Known as the capital of Puerto Rico, the birthplace of the piña colada, and one of the most visited travel destinations, San Juan is a thriving city located on the north side of the island and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. A city where the weather is always tropical, San Juan is one of my favorite places to visit.
San Juan holds a special place in my heart as it is where I took my first solo trip/vacation in May 2017. I last visited San Juan in January 2020 before embarking on a 7 day Eastern Caribbean cruise. Although each of my visits were not long enough to explore all that the city has to offer, I did quite a bit to provide you with a list of things you should do on your first or next visit to San Juan.
Go on a Food Tour in Old San Juan
One of the best ways to get a taste of the local cuisine is to go on a food tour. I decided to take my tour with Spoon Food Tours. While they offer many delicious culinary tours, I felt it was best to take their highly rated “Old San Juan Talk and Taste Tour” which lasts about 3 hours. As stated in the title, this food tour takes you on a walk through Old San Juan to learn about its history (past and present) as well as taste the local delicacies at nearby restaurants. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the tour. My favorite stop was at Café Don Luis where we were served sweet bread with powdered sugar (Mallorca) with Swiss cheese inside (meat option came with ham) and a latte.
Take a Day Trip to Cay Icacos
I wanted to get away from the city for a bit and out on the water. My desire led me to take a catamaran cruise with East Island Excursions. I chose their “Icacos Catamaran Full Day” trip. This excursion was so worth it! Icacos is beautiful! The water was very calm and the isolated island is peaceful and serene. Snorkeling is also included as part of the excursion and takes place shortly before arriving at Icacos. This was my first time snorkeling and it was a lot of fun and pretty cool to see a wide variety of fish! I definitely recommend this company. If you have time, I also highly recommend taking their Culebra Catamaran Excursion. Culebra island is home to Flamenco beach which has been consistently ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro
If you’re already in Old San Juan, then you can easily get to this castle on the free Old San Juan trolley. Castillo San Felipe (El Morro) is a UNESCO World Heritage site and citadel that was built by the Spanish in the 1500’s and completed over 200 years later. El Morro once served as a military outpost for Spain and North America (until 1942) and has six levels. The citadel sits next to the Atlantic Ocean. I did not have time to visit but it’s definitely on my list for next time. Tip: wear good sneakers, a hat, and bring water (always have water with you in San Juan because it’s hot and humid).
Attend the San Sebastián Festival (January)
You must attend this event! In January 2020, I got a chance to attend this lively and entertaining festival. San Sebastián festival is a traditional celebration held annually to close out the Christmas season. The San Sebastián festival takes place around the third weekend in January (closer to January 20th) every year and on various streets in Old San Juan. At this festival you will find vendors (food/clothes/souvenirs), live performances by various artists at different stages, dancing, arts and crafts for kids and families, and overall great time for all ages!
Go to the Beach
San Juan has a quite a few beaches for tourists to visit but if you can only choose one, then why not to visit the very popular Condado Beach. This beach is very conveniently located by many hotels on the busy street of Ashford Avenue which gives visitors not only direct access to the beach, but also umbrellas, beach chairs, and beach towels for free (well included in the hotel rate).
Condado beach is a public beach with beautiful sand and emerald green water. The water is pretty choppy and has an undertow so take precaution (check the beach flags) before entering. Walking on the beach early in the morning (before 9 am) is a great option if you prefer a less crowds, want to meditate, do yoga, or take pictures/film/fly a drone etc. If you’re looking for food after the beach, there are plenty of restaurants to visit on Ashford Ave (highly recommend Orozco’s Restaurant for monfongo 😍)
Try the Local Cuisine
If you want more of the local cuisine (outside of a food tour) or you’d rather do your own exploring, then you should visit these restaurants/ice cream shop: Raíces, Chocobar, Pannes, Pinky’s, Orozco’s, and Señor Paleta. They are all excellent!!!
- Excursions: Elrique Forest, Bacardi Factory
- Hotels: La Concha Resort (best suited for younger crowds) or Sheraton Old San Juan (cruise visitors or visitors that prefer to stay in Old San Juan
- If you’re a frequent Marriott hotel visitor, apply for their bonvoy card for rewards and other awesome benefits including TSA precheck and global entry, priority pass lounge access, $300 yearly bonus and many more!