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Cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, centuries-old fortresses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, fascinating museums, the essence of culture, the tropical breeze, lively people… Wonder where they are? Right here in Puerto Rico’s capital in legendary Old San Juan.
Wear comfortable shoes and light clothing and get ready to marvel at the perfect marriage of historical legacy and bustling everyday life in Old San Juan. Following is a walking tour that will allow you to get acquainted with the area.
Those wishing a less strenuous outing may want to hop aboard the no-charge trolley cars departing continuously from La Puntilla and Covadonga parking lots. Their round-trip journey lasts approximately 30 minutes and will allow you to see various places of interest. Parking spaces are also available at La Cochera and Doña Fela.
La Casita – Your old San Juan adventure begins at La Casita or The Little House, a yellow miniature building dating from 1937 that now houses a Puerto Rico Tourism Company Information Center. Open Mon. through Wed. from 8:30 am to 8:00 pm; Thu. and Fri. until 5:30 pm; Sat. and Sun. from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm There is an outdoor crafts market all around the building, located in Plaza de la Dársena square. Open Sat. and Sun. from 9:30 am to 10:00 pm; Mon. and Tue. from 11:00 am to 9:30 pm The crafts market’s schedule may vary according to cruise ships’ itineraries. Tel. (787) 722-1709.
San Juan Bay – La Casita overlooks San Juan Bay, currently the busiest ocean port in the Caribbean, bringing in half of all the region’s trade and over one million visitors a year aboard cruise ships. Numerous bayside shops carry everything from gold jewelry to Island arts and crafts. Casa Don Q Puerto Rico, located across the street from Pier 1, features a tour recounting the history behind Destilería Serrallés, a local rum company established on the Island since 1865.
La Muralla – As the promenade continues, it follows the curve of the bay that leads you to la muralla or city wall. Built beteween 1539 and 1641 using sandstone blocks, and measuring up to 20 feet in thickness, the wall was completed in 1782 to surround the entire colonial city and guard it effectively against enemy attack. Gaze across the bay and you will see a long islet called Isla de Cabras; it houses a small Spanish fort built in 1610 to guard the western side of the bay.
Museo de Doña Fela – From La Fortaleza, return to Recinto Oeste Street and turn right to Caleta de San Juan Street, where you will find Museo de Doña Fela, the original residence of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first woman to become Mayor of San Juan. This museum features personal belongings, period memorabilia and awards granted to this exceptional woman. Open weekdays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm Tel. (787) 723-1897.
Casa Rosada – The lovely house in front of La Rogativa is Casa Rosada or Pink House, built in 1812 for the Spanish army and now the first day care center for government employees’ children.
Casa Blanca – Take the upper road along a plant-decked wall to a doorway above Casa Rosada. This is one of the five entrances to Casa Blanca or the White House, which for 250 years served as the residence of Juan Ponce de León’s family. He was the first governor of Puerto Rico and was also known for seeking the fountain of youth in Florida. The house—currently under rennovation—is a museum of 16th and 17th century family life, with an ethnographic museum and a miniature replica of a Taíno village. The house’s garden is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Entrance fee is $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for senior citizens and children. Tel. (787) 724-1454.
Plaza de Hostos– The small square in front of Plaza de la Dársena, near La Casita, is Plaza de Hostos. This square features artisans’ displays, snack stands and the traditional piragüeros, who sell refreshing shaved ice cones served with your choice of tropical fruit syrups.
Paseo La Princesa – Toward the street on your left, past Plaza de la Marina square and a statue honoring the Puerto Rican immigrant, you will find Paseo La Princesa or La Princesa promenade. Lined with trees, street lamps and benches, the promenade will lead you to a magnificent water fountain, and a bronze sculpture by Luis Sanguino, depicting the Island’s diverse cultural roots.
La Princesa – Midway through the promenade is La Princesa itself, formerly a jail and now headquarters of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The restored building features a gallery of Island art with permanent exhibitions by Puerto Ricans artists. Open Mon. through Fri. from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm Tel. (787) 721-2400.
Puerta de San Juan – The promenade leads to the red-painted Puerta de San Juan or San Juan Gate, which allows you to re-enter the city. This is one of six original massive wooden doors that centuries ago were closed at sundown to impede access to the city and safely guard its inhabitants.
La Fortaleza – Once through the doorway, make a right on Recinto Oeste Street to visit a palatial structure enclosed in luscious gardens. This is La Fortaleza, built in 1540 and presently the oldest governor’s mansion used as such in the Western Hemisphere. Guided tours available weekdays, except holidays, from 9:00 am to 3:30 pm; tours in English every hour, in Spanish every 30 minutes. Schedules are subject to change. Proper attire required. Tel. (787) 721-7000, ext. 2358.
Plazuela de la Rogativa – From Museo de Doña Fela, return to Recinto Oeste Street and climb the hill to reach Plazuela de la Rogativa the small plaza of the religious procession. The bronze sculpture by Lindsay Daen recreates the scene of a bishop and his companions who, carrying torches and chanting, were said to have frightened away British troops during a 1797 attack of the city. The enemies thought the procession was local troop reinforcements.
Fuerte San Felipe del Morro – Exit Casa Blanca through Recinto Oeste Street. Straight ahead is Fuerte San Felipe del Morro or El Morro fortress, a single compact unit that majestically rises 140 feet above the sea, seen brandishing the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Spanish military flags. El Morro (meaning “promontory” in Spanish) is the most striking of the city’s military fortifications, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the San Juan bay. It was built between 1540 and 1783 to keep seaborne enemies out of San Juan. Among many wonderful attractions, El Morro features a maze of secret access tunnels and dungeons and a small museum with complete information on the history of the fortress. Along with San Cristóbal Fort, El Morro has been designated a National Historic Site and part of a World Heritage site administered by the U.S. National Park Service. Open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm English tours depart at 11:00 am and 3:00 pm Fee entrance is $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for senior citizens and children. No entrance fee for children under 12. Tel. (787) 729-6960.
How to Get to Old San Juan?
Exit Airport on to Road 26 towards Old San Juan. This will automatically connect you to Road 25. This will lead you directly to Old San Juan.