San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, serves as tourist mecca, seat of government, relic of colonial strife and progress, magnet of nightlife, patron of the arts, sunny beach paradise, rich port, and so on… But it is perhaps its role as a bona fide international city that makes it such a singular location in the island. San Juan does not gobble up local culture as much as keep it in flux with its gallery exhibits, film festivals, just-off-the-cruise-ship “turistas,” rock concerts, fusion cuisine… you name it.
One of the more frequented areas is Old San Juan, from which the municipality grew. Right on the coast, along the bay, is where this “walled city” lies, with its cobblestone streets lined by colorful buildings still flaunting their distinctive colonial architecture. Most of the fortifications -which protected San Juan from countless, sometimes-successful attacks- are still there too.
Go sit on the inactive cannons at either the San Cristóbal or the San Felipe del Morro forts. El Morro, as locals call it, can be accessed from a long pathway cutting across a vast green area popular for picnics, strolling, and kite-flying. The views of the breaking waves along the turquoise coastline are breathtaking on bright and sunny days.
Many hotels have their own sectioned-off beaches, but San Juan’s public beaches can be lively and fun. Great places to mingle with locals include El Escambrón, Laguna Condado, or the semi-accessible Ocean Park. El Escambrón is closest to Old San Juan, while Laguna Condado is across the bay from Miramar on the mostly-upscale stretch known as Condado. Condado bleeds over into Ocean Park, followed by Isla Verde, which is actually part of the municipality of Carolina and where the Luis Muñoz Marín airport is located.
San Juan’s treasures are not just on the coast. During the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors ventured further inland under the orders of Juan Ponce de León. Little of the past remains in the now highly-commercial area of Puerto Nuevo. The Puerto Nuevo settlement was actually abandoned for the much-preferred, harbor-side settlement known then as Puerto Rico. At the time, the island had been baptized under the name San Juan Bautista. Soon after, though, settlement and island names were switched. The busy Hato Rey area features the huge shopping mall Plaza Las Américas. This is also where La Milla de Oro, the “golden mile” of banking and business, offering the starkest contrast to Old San Juan with its tall, glass buildings.