Though small, Puerto Rico is so diverse that it is generally divided into five general regions, each offering distinctive attractions and personal tropical charms. Use the map at the right to navigate through the tours.
San Juan Metro & Northern Tour
Enjoy long beaches and historic streets by day and exciting nightlife after the sun goes down.
Sweeps of off-white sand and mottled blue sea etch Puerto Rico’s north coast, providing lovely tropical beaches, even in the heart of the San Juan metropolitan area. Yet San Juan is also the Capital of the Caribbean, a bustling metroplex of historical sites, shopping districts, restaurants and resorts, and home to almost half of the island’s three million residents.
The San Juan metropolitan area is a major crossroads in the Caribbean, an airline, cruise ship and sailing hub for islands to the south and west. It showcases the Caribbean’s largest convention center, largest performing arts center, and largest shopping malls. It has more upscale restaurants featuring a greater variety of international cuisines than any other island, and its nightlife, from casinos to salsa clubs, is unsurpassed. As if that weren’t enough, there are also centuries of history and culture, and timeless beaches.
From the year 1521, when Spanish colonists set down roots on a breezy islet to the north of a large bay, San Juan has been the capital of Puerto Rico. For centuries, it was a military outpost, attacked by enemy sea captains and strengthened by ever-more-elaborate walls and fortiﬁcations. Later, it became a cosmopolitan town, featuring lovely homes wrapped around inner courtyards and bordered by cobblestoned streets. Today, Old San Juan is renowned as one of the oldest and best preserved historic districts in the New World. Its high concentration of museums, stores and art galleries makes it a great place to go for browsing and buying.
As the population grew, towns and cities rose up both east and west of Old San Juan. The extended metropolitan area, which stretches from Carolina on the east to Bayamón on the west and south to Guaynabo and Río Piedras, is Puerto Rico’s most populated, international and sophisticated region. Food aﬁcionados lunch on traditional Puerto Rican cooking at modest eateries and dine on fusion cuisine created by internationally-known chefs at upscale restaurants. Night-owls take in clubs, discotheques, concerts, bars and casinos. Shoppers feel at home in modern air-conditioned malls, outlet stores, upscale boutiques and picturesque shops in historic buildings. And convention-goers have the dramatic 580,000-square-foot Convention Center, largest and most modern in the Caribbean.
Yet each neighborhood within the metropolitan area is unique. Condado and Isla Verde are the major beachfront hotel districts. Two public beaches – Escambrón west of Condado and Carolina in Isla Verde – are part of the prestigious, European-based Blue Flag environmental beach program. They and the long beach at Ocean Park attract hordes of sea and sun worshippers on weekends. If you prefer to be active, water sports establishments in and near the hotels can set you up in everything from kiteboarding to deep-sea ﬁshing.
Neighboring Santurce has come into its own in recent years with several cultural centers. Lovely architecture and sculptures surround the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, host to operas, dramas, ballets, classical and popular music concerts throughout the year. Five centuries of island art are displayed in the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, set in a handsome colonial building that borders a refreshing sculpture garden. Another restored building houses the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, with representative art of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America since 1940. The delightful Plaza del Mercado (marketplace) features local fruits, vegetables and agricultural products, and it is surrounded by several popular bars and restaurants. In the evening, the plaza and surrounding streets become a magnet for young professionals, particularly on Thursday and Friday.
When it comes to nature, the Río Piedras Botanical Garden showcases plants and trees from around the tropical world in a lovely landscaped setting. In Carolina to the east on Route 187, mangrove forests, former coconut plantations and six miles of undeveloped coastline highlight the Piñones region, where you’ll also ﬁnd a recreational bike trail. Restaurants and open-air kiosks serve Afro-Caribbean snack food and cater to the primarily weekend crowd. Visiting the kiosks and sampling such local delicacies as alcapurrias (ground meat, plantain and yautía fritters) and bacalaítos (salt-codﬁsh fritters) with the sea, the palms and the mangroves in the background is a must-do metro adventure.
To the west, on the far side of San Juan Bay, the city of Cataño is home to the Bacardi Rum Distillery, largest in the world. An interactive visitor center, Casa Bacardi, depicts the Bacardi family history and rum production. The neighboring city of Bayamón was named after an Indian word for the river that passes through the city. Once considered a mere suburb in the San Juan metropolis, Bayamón today is a modern city in its own right, with several malls and mega-stores. Small museums and parks are found in the downtown historic district, easily reached from the last stop on the Urban Train. When in Bayamón, be sure to try chicharrones (fried pork rinds) with the city’s distinctive bread, both sold from colorful red and yellow carts. These have long been Bayamón’s favorite snack foods. The city is probably best known to visitors for the the Luis A. Ferré Science Park. Located on Route 167, its cross-topped lookout and NASA space rockets can be seen from Expressway 22. The park encompasses several museums, antique cars, a planetarium, health pavilion, and mini-zoo. Undergoing a major renovation, it will reopen in March, 2012.
For a more leisurely look at the Atlantic coastline, head west from San Juan to the towns of northern Puerto Rico. Here you’ll ﬁnd sprawling resorts, small hotels, and some of the best golf courses in the Caribbean. You can also visit an off-the-beaten-path series of protected beaches, and explore the region’s curious karst hills. Inland, you can explore a cave park and an observatory, two of Puerto Rico’s most popular attractions.
Stop ﬁrst at the Punta Salinas, Toa Baja’s public bathing beach. Set on a lovely peninsula just west of metro San Juan, this beach is also a member of the island’s environmental Blue Flag program. Continue on to the coastal town of Dorado. To reach Dorado, you can get on coastal Road 165 from Expressway 22 in Cataño and drive past the Bacardi Rum Distillery, Palo Seco, and Punta Salinas; or you can take Expressway 22 directly to Dorado and the Road 165 exit: turn west at Road 693 across the bridge into town. Dorado is home to stately resorts and fabled golf. Five championship 18-hole courses make Dorado the golf capital of the island. Four of them were designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and rank among the best in the Caribbean. Two public bathing beaches – the Sardinera and the Cerro Gordo – ﬂank the town. Beaches here and all along the north coast are protected in places by jagged offshore rocks that were actually sand dunes eons ago when oceans were lower, and they provide relatively calm bathing year-round. In Manatí, Los the Tubos Beach, a mecca for surfers when conditions are right, and the inland freshwater the Tortuguero Lagoon provide picture-perfect coastal views. Mar Chiquita to the west boasts stunning offshore rock formations. Drive inland and you’ll ﬁnd large ﬁelds of pineapple plants, one of Puerto Rico’s agricultural products. Nestled amid the ﬁelds, small hills, and the the Puerto Rico Premium Outlets mall is the Camba-lache Forest, a thousand-acre tract with shady paths through tropical karst vegetation, known for its haystack shaped hills and cratered sinkholes.
The Hacienda La Esperanza, a 19th-century sugar plantation recently restored by the island’s Conservation Trust, is surrounded by more than 2,000 acres of coastal plains and karst vegetation. Through prior reservations, visitors can take tours of the spectacular estate house and functioning mill.
Farther west is the city of Arecibo, a center for deep-sea ﬁshing and gateway to several mountain attractions. Along the coast, the the Arecibo Lighthouse has been restored and is the centerpiece of an historical park that includes a recreated Indian village, models of Columbus’s ships, and African slave quarters: there is also a salt-water aquarium, all on landscaped grounds. Beyond, the coastal town of Hatillo has a pleasant beachfront walkway along the harbor. Capital of the island’s dairy industry, it hosts the folkloric the Festival of Masks on December 28.
The boundaries of the coastal city of Arecibo and neighboring town of Camuy extend into the interior of the island, through the rugged karst hills to the northern edge of the Central Mountains. Take Road 129 south from Arecibo and you reach the the Río Camuy Cave Park, home of one of the largest river cave systems in the hemisphere. Here you explore lush sinkholes and massive caverns, on walks and a guided tour complete with trolleys and spectacular lighting. A canopy tour of the Tres Pueblos sinkhole area is under construction.
The the Arecibo Observatory, world’s largest radio telescope, lies a short but somewhat confusing drive from the Camuy caves along routes 129 north, 134 north, 635 east, and 625 south. The visitor center explains the workings of the observatory and the vast world beyond our world, and the views of the telescope and surrounding karst hills are magniﬁcent.
San Juan Metropolitan Area
Puerto Rico Convention Center
Escambrón Public Beach
Carolina Public Beach
Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo
Plaza del Mercado
Río Piedras Botanical Garden
Bacardi Rum Distillery
Luis A. Ferré Science Park
Punta Salinas Public Beach
Manuel “Nolo” Morales Public Beach
Cerro Gordo Public Beach
Los Tubos Beach/Tortuguero Lagoon
Hacienda La Esperanza
Arecibo Lighthouse & Historical Park
Río Camuy Cave Park
Arecibo Observatory Visitor Center
“This is the best historic district in the Caribbean, with fascinating forts and great restaurants for the tired explorer.”
Walk down the old city’s narrow stone-paved streets, and you are stepping into 500 years of history. Known today as Viejo San Juan, the historic district features two of the most impressive fortresses in the New World as well as Spanish-styled government buildings and colonial homes. Site of a wide collection of museums, Old San Juan is also a vibrant contemporary district of stores, restaurants, and nightclubs.
When the Spanish colonial government developed its New World towns, it used the Spanish model of streets radiating from a central square, or plaza mayor. To this day, the heart of each town is its central plaza. Old San Juan, being the capital, had several, and they make ideal starting points for mini-tours. After you explore, we recommend you search out nearby shops and galleries, then ﬁnish your tour with a refreshing drink, snack or meal at a local restaurant.
Plaza San José
Plaza San José is the oldest of the old city’s plazas, surrounded by some of the earliest structures. It is named for and adjacent to San José Church, second oldest in the New World (begun in the 1520s), currently being restored. The Dominican Convent next door, once a monastery for Dominican friars, is home to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture’s Galería Nacional. The museum showcases important Puerto Rican art from the 18th century to the 1960s. One of several former houses off the plaza is the Pablo Casals Museum, exhibiting memorabilia of the great cellist’s life. Another is the Museum of Our African Roots, a collection of documents, crafts and re-creations of the island’s African heritage.
Beyond the adjacent Quincentennial Plaza is Ballajá, former military barracks with an immense inner courtyard. Inside, the Museum of the Americas showcases exhibitions of the island’s African and indigenous heritages and a collection of crafts from the Americas. Across the huge ﬁeld is El Morro Fortress, dramatic military masterpiece with six levels of terraces, ramps and rooms. On San Sebastián Street is Casa Blanca, former home of the Ponce de León family (currently closed).
Northeast of the plaza is San Juan Museum, with exhibits chronicling the history and culture of San Juan. Once the city’s marketplace, the museum houses an organic market on Saturday morning, when fruits, vegetables, plants, and other items are sold.
Plaza de Armas
Named for military defense drills carried out here, Plaza de Armas was planned as San Juan’s main square. San Juan City Hall, built to resemble the same building in Madrid, invites visitors to its gallery and visitor information center.
Head west on San Francisco Street and north on Cristo. Cristo is home to chic cafés, boutiques, and several designer outlet stores: it is also home to San Juan Cathedral, a rare example of medieval Gothic architecture in the New World. From the cathedral, San Juan Street descends to San Juan Gate. Built into the massive city walls, this is the only remaining gate of several that would close at night. The large mansion to your left is La Fortaleza, built as a fortress but housing governors for centuries. Tours are available of the grounds.
Returning along Fortaleza Street and south on Cristo, you reachCristo Chapel, a small structure housing an ornate silver altar. The chapel was built, according to legend, after a horse and rider were spared a plunge off the wall. A small museum, La Casa del Libro, is dedicated to rare books. Closed for renovations, it has a small exhibit up the street at Ballajá. Take Tetuán Street to another small museum, the Casa de Ramón Power y Giralt, featuring the work of the island’s Conservation Trust.
Plaza Dársenas is a small, tree-shaded plaza in the lower section of Old San Juan, outside the city wall. Across the way, in the Ochoa Building, is the Puerto Rico Tourism Company Information Center. Heading west, you connect with a spacious walkway, Paseo de la Princesa. A neo-classical building, La Princesa, houses the Puerto Rico Tourism Company and a gallery showcasing Puerto Rican art.
The walkway follows the city wall along San Juan Bay. Benches and shade trees lead to San Juan Gate. Another path continues to the base of El Morro. A mile and a half round-trip, it has no shade and is best taken early or late in the day.
Heading east from the plaza, you pass large tourism piers where cruise ships dock. Facing Pier One is Casa Don Q, a small museum explaining the history of the Serrallés rum-producing family and Don Q rum.
Originally dedicated to St. James, this plaza was renamed in 1893 to honor Christopher Columbus on the 400th anniversary of his discovery of Puerto Rico. The adjacent Tapia Theater has been entertaining sanjuaneros for more than 170 years.
On Fortaleza Street several popular old city restaurants make up a district nicknamed SoFo. Also here is Casa del Callejón, a two-story home converted into the Pharmacy Museum and Museum of the 19th Century Puerto Rican Family. Many San Juan homes were designed to house the family shop on the ﬁrst ﬂoor and living quarters above.
Up the hill from the plaza is San Cristóbal Fortress, a strategic masterpiece. Five independent units rise above the sea and are connected by tunnels. History buffs will enjoy the re-created troop quarters, exhibitions, and a World War II bunker.
Plaza San José
Pablo Casals Museum
Museum of Our African Roots
Museum of the Americas
El Morro Fortress
San Juan Museum
Plaza de Armas
Cristo Street Designer Outlets
San Juan Cathedral
La Casa del Libro
Casa de Ramón Power y Giral
Plaza Dársenas Tourism Information Center
Casa Don Q
Pharmacy Museum / Museum of the 19th Century Family
San Cristóbal Fortress
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