Don’t confuse Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) with the modern city of San Juan. The greater metropolitan area has grown up around the original colonial town to become a sprawling modern megacity that is the capital of Puerto Rico and the most populated area on the island. Old San Juan is a seven-block historical district set on a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and shelters San Juan Bay. The surrounding neighborhoods have their own appeal and many visitors prefer to stay or play outside the old city.
This is revitalized neighborhood just over the Dos Hermanos bridge from Old San Juan. Beautiful, narrow beaches are the main draw here. Expect plenty of locals playing sand volleyball and families romping in the surf. Window to the Sea Park (Parque de la Ventana al Mar) is a popular daytime hang out and shopping area. After dark, the park often features live music events and holds the free Ventana al Jazz concert on the last Sunday of every month. Condado Beach (Playa del Condado) spreads out from Ventana al Mar and plenty of luxury hotels, mid-priced inns, and international restaurants are within walking distance along Avenida Ashford.
Best stays include La Concha Renaissance, a mid-priced Marriott property that’s popular with the young and chic, and the Condado Vanderbilt, a more traditional property that features Spanish Revival architecture and high-end decor. Olive Boutique Hotel is a 15-room adults-only property with luxury style and casual ambiance. Budget travelers find basic and clean accommodations at El Canario by the Lagoon with room rates including a continental breakfast and free Wi-Fi.
Ashford Avenue is lined with good restaurants and bars. Bar Gitano is known for Spanish-style tapas, paellas, and pizzas. On Saturdays and Sundays, the brunch menu includes bottomless mimosas, bloody Mary’s, and sangria. 1950 Condado makes mojitos in more than 20 flavors and serves authentic Puerto Rican dishes. For a special dinner with ocean views, try 1919 Restaurant at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. Make reservations and try the four-course prix-fixe dinner.
A popular destination near the airport. Isla Verde is home to Carolina Beach (Balneario de Carolina). This tree-lined stretch of sand has changing rooms, restrooms, lifeguards, and many places to eat. When a cruise ship is in port, the beach area is crowded, so plan to get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Just to the east, along Rt 187, you’ll find Pinon State Park ( Bosque Estatal de Piñones) a preserve of beaches, mangroves, sand dunes, and salt flats. A long boardwalk and trails offer bird watchers and nature lovers a unique adventure. This is the place to rent a bike, take a walk at sunset, and eat some delicious authentic Puerto Rican food.
Luxury travelers will have to toss a coin to decide between the Ritz-Carlton and El San Juan in the Isla Verde area. Both are top-of-the-line beach-front properties with gorgeous rooms, elegant common areas, and several restaurants and bars. Mid-priced options include The Courtyard by Marriott, which is on the beach, and the Verdanza, which is not on the beach but is within walking distance. Both offer typical, comfortable rooms and a nice pool. The Courtyard also has a casino. The 80-room Water & Beach Club is a mid-priced boutique hotel on the beach, with classy decor, and a trendy rooftop bar that’s popular with guests and locals.
Best bites in Isla Verde include Hotties and Platos for Puerto Rican fare. El Alambique Beach Front Bar and Grill serves a mixed menu from breakfast through late-night snacks and features burgers, Latin dishes, local beer, and great frozen drinks.
Between Condado and Isla Verde, Ocean Park is a residential neighborhood with gorgeous, laid-back beaches. This is an excellent area for windsurfing, body surfing, and kite-sailing. Barbosa Park, in the Santa Teresita neighborhood, is popular with soccer and basketball players. The tennis courts and track are usually very busy. Look for several fine restaurants on Calle Loiza, a street popular with the LGBT community.
The University of Puerto Rico is here, dominated by the (Teddy) Roosevelt Bell Tower. Head for the Río Piedras Marketplace to fill your picnic basket with fresh fruit and vegetables. Shoppers find interesting buys along the Paseo de Diego, a pedestrian-only walkway lined with shops and cafes. , eateries and bargains galore. The shops attract travelers from across the Caribbean.