A First Timer’s Guide to San Juan

El Morro

If you’re looking for a Caribbean escape, look no further than Puerto Rico. With its warm weather all year round, you can experience beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, and delicious food anytime! And since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, Americans don’t need passports. San Juan is a great place to start. This guide will cover everything you need to know for your first visit to San Juan.

Quick Overview

Statues in Old San Juan
  • How to Get There: The main airport on the island is Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU), located just a few miles east of San Juan
  • Language: Spanish – In San Juan, most people spoke some English. However, once we started venturing out, English became less common, but Google Translate did the trick.
  • Currency: US Dollars – Most places in San Juan take cards, but I would carry cash when leaving the city
  • When to Visit: Puerto Rico stays pretty warm year-round, so you can visit at any time of the year. Just keep an eye on hurricanes that can occur between June to November.
  • Emergency Number: 911

Where To Stay

Jack and I chose to stay in Old San Juan for our first visit to Puerto Rico at the Sheraton Old San Juan. While the neighborhood may be a little touristy, you’ll be within walking distance of the most visited attractions.   

In Old San Juan, I would avoid driving as the streets are narrow and parking can be challenging to find. We could walk everywhere in the area, but Ubers are reasonably priced (Lyft was unavailable in Puerto Rico when we were there). If you are planning on leaving the city,  such as to visit El Yunque, you will need a car. We arranged our itinerary so we would do everything that required driving over two days, and we could return the vehicle before the end of our trip. 

For more modern accommodations, Condado is an excellent option. The neighborhood is full of beachfront hotels, upscale shopping, and ritzy dining, and it’s only a ten-minute drive from Old San Juan.

Things To Do

Visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro

El Morro fort walls in San Juan

Also known as El Morro, this fort is nearly 500 years old. The Spanish fortress was built to protect Puerto Rico from British and Dutch invasions and was used by the U.S. Army during both World Wars. Today, it has been declared a United Nations World Heritage Site. 

Once on top of the fort, you can see Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetary, the final resting place of many prominent Puerto Rican natives. Also, check the oceanside fort walls, as you may get a glimpse of a few wild iguanas sunbathing. The esplanade in front of El Morro is a favorite spot for flying kites and picnics.  Note: There’s an entrance fee to enter the Fort, but it will also give you access to nearby Castillo San Cristobal. The America the Beautiful Interagency Pass covers the entrance fee for both sites.

Eat in Old San Juan

Colorful buildings in Old San Juan

There are a ton of local eateries lining the streets of Old San Juan. For your morning coffee, Cafe Cuatro Sombras and Finca Cialitos are popular spots. Mallorcas are a Puerto Rican sweet roll with powdered sugar commonly served for breakfast. You can try them at Cafeteria Mallorca.

We had great meals at El Jibarito and Cayo Caribe for lunch and dinner. Both serve traditional cuisine, like mofongo (mashed fried plantains) and tostones (deep fried plantains).

Did you know the pina colada was born in Puerto Rico? For cocktails, many people suggested La Factoria and The Mezzanine. The Mezzanine is located on the second floor of its building, with a bistro on the first and Alfresco Rooftop Wine Bar on the third floor. 

Tour Casa Bacardi

The Bacardi family has been making rum for 150 years, and today, Casa Bacardi is the largest premium rum distillery in the world. Situated just across the bay from San Juan, they offer mixology classes, a rum tasting tour, and the Legacy Tour, where you can learn more about the Bacardi family history.

Enjoy A Beach Day

There’s no shortage of beaches in Puerto Rico. Isla Verde and Condado Beach are popular tourist spots in San Juan. Both offer watersports like parasailing and windsurfing. Condado Beach has strong currents, so head to Isla Verde if you want to swim in the ocean.

Hike El Yunque National Forest

An hour east of San Juan is El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national park system. The park covers 28,000 acres of forest and is home to many native species, including the coqui tree frog, a national symbol of Puerto Rico. 

The park has strenuous hikes for avid hikers, like the El Yunque Trail. On the other hand, if you’re looking to take it easy (me!), the Mt Britton Trail is less than 2 miles and will bring you to Mt Britton Tower, where you can get a great view of El Yunque Peak. Many of the park’s highlights are an even shorter walk or even along the roadside (La Coca Falls is one of the first sites you’ll see once you pass through the forest entrance gate).

Note: Before you go, every vehicle is required to make a reservation online at Recreation.gov. There’s a $2 fee, but it covers everyone in your car.

While there’s a small food concession area in the park, dining is limited. I’d recommend bringing your own food or visiting the nearby Luquillo Kiosks. There are about 60 family-owned shops, so you’ll have plenty of options.

La Coca Falls in El Yunque

Go On a Bioluminescent Kayak Tour

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction in which organisms produce light that acts as a natural defense mechanism. There are only a few bioluminescent bays worldwide, and Puerto Rico has three of them – Mosquito Bay, Laguna Grande, and La Parguera. Laguna Grande is on the island’s east coast and the closest of the three to San Juan. Tour guides will lead you through mangroves to the open water, and as you move through, you will see the tiny organisms illuminate.

While I think everyone should do this at least once, I’d also tell people to lower their expectations just a tiny bit. It’s still really cool to see the dinoflagellates light up, but they’re not quite as vivid as many pictures you’ll find online. When the moon is out, the organisms are even less bright so try to avoid full moon nights. Once you’re out in the bay, most tours will throw a big tarp over everyone to block out the light to give you a better look at the glow.

Overall

If you only have a weekend, San Juan is the perfect destination. It’s easy to get to (especially for those of us on the east coast of the U.S.) and you don’t have to worry about any of the hassles that comes with international trips (like passports, exchanging currency, and language barriers).   

If you have a few more days, Puerto Rico has so much to offer, so consider spending some time outside of San Juan. In Cabo Rojo, shrimp have turned the water pink at Las Salinas (the Salt Flats). You can take a ferry to the island of Culebra to see the abandoned tank on Flamenco Beach. Rio Camuy Cave Park has one of the largest underground rivers in the world. The country is rich in culture and history and a great choice for any tropical getaway.   

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