After couple of weeks of vacationing in Florida and beyond, I’m back refreshed, inspired and full of fascinating stories for my readers. Those of you who are following me on Instagram (if you aren’t, please do so now! ;) ) probably know that Mr. B and I together with his parents went on a blissful Caribbean cruise for an 8-day family retreat on Carnival Conquest. We spent 4 days at sea and hit 4 beautiful islands on our way around the eastern part of this tropical region: St. Maarten, St. Kitts, San Juan and Grand Turk.
I am particularly excited to start my series of cruise-related blog posts with San Juan because this colorful city with its hospitable dwellers, beautiful colonial architecture, outstanding culinary scene, gorgeous coastline, and ancient forts charmed us all. A majestic mix of Latin flavor and European history, San Juan is the crowning glory of Puerto Rico.
Since we were limited in time, we got a chance to explore only Old San Juan which is a destination on its own with an endless supply of undiscovered attractions to enjoy. Due to its quant vibe and brights hues, San Juan is a real photographer’s dream! Thanks to my talented father-in-law’s photography skills and my own attempts to capture the beauty of this harbor city, there is a lot of visuals and information to share! So here are my favorite not-to-miss sights in Old San Juan which make this historic part of the city so special….
Ancient Forts | San Felipe del Morro
The cobblestone streets of Old San Juan are windows to the past with historic forts and colonial architecture setting the scene.
It’s important to now that Puerto Rico was incredibly important, geopolitically. The island was a vital strategic base from the 16th through 18th century as Spain battled with other European powers for colonial control of the region. Whoever held Puerto Rico controlled the “door” to the Caribbean, Central America, Cuba, Mexico, the southeastern United States, northern South America… and all the riches therein.
Spain colonized Puerto Rico in 1493, launched by Christopher Columbus and furthered by the bloody efforts of Ponce de Leon. It soon became clear to Spain, however, that the rest of Europe lusted for this island, and so in the 1530s, the Spanish king ordered construction of two forts: La Fortaleza (which is now the official residence of Puerto Rico’s governor) and San Felipe del Morro.
Protecting the entrance to San Juan Bay, the fort, commonly referred to as El Morro, is dramatically perched above the sea on a point of land jutting out into the ocean.
El Morro was built in 1539, with ongoing construction for 250 years, and is one of the largest Spanish forts in the Caribbean. Rising 140 feet above the sea, the massive six-level fortress was built to protect the port and has a commanding view of the harbor.
Declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, El Morro features a maze of secret access tunnels, dungeons, lookouts, ramps, barracks, and vaults.
It is dotted with small, circular sentry boxes called garitas.
These garitas are unique to Puerto Rican forts and have become a national symbol.
The area approaching the fort is open lawn and there are incredible views from every side, either back towards San Juan, including a view to the famous cemetery, or out to sea.
Set along the coast, adjacent to El Morro, and high above the ocean, is the beautiful San Juan Cemetery. Noted for elaborate tombstones, statues, and a circular, red-domed Neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the cemetery is a peaceful place. Set on a hillside above the sea, it also has lovely views out to the ocean and towards El Morro. The chapel in the cemetery dates to the 19th century, and many of Puerto Rico’s earliest colonists are buried here.
The historic stronghold | Castillo San Cristobal
In the centuries after El Morro was constructed, Puerto Rico was attacked repeatedly by the British, and by the Dutch as well. Spain retained control of the island, but there were many very close calls, fires, explosions, and casualties. The Spanish realized they needed another fort: one that would protect against attacks by land as well as by sea.
In 1793, the Spanish completed the fort called Castillo de San Cristóbal, essentially wrapping the city of San Juan in a protective embrace of stone walls and towers. The structure sprawls for acres, and remains the largest fortification ever built by Spain in the New World.
Though overshadowed by its more famous neighbor to the west, El Castillo de San Cristóbal makes as fascinating a trip as El Morro.
It was designed to protect against a land attack, making it quite different from El Morro, which was built to guard against attacks by sea.
A small but enlightening museum displays ancient Spanish guns and other armaments, military uniforms, and blueprints for Spanish forts in the Americas.
Luxury of La Fortaleza
This blue and white wonder of a fortress is the oldest continuously inhabited executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere. Its construction began in 1532 and was completed in 1540, and it serves to this day as the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico.
From an architectural standpoint, La Fortaleza really captures the essence of all of Old San Juan: it is an amazing blend of building styles through the ages, from its 16th-century core to its 19th-century facade.
My parents-in-law had a chance to take a unique private tour of the mansion’s quarters and admire the opulence and luxury of this amazing palace. I will have photos do the talking.
La Fortaleza has made itself the homes for the residence of more than 170 governors of Puerto Rico and has hosted various dignitaries, including President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy who stayed in La Fortaleza in 1961. Also In June 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the mansion during a brief trip to the island.
The San Juan Cathedral
The San Juan Cathedral is located on Calle del Cristo, overlooking a small plaza next to the luxurious El Convento Hotel. A rare New World example of medieval architecture, the cathedral is the final resting place of famed explorer Ponce de León. The church has been located on this spot since 1521 and is known for being one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas and one of the oldest buildings in San Juan.
The interior, with its black-and-white checkered tile floor and yellow décor is ornate and cheery.
The body of the great Spanish explorer, Ponce de León, has laid here in a marble tomb since 1913, and San Pío, a Roman Catholic martyr, since 1862. The cathedral still holds regular services, and tours are available.
Colorful Colonial Architecture
The quaint cobblestone streets, the grandeur of the colonial architecture, and the brightly colored houses that litter the streets are a testament to the alluring magnetism of the city.
I will be publishing a separate post featuring gorgeous facades that are painted in all the happy hues.
You don’t hear every day that cobblestones are part of the local heritage. However, the blue hues of these stones that pave the significant part of the Old San Juan have a long history to them.
Rather than being cut from stone or cast as bricks, as was the usual practice, the cobblestones (adoquines in Spanish ) found in Old San Juan were cast from furnace slag, which is the waste from iron smelting. Cast into blocks, the material served as ballast in sugar-carrying ships in the 16th century, and this 500 year old recycling effort produced a durable material for paving the streets. The characteristic blue color was caused by aging and moisture over the years. Our guide from Flavors of San Juan even told us that some tourists try to smuggle them back home as souvenirs. By the way, according to the local law that is considered illegal. Why would you want to take a super heavy piece of iron back home anyway???
One of the Narrowest Houses In The World
Located at 101 Calle Tetuan, right by Cristo Chapel, is one of the narrowest houses in the world called La Casa Estrecha (The Narrow House). It is only 5 feet wide inside. It was originally the alleyway between two buildings which was then built as housing for slaves who served the brothel next door.
Capilla del Cristo Chapel in Old San Juan
Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud, otherwise known as the Cristo Chapel is perched atop the ancient wall that once protected the old city at the very south end of Cristo Street (just a short walk from the San Juan Cathedral).
Before the Chapel was built in the mid- to late-1700’s, anyone venturing toward this end of Cristo Street needed to be careful, or else they might fall off the towering wall to their death. In fact, just such a fate once seemed assured of the man who built the Chapel.
According to the local legend related to us by our guide from Flavors of San Juan, the builder found himself one day riding aboard a runaway horse heading straight toward the end of the street. Try as he might, the man just could not get the horse to stop. As the steep drop drew closer, the man prayed to God, begging for salvation. Suddenly, at the very last instant, the horse stopped… directly on the spot where Cristo Chapel now sits. The event was seen as a miracle, which was marked by the construction of the Chapel. It took 23 years to build the small and simple structure that today, some 230 years later, remains an enduring symbol of faith… and one of Old San Juan’s most unique attractions.
As you can see, the historic landmark is flocked not only by tourists (pun intended!)…
A Master of Tropical Music
Last but not least, I cannot end the post without mentioning one person who had tremendous impact on the life of sanjuaneros and the rest of the world. Tite Curet Alonso, known to all as Tite (TEE-tay) was a Puerto Rican composer of over 2,000 salsa songs. He is known as a master of tropical music and is often referred to as El Maestro of Salsa. A life-sized statue honoring Curet Alonso now (literally) sits at San Juan’s Plaza de Armas, in Alonso’s favorite bench spot. Among many other reasons that make me want to come back to San Juan is the desire to enjoy the vibrant nightlife of the town which fills with Latin melodies and graceful dancers as soon as the sun sets.
So there you have it, a glimpse of beautiful Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Visiting the city was a great way to experience a tropical sanctuary with a zest for life. While San Juan has so much more to offer than just colonial old town, the 5 hours spent here were enough to fall in love with this vibrant city and want to come back and explore it further!
Have you been to San Juan? What were your impressions? What were your favorite sights in the city? Any questions? Share these and any thoughts you have in the comments!