When you’re planning a trip to Puerto Rico, its capital city of San Juan should definitely be high on your priority list. Old San Juan especially is full of charm and history, with streets of colorful colonial buildings, restaurants offering classic Puerto Rican dishes, and old forts telling the story of this city. You won’t want to miss these things to do in Old San Juan!
Pro Tip: Old San Juan is compact and very walkable! You should be able to see everything on this list on foot! And I’ve done my best to put this list in a reasonable walking order.
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Things To Do in Old San Juan
1. Visit El Morro
El Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) is by far the most popular tourist attraction in Old San Juan. This fort is located at the very western tip of Old San Juan and overlooks the ocean for some beautiful views.
This fortress was built 1539 (although it wasn’t fully completed until 1790!) and worked to protect the Spanish settlers of San Juan from enemy ships. It was also used by the United States during both WWI and WWII. In 1961 it became part of the National Park Service as a National Historic Site.
Inside, you can peer through the gunholes to imagine a cannon firing on an enemy ship, explore the barracks used by soldiers, and enjoy beautiful views of the ocean. Park rangers offer tours, but you can of course also explore on your own. Taking a tour will help you understand the important history of this fort better though, as well as the history of Puerto Rico.
And while the inside of the fort is the main attraction here, we also really loved the giant lawn out front. It has beautiful views of San Juan, offered us a nice breeze on a hot day, and we loved watching kids flying kites! (Plus, enjoying the lawn is free!)
El Morro is open every day of the week from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Adults are charged a $10 entrance fee, but kids under 15 are free. You ticket for El Morro will also give you access to the other major fort in Old San Juan, Castillo San Cristóbal.
2. Walk the Paseo del Morro
Just outside of the El Morro, there is a paved walkway that cuts between the city walls and the water called El Paseo del Morro. This pathway used to be a maintenance road for the city wall, but now it is open for visitors to enjoy views of the San Juan bay.
If you’re visiting El Morro, this is as fun way to leave the fortress. Climb the stairs down to it from the back of the fort and then walk until you reach the entrance up into the main section of Old San Juan.
Pro Tip: This walking path can get VERY hot! So make sure to bring plenty of water, and if you’re visiting on a hot day, you may save this for the evening! You can get back to it by going through the city gate (see #3).
3. Go Through La Puerta de San Juan (San Juan Gate)
On the Paseo del Morro, you’ll find a large red door known as La Puerta de San Juan (literally the door of San Juan, but known as San Juan Gate). Since Old San Juan was a walled city, there were many entrances in the city wall that allowed visitors to access the city from the bay. La Puerta de San Juan was the main entrance, and you can still walk through it back into Old San Juan.
4. Walk the Paseo de la Princesa
From the San Juan Gate, you can keep walking around the city wall and you’ll find yourself at the Paseo de la Princesa. This tree-lined avenue is often called the most beautiful promenade in San Juan.
This is a great place to people watch and soak in the feel of the Old San Juan. You’ll also usually find lots going on (especially on the weekends), from food stands to craft vendors to live music.
5. Stop By the Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud
At the southern end of Calle del Cristo (now up on top of the city wall), you’ll find a tiny chapel called the Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud. It was built in the mid to late 1700s, and the legend is that it was built to commemorate a miracle in which a person in a horse race fell of the city’s cliff but survived. Another theory is that it was built to prevent further accidents off the edge of the cliff.
You can stop by and see the outside of it any day of the week, but note that it is only open on Tuesdays.
6. Feed the Pigeons at Pigeon Park (Parque de las Palomas)
Next to la Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud, you’ll find Pigeon Park. Pigeons flock here and you can find vendors nearby selling food you can feed to the pigeons. Be careful though, because if you have food they can definitely swarm you!
This might not be the stop for you if you have a fear of birds, but it’s definitely a unique place and there are some beautiful views of the bay from here!
7. Visit the Umbrella Street (Calle de la Fortaleza)
At the very west end of Calle de la Fortaleza you’ll find Old San Juan’s Instagrammable Umbrella Street. Calle de la Fortaleza is the street that leads to the Governor’s Mansion (La Fortaleza).
Note that you might not always find umbrellas here though. When we visited in October of 2022, the street was covered with a giant pink Puerto Rican flag (I assume for Breast Cancer Awareness month?) and the street was also blocked off by security (perhaps for something going on at the Governor’s Mansion?).
If you are nearby, it’s definitely worth checking out and snapping a few colorful photos.
8. See La Fortaleza
La Fortaleza (translated as The Fortress), was originally a fort built in 1540. But the 1840s it was converted into the home of the governor. Today, it is still the official house of the Governor of Puerto Rico and also contains government offices.
While you can’t visit La Fortaleza while the government is in session, at other times you can take a 30-minute guided tour of the building between the hours of 8:15 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Even if you aren’t taking a tour though, definitely stop by to see the beautiful building. For what I think are the most scenic views, see it from on top of the city walls along Calle de Rafael Cordero.
9. See La Rogativa
Near La Fortaleza (and from the spot where I think you can get the best views of La Fortaleza) you’ll find La Rogativa, a sculpture commemorating an important moment in Puerto Rican history.
The story goes that Puerto Rico was about to be invaded by the British. That night, a large group of women lead by the Bishop walked throughout the streets saying prayers with lit torches. From their ship, the British mistook the lights for reinforcements and called off the attack.
The statue was created by artist Lindsay Daen in 1971, and the location offers amazing views of La Fortaleza and San Juan Bay.
10. Visit Cats at Save a Gato
Just up the street from La Rogativa (walking back toward El Morro), you’ll find the main location for Save a Gato. There is a colony of feral cats that lives in Old San Juan, and Save a Gato is a non-profit organization that cares for these cats. They feed them, spay and neuter them, and otherwise make sure they are cared for.
Most of the cats know to congregate near the Parque Pasivo Viego San Juan where they get fed daily. If you decide to visit these cats, remember that they are feral cats and may not always be friendly. While some of them may be happy to interact, its best to admire them without trying to get too close both for their safety and yours.
Note: The National Parks Service has recently proposed a plan to remove the cats, although there is no timeline for when this will happen or if it is even definitive. Visit the Save a Gato website to stay updated.
11. Take in the History of the Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista
The Catedral de San Juan was first built in 1521, but after being destroyed in a storm it was rebuilt in 1529. This makes it the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere (the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in the Dominican Republic is the oldest).
This church has several interesting things to see, and two things are especially of note. First, it’s the final resting place of Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer whose name you will see all over Puerto Rico (just like you do in Florida).
Second, the martyr Saint Pius is also here. His mummy was encased in wax and is kept in a glass box which you can view. If you look closely inside his mouth you can see his mummy teeth!
Another interesting fact about this church is that there are many people buried in the walls. I believe they were mostly priests of church officials, and their resting places aren’t necessarily marked, but they believed that the higher up you were buried the closer you would be to heaven, so they wanted to be in the walls as opposed to buried in the ground.
12. People Watch in the Plaza de Armas
The historic Plaza de Armas is located one block southeast of La Catedral de San Juan. It was built during colonial times to be the main plaza of the city, and today it is still a great place to take a seat on a bench, enjoy a coffee or pastry, and watch the people of San Juan pass by.
There are also a couple points of interest here. The first is the Four Seasons Fountain, which has a statue representing each season at each corner. The second is a statue of Puerto Rican salsa composer Tite Curet Alonso, which sits on one of the benches.
13. Visit La Casa Blanca Museum
La Casa Blanca was built in 1521 and was once the home Juan Ponce de León’s family. Today it is a museum set up with furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries. There are also gardens you can stroll though, and the house and gardens look out over the city wall to the bay.
This is a small museum, and you won’t find many crowds here. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 8 to 11:45 a.m. and 1-4 p.m.
14. Admire Art in the Museo de las Américas
Near the Casa Blanca, you’ll find a large building once used as a military barracks called the Cuartel de Ballajá. This large building is where the Museo de las Américas is located, which highlights folk art from Puerto Rico and other the Americas.
The museum gives you a chance to understand the history of Puerto Rico and the Americas through art with three permanent exhibits: Folk Arts in the Americas, Our African Heritage, and Conquest and Colonization. They also have temporary exhibits.
The Museo de las Américas is open Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1-4 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays they are open from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Even if you don’t stop at the museum, be sure to at least stop by the building. This old military barracks has a beautiful courtyard area, and it’s a great place to sit down and rest.
There are also two important necessities you can find here on a long day of walking around Old San Jan. First of all, in the entrance closest to El Morro there is a small room with a glass door that has an small exhibit (I think on the building’s history if I remember correctly?) that has THE BEST air conditioning. Secondly, on the opposite end of the building, you’ll find some bathrooms.
There are also some great places to sit in the courtyard and a few restaurants where you can get out of the sun.
15. See the Ocean from the Plaza del Quinto Centenario
Across from the Museo de las Américas is the Plaza del Quinto Centenario. This plaza was built in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Colombus’s first voyage to the Americas (so, you know, not the best). But it does have a very cool monument called El Tótem Telúrico, which is made of clay and symbolizes the origins of the Americas.
There is also a splash fountain at the bottom which is nice for cooling off on a hot day. And, like so many other attractions in Old San Juan, it overlooks beautiful ocean views.
16. Learn about the History of San Juan at the Museo de San Juan
The Museo de San Juan (Museum of San Juan) is located just a couple blocks from the Museo de las Américas. It was once a public market (and even now there is a farmer’s market on Saturdays), and now it houses a museum. It’s a smaller museum, but the main exhibit is about the history of San Juan. The other part rotates through temporary exhibits.
Admission to this museum is free, and it’s open Wednesday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays it’s open from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m.
17. Take in the Views at Cementerio Santa María Magdelena de Pazzi
Across from the Museo de las Américas and back near El Morro, you can walk down Cemetery Street (you’ll go through a tunnel so be careful of oncoming traffic) to find the beautiful Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi. This cemetery overlooks the ocean and is full of white headstones and tombs.
You’ll mostly find Puerto Ricans of note buried here. Note that the cemetery is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Pro Tip: For the BEST views of the cemetery, its actually better to view it from above near El Morro. There you can take in the cemetery, the ocean, and San Juan all at once.
18. Walk Through La Perla
From the cemetery you can walk through the unique neighborhood of La Perla. This area is sometimes described as a shantytown, and it has an interesting history. In the 1700s, enslaved people were required to live outside the city walls, which means they built homes in this neighborhood right next to the sea and where the slaughterhouse was.
Today it remains a poorer area and an underserved community. However, it is also full of vibrant art and culture. The La Perla Community Board has undertaken projects to restore the community. And it was especially made famous for being where the music video for Despacito was filmed.
Some highlights in La Perla include seeing The Bowl (El Bowl), which is used as a skate park during the week and a pool on the weekends; walking along the Malecón, which goes right along the coast; and viewing the variety of murals painted throughout the neighborhood.
Do remember that while this area has gone through a revitalization recently, it can still be a rougher neighborhood. Don’t walk through La Perla alone, be sure to visit during daylight hours, and be aware of your surroundings.
19. Visit Castillo San Cristóbal
On the opposite end of Old San Juan from El Morro is the other major fortress in town, Castillo San Cristóbal. While El Morro was built to defend San Juan from an attack by sea, Castillo San Cristóbal was built to defend the city from a land attack. It is also the largest fort built by the Spanish in the Americas.
Much like El Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal was also used by the United States in WWII, and later became part of the National Park Service in 1961.
Inside you can view the main plaza within the fortress, see the bunker from WWII, peak through the sentry boxes, see the large underground cisterns once used to hold water, and explore a series of underground tunnels.
Castillo San Cristóbal is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
More Things To Do in Old San Juan
Ok, now that we’ve gone through the major attractions to see in Old San Juan, let’s talk about some other fun things to do! These are experiences you can have throughout the city (or, in some cases, at a specific restaurant) for an unforgettable time in Puerto Rico.
20. Take a Walking Tour
If you really want to immerse yourself in the history of Old San Juan, take a guided walking tour of the city. We took this tour of Old San Juan and were able to appreciate the city so much more because of it.
Not only did the tour take us to the major attractions of Old San Juan, but it also introduced us to some lesser known corners of the city we otherwise would have walked right past.
The tour we booked took about two and a half hours, and we learned SO much about Puerto Rican history. We also really loved being with a small group of other tourists, because it meant we got to meet people from other places and also hear what else they had done and loved in Puerto Rico.
21. Take a Food Tour
If you’re a foodie, you might want to take a food tour in Old San Juan. Through one of these tours you can get samplings of a variety of Puerto Rican cuisine (usually enough to make a meal out of, so come hungry!) while you also learn about the history of the city and see many of the San Juan attractions on our list of things to do.
Some dishes you might have on your food tour include a cocktail, ceviche, mofongo, coffee, chocolate, and more.
There are several different options for booking a food tour in Old San Juan. The Flavors of Old San Juan Food Tour and the Old San Juan Sunset Walk & Taste Food Tour are some of the highest rated tours online. You can also check out all the tours offered by Flavors of San Juan Food and Culture Tours.
22. Shop for Puerto Rican Souvenirs
You’ve got to make sure you’re taking home the perfect souvenir from San Juan! And you’ll find lots of great shops in Old San Juan where you can shop. (Aren’t sure what kind of souvenir to buy? We have a post about some of our favorite kinds of items to bring home!)
Of course, just like so many other tourist spots you’ll find all kinds of stores selling “Puerto Rican” souvenirs that aren’t actually Puerto Rican and that you could just as easily buy online. So here are a few tips for making the most of your souvenir shopping:
- Avoid the streets with souvenir shops lined up one right after the other. Try to find the smaller looking stores with crafts and handmade objects, not just t-shirts and sunglasses being shown off out front.
- Pick up the products and look at the labels. Look for products that say they were made in Puerto Rico!
23. Drink a Piña Colada Where It Originated!
Piña Coladas were invented in Puerto Rico, and in Old San Juan you can drink one at the bar where it was invented.
Okay, actually, back up because there are actually TWO places in San Juan that claim to be the home of the Piña Colada.
The first is the restaurant Barrachina. This restaurant is located near La Fortaleza, and they claim their bartender created the Piña Colada in 1963. Since this restaurant is in Old San Juan, this is a great place to stop for a drink while you’re spending time walking around the city.
The second place that claims to have invented the Piña Colada is the Caribe Hilton. This hotel claims that their bartender invented the drink in 1954. This hotel is located just a few minutes drive away from Old San Juan and you can still have one of their Piña Coladas at the hotel bar.
Either way, you’ll definitely want to try Puerto Rico’s national drink on your trip!
24. Eat Traditional Mofongo
There is lots of amazing food to try in Puerto Rico (ceviche! skirt steak! sorullitos!), but perhaps the most traditional Puerto Rican dish is mofongo.
Mofongo is a dish made from mashed green plantains that are fried with garlic and other seasonings and often stuffed with meat like pork.
There are LOTS of places to try mofongo in Puerto Rico (I mean, really, probably almost every restaurant). Some popular options include El Jibarito, Deaverdura, and Café Manolín. (We ate at Café Manolín, an old school Puerto Rican restaurant and loved it!)
25. Treat Yourself To Chocolate!
You know if there is a chocolate restaurant/specialty shop in a town, I am GOING to go there! In Old San Juan, you’ll want to visit Chocobar Cortes, where they sell chocolate drinks, cakes, pastries, and some basic lunch food like sandwiches and brunch items (many of which incorporate chocolate somehow!).
I had a chocolate mousse cake that was amazing and the most delicious and refreshing frozen hot chocolate. And if it weren’t for the hot temperatures that would have caused chocolate to melt in my backpack, chocolate definitely would have been coming home with me!
Fun Fact: Chocobar Cortes started in Puerto Rico, but has also expanded and now has a NYC location!
Tips For Visiting Old San Juan
For a great trip, here are a few tips for visiting Old San Juan!
- Be prepared for walking! While the city is totally walkable, know that it is a bit hilly. So be prepared to walk and wear comfortable shoes.
- Be prepared for heat! It can get HOT in San Juan, so be prepared to deal with heat. Always have water with you, and bringing something like these cooling towels can help keep you cool on a hot day.
- Most people speak English, but it is still nice to greet people in Spanish. If you are worried about traveling to a place were you don’t speak the language though, don’t worry. You should be fine!
- Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar, so if you are coming from the United States you don’t have to worry about exchanging money.
- Be prepared for rain! Always have a rain jacket or umbrella with you, because rain can start out of seemingly nowhere.
Where To Stay in Old San Juan
Looking for somewhere to stay in Old San Juan? Here are some of the best options!
- Hotel El Convento is actually housed in an old convent! They have beautiful rooms, a rooftop pool, restaurants in a secluded courtyard, and even a resident cat. This is probably one of the most popular hotels to stay at in Old San Juan.
- El Colonial is small a hotel right in Old San Juan with a clean white lobby, rooms that look over the streets of San Juan, and a rooftop with city views.
- Caribe Hilton is not technically in Old San Juan, but it is just a short Uber ride away. We stayed here on our trip and absolutely loved it! We had a room with a great view, enjoyed the pool, thought the lobby was beautiful, and had great dining experiences at some of the on-site restaurants.
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