Welcome to San Juan, PR
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Welcome to San Juan, PR
As a US territory that has thus far resisted annexation as a state, Puerto Rico attracts a growing number of stateside visitors with its winning combination of tropical weather, Latin charm and passport-free convenience. San Juan is Puerto Rico's largest city and also its cultural, political and economic capital; it encapsulates the history of the island, houses 1/3 of its population and welcomes its millions of visitors every year. With each of these years, the city's clubs and discos get hotter (even earning comparison to those in Miami Beach), its restaurants get even better, and still more tourists reluctantly leave its streets and beaches to speak the praises of this Latin-American paradise.
The western-most portion of the city is Old San Juan, Puerto Rico's historical center, which was originally founded in 1521 as a Spanish stronghold in the developing competition for dominance over the American continents. It was, in fact, indomitable until it was ceded to the US in the Spanish-American War. Its cobblestone streets are still predominated by Spanish colonial architecture with many buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and still partially surrounded by the original citadel wall.
Today, this history-rich district, often called "Old Town," is a commercial force armed to the teeth with shops, restaurants, and hot night spots--all within walking distance from one another. The area south of Calle Fortaleza, called SoFo in the manner prescribed by hipster etiquette, is particularly dining-dense and increasingly popular with purveyors of "Latino chic." At the western tip of Old Town sits El Morro, a fort that saw attacks from the English and Dutch and from which visitors can see some great views of the island.
East of Old Town, the narrow strip of white sand known as Condado is lined with deluxe hotels and casinos, and it bustles with their guests. With the high-end business and residential centers of Santurce and Miramar to the south, Condado is frequented by young vacationers who want access to the hot clubs and fine dining that abound here as they do throughout all of San Juan. The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce boasts a large cultural collection and a verdant sculpture garden that temporarily draw many of these visitors away from the beach during the day and to the neighboring discos at night.
Just east of Condado, there are a few low-rise hotels along the quieter, beachfront neighborhood of Ocean Park and, beyond that, a slough of high-rise luxury hotels on a long stretch of the best beachfront property in San Juan. This is the area called Isla Verde, which is not actually a part of San Juan at all but an isolated section of its most costly suburb. Many hotels here are sprawling all-inclusive resorts where there's no need to leave unless you really want to, although the urge to explore the clubs and casinos just outside may be too great to resist.
Beaches in San Juan, PR
In true democratic fashion, Puerto Rican law requires that all beaches are open to the public. The following beaches are those that are accessible to guests to the city, and all are recommended for both beauty and convenience. As public beaches, they all also may become crowded, especially during weekends and holidays, so visitors are wise to plan around parking difficulties and the like by staking out a spot early or by being ready share the beach or search for vacant sand.
There is a balneario (government-run beach park) on at the western end of Condado, but with lots of other beaches to choose from alongside the many hotels just a little further east, it may not always be the best option. It has lifeguards during the week, so families with young children may prefer to come here, but it is often crowded with locals during the weekend. The beaches by the hotels are public also and sometimes crowded with tourists, but they are convenient (especially for guests at the nearby hotels) and offer a wider variety of foods and rental equipment for the same reasons.
Many consider this the city's best beach. The snorkeling is good and it's convenient to the airport and the many high-rise hotels nearby, which bring both luxury travelers and vendors of luxuries. There are all kinds of places to rent beach chairs or equipment for water sports or to satisfy the appetite, but there no lifeguards, so parents of young children must keep a vigilant eye.
This beach is most popular with groups who want to set themselves apart from the crowds of obvious tourists or ordinary locals at the other beaches or balnearios. Set apart from the larger hotels, it is named for the gated residential neighborhood that encloses it. Set between Condado on the west and Isla Verde on the east, it is a mile of soft sand where college students and hip locals come on weekends and in-the-know visitors take a break during the week, although it is not uncommon to see a lot of families with children who are told to come here for a day of family-friendly beach fun.
Dining in San Juan, PR
San Juan has more than 200 restaurants, which, like those in the gastronomic cities of the mainland US, serve a wide variety of cuisines. Many of these are excellent examples of their types or in their own right, and the best among them should not be missed, but curious eaters are impressed most by the unique variations of comida criolla (Caribbean Creole cuisine) that cannot be found anywhere else. The best practitioners prepare local vegetables, meats and fresh seafood in both new and traditional ways to achieve a surprising variety of tastes, textures and aromas that will become synonymous with San Juan in the minds of all who delight in them.
There are restaurants in all of San Juan's larger hotels, and a handful of the best are in the luxury hotels on Condado and Isla Verde, but even the dining options at the most expensive hotels are not necessarily the best. Many independent restaurants stand out here, and excellent eateries may be found in surprising locations or at surprisingly affordable prices. Reservations are a good idea wherever or whenever possible and absolutely essential during the high season between November and early May.
Nightlife in San Juan, PR
The nightlife in San Juan is almost as varied as its dining, but music and dancing are almost always included. The music may be salsa, jazz, hip-hop or Reggaeton, and the dancers may be the rythmless rotation of a tipsy tourist or moves so good that you would swear they're professionals, but it will always be fun.
In Old San Juan, bars and restaurants line Calle San Sebastián and glitzy drinkeries swarm with chic hipsters in SoFo. The large hotels around Condado often host live music in lobby bars, while the big resorts on Isla Verde have casinos with bars and cafés of their own. Even quiet Ocean Park has restaurants and bars that close late to accommodate the high demand for fun after dark.
Like in Miami Beach or Ibiza, or almost any other place that prides itself on its nightlife, the action in San Juan really does begin at night--late at night. Visitors who want to see the best of it should get up late and spend a long, lazy day and maybe take an early-evening nap on the beach, have a long, late dinner near a club or two, and finally hit the town with a rested and well-nourished body. Also, some clubs have dress codes, so dressing up a bit is wise and ought to be considered part of the fun of going out. Visitors guides (free at hotel kiosks) list local events and club openings. For guests who crave gaming, the casinos in San Juan are restricted to hotels; the best of them expect formal attire, and at all the minimum age to play is 18 years.
Shopping in San Juan, PR
As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico is not subject to any duties. Although it's not a free port, the prices in San Juan are still exceptional because of tight competition for tourist dollars.
San Juan's best shopping is in Old Town, and the most diverse clusters of shops are found along Calle San Francisco and Calle del Cristo. Also along many streets, in city squares and in specialty shops, local craftwork can be purchased for astounding prices. Such handcrafted goods include needle and bobbin textiles, ceramics, basketry, woven hammocks, carnival masks, and works by local fine artists. Particularly treasured among Puerto Rican artistry are the wood-carved idols known as santos (Spanish for saints) that have earned enormous bids from collectors and a place in art history. To the delight of hobbyists and craftspeople, many artists will work while interested shoppers look on.