11 Best Things To Do In Old San Juan

How could a small city set back from the beaches become one of the most interesting places to visit in Puerto Rico for tourists? Welcome to Old San Juan, also known as “Viejo San Juan”! Established back in 1521 by the Spanish colonists, Old San Juan is the second oldest city in America. It’s located in the western corner of the beautiful San Juan Islet. The richness of culture and history in this destination is what lures and captures the attention of tourists from all over the world who flock here for the endless things to do in Old San Juan PR.

If I had to describe Old San Juan in just one word, “colorful” would be the one. The city is a glimmering kaleidoscope of buildings, food, and people. But you might still be wondering what things to do in Old San Juan there are. Well, as an expert tourist to the city, I’m here to make sure you know about each worthwhile activity to tick off your Old San Juan things to do list.

So, what to do in Old San Juan? Activities range from food tours to helicopter tours, art exhibitions to sunset cruises – with all the cool and unique sights, fun nightlife, and exquisite food, you won’t find it hard to have each day planned out before you visit. There really are endless things to do in Old San Juan no matter what sort of holiday you’re interested in having.

Whether you decide to explore with or without a tour guide, you will enjoy the exuberant and warm culture of one of the happiest places in the world. With the variety of attractions, places to stay ranging from pocket-friendly to luxurious hotels, and incredible people, this city is calling you to be present for all the experiences and things to see in Old San Juan. 

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BEST THINGS TO DO IN OLD SAN JUAN PR

From the must-see attractions, and tours, to nightlife, Old San Juan has something to offer for every type of traveler! Let’s get right on to our guide of all the best things you can do here in Old San Juan.

Visit El Morro (and the other forts)

El Morro in Old San Juan PR

Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), is located on a high promontory overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay. It’s a must-see in Old San Juan. The old fort took 250 years to build, with the construction commencing in 1539 and not finishing until 1787. El Morro is one of the largest fortifications built by Spain in the Caribbean. This fort has survived several attacks from the English in 1595 and 1598 and the Dutch attack in 1625.

Come and gaze over 60-foot walls to the ocean and make sure to bring your camera to capture the cannons that still guard the harbor today. You can also have a stroll on the lawn that was once marched by soldiers. 

Fortin de San Geronimo in Old San Juan PR

So make sure to have a stop here when visiting Old San Juan and bring water because it’s a big fort to explore!  We recommend arriving early to beat both the crowds and the heat.  

You can combine El Morro visit with the Castillo San Cristóbal at the other end of Old San Juan.  Just outside of the old city, you’ll find several other forts to explore like El Canuelo, Fortin de Escambron, and Fortin de San Geronimo.

Take a Guided Walking Tour Through the Streets

Photo credit: Mikolaj Niemczewski/ Shutterstock

One of the best things to do in Old San Juan is simple really, just walk. After all, sightseeing is one of the biggest Old San Juan tourist attractions. There are around over 400 restored Spanish colonial-style buildings that were built back in the 16th and 17th centuries. The cobblestoned streets, lined by colonial churches and historic buildings are made to be strolled for hours. 

Although you can self-guide yourself when spending a day going places to see in Old San Juan, I personally recommend a guided walking tour. It will be excellent in helping you with orientation and it’s great to have the guide filling you in on all about the years of history that shaped the old town.  There’s even a free walking tour that we took on our last trip.  It starts daily at 10am.  You will need to book in advance to assure a spot, and of course tip your guide.

Old street in Old San Juan lined with cars
A quiet old street in Old San Juan PR

Old San Juan is actually a compact area, if you walk without stopping then you can cover all locations in less than 45 minutes. But it’s not so fulfilling unless you take enough time to take in the sites and tour the historic buildings. Including some time for you to take out the camera and shoot some pictures, I would budget three hours for the walking tour. 

For preparation, wearing comfortable shoes is a must. Three hours of walking and climbing fortresses can be a foot killer if you wear uncomfortable footwear. Bring some water to save you from dehydration and last but not least, a camera to capture all of the picturesque sights.  

Check out the Art at Fortaleza Street

Colorful umbrellas in Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, PR
Photo credit: Polina LVT/ Shutterstock

Many of the Old San Juan activities are on the more relaxing side and don’t require much energy. For visitors who admire and appreciate arts, or perhaps are just looking for spots to take fun vacation pics, then Fortaleza Street should be on your Old San Juan must-see destination list. This area specializes in promoting and selling high quality products that are hand-made by the local artisans. You can simply spend some time here exploring all the limited one-of-a-kind works of art. Personally, I find Fortaleza Street to be the best area to shop for souvenirs, presents, and gifts for all your loved ones back home. 

Fortaleza Street is also known for its iconic colorful umbrella exhibition that beautifully decorates the sky. However, after two tropical storms that came to the area, the umbrellas were damaged and eventually taken down, although they may be reinstalled at some point in the future. However, you don’t have to feel as if you’re missing out because now, twinkling lights have been installed as a worthy replacement. 

On this street, you can experience a magical and beautiful night while having dinner in one of the restaurants located in the area. Fortaleza Street is lined with rows of restaurants, making it a paradise for foodies who wish to explore the culinary side of Old San Juan. 

Take a Guided Tour of the Governor’s House

The grand Governor's House in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Photo Credit: demerzel21/ Getty Images

Just by the northern end of Fortaleza Street, you will find the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. The residence is called La Fortaleza which means “The Fortress”, and it was certainly made for it when it was completed in 1540 as part of massive construction in order to secure the island’s defenses. The residence has housed no less than 170  governors of Puerto Rico. Now, the architecturally blue and white stunning building is included in UNESCO’s portfolio of heritage sites and is a priority on your list of places to visit in Old San Juan.  

Although visitors aren’t permitted to just roam free in the mansion at will, from Monday to Friday there are several guided tours offered in both English and Spanish that are hosted by a knowledgeable local. The tours can include the mansion’s Moorish gardens, chapel, and dungeons. Touring time is usually available from 8:15 am until 3:30 pm and they last for around 30 minutes. If you are aged 21 years of age or older, you’ll need to bring along a photo ID.

Because La Fortaleza is still a functioning government building and is subject to closures without warning, I strongly advise you to call beforehand to get the itinerary of the day. 

Enjoy a Pina Colada Where it was Invented

Enjoying a glass of pinacolada is one of the best things to do in Old San Juan Puerto Rico
Photo credit: Yashrib/ Shutterstock

Did you know the famous classic cocktail piña colada was invented in Puerto Rico? The perfect way to end your long day of exploring Old San Juan is definitely by enjoying a piña colada in its birthplace.

Although the origin of the piña colada is clear, the identity of its creator is still an unresolved mystery on the island. Three different bartenders claim the invention as their own. Some people say that the piña colada actually dates back to the 1800s and credit the tropical cocktail to a Puerto Rican pirate named Roberto Cofresí, saying that his crew was served this beverage to boost morale. One thing is for sure, you will have the time of your life enjoying Puerto Rico’s national drink and ticking off one more must-do on your list of things to do in Old San Juan at night.

Admire the San Juan Cathedral

One of the best things to do in Old San Juan PR is Admiring the incredible San Juan Cathedral
Photo Credit: Wangkun Jia/ Shutterstock

Dating to 1521 and named after Saint John the Baptist, the San Juan Cathedral is the second oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in the Americas and is the oldest across the whole United States and its territories. The graceful Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is one of the most historical places to go in Old San Juan. Located at Calle del Cristo, the cathedral is a can’t-miss landmark in the heart of the old city. 

Interior Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan
Photo credit: Timothy Michael Morgan/ Shutterstock

As the cathedral has been standing for centuries, it has gone through various changes over the years. One of the main reasons why is because the original building was made of wood and got torn down by a hurricane. The rebuilt church after the hurricane then suffered through a second hurricane years later. The whole value of this cathedral has ranked it on the top of pretty much every list of what to see in Old San Juan. The gothic-style cathedral has incredible features that form the whole beautifully designed structure, including the ornately decorated ceiling and stained glass windows. 

The beauty of this historic cathedral isn’t the only reason that it’s so captivating and well known. The cathedral is also a final resting place for two famous reliquaries – Ponce de León (the first governor of Puerto Rico) and Saint Pio (a roman martyr who was killed for his faith). You can actually see the saint encased in a glass box here.

Indulge in a Food Tour

Indulging in a Food Tour is one of the excellent things to do in Old San Juan
Photo credit: Dora Ramirez/ Shutterstock

I’m a firm believer that the best way to immerse yourself into Old San Juan culture is by indulging in its culinary specialties. You can self-guide yourself in trying all the exquisite food available or get a professional food tour – some foodies rank this as one of the ultimate top things to do in Old San Juan.

Going with a local guide for your food culture tour will certainly help you get the best experience. You’ll enjoy the undivided attention of your guide and gain a local’s advice on what’s best to eat, drink, and see. The diversity of food and culture in Old San Juan will have you sampling carefully curated plates from several local, independently owned establishments. From Indian, African, to Spanish cuisines, Old San Juan has it all.

There are many options for food tours in Old San Juan. Some of the tours take about three hours of your time and some can be a whole day. The price also ranges – you can choose one that appeals to you the most. But be sure to have a taste of the island’s staples such as plantains and sofrito. Whilst you taste your way around the city, you can stroll along the cobblestone streets and admire the city’s architecture as you head to your next tasting session.

Take a Helicopter Tour

Awesome aerial shot of El Morro in Old San Juan
Photo credit: Frederick Millett/ Shutterstock

Puerto Rico is known as “The Island of Enchantment”, and you will know why it’s earned the name as you fly high with a helicopter tour. Have a look at Old San Juan, and the rest of Puerto Rico, from a whole different perspective! Don’t forget to bring your family or loved ones to allow them to experience one of the most exhilarating things to do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Castillo de San Cristobal in Old San Juan in the distance
Escambron Battery in Old San Juan

There are several different providers for a helicopter tour in Puerto Rico. All of them offer different ranges of pricing, requirements, sights (i.e. beaches and/or mountains), and tour durations. You can start off by deciding a start time that suits you. Although the process can be done fast and easily without a booking, I still recommend booking beforehand to better ensure the flight.

If your top priority is to fly over the most historic place in Puerto Rico, make sure your helicopter tour includes El Morro in Old San Juan. Adore the beautiful beaches and mountains such as the San Cristóbal or Dos Bocas Canyons in Barranquitas from above. Bring your camera and capture some pictures or videos of your special helicopter tour. 

Take a Day Tour to El Yunque

view of the mountains from the top of El Yunque Hiking Trail

The El Yunque National Forest, formerly known as the Caribbean National Forest, is the only tropical forest there is in the United States national forest system. Located in the rugged Sierra de Luquillo, 40 km southeast of San Juan, the forest is nearly 29,000 acres and covers land from the municipalities of Canovanas, Las Piedras, Luquillo, Rio Grande, and a few others. 

The name “El Yunque”’ came from an Indian spirit, “Yuquiyu” or “Yokahu”, which means “Forest of Clouds”. El Yunque is actually one of the smallest rainforests, yet it’s one of the most biologically diverse as it’s home to more than 400 different plant species. Although it’s a “small” forest, El Yunque is the rainiest of all the national forests with up to 240 inches (6.1m) of rain per year – that’s more than 100 billion gallons of rainwater. 

If you love being in nature, you will love exploring this breathtaking forest! It has more than a dozen maintained trails for hiking, picnic pavilions, stone towers, waterfalls, clear mountain rivers, and an interpretive visitor’s center. Don’t miss out on picnicking in El Yunque. Picnic shelters, parking lots, restroom facilities, and drinking water are all provided. And to make it even better, it takes less than an hour to reach the forest from San Juan!

Click here to read our full El Yunque Waterfall and Hiking Guide.

Visit the Museo de San Juan

Just a few steps away from Morro Fort, you will find Museo de San Juan. The museum is housed within the historical building that served as Old San Juan’s main public market back in the 19th century. The opening times for this museum are between 9 am and 4 pm every Tuesday to Sunday. You can join a tour of the museum that is hosted in English and Spanish, having the guide explain the story behind the exhibits that are shown. 

In one wing of the museum, you’ll find a permanent exhibition about Puerto Rico’s history. The second wing is used for displaying temporary exhibits. The museum also plays a documentary film on an hourly basis that will show you the city’s history all the way back from 1521 to the present. 

As a symbol of the public market dated to the 19th century, nowadays they hold a farmer’s market every Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm. Take a look around and have some tastings if you happen to visit the museum on Saturday.

Take a Sunset Cruise

Sunset Cruise Old San Juan
Photo credit: ESB Professional

Is there a better way to watch the sunset on a Caribbean island than by hopping on a cruise and gliding across the smooth waters of the bay? Take in the twinkling views of the city and sail the calm water past landmarks such as El Morro, Paseo La Princesa, and La Fortaleza. It’s got to be the dreamiest way to end the day, or perhaps start up your evening. Just imagine sipping on a glass of wine and nibbling small bites on the cruise while the sun’s setting on the Caribbean. 

I personally feel this is such a romantic experience that’s perfect for couples. But of course, you can share the experience with whomever you’d like. A group of friends, family, or a lover. Usually, the cruise is suitable for up to six people. But it all comes back to the size of the boat you choose to rent, as there are plenty of boats that offer sunset cruises. 

Take in the warm welcome from your friendly captain and crew before settling in for a scenic ride, and later your captain will share commentary about the regions you’ll see. After enjoying the cruise, you’ll arrive back at the dock just in time to continue your evening in Old San Juan.

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About the author
Kristin Young