San Sebastián Street Festival: The Party of the Year

The dates for the 2106 San Sebastián Festival have not yet been officially announced. Our educated guess is that it will be January 14-17, 2016.

San Sebastian Festival

It is no secret that people in Puerto Rico know how to party, especially around the Christmas holidays. Announce that there will be a parade, music, dancing, libations, food — then add in local artisan crafts for sale — and it all adds up to one crazy celebration!

That is the San Sebastián Street Festival (Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián) in a nutshell. It has been an annual event on Calle San Sebastián in Old San Juan since 1970, and what started as community fund-raiser has become THE festival to go to. Loads of locals and tourists attend this 4-day event.

Early Festivals

San Sebastian Festival

San Sebastián (Saint Sebastian) was a Christian who was martyred for his faith. There is a street on the north side of Old San Juan named in his honor.

The original "festival" (in the 1950′s) was organized by a priest at the San Jose Church, which is located on San Sebastián Street, to celebrate the feast day of San Sabastián. The annual feast-day festival lasted only a few years.

In 1970, the festival was restarted and it has been held annually ever since. It always occurs around San Sebastián’s feast day, which is January 20th. The festival is typically held on the third weekend of January, and runs from Thursday to Sunday. Double check exact dates before making vacation plans around these dates as things have been known to change from year to year.

San Se Today

San Sebastian Festival

The San Se Festival has evolved over time, though it still is full of tradition and Puerto Rican cultural heritage. Mostly, it is a great big party, with people enjoying every aspect of it. It is attended by hundreds of thousands of people, who are very much part of the entertainment scene. Folks lucky enough to have a birds-eye view line the colorful balconies along Calle San Sebastián, and on the rest of the parade route, watching and shouting to the throngs of people in the streets below. Everyone else hits the streets. It’s basically the Puerto Rican version of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, without the beads and breasts.

In 2015, the festival will be held from Thursday, January 15 through Sunday, January 18.

San Sebastian Festival

There are lots of live music shows, both traditional and contemporary. The musicians perform on 4 stages around the Old City , but the main stage is at the Plaza del Quinto Centenario. But also expect music/dance to happen randomly & spontaneously throughout the streets, where people join in the song and dance. There are plenty of dance performances, both folkloric and modern, by professionals and party-goers alike. And all along the parade routes you will find food, drink, and more than 500 artisans displaying/selling their works.

There will be some artisans along Calle San Sebastián, but the main artisan areas are Cuartel de Ballajá. You will find other artisan set-ups throughout the rest of Old San Juan, too.

Things are generally calm, and you will see lots of families, during the day. As the day turns into night, you will see more young people (and fewer families) who are enjoying the lifting of the ban on public drinking in the streets around the Calle San Sebastián area. The police do set up barricades at the limits to contain the on-street drinking.

On Thursday and Friday, the parades and music festivities start at about 5pm. But it goes all day and night on Saturday and Sunday. There is a curfew enforced (Thursday and Sunday at 12 midnight and Friday and Saturday 2 am) so that the people that live there can get some sleep.

Expect to see extra security around Old San Juan. Security cameras and Police dogs will be all over. You are not allowed to bring in weapons, drugs, liquids in bottles, noisemakers, coolers. You need picture ID. Children under 16 years of age must be accompanied by an adult at all times and after 6:00 pm that “adult” accompanying the minors must be over 21 years old.

Itinerary for 2015 Festival*

Details of the schedule are still coming in. Here’s what we have so far …

Thursday, January 15

  • 10am to 10pm: Over 350 artisans will be displaying works at the Cuartel de Ballajá and and various Plazas

• Entertainment in Corralón de San José (corner of Calle San José & Calle Luna)

  • 8:30pm: Sebastián y los Adoquines, a play

• Entertainment Plaza del Quinto Centenario

  • 5pm to 9pm – Opening ceremony and dedication of the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián to Félix “Tito” Trinidad
  • 9:30pm Pirulo y la Tribu
  • • Entertainment Plaza de Armas

    • 5pm Dj Scarface
    • 7pm Dj James
    • 9pm Dj Xtasy

    • Entertainment Plaza de La Barandilla

    • 5pm Yubairé
    • 6:30pm Tribu de Abrante
    • 8pm Pleneros del Quinto Olivo
    • 9:30pm Juan Pablo Díaz

    • Entertainment in Plaza Colón

    • 6pm José Nogueras
    • 7:30pm Guaraysón
    • 9:30pm NG2

    Friday, January 16

    • 10am to 10pm: Over 350 artisans will be displaying works at the Cuartel de Ballajá and and various Plazas

    • Entertainment in Plaza del Quinto Centenario

    • 6pm: Conjunto Chaney
    • 8pm: Grupomanía
    • 9:30pm: La Sonora Ponceña

    • Entertainment in Plaza de Armas

    • 5:30pm: PJ Porrata
    • 7:30pm: King Arthur
    • 10pm: Algarete

    • Entertainment in Plaza de La Barandilla

    • 5:30pm: Los Segreles
    • 7pm: Sully Díaz- “La Lupe”
    • 8:30pm: La Criolla
    • 10pm: El Topo

    • Entertainment in Plaza Colón

    • 5pm: La Quilombera
    • 7pm: Karis
    • 8:30pm: La Secta
    • 10pm: Kany García

    Saturday, January 17

    • 10am to 10pm: Over 350 artisans will be displaying works at the Cuartel de Ballajá and and various Plazas

    • Entertainment in Cuartel de Ballajá

    • 11am: The Alley Ghosts, a children’s play with Moncho Conde
    • 1pm: The Alley Ghosts, a children’s play with Moncho Conde
    • 3pm: The Alley Ghosts, a children’s play with Moncho Conde
    • 5pm: The Alley Ghosts, a children’s play with Moncho Conde

    • Entertainment in Plaza del Quinto Centenario

    • 2pm: Los Pleneros de Caché y Plenativa + Comparsa
    • 3:30pm: Rumba Plena
    • 5pm: Barreto y su plena
    • 6:30pm: Plena Libre
    • 8pm: Juan Manuel Lebrón
    • 9:30pm: Limi-T 21
    • 11pm: Ismael Miranda

    • Entertainment in Plaza de Armas

    • 2pm: Dj Iván Robles
    • 5:30pm: Nicky Boom Box
    • 7:30pm: Dj Metro
    • 9:30pm: Black: Guayaba

    • Entertainment in Plaza de La Barandilla

    • 2pm: Los Pleneros de la 23
    • 3:30pm: Almas Band
    • 5pm: Choco Orta
    • 6:30pm: Boricubason
    • 8pm: Orquesta El Macabeo
    • 9:30pm: Pedro Capó

    • Entertainment in Plaza Colón

    • 2pm: Colectivo 787
    • 4:30pm: Diana Fuentes
    • 6pm: Danny Fornaris
    • 8pm: Millo Torres y el Tercer Planeta
    • 10pm: Sie7e

    Sunday, January 18

    • 10am to 10pm: Over 350 artisans will be displaying works at the Cuartel de Ballajá and and various Plazas

    • Entertainment in Plaza del Quinto Centenario

    • 2pm: Encuentro de Trovadores
    • 4:30pm: Tributo a Tony Croatto
    • 6:30pm: Willie Rosario y su orquesta
    • 8:30pm: Johnny Ventura

    • Entertainment in Plaza de Armas

    • 2pm: Carlos Fernández
    • 5pm: Emil Cedeño
    • 7pm: DSj Gulembo
    • 9pm: Sí Señor

    • Entertainment in Plaza de La Barandilla

    • 2pm: Los Andinos
    • 5:30pm: Los Hispanos
    • 7:30pm: Roy Brown
    • 9pm: Andrés Jiménez

    • Entertainment in Plaza Colón

    • 2pm: Fernandito Ferrer
    • 3:30pm: Susa y Epifanio
    • 4:45pm: Viento de Agua
    • 6:30pm: PVC
    • 8:30pm: Joseph Fonseca

    *Itinerary/schedule from Facebook

    Restrictions During the Festival

    Grounds of El Morro – The GROUNDS of El Morro will be closed from 7pm to 5am on January 15 to 19, during the San Sebastian Festival in order to prevent damage to the site, according to federal law (36 CFR 1.5) which will be strictly enforced.

    Private Cars in Old San Juan – On Thursday and Friday, private vehicles will not be permitted into Old San Juan after 6pm. On Saturday and Sunday, private vehicles will not be permitted into Old San Juan after 11am.

    Businesses in Old San Juan – Businesses in Old San Juan must close by 11pm on Thursday and Sunday. Businesses must close by 1am on Friday and Saturday.

    Public Transportation To/From Old San Juan

    The Department of Transportation is expecting more than half a million people to attend the festivities in Old San Juan over the four days. It is highly recommended that you use public transportation versus trying to drive into Old San Juan.

    The AMA buses will operate from the Sagrado Corazón station into Old San Juan (for $1) until 10pm on Thursday to Saturday, and until 9pm on Sunday. The AMA buses will operate from Old San Juan to the Sagrado Corazón station (for free) until midnight on Thursday and Sunday, and until 2am on Friday and Saturday.

    The Tren Urbano will operate according to their regular hours.

    The ferries (Acuaexpreso) will operate from Cataño to Old San Juan (fee 50¢) from 6am to 10pm all 4 days. The ferries will operate from Old San Juan to Cataño until midnight on Thursday, until 1am on Friday and Saturday, and until 11pm on Sunday. We didn’t see any specific hours for the Hato Rey ferry during the festival.

    There will also be buses available from the Roberto Clemente Coliseum for $1.

    We’ve gone to the festival a couple times

    San Sebastian Festival

    Right off the bat, I will say that we hate crowds. So for us, it was just too many people to be the least bit enjoyable. But people who enjoy mingling with 100,000 of their closest friends will have a great time. It is a bright, colorful, and loud festival!

    The first time we went, we got there mid-afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. Big mistake. It was wall-to-wall people. We couldn’t move, let alone see anything. We made a quick exit.

    Last year, we went early on Thursday, the first day of the festival. We drove into Old San Juan at about 2-3pm and found parking in our usual parking deck without incident. We had a couple hours before the parade started, so we had plenty of time (and space) to go up and down Calle San Sebastian to check things out. Then we enjoyed the parade, and got out of Old San Juan before 8pm (and before it got too crazy). It worked out great for us!

    San Sebastian Festival

    My favorite parts of the parade are the vejigantes (masked, clown-like characters), the gigantes (stilt walkers), and the cabezudos (huge, paper mâché heads).

    The cabezudos are comical representations of people who are important to Puerto Rican history or heritage. You might see cabezudos of Juan Bobo and his pig (children’s story characters), Maximina la Loca (a wacky dancing girl), La Jíbara (a country woman), famous people like Diplo (a local musician), Ramon Rivero (a local comedian), Maso Rivera (a cuatro player), Toribio (a Güiro player), and Dona Fela (first female mayor of San Juan).

    What to Expect at SanSe or Elsewhere in Old San Juan

    Traffic is a nightmare, so don’t even try to drive into Old San Juan. Seriously. You will spend hours in traffic and have a huge problem finding parking. We know, because we’ve done it. If you do give it a try- get there early. Vehicular traffic into Old San Juan will be stopped at the bridge before getting to OSJ at 6:00 PM Thursday and Friday and at 12:00 noon Saturday and Sunday. The only exceptions will be tour buses, taxis, emergency vehicles, and Old San Juan residents. The schedule of public transportation will be for Thursday and Friday from 3:00 pm to 2:00 am , Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 am and Sunday from 9:00 am to 12:00 am and the cost will be the regular rate in the Tren Urbano and $ 1.00 for the round trip bus route. For $5, you can buy a bracelet that will give you access to “express lines” on the public transportation system.

    San Sebastian Festival

    If you want to attend the festival, your best bet would be to find lodging in Old San Juan. The next best thing is to stay or park in Condado, Isla Verde, Santurce, Hato Rey, or Catano, and take a bus or ferry into Old San Juan. They will be running extra buses for the festival.

    On Calle San Sebastián, there will be a sea of people. So many people that you can hardly walk. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes- be casual, sexy, or freaky- pretty much anything goes!

    People will be drinking. A lot. So, occasionally, there are some "issues" between the revelers. But that’s part of the excitement, right?

    They do bring in portable restrooms for the festival, and you can expect them to be well-used (to put it politely).

    Bring cash for purchases, there is no time for credit card transactions.

    It will be HOT, day or night. So drink plenty of water (between those other drinks) to stay hydrated.

    For Cruise Ship People — It will take an extra long time to travel between your ship and the airport, or from the festivities in Old San Juan to the Pam Am Pier. Plan accordingly so you don’t miss your ship. The usual 15-minute drive can take hours.

    For more info, call the San Juan Tourism office(787-721-0169), or the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (787-722-1709).

    The "street scene" photo was taken by Liz Saldaña.

    Use this map to locate places mentioned in this article. You can click on a placemark to view the GPS coordinates for that place.

    PuertoRicoDayTrips.com assumes no responsibility regarding your safety when participating in the activities described in this article. Please use common sense! If your mother or that little voice in your head tells you that you are about to do something stupid … then don't do it! Read more about Safety →

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