20 Things To Do In San Juan

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The island of Puerto Rico, nestled in the middle of the ocean between the Dominican Republic and the British Virgin Islands, is a lesser-visited Caribbean paradise. Like many of the surrounding countries, it has incredible blue beaches, sparkling waters perfect for diving and snorkelling, and a tonne of history to discover.

Its capital San Juan is the oldest European-founded city in the Americas, meaning you’ll find a vibrant mix of Caribbean culture, Latin American heritage and colonial architecture. Naturally, you’ll also enjoy some of the best unspoilt beaches in the world, rainforests filled with wildlife, a thriving food scene, and fascinating art and museums. Here are the best things to do in San Juan.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

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20 Things To Do In San Juan

fun things to do in san juan
Looking for things to do in San Juan? Exploring the old town should be your first port of call.

1- Stroll Along Paseo del Morro

Paseo del Morro is one of the most beautiful walks you can take in San Juan.

The area is classified as a National Historic Site and offers sweeping views across the water.

You can start by wandering down the leafy green Paseo de la Princesa, from where you can admire San Juan’s old city walls and visit the San Juan Gate, the original entrance to the city.

Along the way, and at the end of this trail, are many of San Juan’s most famous and historic sights, so taking a stroll here is a great way to get acquainted with the city. You may also like to join a ghost walk.

2- Visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro

romantic things to do in san juan puerto rico
Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a castle fortress where generations of soldiers have lived, so spending time there is one of the top things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

On your walk along Paseo del Morro, you’ll reach Castillo San Felipe, one of San Juan’s most famous landmarks.

This huge 16th fort was built by the Spanish to protect it from foreign invaders but is now open for the public to explore.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is laid out over six levels, which include original barracks, rooms, kitchens and courtyards, plus amazing views across the city walls and the sea.

The fort is also part of the US National Park Service, so you can take a tour, and plenty of rangers are on hand with interesting historic information.

It’s wise to wear walking shoes, as the fort has lots of stairs and can get very hot if you’re visiting in summer. Take this tour to see the highlights of San Juan.

3- Visit Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

things to do in old san juan coastal view of cemetery and skyline from fort
Visiting Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis colonial-era cemetery (as seen from the outer walls of El Morro fort) is one of the things to do in San Juan.

The first thing to come to mind when on vacation might not be visiting a cemetery, but San Juan’s Santa Maria Magdalena is arguably one of the prettiest in the world.

The cemetery was founded in 1863, where many of Puerto Rico’s most famous and notable writers and artists are buried.

Not only is the cemetery filled with brightly coloured flowers and displays decorating the tombstones alongside the beautiful domed central building, but the cemetery is perched right on the water’s edge.

You can enjoy endless views of the Atlantic Ocean, as the cemetery was placed here, overlooking the water to help spirits in their journeys into the beyond.

4- Visit San Juan Bautista Cathedral

puerto rico things to do in san juan
The White Church in San Juan is an imposing sight, however, the San Juan Bautista Cathedral is more significant historically. 

San Juan Bautista Cathedral is one of the city’s most beautiful and important religious sites, if not the whole of Puerto Rico.

The cathedral is also the oldest in the United States and the second oldest in the Americas.

The building was constructed from wood in the 16th century but was rebuilt after a hurricane and is still a significant landmark in the city.

It also houses the remains of the infamous Ponce de Leon, the former governor of San Juan who is more famous for attempting to hunt down the Fountain of Youth.

The cathedral forms part of the San Juan National Historic Site and sits in another stunning location close to the city’s docks so that travellers and sailors could stop there as soon as they arrived.

5- Step Back In History At The Capitol

top things to do in san juan puerto rico
The capitol building in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Capitol, or El Capitolio, is one of San Juan’s most important buildings, which is still used by the Legislative Assembly, which is formed of the House of Representatives and Senate.

The building has been classified as a historic landmark so that the public can now do guided tours to learn about the history and architecture of the building.

Inside is a beautiful library, Senate offices, the former School of Tropical Medicine and courtrooms.

The building is next to the fascinating Constitution Avenue, which has the ‘Walkway of the Presidents’, which celebrates all presidents who have visited San Juan since the Spanish-American war ended in 1898.

6- Explore Castillo San Cristobal

things to do in puerto rico san juan
Exploring Castillo de San Cristobal is one of the things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As you may be learning, Puerto Rico is full of history.

Castillo San Cristobal is another of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and is the biggest European fort in the Americas.

The castle was named after Saint Christopher, the patron saint of land travellers.

This is why when it was built in 1793, the fort, unlike San Felipe del Morro, which is by the sea, was built to protect San Juan from an invasion of land.

The huge 27-acre site covers three stories, where you can roam the old officer’s quarters and see canon and fortifications.

On the top level, there are stretching views out over the Atlantic Ocean, so sunset is one of the best times to visit.

7- Discover Old San Juan

things to do in puerto rico near san juan
Wandering around on foot or joining a walking tour is one of the first things to do in San Juan to get your bearings.

One of the best ways to explore any city is on foot, and in San Juan, it may take a while as you’re constantly stopping to admire and photograph the pretty, brightly coloured architecture along the way.

Many buildings have a Spanish influence, dating back to Spanish rule over the island in the 16th century.

Luckily this is also where you’ll find the best salsa dancing lessons, restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as plenty of local street food and craft stalls.

The most famous street in the area is Paseo de la Princesa, a European-style pedestrian road filled with artists, cafes and locals enjoying the view. It’s also worth joining a walking tour to learn more about the history and culture. Here are some options:

8- Shop, eat and drink

free things to do in san juan puerto rico
Walk around the narrow cobblestone streets in Old San Juan and soak up the atmosphere.

Head to some of San Juan’s main streets, such as Calle Fortaleza and Calle San Sebastian, to delve into the amazing flavours of Puerto Rican cuisine, do some shopping for local crafts or grab a freshly made Pina Colada – preferably at Barrachina Restaurant, which claims to have invented the drink.

It is close to these streets where many hotels are based, which is perfect for enjoying the city’s culture.

The nightlife, like across much of the Caribbean, is very lively.

Many restaurants and daytime cafes turn into bars, and dance clubs come nightfall, where you could sip on a cocktail or two while learning to salsa, listen to some live music or just watch the locals party into the night.

9- Drink Rum At Bacardi Distillery

You may have been to Cuba and thought that was the home of rum, but ask any Puerto Rican, and you’ll discover that the Bacardi Factory is their pride and joy.

You can only visit San Juan by hopping across on a ferry to the distillery just 25 minutes away.

You can book a guided tour to learn about the process of making rum and have various rum tastings.

It’s worth buying a bottle or two to take home as a souvenir.

If you’re keen to replicate the delicious drinks you’ve enjoyed in the city, they also offer a mixology class where they teach classics such as mojitos alongside local favourites.

Another rum distillery to visit is the Ron del Barrilito factory. Find out more about it here.

10- Go On A Boat Tour In San Juan Bay

things to do in san juan pr boat on the water
Going on a cruise is one of the things to do in San Juan, which is as a major tourist hub to the rest of the Caribbean. It has an international airport and several cruise ship ports.

Being on an island, a relaxing way to see the sights is on a boat tour, and the city has plenty to offer.

You’ll spot a few large cruise ships in the bay, as it’s a popular port stop on many holidays, but smaller boats also take you out on a cruise or a relaxing sailing trip.

Some are truly local, with a guide explaining more about the city while you enjoy music and some food onboard.

You can also opt for a prettier sunset cruise with canapes and cocktails.

If you’re searching for a quick and cheap way to hit the water, simply take the ferry from San Juan to Catano; along the way, you’ll enjoy the same great views across the city.

11- Take A San Juan Food Tour

best things to do in san juan puerto rico
Tasting local dishes is one of the things to do in San Juan. Here’s a place of shrimp, mashed plantain and salad with cheese.

If you haven’t heard much about Puerto Rican cuisine, you’re about to discover some amazing new fresh and delicious flavours.

As Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island, the cuisine takes influence from its neighbours, as well as Latin America and both its Spanish and European heritage.

This means you can sample dishes such as empanadas, pintos and tostones, as well as lots of freshly caught fish.

Many dishes contain plantain, such as Mofongo, which is made with crispy pork skin and garlic and is a Puerto Rican staple.

There are also numerous plantations across the island, so don’t worry about getting your morning caffeine fix. This food tour around Old San Juan is fun for foodies.

12- Feel The Sand Between Your Toes At Playa Peña

Playa Peña is just one of San Juan’s picture-perfect beaches.

The beach is in front of El Capitolio and is a perfect place to catch a sunset or go for an evening stroll.

Alternatively, head to Condado Beach, one of the city’s most popular due to its golden sand and swaying palm trees.

The beach is a few miles long and is backed by San Juan’s affluent high-rise district, but it also has plenty of activities and food spots, as well as areas to set up camp for the day.

Another 15 minutes from the city, and you’ll reach Isla Verde, one of the best beaches in Puerto Rico.

This is where you’ll find water sports rental shops, deck chairs lining the beach, and many great restaurants and bars.

13- Have Fun Playing Water sports

With its classic Caribbean beaches, water sports fans will feel at home, and there’s almost no sport you won’t find on the city’s beaches.

Surfing is a popular activity as the island gets some of the best waves in the region, and there are lots of surf shops and classes if you’re keen to learn.

Alternatively, other popular sports include kite surfing, wing boarding and hydro-foiling.

Snorkelling and diving are equally popular, particularly at Escambron Beach, where you can spot hundreds of tropical fish. A guided snorkel tour is a great way to go.

For a more active outing, try kayaking on the scenic Condado Lagoon, where you can admire the city skyline and occasionally spot wildlife.

14- Visit La Fortaleza

Continuing the long list of San Juan’s UNESCO sites, La Fortaleza is a must-see historic building while visiting the city.

The pretty, ornately decorated building is the official residence of the Puerto Rico governor, which you can take a tour inside.

The building, also known as St. Catherine’s Palace, was built in 1540 and is now open to the public as long as the court isn’t in session.

You’ll have to time it just right, as tours only happen on Mondays and Fridays until 3.15 pm, but inside you’ll get to see the intricate decorations and wander the lush gardens outside.

15- Relax In The Botanical Gardens

The botanical gardens in San Juan within the University of Puerto Rico and offer a lovely, peaceful way to spend a few hours.

Inside, you can visit the sculpture and Japanese gardens, plus waterfalls and 36,000 types of dried plants in its Herbarium.

The park covers 289 acres (116 ha), which can be explored via the university through exhibitions, walks, tours and workshops hosted regularly.

For twitchers, there are also over 60 bird species that call the gardens home.

Additionally, there’s a bamboo chapel, orchid garden, Monet’s garden and palm tree garden.

Make sure to set aside at least half a day to explore everything.

16- Admire The Frescoes At San Jose Church

History buffs will love the cute San Jose Church, which is the second oldest in the whole of the Americas.

Built in 1532, it is one of the earliest examples of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture.

It is the former resting place of Ponce de Leon before he was transferred to the city’s cathedral, although other significant Puerto Ricans are buried here.

Inside are beautiful frescos, arches, paintings and tombs.

The church is on the list of the most endangered sites in the United States, so it’s worth visiting while you still can.

17- Wander Around The Museum of Contemporary Art

You may be surprised to learn that Puerto Rico has a thriving art scene, however the Museum of Contemporary Art showcases some of the best works by the Caribbean and Latin American artists of the 20th century.

It was established by Puerto Rico’s art community in 1984, and the building is a former school, meaning the architecture is as unique as the art.

It makes a perfect cultural escape from the heat, and the museum regularly holds weekend events, such as film screenings, if you’re searching for an evening activity.

18- Visit Museo Las Americas

If you’ve been exploring the streets of San Juan but are curious to learn more about the history of the city and Puerto Rico, visit the Museo Las Americas.

This natural history museum is a spectacular Spanish-style building, a former hospital.

Now, it houses four galleries about Puerto Rico’s history, including three permanent collections and a rotating temporary exhibition.

The permanent displays offer artefacts about Folk Arts in the Americas, African Heritage and Puerto Rico’s conquest and colonisation.

It’s open from Wednesdays to Sundays and only costs $6 to enter.

19- La Perla

unique things to do in san juan
Known as La Perla (The Pearl), the colourful coast in Old San Juan hide lots of secrets.

The neighbourhood of La Perla may remind you distinctly of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro due to its brightly coloured, if slightly dilapidated, houses.

The small community was made famous after Justin Bieber filmed his ‘Despacito’ music video here – in fact, the video led the residents to paint their houses in different colours, paint large murals and open new cafes and restaurants overlooking the water.

Although it has become more touristy, it’s still one of the most authentic areas of San Juan and is the perfect place to explore if you’re looking for the real Puerto Rico.

20- El Yunque Rainforest

things to do in san juan
Misty clouds sweep over the rainforest in the mountains of El Yunque National Forest.

It wouldn’t be a remote Caribbean island without a bit of adventure, and making a day trip to the untouched El Yunque Rainforest will satisfy your travel bug.

El Yunque is the only tropical forest in the United States Forest System and is sacred in Puerto Rican culture.

The area is almost mystical, with miles of dense forest bursting with lush greenery, waterfalls, streams and wildlife.

Its name derives from the local word Yuke, which means ‘white earth’ due to the thick clouds which often gather around the jungle’s mountainous areas.

There are numerous hiking trails and waterfalls to explore, with natural pools where you can cool off, as well as 240 plant species, lots of birds, frogs and other animals.

There’s also a vast observation tower with views over the rainforest, and for an adrenaline fix, try ziplining, an ATV ride or horseback riding through the hills. Book your forest tour here.

If you love nature and are looking for more day trips from San Juan, try these on for size:

For more Caribbean adventures, read:

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India Jayne trainor
India-Jayne Trainor is a British/Australian freelance writer, photographer and contributor to various online blogs and travel websites. She has travelled to almost 30 countries, most recently Cuba and Sri Lanka. Her work focuses on solo female travel, having spent two months backpacking alone through South East Asia as well as living in Germany for a year. Her favourite country to date has been Hong Kong, but she is happy in any country by the ocean. Her next destinations are Uzbekistan and a road trip through the American Mid-West. India is currently based in London, UK.