Things to See in the Capital District of Old San Juan
I am always surprised at the new things we find to do in Old San Juan. We recently decided to take some family to see the Capitol building and, afterwards, we went walking around the area and found a bunch of parks, plazas and memorials dedicated to a vast array of things. We also noted that access to the beach in front of the Capitol has been improved.
We spent a couple hours just walking around, taking pictures, and enjoying the day. I think anyone who visits the area will be impressed by what you can find there.
El Capitolio de Puerto Rico
To start off, the Capitol building (El Capitolio de Puerto Rico) is right at the end of the Puerta de Tierra sector of Old San Juan, just before you get to the old section. To get there, you can walk east from Fort San Cristobal on Muñoz Rivera Avenue (along the waterfront). You can also take the trolley and get off at Stop 18a. It is a short walk from the Old San Juan cruise ship piers and parking decks.
You can’t miss the Capitol building. It is a huge white marble building with a large dome, just across the street from the ocean.
We started our day by going into the Capitol building, through the main entrance that faces the Atlantic Ocean. There is always a guard at this door, but you are welcome to go in and look around.
During the week, the whole place is open to the public. But on weekends, which is when we went, only the first floor is open. We have always only gone on weekends, so we have yet to see the Senate or the House of Representatives areas, but the first floor is more than impressive!
The dome is magnificent, with mosaics depicting important events in Puerto Rico’s history — like the arrival of Columbus, Spain’s first encounters with the Tainos, the freeing of the slaves, and the end of the Spanish American war. Beneath the dome, in the rotunda, the Puerto Rico Constitution is on display.
Inaugurated in February of 1929, the Capitol remains a beautiful symbol of liberty and democracy that should make Puerto Ricans proud. It is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.
This really should be a must see stop for locals and tourists alike. You can call or email ahead of time to schedule a guided tour. Or you can just show up and, if the guide is available, she will tell you about the building, how it was made, where all that marble came from, and the significance of the scenes depicted on the dome.
Beyond the Capitol Building
San Juan Bautista Plaza is on the north side of the Capitol building, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It contains a couple nice sculptures and mosaics of the Coats of Arms of each of the towns (municipios) Puerto Rico. There is a set of stairs that leads down from the Plaza to Playa Capitolio or Playa Bajamar.
There are a number of beautiful plazas and memorials on the south side of the Capitol building, along Constitution Avenue (Route 25).
Paseo de los Presidentes (Presidents’ Lane) is just across the street from the Capitol building. Here, you can find life-size bronze sculptures of all the US presidents who have visited (or even stepped foot in) Puerto Rico.
There are monuments to Puerto Rican police who have died in the line of duty, Puerto Rico’s fallen soldiers from each of the wars, Puerto Rican teachers, important Puerto Rican women, Puerto Rican artists, and other important Puerto Rican figures.
There is plaza that has bronze busts of past Puerto Rican governors. There is the Altar de la Patria, which has a nice bronze statue and a relief mural depicting Puerto Rican history/culture. There is a playground with a garden and even a beautiful Jibaro on horseback sculpture, with the Lamento Borincano song written out (in Spanish). These plazas and memorials went on and on, one plaza after another. Some, like the Plaza de los Leones, are still under construction.
The most moving monument is the Holocaust Memorial. Besides the beautiful sculpture, all around it are bilingual historical accounts of the atrocities committed during World War II. The photos and information are moving beyond words.
There is also a placard commemorating the 17 Puerto Rican tourists that died in the Lod Airport massacre in Israel in 1972. There is the Path of the Righteous — a walkway with names of people who have risked their lives to help others (many by hiding Jewish people during World War II). This site may be a bit sobering while on vacation, but it offers a reminder that people need every so often to accept others despite our differences.
The Capitol Building is open 7 days/week from about 9am to 5pm. Admission is free. Tours, offered in Spanish or English, last about 1 hour. You can make a guided tour reservation by calling 787-724-2030, extension 4609, 4610 or 4611. You can also request a guided tour through their web site.
The plazas and memorials are outside, so no admission, "hours", nor tours. Just walk around on your own and look at stuff.
Use this map to locate places mentioned in this article. You can click on a placemark to view the GPS coordinates for that place.