San Juan, Puerto Rico Guide
When my mom told me that she wanted to go to Puerto Rico to see Lin Manuel’s production of Hamilton, I didn’t think much of it and I had almost no expectations for San Juan. In fact I had been to San Juan once before very briefly, as a port of call for a spring break cruise with my mom and a friend; we had one afternoon to explore and though I remember loving how colorful it was I recall little else.
Well let me just start by saying this: I was very impressed with Puerto Rico! Everywhere we went was beautiful, the weather was lovely, the people were friendly and welcoming, and the food was overall delicious! If you haven’t yet, be sure to add Puerto Rico to your list!
While our experience was not 100% perfect and we had a few bumps in the road here and there, I definitely incorporated what I learned into my recommendations in this guide. Please feel free to message me with any questions and leave comments if you have your own suggestions!
Where to Stay
El San Juan Hotel — Though we did not stay at the historic El San Juan Hotel, in retrospect I wish we had. It’s newly renovated and gorgeous. We walked around the lobby and pool area one afternoon just to get a glimpse (it was located next door to where we stayed) and were really impressed by what we saw. This was also the first hotel that was mentioned by the several locals when we asked what they considered to be the best hotel. Located conveniently along Isla Verde, which is a lovely beach just east of downtown San Juan.
Ritz Carlton San Juan — Certainly you can’t go wrong with a Ritz Carlton. Though it sustained some damage after the hurricane, it is back up and running and easily one of the best places to stay on the island. Unfortunately it was sold out when we visited.
Condado Vanderbilt Hotel — Another historic luxury hotel, the Condado Vanderbilt was highly recommended by several people. It’s more centrally located than those along Isla Verde as Condado and Santurce are two of the neighborhoods we frequented the most for their stellar restaurants and lively bars.
El San Geronimo Hotel — One of the newest boutique hotels in San Juan, this cute and modern spot is located ideally close to Old San Juan.
The Intercontinental San Juan — This is the hotel that we stayed at while visiting. I’ll be very up front in saying that I was not particularly impressed with our experience there and it would definitely not be a top recommendation of mine. While it’s listed as a four star hotel, in reality the property is very old and run-down feeling. The main reason I am still including it is because its location and proximity to the beach, plus its several pools, did make it an all around decent hotel. I would just say don’t arrive with high expectations if you choose to stay here.
Dorado Beach, Ritz Carlton — Not located directly in San Juan, the Dorado Beach Ritz Carlton is supposed to be one of the best resorts in Puerto Rico. Again, as a Ritz Carlton, I would trust its high standards. A good spot if you’re looking for more beach time and relaxation.
Where to Eat
Santaella Restaurant — What a wonderful experience! The evening we wound up at Santaella, we were on a foodie tour organized by the tour company we were visiting with. They were walking around La Placita, which is a lively market during the day and lined with restaurants and bars packed with people at night. Although everyone seemed to be raving about Santaella, we were informed that it was hard to get reservations. However, I also soon discovered that there were little to no vegetarian options at the places the group was going. So we tried the bar at Santaella and were lucky to snag a single chair, where my mom and I took turns sitting until another opened up. I’m actually glad that we sat at the bar as we had a blast befriending the bartender and several groups of people around us. I started with a berry mojito, then we split some delicious goat cheese quesadillas, alcapurrías (mashed plantains and taro root fried and topped with crab meat), stuffed mushrooms, and the quesito for dessert (a sweet cheese-filled pastry twist). Santaella is a must try while in San Juan!
Marmalade Restaurant — Wow! Again, we were blown away by the caliber of the culinary scene in San Juan with Marmalade! It’s a tasting menu…sort of. Essentially the menu items are listed in sections, then you can choose how many courses you want and what you want for each. Then they are presented in smaller portions so that you can try a variety of things. Having been to many tasting restaurants that are frustratingly strict with their menus, it was refreshing how flexible they were at Marmalade, even allowing me to get five courses and my mom only four.
The menu is seasonal, so I’m not sure what will be there if you go, but I can say that I didn’t have a single thing I didn’t love. Some of my favorites were the incredibly fresh ceviche, a vegan “pasteles” dish (a vegan plantain and vegetable ‘tamale’ in mole sauce), and a “baked paradiso” (passionfruit ice cream over a chocolate-pistachio crust surrounded by soft baked meringue)!
Our experience here was truly world class and I say that with no exaggeration. In fact, I was more excited about the meal at Marmalade throughout its entirety than I was while eating at the supposed number one restaurant in the world. Be sure to make yourself a reservation and treat yourself!
Oceano Restaurant — We ate dinner here on our first night and I was really happy with the fresh seafood. I am very picky about where I will try seafood and only when a restaurant seems legit will I venture into trying any. Here we had calamari to start and I had the red snapper for my main dish, which was delicious and well-paired with a tropical slaw of mango, papaya, and jicama. I also loved the ambiance here—it’s a very modern aesthetic and feels a little like you’re eating inside some trendy millionaire’s beach house, plus it’s located directly on the beach in Condado.
Verde Mesa — While walking around Old San Juan one day, I was struggling to find a restaurant that 1. had vegetarian options, 2. didn’t look horrifyingly like a tourist-trap, and 3. wasn’t a chain. I noticed Verde Mesa on Google Maps while scrolling around and of course the name caught my eye—Green Table certainly sounds like a good bet for a vegetarian. We were really impressed with our meal and I was happy with how fresh all of the ingredients were. An easy go-to spot for lunch.
Señor Paleta — A popular spot for popsicles, they have traditional fruit flavors and gelato based pops. It’s a great place for quick reprieve from the often sweltering Puerto Rican sun. I tried the Strawberry Mojito—would recommend.
Piñones (neighborhood) — While I did not get the chance to visit Piñones, it’s on my list for the next time I visit. Every time I mentioned my interest in trying local Puerto Rican foods, it was Piñones that came up. It’s a beach area east of the airport that is full of street vendors selling all sorts of traditional snacks. From alcapurrías, to caldo santo (a soup made of fish, coconut milk, tubers, pumpkins, and plantains), to mofongo (deep-fried mashed plantains with fish or crabmeat), you’re sure to get an authentic experience here.
Where to Shop
To be frank, I did not do a whole lot of shopping while in San Juan. I bought some painted tiles of the colorful houses from a shop called La Casa De Las Casitas and some vintage gold earrings from a shop whose name I don’t remember, but otherwise we did not have much time to shop. The area of Old San Juan is mainly filled with outlet stores, souvenir shops, and name brands, targeted towards the thousands of cruise ship tourists that flood the city when a ship is in port. In other words, not worth much time. I would recommend seeking out some of the more local shops if you’re really interested. For example, I walked in to peruse a hat store called El Gapón that was full of handmade hats of all shapes and sizes and seemed to be good quality, as well as several interesting little boutiques that sold pieces made by local artists. I know I have probably said the word “local” a hundred times by now, but that’s the kind of experience I am seeking when I travel to new places.
The Streets of Old San Juan — If you know me, you know I love the colorful things in life, and the streets of Old San Juan readily deliver! Everywhere you turn there seems to be another hue and with almost every façade painted colorfully it’s easy to take good photos.
El Morro — The sentry boxes that line the ramparts of the wall surrounding Old San Juan have become a national symbol of Puerto Rico, seen everywhere from postcards to license plates. This 500 year old fort has been around since the founding of Puerto Rico as a settlement in the 1500’s by the Spanish. Though it’s rumored to be haunted (oooh spooky), certainly the ghosts won’t bother you in the broad daylight (you hope). It’s a really cool place to explore and learn more about the extensive history of the island as well as enjoy the sweeping vistas overlooking Old San Juan and beyond.
Calle Fortaleza — Calle Fortaleza is shaded in hues of pink, blue, and green by an installation of vibrant umbrellas floating Mary-Poppins-like above the equally colorful buildings of Old San Juan. The art installation, which is called The Umbrella Sky Project, has been heralded as bringing some much-needed color back to Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane. It’s not only a great spot for an Instagram moment, but has also helped to attract visitors back to the area and revitalized the local businesses nearby. Art can be a more powerful driver of change than many give it credit for and something as seemingly simple as hanging some umbrellas over a street can spur much broader affects than the shade provided on a hot sunny day.
San Juan Mosaic Mural — It’s actually a fluke that I noticed this mural while driving by in an Uber one day and dropped a pin on my map to go back. I wish I knew more about its origins. Presumably, based on some Google Street View sleuthing, it’s pretty new and I would assume created post-hurricane. Either way, a cute spot to snap a photo. Just be careful of traffic as it’s located right along a busy road.
Isla Verde Beach — This beach is a short drive from Old San Juan and where several of the main hotels in the area are located. While we were a bit concerned it might be what my mom calls a “city beach,” meaning overrun and not very clean, Isla Verde was actually lovely. Well-kept with soft white sand and slightly protected waters, it’s a nice place to spend a day and certainly a pretty backdrop for photos.
Things to Do
Zip-lining — Puerto Rico boasts the longest zipline in the world, called The Monster, and it’s sure to be a thrilling experience to spend an afternoon in the jungle getting your adrenaline pumping!
Beaches — If you just want to lay by the beach for awhile, you’ll find no shortage of beautiful shoreline. Condado Beach, Isla Verde, La Posita Beach—all are located within San Juan and are beautiful white sandy paradises.
Rum tasting — If you’re up for a drink, stop by the Bacardi Rum Distillery, where you’ll learn about the entire rum-making process and get to try some of the product. You can also find several rum-tastings at restaurants in town.
Snorkeling/scuba diving — With crystal clear blue water and miles of coral reefs full of sealife, Puerto Rico is a diver’s dream. Whether you’re already certified or looking to try diving for the first time, there are tours for all experience levels.
Bioluminescent bay tour — There are only five bioluminescent bays in the world and three of them are located in Puerto Rico. You can kayak out at night, you can swim in the bays, you choose. Though we did not have time to take the tour, we heard from some ladies in our group that they enjoyed it and it’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.
Culinary tour — I cannot rave about the Puerto Rican food scene enough. I was so impressed by the all of the delicious meals I tried while there and a culinary tour would be a fun way to get some really local meals and try the best San Juan has to offer.
Tips and Helpful Things to Know
It may be helpful to know that Uber is readily available in San Juan. We actually never waited more than 5 minutes for a car to pick us up (which is more than I can say for NYC). And though we never took a cab, we were told that cabs we more expensive and less reliable than Uber.
As mentioned, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. and thus your American currency is valid, as are the plugs on all of your devices. No need to exchange dollars or bring a convertor. On that note, your cell service should work just fine there too—no International or Roaming charges.
Though the island is mainly Spanish-speaking, I did find that nearly everyone we interacted in spoke English. Especially if you plan to stay in the main area of San Juan you shouldn’t have any issues with communication.