Old San Juan is the oldest town in the United States. It was established in 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, and you can visit the Spanish explorer’s house, La Casa Blanca, and see his tomb in the Catedrál de San Juan Bautista during your tour of the city.
Today, San Juan is a sprawling modern metropolis, the capital of Puerto Rico, and the most populated area on the island. By contrast, Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) is a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and shelters San Juan Bay. This seven-block historic district is by far the most interesting part of the city.
The very essence of the island is represented in Old San Juan. Two massive forts loom over the cobblestone streets of the ancient walled town, and yet the place booms with the contemporary vigor of chic shops, charming hotels, and upscale restaurants.
Spanish settlers built San Felipe del Morro (circa 1540) and Castillo San Cristóbal (circa 1634) to guard the island against attack back in the days of pirates and hostile armies. Today, you can roam through National Historic Sites and even fly a kite on El Morro’s grassy field.
Appropriately, the old city is filled with museums and buildings with historical significance. Don’t expect to see all of them, but consider strolling through one or two that pique your cultural interests.
Among the best:
Catedral de San Juan Bautista (San Juan Cathedral) is one of the oldest buildings on the island and the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Puerto Rico. Admire the stained glass windows, the tomb of Ponce de León, and the glass-enclosed mummy of Saint Pio.
Casa Blanca (White House) was built for Ponce de Leon, but he didn’t live long enough to occupy the house; some of his descendants did reside there. Designated as a National Historic Monument, the mansion holds 16th-18th century furniture and the gardens offer a lovely view of San Juan Bay.
Museo de las Americas (Museum of the Americas) is home to a variety of historical objects used in everyday life by European settlers, native AmerIndians, and Africans.
One of the most amazing historical sites is the City Wall (La Murralla) that was constructed in the 1500s and is up to 20 feet thick and 60 feet high in some spots.
When you exit the City Wall through the only remaining City Gate (Puerta de San Juan), you will be on Princess Avenue (Paseo de la Princesa), a tree-lined street meant for casual strolling. You’ll find benches, open-air vendors, gardens, and statues.
Puerto Rico is a year-round destination. Average daily temperatures vary only by about 10 degrees from afternoon highs in the 80s to evening lows in the 70s.
Humidity and rainfall do make a difference. Avoid hurricane season, which runs from the beginning of June until the end of October. Dangerous storms occur infrequently, but you will get more rainy days and humid conditions throughout the summer months.
Since summer is considered off-season, expect fewer tourists and lower prices. If you’re willing to risk a bit of rain and perhaps a storm, take advantage of the discounts. You can still enjoy indoor activities, the casinos, museums, and shops are always open. Popular restaurants and nightclubs are less crowded and the food and entertainment are just as terrific. A little rain may even make the island more romantic.
All things considered, the best time to visit is after the spring break and Easter crowds leave in April and before the rains begin in June. Also, consider going in November or early December, before the top-dollar holiday season.
Old San Juan is ideal for a weekend getaway or a day-long stop over before leaving for a Caribbean cruise.
If you can stay longer, a week in Puerto Rico is ideal. Seven days gives you the chance to tour the island, see most of the best sights, and enjoy relaxing on the beaches. If you plan to visit the outer islands, Vieques and Culebra, extend your trip to 10 days.
Puerto Rico tends to feel hotter in the summer because of the humidity and hurricane activity throughout the Caribbean. However, temperature averages year round are in the 80s during the day and 70s at night.
Check with the San Juan Tourism Office before going to find special events that will be taking place during your visit.
Once you’re on the island, stop at one of these Tourist Information Offices:
San Juan Airport (Luís Muñoz Marín Airport) – Terminal C Old San Juan Tourism Office – Ochoa Building –right across from Pier 1 at the Cruise Ship Terminal on the waterfront, 500 Calle Tanca. In Old San Juan, stop at kiosks set up at Plaza Salvador Brau, 312 San Francisco Street, and behind Teatro Tapia, Calle Fortalez.
The biggest and first festival of the new year takes place in early January, Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian or San Sebastian Street Festival. Nicknamed SanSe, this festival is a showcases for Puerto Rico’s lively culture.
In April the island holds the annual Saborea at El Escambrón Beach in Third Millenium Park adjacent to the Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan. The weekend-long foodie fest features celebrated chefs and draws international stars.
In late May plan to take in the annual Heineken JazzFest staged at Parque Sixto Escobar, a scenic oceanfront location in the Puerta de Tierra section of San Juan, near the Caribe Hilton.
Kick off summer and fall with SoFo Culinary Festival, held in mid-June and mid-September on La Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan. Restaurants open their doors to offer food and live music to the public. In the first week of November San Juan holds the Festival of Puerto Rican Music, featuring classical and folk music.
December is packed with special events, including Old San Juan’s White Christmas Festival, with music and art displays at stores in Old San Juan; Puerto Rico Heritage Artisans Fair, the largest artisans fair on the island with more than 100 artisans showing and selling their work; Lighting of the Town of Bethlehem, a dramatic lighting display set up between San Cristóbal Fort and Plaza San Juan Bautista that draws visitors throughout the Christmas season.
Puerto Rico is on Atlantic Standard Time (AST), four hours earlier than GMT/UTC. The island does not observe Daylight Savings Time.
Packing for Puerto Rico is simple:
In other words, pack light and bring summer-weight clothes.
If you’re staying at an upscale resort or planning to go out after dark in San Juan, bring along a light jacket or shawl, dress shoes, and a dress-casual outfit. Few places have a dress code, but you’ll feel out of place in San Juan if you’re not dressed as nicely as you would be in any US or European city.
Expect to spend about $165 per person per day in San Juan on average. If you go upscale, your costs will be in the range of $300 per person per day.
Hotels will be your biggest expense at around $200 per night for a double room in a standard hotel. Boutique hotels and luxury resorts begin at about $600 per night for a suite during high season.
Tours, tickets, and activities can run $100 per day per person, but San Juan has plenty of things to see and do that are inexpensive or free. Shoppers, foodies, and party people might want to up their credit limit on a card or two before they leave home.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $25 per person
$$ => Tickets $25-50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $100-250 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $250 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $15-30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $50 per person
$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person
Puerto Rico’s official currency is the US dollar. However, don’t be surprised if you hear Puerto Ricans casually referring to the dollar as a peso.
Most establishments accept major credit cards, but plan to carry some cash for small purchases and to use in rural areas.
The island has abundant ATMs and all dispense US dollars. In addition, major credit and debit cards are accepted in all but the most remote places or by street vendors.
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh. But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts.
So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Direct flights to Puerto Rico from US gateways are available on:
Delta Air Lines
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill.
There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you”ll save with a typical week”s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.
Hopefully, your trip to Puerto Rico goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical — Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart.
The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than- stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.
Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Puerto Rico is a major transportation hub in the Caribbean. Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) is the primary airport.
Nonstop flights connect Puerto Rico with cities all over the US; the major gateways are Miami and New York City. Direct flight are available from Canada, and Air Canada has nonstop service from Toronto.
Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) near San Juan is a major transportation hub in the Caribbean and the majority of flights to Puerto Rico land there. You’ll find all the services that you’d expect at any US airport, including major and local rental car companies and taxis to hotels and the cruise ship terminal.
Direct flights to Puerto Rico from the US are offered by Delta, American, United, Southwest, and JetBlue.
Air Canada provides service from Canada.
Visitors staying west of the capital may want to fly directly into the smaller Rafael Hernandez International Airport (BQN) in Aguadilla on JetBlue or United from New York, Newark or Orlando.
JetBlue also has flights from New York and Orlando into Ponce’s Mercedita Airport ( PSE) on the south coast.
The best way to get around the island is by rental car. There is a network of public transportation by públicos, but these minivans are meant for locals getting to and from work. They are usually overcrowded and the routes are limited.
Almost a third of Puerto Rico’s residents live in the capital of San Juan. The metropolitan area is with crowded highways, shopping malls, and a vibrant mix of cultures. Old San Juan is a seven-block historical district with well-preserved Spanish colonial flavor.
A Brief History
Puerto Rico was first discovered by Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León in 1508, and San Juan was established in 1521.
The city was the constantly invaded by pirates and rival European armies, and the Spanish built Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, (El Morro) and Castillo de San Cristóbal to defend San Juan from attacks by sea and land. Nonetheless, the English briefly seized control of the island in the late 1500s, and the Dutch staged a successful invasion in 1625.
The Spanish were back in control when a coffee boom hit Puerto Rico in the 1700s, and plantations sprung up all over the island. In 1897, Spain granted the island independence, but only a year later, during the Spanish-American War, US troops moved in and made Puerto Rico a protectorate of the United States.
Today, the island is a self-governing commonwealth, as well as an American territory, and Puerto Ricans elect their own governor. A minority of the citizens dream of total independence. Others hope their island will become a true American state, like Hawaii and Alaska. But, the majority of Puerto Ricans are quite happy being US citizens living in a free associated state, even though they cannot vote in federal elections and the island is not represented in Congress.
San Juan is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Many of the citizens proudly claim a mixed genealogy that includes native Amerindians, Europeans and Africans. A substantial proportion of the population immigrated from neighboring islands. Spanish is the official language, and most residents also speak English.
While the island is exotic in many ways, visitors are well aware of American influences. A modern highway system connects all the major cities, and American chain stores and restaurants line the well-paved roads in many towns. Out in the countryside, the US Forest Service manages the magnificent El Yunque National Park.
Cocina criolla (créole cooking) is the local term for Puerto Rican cuisine. It is a bit like Spanish, Cuban and Mexican food, but cooks throw in Spanish, African, Caribbean,and American twists. Local spices and produce add to the mix.
Puerto Ricans are predominantly Christian and follow a form of spirituality that spices traditional Catholicism with native and African beliefs that may include pagan superstitions. Visitors who wish to attend services will find a selection of churches, as well as a few synagogues and mosques.
Spanish and English are the official languages, but most residents prefer to speak Spanish. English is used for all legal and most business matters, and everyone working in tourism speaks English.