Old San Juan 101 – Basic Info to Know Before You Go
Ask anyone about what they consider a “Must See” while visiting Puerto Rico and they will most likely say Old San Juan. That is because this old historic city offers so much. There is literally something for everyone: beautiful views (great for photographers), architecture, restaurants, art, museums, shopping, history, sculptures, people-watching, music, dance, bars and nightclubs. But, to get the most out of a visit to Old San Juan, it is best to follow a self guided walking tour (like ours!) so that you don’t miss out on something you really would have liked to have seen.
Here are some basics to consider before you get started.
You will be walking around an old city in the tropics – it is very hot and usually humid. Wear sun screen and a hat! You may even consider carrying an umbrella for shade. Bring water, or plan to stop often to make sure that you stay hydrated. This city is on a hill – so you will be walking uphill and downhill throughout your visit. Also, many of the streets are cobblestone, and the sidewalks are uneven, so wear comfortable, sturdy shoes.
Old San Juan is considered to be a generally “safe” place to walk around. You will notice a large Police presence. They’re there to help you feel safe, not because of any particular recent "problem". This bilingual Police force (specially trained for the Old San Juan tourist area) will also help guide you on your way. If you’re lost or need directions, just ask. At night, you have to use common sense, but if you stay in the tourist areas, all is well.
Inexpensive parking is available in Old San Juan, luckily in easy to get to locations. There are 2 parking decks on the south side of the city – on Recinto Sur. There is also a parking lot past these decks, at La Puntilla (this is very inexpensive). The parking deck on the North shore of Old San Juan is under the Ballaja building, just off of Norzagaray Street. It is a smaller lot, and the only one on that side of the city. They are open 24 hrs.
If you are not comfortable with a lot of walking, there are free trolleys available that will take you around the old city. They don’t actually go on Cristo Street, where most of the historical sights are located, but they will take you close. There is the “El Morro” or El Morro and City Hall” Trolley that will take you to both Forts and other places along the north side of the city. The other trolley – Central and Puntilla takes you closer to the center of the city. I find the best way is to take the “El Morro “trolley around, and getting on and off where you want to sightsee. When you get to El Morro fort, you are on top of the hill, so the walk to see many of the sights on Cristo Street are downhill.
Your best bet is always start your day at the visitors information center, located just west of the cruise ship dock – Pier 1. (across the street from the little yellow building “La Casita”). This new visitor’s center has a bi-lingual staff that will help you map out your trip. The Visitor’s Center is air conditioned, and is stocked with pamphlets, maps and magazines designed to help you make the most of your day. It is open everyday from 9am until 5:30pm. There is also a bar, where they will welcome you with free tastes of the rums of Puerto Rico Sat- Wed after 2pm- 5pm.
There are weekly activities in Old San Juan that are nice to see – on the last Sunday of the month at 5:30pm there is “Romantic Sunsets” with live music at the Paseo de la Pincesa. On days when the cruise ships come into port, many artisans also set up tables in the area around La Casita. As an FYI – some museums are closed on Sundays and Mondays, check their hours of operation.
Cruise ships come into Old San Juan about 3 times a week, and always on Sundays. The city gets busier with all those people, but it also comes alive. More artisans will have tables set up, and more stores will be open.
Old San Juan is an an old city, that remains exciting to this day. Take some time and explore this wonderful area.
Wandering around in Old San Juan costs nothing. Some museums have nominal entrance fees. You can get lunch or dinner for a couple, or many, bucks depending on your tastes.
You can spend many days taking in all that Old San Juan has to offer. Plan on at least one full day.