A city's most defining characteristics are its food, architecture and cultural traditions. I suggest checking out Favors of San Juan (http://www.sanjuanfoodtours.com) if you're going to be spending any time in Old San Juan Puerto Rico.
The foodie tours are good because you get to sample a bunch of restaurants in Old San Juan (which is famous for its food and nightlife) while learning the history and culture of the island and the old city. It's great at the start of the vacation because they give you discount cards for local shops and restaurants so you know where to return, and you get to save some cash.
The cooking class they have is good in the summer when it's really hot and air conditioning is a beautiful thing. It's all included: 3 course meal plus drinks and learning, hands on, how to make signature dishes from puerto rico which has a rich culinary heritage.
Yeah, you can do a walk through of old san juan on your own and it's won't be the end of the world but to really do it right I suggest taking a tour with a knowledgeable guide, and enjoying a bit of food and drink along the way!
Walking through Old San Juan is like walking through a museum dedicated to the conservation and preservation of Spain's culture in the new world. Multi-colored cement buildings covered with balconies practically explode with charm. You'll want to venture down every street and peek inside every window.
But don't do the latter. You might *** some of the residents off.
Although I had walked around in Old San Juan on my own during an earlier trip to Puerto Rico, in our most recent visit Karen and I decided to cough up the $45 each for a three hour guided walking tour. Although we thought it a bit pricey, the tour did enable us to see much more than we would have on our own and to also understand more of what we saw. Our tour guide was very knowledgable, animated, and obviously proud to show us around her city. We began with a short bus ride to La Princesa Boulevard where we started our walking tour through fountains and around the old city wall. We passed the Rogativa Monument, walked to San Felipe del Morro, saw the oldest church in the western hemisphere and much more. Our tour went down famed Cristos Street and through other narrow cobblestone streets before ending up at San Juan Bautista Cathedral and Cristo's Chapel. It was a wonderful educational and cultural experience, although we were tired and sweaty after three hours walking in the tropical heat.
Sandwiched between La Perla Barrio and San Cristobal this cemetery is considered one of the most picturesque of burial grounds anywhere. The cemetery is particularly noteworthy for its elaborate tombstones and the circular red domed neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen, which dates back to the late 19th century. This is the burial place of several important political and literary figures such as: Harvard-educated social reformer, Pedro Albizu Campos, who fought against colonialism; José Celso Barbosa, known as the father of the “Statehood for Puerto Rico” movement; and renowned poet and patriot, José de Diego.
Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop, and I don't have any good photos of it.
As soon as we were off the Independence of the Seas we were walking through the customs into Old San Juan. It was rather difficult to locate the Tourist Office on Paseo La Princessa St. There were three or four ships in port that day so it was crowded.
I don't do much walking, and particularly when it is hot and humid and when the footing is uneven. The streets here are blue cobblestones which do make for sometimes uneven footing. And the streets are steep. The cobbles were used as ballast on the empty Spanish trade ships. The ballast was unloaded when the ships were filled with sugar cane produced in Puerto Rico.
We did have Marian drive us through the city and point out landmarks.
At the end of the street in photo 5, is the old Capilla del Cristo (Cristo Chapel). It was built in 1753. There are different versions of the story of why it was built - either by a thankful father whose his son lived after his son and his horse fell over the wall, or by a sad father whose son died after falling over the wall on his horse.
San Juan is known as "La Ciudad Amurallada" (the walled city). The wall is made of solid sandstone blocks and held together with mortar, limestone, sand and water. They are 40 feet high in places, 45 feet thick at the base
The red City Gate is the only remaining city gate. It was called the Water Gate. It was one of six original massive wooden doors that, centuries ago, were closed at sundown to protect the residents. We saw this only from the ship but this pretty red-painted Puerta de San Juan or San Juan Gate is where you would have entered the city. Above the gate is inscribed “Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini”- Latin for “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. The wall is about 15 feet thick. If you go straight through the gate and up the hill, you are following the same path many sailors took after a long voyage - straight up the street, to the cathedral, to thank God for a safe journey.
Some of the wall has been torn down in order for the city to expand.
The cobblestone streets and colonial buildings of Old San Juan have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and every visitors to San Juan will likely come here without needing of any specific recommendation.
The area is only few square blocks wide and can easily be walked around. I have no specific places, monuments, squares, buildings to recommend, all the places blend well together and there is really in my opinion no monument, plaza, building etc standing out; just walk around and enjoy the architecture and the atmosphere. The most picturesque blocks in my view are bounded by Calle Luna and Calle San Sebastián South/North and Calle Tanca and Calle del Cristo East/West, but, wherever you are landed, Old San Juan is so compact that you don't need a map and, if you enjoy walking, you will likely walk through every "calle" of the center.
The Northern part of Old San Juan overlooks the ocean, and it is here where you will find the two forts El Morro and San Cristóbal. The Southern part faces the San Juan's Bay and it is especially enjoyable at sunset, when the sun sets on the Bay and you can enjoy scenic walks along the bay side. After dark you may want head to Southern part of Calle Fortaleza, adjacent to Plaza Colón, the center of dining and night entertainment.
Those who have visited other colonial towns in Mexico, Central and Latin America will find Old San Juan different. A Colonial Town with a mild flavor, with the look but not the soul of Latin America, the colors without the sounds and the atmosphere, a kind of reconstruction of a Spanish-colonial Town in an American environment.
It is enjoyable though and a must-see if you come in town.
Calle San Miguel is a picturesque coastal road that runs between El Morro and San Cristobal. On one side of the road you have a sweeping view of the ocean and the other side are pastel colored houses built in colonial style. If you planning on seeing both forts I would recommend parking at one and then walking down this road to the other, its a perfect way to spend a afternoon in Old San Juan!
Great walking city. Everything is within walking distance with the excpetion of the Bacardi factory. The streets are filled with shops and restaurants. Especially Fortaleza St and San Francisco Street. The thing I'll remember about San Juan is the unusual blue cobble stone streets. Very unique.
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