 3 levels, beginning with the first level featuring panels and images detailing the fortresses history. On the second level you’ll find sentry boxes, stacks of canon balls, and the beginning of stunning views. It keeps getting better, with panoramic views of the ocean and city on the third level.
Beneath the fortress, long underground tunnels span from one side to the other. It was easy to imagine soldiers running along the halls by torchlight hundreds of years ago.
- Entry fee: $5 USD for a week-long pass.
Included in this pass is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, another fortress connected to San Cristobal by the walls that still line the city. Guided tours are available to learn more about this incredible place’s history.
Take an Old San Juan Walking Tour
The best way to experience the colourful, charming neighbourhoods of Old San Juan is to begin with a guided tour. It is pretty much impossible to guess at the importance and age of the bright red and yellow buildings if you explore on your own. I booked this walking tour and loved it.
My favourite story from Old San Juan’s history was about how the townspeople prevented an attack. British ships arrived, far too many for the Puerto Rican army. The town’s people lit their torches and walked along the city walls to give the illusion of a vast army. The British saw this, believed it, and turned their ships around.
If you love history and interesting stories like I do, then a walking tour is the way to go. Old San Juan is worth exploring on your own, too, but you might miss a lot.
Explore and Photograph Old San Juan
One of my favourite things to do in Old San Juan was jut to wander and take photos. It’s a small, walled in city of it’s own so you’re hard pressed to get lost. Even if you’ve already done a walking tour, take some time to walk through Old San Juan again.
The streets of Old San Juan are famous for the bright coloured buildings, which look amazing in photographs. Watch for cute cats, too, as there are lots roaming about! If you’re looking for great spots to photograph, check out this post for some Puerto Rico photo inspiration.
Favourite photo locations:
- the colourful streets leading up to La Fortaleza, the Governor’s House.
- the views from the fortress of San Cristobal.
- the village market.
Try the Local Foods
We explored Old San Juan over two days, and tried a different local food each day. Take a lunch break and try Mofongo, a Puerto Rico favourite made with plantains, or pick a quesito for a snack at the stand in the Central Square.
Take a peek inside La Mallorquina, the oldest restaurant in Puerto Rico, or have lunch at El Jibarito, a local favourite.
Go Out Dancing
Of all the things to do in Old San Juan, this might be the most fun of all! Salsa, bachata, flamingo; Puerto Rico is a great place for anyone who loves to go out dancing, and Old San Juan is a party every night!
There are lots of restaurants with live music, and dinner shows that are free with the purchase of a meal to start the night off. New to salsa? There are a number of places in Old San Juan that offer free lessons, including Latin Roots and Nuyorican Cafe.
This site has a great list of events and activities every night, updated regularly.
Getting Around Old San Juan
- Free Trolley Service: within Old San Juan, a free trolley service runs on 3 routes. Get more info on the Old San Juan website. The trolley is particularly helpful for making you way to El Morro, which is the furthest from the entrance of Old San Juan. It is in no way a tour, it’s just a free shuttle service!
- Walk: Old San Juan is very walkable, and to see the colourful streets you will have to walk as the trolley does not go down those roads. Walk through the buildings, but avoid walking out in the open for long because it does get very, very hot by mid day.
- Public Transit: Getting to Old San Juan by public transit is fairly simple, depending on where you are staying. There are quite a few buses who’s last stop is the Old San Juan terminal. Just know that buses in Puerto Rico don’t really follow a schedule – they come when they come.
- Uber: another great way to get to Old San Juan is Uber. This will take you about as far as public transit would, but it can be faster and more convenient. Uber is very popular in Puerto Rico, though it is not permitted as the airport.
Tips for Visiting Old San Juan
A few more quick things to know before you’re visit, and you will be all set for a couple of amazing days in Old San Juan!
- Pick up a map from the Tourism Office. Located just around the corner from the bus station, the guides have lots of great tips on things to do in Old San Juan and can provide you with an awesome map of the area.
- Collecting mugs? Get one at the grocery store. The exact same mugs that you will find in the airport gift stores on your way out of Puerto Rico are available at the grocery store in Old San Juan for $1. They’re $10 at the airport. I paid $10…
- Visit Old San Juan over 2 days. My suggestion is one day for the fortresses, and one day for a walking tour and/ or exploring on your own. It’s simply too hot and too busy in the afternoons to stay out all day!
- Stay hydrated. Bring a small pack back with you, and stock it with water bottles, and even juice boxes. Puerto Rico is hot, and walking on concrete and cobblestones is hard work!
- People charge for photos with their lizards. I took a photo with an iguana that a man put on my shoulder and was just fine with that, but just in case you’re not, just know – this is a form of busking in Old San Juan. If someone suddenly sets a friendly lizard on your shoulder and you ask your friend to take a photo, the person will then ask you for money.
Have you been to Old San Juan, any other tips to add? Have questions about visiting? Comment below!