San Juan

Destination Location

San Juan

Overview

To the east of the Dominican Republic and west of the Virgin Islands lies the thriving metropolis of San Juan – Puerto Rico's capital city. History and culture come to life here in the city's Spanish colonial-style neighbourhoods. Many of the city's old buildings have been restored, complete with fresh coats of paint in shades of pastel greens, blues, pinks and yellows. Visited by nearly five million tourists each year, San Juan offers more than just golden sandy beaches.

San Juan is a celebration of unique neighbourhoods. Condado and Ocean Park are known for their quaint bed and breakfasts, beautiful beaches and relaxed vibe. The recently revitalized downtown Sancture area is a vibrant arts community filled with galleries and theatres. In the Isla Verde area, you'll find beautiful high-end resorts, casinos and popular nightspots.

Old San Juan is one of the region's oldest neighbourhoods and arguably one of the best places to experience local history and culture. To the west, it is bordered by the historic Fort San Felipe del Morro, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The fort's more than 15-foot thick walls were built around 1540, erected to protect the island from naval attack. Today, the old fort still stands, along with the lighthouse found atop its highest point and a lookout where visitors can take in panoramic views of the entire city.

You can easily explore the Old San Juan area by foot, travelling along its cobblestone streets and visiting the unique shops, museums, galleries and restaurants mixed in among colourful apartment buildings with French balconies. It's in this area you'll likely hear music pouring out of open windows and at open-air cafes. Stop for a drink and sip on a piña colada (invented right here in San Juan), taking in the unique flavour of local rums and watching as locals and visitors casually stroll past.

Home to the only tropical rainforest in the United States, Puerto Rico also boasts one of the world's largest underground cave systems, located only two hours from San Juan. Near the territory's outlying Vieques Island, visitors can travel by boat across rare bioluminescent bays where the waters appear to radiate with blue-green light after sundown. Visitors are sure to find plenty of opportunities to go scuba diving, snorkelling, windsurfing and kitesurfing as well. And as for the locals, they're just about as friendly as they come.

Airport served by: SJU

Destination basics

Simply put, the temperatures in San Juan are hot, hot, hot! The coastal city sees annual average temperatures around 26 C but regularly experiences even hotter temperatures during the summer months. In fact, it's not uncommon for July and August temperatures to reach over 30 C. Winter temperatures tend to be cooler (though not by Canadian standards) with lows in the mid to low 20s C. Despite these cooler temperatures, winter is San Juan's driest season.

The island is affected by the North Atlantic hurricane season (June through November) but rarely experiences extreme tropical storms. Throughout spring, summer and fall, periods of sudden, brief rainfall are common (especially in the mountainous regions) but sun typically follows.

With close to 3,000 hours of sun each year, you'll want to be sure you pack sunblock in your checked luggage or buy a bottle once you've arrived. Sunhats, sunglasses and bathing suits are also recommended year-round.

Average monthly temperature and average monthly rainfall diagrams for San Juan

The Taino people were the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico – the island later “discovered” by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. In 1493, colonialists from Spain led by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon laid claim to the region. The Spanish forced the indigenous Taino into slavery, but the population soon began a rapid decline when the indigenous people fell prey to European diseases. Later, the Spanish brought Sub-Saharan African slaves to the island to perform manual labour along the coast. Today, visitors can still see the Spanish and African cultural influences in Puerto Rico's foods, music, art and customs.

During their more than 400 year rule, the Spanish largely inhabited and worked in the areas nearest to the coast, particularly in the San Juan region. Over time, the area became an essential port for Spain, who built numerous defensive forts to protect the island from attack by other European countries.

Fort San Felipe del Morro is the most famous of these forts, originally built in the 1540s. Today, the fort and its more than 15-foot-thick walls remain on the northwestern shores of Old San Juan, playing host to visitors from around the world. East of El Morro is Fort San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish in the region. The fort originally stretched nearly 27-acres across the coast of San Juan but part of the fort was later torn down to enhance road infrastructure.

In 1898, Puerto Rico was overtaken by the United States following the Spanish-American War. However, it wasn't until 1917 that Puerto Ricans were formally granted U.S. citizenship. Today, the island region is self-governing – a territory separate (unincorporated) from the United States at large. This means that while Puerto Ricans are able to elect a governor, they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. But much like incorporated U.S. states, Puerto Rico uses American currency and its residents speak both English and Spanish – although many locals prefer Spanish.

Religion (predominantly Christianity) is also an important part of Puerto Rican life. The majority of people here are of Roman Catholic or Protestant faiths with a strong Hispanic influence. One of Puerto Rico's main religious holidays is El Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day. Celebrated annually on January 6th, this feast day is celebrated with family gatherings as well as presents. It is customary for children to leave a tray with hay or grass under their beds at night to feed the wise men's camels – much like how children in the United States leave cookies out for Santa Claus. While they're sleeping, the three kings collect the grass, replacing it with presents as a way of saying thank you.

Many believe San Juan is a small Spanish colonial town with but a few bustling avenues. However this impression does not aptly describe the breath and depth of this fine old-world city. Modern-day San Juan encompasses a vast metropolis that covers seven unique and distinct districts. This makes for an eclectic combination of sights and sounds that is essential to the wonder and joy of visiting San Juan.

Old San Juan/Puerta de Tierra
San Juan is a traditional, colonial city that is bordered by walls. As the seat of the island's bicameral government, it houses La Fortaleza, home of the Governor and El Capitolio, the seat of the House of Representatives. The Senate, on the other hand, is located in nearby Puerta de Tierra. However, both districts can be found on the islet of San Juan and are connected to the mainland via several bridges. Old San Juan itself consists of narrow streets encompassing over four hundred years of history and tradition. Dine in one of the great establishments on Fortaleza Street, party in San Sebastián until dawn, or simply stroll along the charming avenues and thoroughfares. Similar to Europe, a famous tradition in Old San Juan is to people-watch, and there is no better place to indulge in this activity than from one of the several plazas that are located throughout the city. This town has something for all ages, young and old. A must-see is the impressive Spanish fort El Morro located on the north side of the islet. While a lot of Old San Juan has been in a state of disrepair, the current renovations are making this once decrepit community an acceptable tourist destination.

Condado
El Condado, as the locals say, is the island's most glamorous district, featuring boutiques, a variety of restaurants, and some of the finest hotels on the island. Contrary to popular belief, many nationals do reside here in the exquisite turn-of-the-century mansions. You'll notice the populace on any given day to be a good balance between tourists and locals. If you are an avid jogger, you'll love the expanse of open area.

Isla Verde
Isla Verde is home to high-rise apartment buildings, huge clubs and luxurious hotels. This area is actually part of the municipality of Carolina, connected to San Juan via several highways and streets. It spans from the Punta Las Marías area (adjacent to Ocean Park) to the land just beyond the International Airport. Its nightlife is exciting, and the enormous balneario, or public beach, is where locals and guests come to sunbathe and get their fill of people-watching.

Hato Rey
Hato Rey is several miles from Old San Juan but is easily accessible. It is the island's central commercial district, where the local wheelers and dealers conduct their business. Thus, its restaurant scene caters to more business people than anywhere else on the island. Roosevelt, the district's residential area, can be found just off Highway 52. It is one of the most famous venues for nightlife in San Juan, and the Plaza Las Américas, the Caribbean's largest mall, is also located here.

Santurce/Miramar
Both the Santurce and Miramar districts are located just off Condado and Old San Juan, but north of Hato Rey. Santurce was originally an upper-class neighborhood and entertainment. Today, there are office buildings and abandoned structures with a small but very good marketplace (Plaza del Mercado). A major campaign is under way by City Hall to restore the sector's vitality.

Río Piedras
This district is known as University City because it houses the University of Puerto Rico. Visiting Río Piedras is enlightening for those who want to explore the real Puerto Rico first-hand. The district has a traditional Plaza del Mercado and a very hometown atmosphere.

San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico's after hours nightlife. Most clubs, discotheques, and casinos are located in the Isla Verde, Old San Juan and El Condado areas. In Ponce and Mayaguez, you will find some additional excitement, albeit less intense as the big city. Tipping is a must. The laws for drinking alcoholic beverages are the same as the United States. Only adults over 21 are permitted.

While San Juan's entertainment options shouldn't be compared to Las Vegas or New York, there is still plenty to do here. Sanjuaneros, or the people of San Juan, are serious partygoers, and they know how to keep the party scene alive and well. Playing hard seems to be part of the island's culture.

Clubbing
Old San Juan is without a doubt the place for those who love classic and contemporary culture. The art, music, and fine dining are available at every turn in this historic pocket of the big city. San Juan is inviting to the night owls who want to groove in hot clubs such as Club Lazer, where you can party till dawn. Or, find fun at lively bars like Nono's and Don Pablo's. The best place to have a festive cocktail is along San Sebastián and Cristo Streets.

Condado attracts an upscale party crowd who flocks to its clubs and ubiquitous small cafés and bars. 

Isla Verde in recent years has been converted into a mega-party district, housing super clubs like Babylon and Area 51. There are plenty of cafés and street-side bars along this strip. The lobbies of the InterContinental San Juan and the Ritz-Carlton have excellent entertainment, but the ever popular El San Juan Hotel & Casino is, without question, the place to be.

Concerts
During the day, the City Hall offers several free concerts on the many plazas such as de Armas and Colón. On the first Tuesday of the month there are Gallery Nights where you can exposed to cultural expositions.

Museums
If clubbing is not your thing, don't worry! There are plenty of museums and sights around the city to appeal to non-night owls. For art lovers, there are the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico.

Performing Arts
This district has limited upscale entertainment but is rather important because it houses the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center. The center is considered the axis of the local theater scene with famous local and international performers visiting regularly. There are plenty of traditional bars lining Fernández Juncos Avenue for a pre-or post-theater treat.

Cinema
You can always catch up with the latest flicks at one of San Juan's many movie theaters. Movies can be seen at the Cine Roosevelt, El Señorial Cinemas or at the Metro. One of the most impressive venues is the megaplex, Rio Hondo 7-16.

Puerto Rico is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world. The eclectic choices are truly global and are dependent upon your individual preferences. Here you can find French, German, Greek, Asian, Italian, Spanish and of course Caribbean, just to name a few. You'll delight in Nouveau Latino cooking (traditional Puerto Rican creations updated with modern cooking techniques). From casual to haute cuisine, dining in Puerto Rico offers travelers an international taste sensation.

Old San Juan
In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico's most historic wining and dining neighborhood, you'll find Il Nuovo Perugino Enoteca (one of the best Italian restaurants on the island). Another fine Italian dining experience can be found at the quaint Ambrosía on Calle del Cristo. Discover fine-dining excellence at El Picoteo and Café del Níspero, both located in the Hotel El Convento. If you favor American, Old San Juan has a Hard Rock Café. Gourmets will enjoy the gourmet creations at Trois Cent Onze. Nouveau Latino cuisine can be experienced at its best at The Parrot Club. The Café Berlin is known for its vegetarian specialties. Also, La Mallorquina and El Patio de Sam offer the some of the best Puerto Rican cuisine in the old city. Grab a drink at the very popular Nono's. Perfect for a pre or post-theater meal, Toro Salao is located adjacent to the Tapia Theatre.

Isla Verde
The Isla Verde district is not to be overlooked when seeking restaurant alternatives. Some of Puerto Rico's top choices are tucked away inside Isla Verde's hotels. Some very excellent choices include the Ritz-Carlton, InterContinental San Juan and El San Juan Hotel & Casino. Oriental cuisine is served at Momoyama, and Yamato. Love Italian? Try Ciao Mediterranean Restaurant and La Piccola Fontana. Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine can be sampled at the excellent Metropol or Casa Dante. The Ranch offers American specialties. Steakhouses include the superb Ruth's Chris and the elegant The Palm. The Tequila Bar and Grill offers excellent Mexican cuisine. For cocktails with lots of atmosphere, try the lobby lounges within some of these hotels or stop in at Lupi's (Mexican cantina) for one of their special margaritas.

Condado
Condado is a real find for those who crave gourmet seafood. Some of the island's best restaurants are to be found in Condado. Prime examples include the award-winning Spanish eatery, Compostela. Magdalena Street showcases several great restaurants including Antonio's, Cielito Lindo, the very cosmopolitan Urdín and JoséJosé. The Tuscany inside the San Juan Marriott are also highly rated. Condado's dining options seem endless! Try to plan at least one meal at Miró (Catalan seafood) or the famous Ajili-Mójili. Martino's serves up great Italian cuisine and the Greenhouse is often a stop-off point for an after-concert taste treat. If you hunger for a down-to-earth, hearty, grab a bagel from the Big Apple.

Hato Rey
The island's main business district offers ample lunch and dining options. Restaurants include the elegant Zipperle, the popular Yuan, and the Coachman Steakhouse. For a fun atmosphere and something different at reasonable prices, go to Tierra Santa. Or, for an Oriental meal you may want to check out the Yum Yum Tree or Kimpo Garden. Sample Puerto Rican home-style dining at Cueva del Chicken Inn. You'll find that Il Cuoco and Metropol offer two distinctly different styles of cuisine (Italian and Cuban) at affordable prices. Grab a casual drink and a bite from El Mesón y Algo Más on Roosevelt.

Guaynabo
In recent years this San Juan suburb has increased its share of fine restaurants. Guaynabo is home to Burbuja's Café (Spanish) and El Caribe. This district is gaining in popularity and will surely be offering more choices in the upcoming years.

Río Piedras
The University City offers its share of fine restaurants, but excels in pubs and hangouts catering to the university crowd. Among the notable restaurants are Café Valencia, El Isleño and the El Tropical (delicious!).

Miramar
Miramar hosts three of the best restaurants in Puerto Rico, namely the ultra classic Augusto's, the chic and eclectic Chayote (Nouveau Latino) and the exquisite La Casona. Stop into, Havana's Café or the excellent Pizzeria Uno at Centro Europa for more casual fare.

San Juan

Territory: Puerto Rico

Country: United States

San Juan by the Numbers
Population: 395,326 (city); 2,350,126 (metropolitan)
Elevation: 26 feet / 8 meters
Average Annual Precipitation: 56 inches / 142 centimeters
Average January Temperature: 77°F / 25°C
Average July Temperature: 83°F / 28°C

Quick Facts
Electricity: 110-120 volts, 60Hz, standard two-pin plugs

Time Zone: GMT -4; Atlantic Time Zone (AST)

Country Dialing Code: 1

Area Code: 787

Did You Know?
San Juan is the oldest city in American territory, founded in 1521 by Ponce de Leon.

The total land area of San Juan, at 876 square miles (2,269 square kilometers), is larger than that of Greater London.

Orientation
San Juan is located on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, on the eastern half of the island on San Juan Bay. San Juan is about 45 miles (75 kilometers) northeast of Ponce.

San Juan is the largest of the Caribbean's Windward Islands. With 158 km of rugged coastline tucked around its 616 sq. km land mass, it is approximately the same size as Toronto. In the north, it's dotted with lush rainforests and sandy coves. To the south you'll find rugged volcanic peaks and the island's famous Piton Mountains.

Most resorts are found along its western coast leading to the capital of Castries in the northwest. Between Castries and Soufriere in the south lies Marigot Bay, a natural harbour that was once a common hideaway for pirate ships.

There's plenty to discover in San Juan's central mountain range and the landscape is strikingly beautiful. Explore lush forests filled with wild orchids and giant ferns. You might even catch sight of the Jacquot—San Juan's national bird.

It has not been an easy road for Puerto Rico, a land rich in history. Many trials and tribulations have marked her peoples' historic journey. Their courage to endure and face new challenges and consistently struggle for a better life is very much a part of the social and cultural fabric. Their progress and successes after periods of disillusionment, defeat, and grief demonstrates the great character of the Puerto Rican people.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico were Amerindian fishermen, who immigrated to the island from the South American mainland during the Archaic Period. Very little is known of their culture, however, as they did not leave behind much evidence of their civilization. The Igneri people followed some time between the 2nd and 5th Centuries, sailing in from what is now Venezuela. Their civilization was notable for advanced pottery and canoe craftsmanship. 

The Igneri people were proceeded by the Taínos, a peaceful people with advanced agricultural skills, who became the dominant group on the island around the 10th Century. Historians and archaeologists have uncovered their rich culture, which is today memorialized at the Tibes and Caguana Ceremonial Parks, in the municipalities of Ponce and Utuado, respectively. 

On November 19, 1493, Christopher Columbus first sighted the western shore of Puerto Rico, which he named San Juan Bautista, after John the Baptist. However, it was not until 1508, when Juan Ponce de León arrived, that Spain truly took control of the island. They established a small community, called Caparra, near what is known today as Guaynabo. By 1511, the Spanish began to move to a small islet across the bay from Caparra, which they fortified. They called this city Puerto Rico, which meant "the good port." In time, the name for the city and the island were reversed, so the Island became Puerto Rico and the city San Juan. In the 16th Century, the Spanish began to bring African slaves to the island to replace the Taino labor force, which had been decimated by disease.

During the almost 400 years of Spanish dominance, San Juan experienced sporadic growth. Conditions of life in the city were controlled mainly by the homeland of Spain, as Puerto Rico made a perfect hub for Spanish trade in the Western hemisphere. During this period, San Juan became heavily fortified with walled fortresses such as Castillo San Felipe del Morro and San Cristóbal, in order to protect the goods shipped through there from Spain. While the Spaniards endured numerous crippling attacks by the English and Dutch military forces, San Juan remained a stronghold.

During the 19th Century, an independence movement took hold. The height of this activity occurred during the late 1860s in what was called the "Grito de Lares." Attempts at revolution were meant to free the island from Spanish dominance. As Spain was beginning to give Puerto Rico more autonomy, the outbreak of the Spanish-American War saw American troops invading the island.

After the Spanish-American War, several significant changes occurred in San Juan. The United States flag replaced the flag of Spain and the American president now appointed the Governors of the island. During this period two key laws were passed. The Foraker Act of 1900 and the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans self-government and American citizenship, respectively. The periods of Prohibition and the Great Depression caused further havoc in the city where smuggling and bootlegging became part of the social commerce of the day. Puerto Rican men participated in World War I and II as American citizens, while still desiring their own autonomy.

In 1947, the US granted Puerto Rico the right to democratically elect their own governor, and Luis Muñoz Marín became the first freely elected governor of the island. In 1952, the Constitution of Puerto Rico was ratified, giving birth to what has been labeled the Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State), or Commonwealth of the United States. Under this status, Puerto Ricans do not vote in American presidential elections nor do they have representation in Congress (aside from one non-voting member). In turn they pay no federal taxes, yet they receive federal financial aid. "Operation Bootstrap," under the leadership of Muñoz Marín's government, transformed the island's economy from agricultural to manufacturing-based. As a result, the island experienced significant growth and development in a number of sectors. 

The people of Puerto Rico today have the highest per-capita income in Latin America and have one of the most stable economies in the Southern Hemisphere. The standards of living are higher than most other Latin countries, but still lags behind the United States. The island has a tri-party system. The PPD (Popular Democratic Party) defends the commonwealth. The second party is the PNP (New Progressive Party) which advocates statehood. And the much smaller third party is called the PIP, or Puerto Rican Independence Party. The first two parties have consistently battled back and forth for power since 1968. Today, most Puerto Ricans enjoy prosperity and still strive to improve their standard of living.

San Juan is a relatively simple city to navigate once you become familiar with common Spanish terms such as avenida (avenue) and calle (street). You can also pick up a map of the area at your hotel or use a standard GPS device.

San Juan is also home to all the standard American rental car companies, many of which offer pick up and drop off to and from the airport. To ensure you get a car, be sure to book in advance.

To get to attractions and activities outside of walking distance, it's easy to catch a taxi. Taxis in San Juan operate on a flat-rate zone-based fare system. For travel outside of the San Juan area, taxis go by metered rates. However, many taxi drivers will also offer visitors a flat-rate for long-distance travel. The choice is yours to make.

As for public transit, San Juan offers public buses as well as the Tren Urbano – a train system that runs every 8 minutes during commute hours and every 12 minutes throughout the rest of the day. The train runs along an elevated track to the city's Hato Rey financial district and then moves underground leading toward the suburbs. The train is also a great way to see authentic Puerto Rican life as well as great views of the city. It's also one of the cheapest ways to get around at only US$1.50 a fare. Ask your hotel concierge for route maps and details.

Where else can you kayak across a glowing bay, walk through a rainforest humming with the sound of singing frogs and tour a massive underground cave system all within just a few hours' drive? In Puerto Rico, you can experience all of these unique attractions, along with all the standard Caribbean vacation favourites, such as snorkelling, surfing, parasailing and sun tanning.

San Juan is also a great destination for families travelling with children. Here, kids can learn about Spanish colonial history and culture while exploring unique sites like Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal. And the whole family is sure to love the incredible bioluminescent bay that glows in the dark near the island of Vieques.

In Puerto Rico, you can make any trip your own. Pick and choose between the numerous historic sites in beautiful Old San Juan. Then go shopping at upscale boutiques on Avienda Ashford or visit the designer outlets on Calle del Cristo. End your day with a gorgeous ocean view or a trip to one of San Juan's many museums and galleries. No matter where you go, you're sure to encounter plenty of wonderful locals who'll greet you with a smile.

San Juan is a relatively simple city to navigate once you become familiar with common Spanish terms such as avenida (avenue) and calle (street).

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