Old San Juan is the historic district of the capital of Puerto Rico, recognized worldwide for its colorful buildings from the Spanish colonial era, cobblestone streets, and historic sites such as El Morro and La Fortaleza. Art galleries, museums, bars, restaurants, and shops converge in this city that dates to the 16th century and, which is also home to a community that claims its space in the face of excessive tourism and displacement. The “Walled City,” (“Ciudad Amurallada”) as it’s also known, is located on the islet of San Juan, where the Atlantic Ocean and San Juan Bay meet.
For Puerto Ricans, it is a symbol of identity and a sample of cultural heritage par excellence.
The Caribe Fest will take place from May 4 to 6 at several historic buildings in Old San Juan, such as Casa Blanca, El Bastión, El Cuartel Ballajá, and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture’s headquarters.
Several “Old San Juaners” from the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) shared their recommendations so that international guests arriving this week can experience Puerto Rican culture at its best.
Walks and souvenirs
As you walk through the cobbled streets, you may want to check out the stunning scenic landscapes. A walk toward El Morro will offer you a relaxing view of the Atlantic Ocean.
After walking along the sidewalks of El Morro, you can reach the Plaza de La Rogativa, where you can get a 180-degree view toward the Bay of San Juan, Isla de Cabras, Puerta de San Juan and La Fortaleza, a military compound that now serves as an office and residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico.
After your visit to La Rogativa, you can walk south of the islet to the Paseo de la Princesa, which offers views of the San Juan Bay, gardens, historic walls, a playground, food, and crafts. At the end of your walk, you will come across the Fuente Raíces that celebrates the cultural diversity of Puerto Ricans.
Arts and culture
If you want to take home a souvenir, you can visit Puerto Rico Arts and Crafts where you will find hand-made art pieces and other products done by Puerto Rican hands. If you are interested in local music or books, you can stop by the Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular or the Librería Laberinto.
The Museo de las Américas is in the El Cuartel Ballajá and is dedicated to promoting, preserving, and stimulating Puerto Rican and Latin American culture. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but opens Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and then from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. On weekends it operates from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Iglesia San José, formerly called Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Aquino, was built in 1532 and is the second oldest church in the Americas. It was recently restored and is in the highest section of Old San Juan and its façade has elements of Spanish Gothic architecture. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Antiguo Arsenal de la Marina Española is a Spanish military construction from the 1800s that served as a warehouse for ammunition and weapons of war. The story goes that it was the last enclave of the Spanish forces after the change of sovereignty at the end of 1900. It currently houses art exhibitions. It is in the La Puntilla area. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. It is closed on weekends.
The Caribe Fest will offer several guided tours of Old San Juan. Some of these will be guided by the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawings Society that documents and preserves Puerto Rican historical heritage. They also have a schedule of guided tours of different places available on their Facebook page. On May 6, they are offering a tour of the little-known corners of Old San Juan starting at 2 p.m. All tours require prior reservation at a cost of $10. You may contact (787) 671-8492.
Galería Souvenirs 154 showcases the works of creative Caribbean talents, from different branches of the arts, inspired by the theme of “souvenirs.” It has a variety of very good quality ceramics, prints, paintings, and tapestries. The gallery is located on Tanca Street, near the corner with Fortaleza Street.
La Casa de los Contrafuertes fosters ways of conceiving relationships between art, circumstance, and society, and promotes exchanges and creations through collaborative practices. It is also a place for work, study, exhibition, meeting, and conferences. The Casa de los Contrafuertes is located on San Sebastián Street and close to the El Patio de Sam restaurant.
The Puerto Rican gastronomic culture is mainly nurtured by indigenous, African, Spanish, and North American heritage. And Old San Juan has multiple options, with different accents, as well as Italian and Mexican food options.
Cafetería Mallorca is known for its mallorcas, a sweet and tender bread that is eaten for breakfast or dessert. They can also be stuffed with cheese, ham, or other fillings. They are usually served hot and can be enjoyed with coffee or hot chocolate. Cafeteria Mallorca offers breakfast, lunch, and brunch. Its gastronomic offering blends Puerto Rican and Spanish cuisine. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. and is located on San Francisco Street.
Caficultura is a restaurant specializing in brunch. With a relaxed atmosphere, you can enjoy a variety of food including vegan and gluten-free options. Open Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, it operates from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Caficultura is located on O’Donnell Street. The number to call is (787) 723-7731.
El Mesón Sándwiches is a less expensive option with a good menu of sandwiches. Open Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.; and on Sundays, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located on San Francisco Street right next to Pio Pio Champagne Bar.
Café Caleta offers an all-day brunch prepared by chef Martín Louzao of Cocina Abierta. It is open from Thursday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and is in the Old Cabildo House by Caleta de San Juan. The number to call is (787) 397-1961.
Casa Cortés or Chocobar is a locale known for integrating chocolate into all its dishes. It opens Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., on weekends, until 8 p.m. The restaurant is located on San Francisco Street in front of the Stuffed Avocado Shop. The number to call is (787) 705-3642. On the second floor, the Fundación Cortés has an exhibit of Caribbean art that is open Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Café El Punto is a restaurant that only offers lunch and dinner, with traditional Puerto Rican recipes. Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 pm. It is located next to the La Calle Mall store on Fortaleza Street. The business can be reached at (787) 646-4943.
El Patio de Sam is a Puerto Rican Creole food restaurant with vegetarian options. Their hours are Monday through Thursday from noon to 10 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, from noon to 11 p.m.; and on Sundays, until 10 p.m. It is located on San Sebastián Street in front of Plaza San José.
Stuffed Avocado Shop is known for its stuffed avocados, poke bowls, and for including this product in its main dishes, desserts, and drinks. It is inspired by Hawaiian cuisine. There are vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free food options. The restaurant is located on San Francisco Street in front of Casa Cortés and the number to call is (787) 303-1111.
Rincón Ibérico is a Spanish restaurant that is located inside the Cuartel de Ballajá. For reservations, call (787) 725-5936. Their hours for brunch are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Mondays open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesdays, 12 noon to 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and on Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays.
Spiga is a restaurant that offers breakfast and lunch until 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Its menu includes fresh pasta, sandwiches, and pastries. The store is located on San Justo Street and the number to call is (787) 667-6159.
Deshistoria: Birra y Empanada is known for its wide variety of beers and for its baked Argentine empanadas. It operates Sunday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday to Saturday, from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. It is located on Cruz Street next to Bacaro.
La Madre has great Mexican food with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. You can also enjoy some good margaritas. The place is open every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. After an hour break, it reopens from 4 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. La Madre is located on San Francisco Street right at the corner of Callejón del Tamarindo and the number to call is (787) 647-5392.
La Ó Pizza & Tapas has vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Open only from Thursday to Monday from 4 p.m. until 11 p.m. and is located on San Francisco Street near La Madre restaurant. The number to call is (787) 721-0396.
Pizza Pirata specializes in wood-fired pizzas. The locale operates from Sunday to Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and on Fridays and Saturdays, from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is located on Cruz Street near the Librería Laberinto. The number to call is (787) 420-2001.
La Cucina di Ivo is an Italian restaurant on Fortaleza Street and offers vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Its main dishes are to be shared between two people. The place opens from Monday to Saturday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.; and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed on Sundays. The number to call is (787) 729-7070.
Coffee and desserts
Café Cialitos is a breakfast and brunch spot with vegetarian and vegan options. The restaurant serves its own brand of coffee from the Cialitos farm, from the heart of the island’s mountain range. On the menu you may find sandwiches, shakes, wraps and desserts. Its hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and on Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The café is located on San Francisco Street right next to Burger King.
Cuatro Sombras is a gourmet coffee shop with varied prices and breakfast options. Open every day from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. It is located on Recinto Sur Street.
Filtrado is an artisan coffee shop that opens every day from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed on Sundays. The shop is located on San Francisco Street and the number to call is (787) 237-0047.
Señor Paleta is known for its tasty artisan ice cream bars in a variety of flavors made with fresh fruits, dairy products, and other ingredients. Some of their popular flavors include coconut, mango, passion fruit, guava, and chocolate. They also offer vegan and dairy-free options. Señor Paleta is known for its unique and creative flavor combinations, such as coconut and basil, and the use of local ingredients. Its hours are Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and from Friday to Sunday, from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Señor Paleta is on Tetuán Street and can be reached at (787) 724-2337.
El Batey is an iconic bar in Old San Juan. It has a jukebox that plays 45-inch vinyl records by bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other great hits from the 1960s. Graffiti from hundreds of visitors is still scrawled on every inch of the walls. The menu is limited with an emphasis on mezcals, tequilas, whiskeys, and rums. The place opens every day from 3 p.m. until midnight and is located on Cristo Street. You can contact the bar via email at [email protected].
La Factoría is a bar located on San Sebastián Street and that is full of secret passages that lead to its six bars, each one with a different atmosphere and a menu of drinks where you can enjoy craft cocktails, dance the night away with live music, or just relax. It has been listed as one of the best bars in several international reviews. La Factoría does not require reservations, but you can call (787) 412-4251.
El Callejón de la Tanca is a spot to enjoy bomba and plena music. In addition, it has very good alcapurrias, a very popular fritter in Puerto Rican cuisine made from yuca, yautía, banana and green plantain dough, stuffed with beef or crab, which are served as an appetizer.
La Taberna Lúpulo specializes in craft beers. 50 taps and 150 bottles of the best local Belgian, English, German and American craft beers are part of its list of brands and snack options. It is open every day from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. It is located on San Sebastián Street.
Bar Catedral Rooftop is located on the rooftop of a restored 19th century colonial-style building. The Bar Catedral Rooftop has spectacular views of Old San Juan that you can enjoy along with a variety of cocktails, exclusive wines, tapas, and snack boards. The bar is open Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m.; and on Sundays, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. You may visit it on San José Street and call (939) 588-4694.
La Grieta is a mezcalería with a speakeasy atmosphere and a rustic appearance. The bar also makes reservations for mezcal tastings in which different types of mezcal are tasted and evaluated for their flavor, aroma, and appearance. It is located on San Francisco Street and opens every day from 6 p.m. until midnight. If you want to make a reservation, you can call (787) 647-5397 or write a direct message on its Instagram account under the name @grietavsj.
Vino Crudo offers quality wines from around the world refined and cultivated by small producers in an organic or biodynamic way. These wines are mixed with local flavors such as star fruit ceviche, and vegetables in an herbaceous silken tofu dressing, among others. The bar is located on Fortaleza Street and a reservation is required through their email address at [email protected].