Old San Juan

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Home to more than 400 restored 16th and 17th century buildings, Old San Juan is the perfect shopping destination for art lovers and those looking for souvenirs and unique Puerto Rican finds. It doesn't hurt that Old San Juan is also a great place to learn about Puerto Rican history and culture!

Most of the shops are located on Calle Fortaleza and Calle del Cristo. Calle Forteleza specializes in jewelry and watches. Here you'll find gemstones galore and top luxury watch brands like Rolex, as well as many unique collector's items. The shopkeepers will barter if you're able to pay in cash but be prepared to stick to your price and walk away if necessary.

Calle del Cristo is where the galleries and designer outlets are located. Polo Ralph Lauren, Coach, Guess, you name it. Art lovers will also find more galleries along Calle San José.

 

Old San Juan embodies all the charm and culture you could hope for on a Caribbean vacation. There are the historic forts, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal, the beautiful Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Arms) and the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas, La Fortaleza.

Fort San Felipe del Morro (commonly referred to as simply El Morro) is the most popular of the forts. A walk around the tall fortress walls (said to be 140 feet above sea level) and a visit to the fort's lookout points will likely leave you in awe. The fort transports visitors back in time to when the Spanish ruled Puerto Rico, building the fort and its more-than-15-feet thick walls to protect against naval attack. The fort sits along San Juan's northernmost coast and is made up of four levels built from stone, two of which were added more than two centuries after the fort's initial construction in the 1540s.

The huge fort was designed to hold all of the citizens of San Juan as well as members of the military in case of attack. The Spanish even built large water cisterns here in case residents needed to take cover within the fortress' walls for an extended period of time.

Atop El Morro, you'll see views of children flying kites and families enjoying picnics on the fort's grand lawn and the blue Atlantic waters beyond. While underground, pathways lead to strategic defensive spots around the fortress where the Spanish could deflect attacks.

East of El Morro is Fort San Cristobal - a second defensive fort built by the Spanish in 1638. This seaside French-style fortress was built to defend San Juan from eastern land-based attacks. A series of intricate pathways lead to the various sections of the fort and the impressive Caballero lookout provides a panoramic view of the city.

Also in Old San Juan is the beautiful La Fortaleza - the current home of the Puerto Rican governor. Originally built in the early 16th century, La Fortaleza was later rebuilt after it was destroyed in a fire in 1625. Today, its gorgeous neoclassical architecture and beautiful courtyard provide an exquisite look back at Puerto Rican history.

Two blocks from La Fortaleza sits the historic Plaza de Armas. The city's central square since 1521, the plaza largely functioned as a public marketplace until 1851. It was then that Puerto Rican Governor Don Juan de la Pezuela converted the space into a stone garden with sculptures and fountains.

Nearby, you can see La Plaza de San José with its famous statue of explorer Ponce de Leon made from the bronze of melted cannons. Here, feral cats mill about, wandering the beautiful grounds as they please. And beside the plaza sits La Iglesia San José - the only true gothic church in the United States. Inside the church, you'll be able to see some of the original murals painted centuries ago on the church's walls.

Of course, Old San Juan is also home to numerous shops, restaurants, bars and beaches. Area galleries sell beautiful works by local artists, including santos - carved figurines often religious in nature. These unique figures have been made here since the 16th century.

For those looking to meet a local artist and see one of the most unique galleries (of sorts) in Old San Juan, take a visit or book a stay at the Gallery Inn. This artsy guesthouse is run by Puerto Rican artist Jan Desopa whose work hangs throughout the building. Her colourful, tactile artwork fascinates adults and children of all ages - as do the exotic birds and blooming birds of paradise in the courtyard. The guestrooms here also offer a historical experience, originally built in the 1740s.

Regardless of what you decide to see and do in Old San Juan, you'll want to bring good walking shoes and plenty of water.