Our Guide to Old San Juan

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.

Read more: A 16th-century Fort Crumbles in Puerto Rico


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Submitted by GW at: February 24, 2009
The sugar plantation is in Manati. Follow route 685 North to Route 616 and take that road all the way towards the water.The number should be 787- 854-2679.

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 23, 2009
I am a subscriber and love your magazine. However, I am in Puerto Rico where I lived for three years in the '70's. My students are now 50 and many working toward the preservation of the architecture of the island, especially on the west coast where I am writing from now. I brought a copy of your Jan.Feb. article but gave it away. I need more info on where this plantation is?? 35 miles west of San Juan is not enough and I could not find anything on it at the Conservation Trust website?? Could you provide more? We are bound and determined to find it tomorrow. I am taking a friend from Arecibo who may know more about it. Thanks and tell your authors that we really need specifics, like the barrio, pueblo, town, city, etc. when you write about it. Especially since the wealthy gringoes at the next table want to know about it too. Kaching for the coffers at the plantation. Carol Ann Brown Bethlehem, CT 06751

Submitted by ByronThomas at: February 16, 2009
I agree with AJT. Ponce has some fantastic sites as well as San German. Definitely check out the Conservation Trust's coffee plantation Hacienda Buena Vista and the gorgeous Castillo Serralles. Ponce is about a two hour drive from San Juan and you can easily rent a car and even without any Spanish navigate these locations. If you need more help, I lived in Puerto Rico for seven years and am finishing my master's in Puerto Rican History. You can contact me at bltvball@hotmail.com.

Submitted by AJT at: January 9, 2009
Wonderful story. The author may want to explore beyond San Juan and find some of the many significant preservation initiatives that have been accomplished in many of Puerto Rico's municipalities like San German.