Chances are, your flightpath to the BVI will take you thru San Juan, Puerto Rico to catch your final flight into Tortola. While you may consider this to just be the location where you board that small Cessna plane to carry you to and from paradise, consider following our lead and make San Juan the exclamation point of an awe-inspiring vacation.
There are few things more difficult than stepping off the sailboat or catamaran that carried you thru paradise from the last time. Nothing worse that the long flight home wondering whether or not the last few magical weeks really happened and how long it may be before you can go back. And we won’t even mention that first day back in the office. So why rush right from the boat to the office? Why not take it easy on yourself and ease back to reality by spending a day layover in the beautiful and culturally rich San Juan, Puerto Rico? We opted to do this very thing on our last trip and below we’ll walk you thru how to make to most of a day in San Juan.
San Juan, the bustling capital of Puerto Rico, is as historic as it is colorful. While the national language is Spanish, speaking it isn’t a necessity. The people are friendly and the food is amazing. You could spend a week in San Juan enjoying all it has to offer, but since we just have one day, we’ll focus on Old San Juan, its rich history, awe-inspiring vistas and great food.
Old San Juan is a short 20 minute drive from Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. While we opted to rent a car, but you could just as easily take a taxi or shuttle bus to Old San Juan. Old San Juan is an islet connected to the main island by three bridges. For our layover, once in old town, you won’t need to leave until you catch your flight. Once in town, you’ll be able to walk from site to site, and further transportation isn’t necessary. In fact, walking is often the best way to see Old San Juan and admire all the beautiful
Where to stay
You’ll have your pick of places to lay your head at night including numerous hotels, bed and breakfasts and even AirBnb’s to choose from. Here are our top choices:
- Hotel El Convento. This hotel is located in historic old town, right amongst the cobblestone streets and brightly colored buildings. This Spanish Colonial hotel has 58 rooms that feature ornate handcrafted furniture, marble bathrooms and great vistas of old town. While you’re there, be sure to take a look at their authentic Spanish tapas menu at their restaurant El Picoteo.
- Casablanca Hotel: Also nestled in old town, the Casablanca hotel features an amazing rooftop terrace with spectacular views and a small cafe for morning coffee. Decorated with colonial feel, this small hotel is warm and inviting.
- The Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel: Conveniently located, the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel offers comfortable rooms, a nice restaurant and even a rooftop pool.
What to do
While there is much to see in Old San Juan, we’ve narrowed it down to just the highlights to give you time to kick your feet up and relax a little.
The first stop, or stops, when visiting Old San Juan is to visit their two 16th century forts. Located on the north-west tip of Old San Juan sits Castillo San Felipe del Morro also known as Castillo del Morro. Began in 1539 and named in honor of King Philip II of Spain, Castillo San Felipe del Morro was a Spanish stronghold for centuries in their battles against the British and Dutch. Walking towards the fort you will cross a large, grassy area often filled with families having picnics and children flying kites. The juxtaposition of these happy moments in the foreground of the immense fortification that saw many lose their life is fascinating. You can pay a small fee to enter the fort and visit it’s many levels and learn much of its history. Or you can simply walk the perimeter, enjoy the views and walk along the fortified walls to its neighboring fort, Castillo San Cristóbal, completed in 1783. Both are a must see if you can, otherwise we’d recommend staying central in old town and visit Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
Once you’ve enjoyed the history and views of the forts, set off on foot to the southwest. Since the old town is only 7 square blocks, you’ll have no trouble seeing the highlights. To make the walk more enjoyable, stop at one of the many street vendors for some shaved ice or a cool drink. This beautiful old city remains largely as it did 300 years ago with about 400 restored 16th and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings. To make your way between them, you’ll get to walk down historic cobblestone paths and be in awe of the many bright and colorful buildings. An interesting note of history lies on the cobblestones themselves. These original blue cobblestones were used as ballast on the trade ships which were then replaced with sugar for their return trip.
Head towards the water and make your way down the path the the water level. It is here that you will find the sole remaining city gates built into the fortified wall. Through this gate, many kings and dignitaries entered the old town, and now it is your gate to the beautiful vistas and boardwalk outside. Notice as you walk through the gate the width of the wall, it is about 15 feet thick here at the gate.
After you’ve enjoyed walking on the boardwalk, make your way to the 450 year old San Juan Cathedral. The cathedral is open daily and the artwork has recently been renovated. As you make your way back to town, stop by some of the shops along the way. Aside from the usual clothing boutiques and gift shops, you’ll also find cigar shops and several art galleries worth your visit.
Where to eat
The food in San Juan is a delicious blend of Spanish, African and Caribbean influences. The aroma that welcomes you from kitchens in San Juan comes from adobo and sofrito -blends of herbs and spices that give many of the native foods their distinctive taste and color. Here are a few of our favorite places to have a great meal.
Established by husband and wife team Emilio and Gigi Figueroa in 1996, the Parrot Club is San Juan Perfection. The Parrot Club dishes combine fresh, local ingredients with modern culinary techniques for exciting creative sensations. And the restaurant itself is a feast for the eyes. A colonial masterpiece now alive with Puerto Rican, it's a must see. El Asador is located near the entrance of Old San Juan. Specializing in seafood and traditional Puerto Rican Cuisine, El Asador always a good time. Overlooking the open-air courtyard of Hotel El Convento, El Picoteo tantalizes it's diners with a diverse Spanish tapas menu, exceptional wine list, and flawless service. This is San Juan dining on a whole new level. Savor a sumptuous array of hot or cold tapas at our Old San Juan restaurant then try the famous paella. And to top it all off, head to Casa Cortes ChocoBar for a sweet treat or delicious coffee.
However you decide to spend your time in Old San Juan, we’re positive it will be a great end to your BVI vacation. Unwind and be serenaded by the beauty and colors of Puerto Rico.