Our Guide to Old San Juan
By Eric Wills | Online Only | Jan. 1, 2009
Visiting Old San Juan? All you need is a few hours and a good pair of walking shoes to see many of the city's most compelling historic sites. For starters, the 15-foot-high walls that encircle Old San Juan are hard to miss. Tour the labyrinthine interiors of the forts El Morro (787-729-6960) and San Cristobal (787-729-6777/Munoz Rivera), UNESCO World Heritage sites, to learn how they helped protect San Juan from numerous invaders.
Within sight of El Morro, Antiguo Manicomio Insular shines as an unusual example of adaptive use. A 19th-century insane asylum with iron fences that surround a courtyard with fountains, the building now houses the Puerto Rican Academy of Fine Arts.
The nearby Casa Blanca (787-724-4102/1 Calle San Sebastián), recently restored, was built in 1521 for Ponce De Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico. De Leon died before he could move in, but his descendants lived in the house for centuries. Today, guided tours lead visitors through the rooms dotted with 16th-century artifacts and lush gardens.
La Fortaleza (787-721-7000/Calle Fortaleza) is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Western hemisphere. Completed in 1540 as a fortress, the building was converted soon after into the governor's quarters. Tours visit the dungeon, gardens, and chapel.
The Iglesia San Jose (787-725-7501/Calle del Cristo), established in 1523 by the Dominicans, bears the coat of arms of Ponce De Leon. He was buried here before his remains were moved to the San Juan Cathedral. Also buried here: Jose Campeche, one of Puerto Rico's most revered artists. The building has structural problems, is in the midst of million-dollar renovations, and may not be open. Call ahead.
A 19th-century military barracks, the three-story Cuartel de Ballaja was the last and largest building constructed by the Spanish and today houses the Museo de Las Americas (787-724-5052/Norzagaray), a repository for Caribbean art.
No trip to Old San Juan is complete without a mojito and some Caribbean cuisine. Head to La Forteleza and duck into Dragonfly, Parrot Club, or any of the host of restaurants here for a taste of Caribbean fusion.
If you have time to explore beyond Old San Juan, contact the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico (787-722-5882/www.fideicomiso.org), which has restored a sugar plantation owned by the Marquis de la Esperanza and is working on restoring the Old San Juan aqueduct in the Rio Piedras neighborhood.
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