San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and a definite destination on your itinerary when visiting. It’s the perfect blend of tropical goodness with historical and cultural excellence. Even though the first things that come to mind when you think of visiting a tropical island are palm trees and beautiful beaches with deep-blue water, San Juan offers that and a whole lot more. Don’t miss these best things to do in San Juan Puerto Rico!
The island’s capital is a foolproof destination. It will please all types of travelers, with its laid-back beaches, lush forested hills, great nightlife, and vibrant fusion of cultures. If you’re a history buff, it’s a great place to learn about life in the Caribbean through the centuries.
Best Things to do in Old San Juan
There are thousands of things to do in San Juan if time is not an issue, but if that’s not the case, here are the top things to do in San Juan!
Learn about San Juan’s history
Puerto Rico’s capital city offers many historic sites, so spend time exploring its archeological treasures and learning about the island’s unique fusion of cultures.
Start with Castillo San Cristóbal, a castle and fort that offers a view of what life was about during colonial times. Castillo San Felipe del Morro (also known as El Morro) is a massive fort you can check out as well for a deeper insight into the island’s history.
La Fortaleza, an intricate blue-and-white building that is the governor’s home today, is another architectural gem worth checking out too.
The entire complex of forts, city walls, and the governor’s residence are referred to as the San Juan National Historic Site. It was dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1960.
You can even book a San Juan walking tour led by a local guide if you don’t want to explore on your own.
Explore Puerto Rico through your taste buds
Puerto Rico is a haven for great cuisine, so spending a relaxed day trying out their endless food options! While you will find lots of delicious local cuisine available at food trucks, cafés, and restaurants, the best thing to do is an authentic food tour is on the streets of Old San Juan.
A few of the typical dishes you must try are mofongo, alcapurrias, chuletas de pollo, maduros and tostones (plantains prepared differently, sweet and salty), and arroz con gandules (rice with peas).
We’d also recommend Puerto Rican coffee and of course the island’s drink, the piña colada. Legend has it the drink was created by a bartender at the Caribe Hilton, but you’ll find all Puerto Ricans tend to have their own story about the pineapple drink.
Enjoy the Beaches of San Juan Puerto Rico
Ocean Park, or “Ocean”, as the residents usually call it, is a favorite beach in San Juan among locals and savvy tourists alike. This beach in San Juan has a very casual vibe. It is backdropped by restaurants, boutique hotels, and residential condos, but it manages to remain relatively .
This one-mile-long beach also offers a lot of fun activities, including kite surfing, paddle boarding, and beach volleyball.
Another popular beach is Condado Beach, home to many hotels including the Marriott Stellaris, Condado Vanderbilt, and Condado Ocean Club. The waves can be rough, so just be mindful before heading out in the waves.
Planning a trip to Puerto Rico? Check out our favorite family resorts in Puerto Rico.
Learn about the history of rum at Casa Bacardi
Casa Bacardi in San Juan is not just a rum distillery. This factory is a favorite attraction for tourists. It is a great way to learn more about one of the main exports of this Caribbean island.
While here, you’ll learn about the rum-making process and the history of Bacardi. Before or after your tour you can sit down on the front lawn and take in a view. You’ll receive a voucher for a complimentary cocktail (we recommend the pina colada), so sit back and enjoy. You can also book a mixology class and learn how to make rum the Caribbean way!
Wander the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan
The oldest part of the city of San Juan is the best option for a culture-filled experience. Old San Juan is the heart of the city, filled with colonial buildings, historic sites, and a Puerto Rican flag everywhere you look.
For great views of old town and San Juan Bay take a stroll along Paseo de la Princesa, an enchanting promenade from the 19th-century.
Along the way you will see La Fortaleza and San Juan Gate (the colorful entrance gate to Old San Juan). Beyond this you will reach Casa Blanca, a house dating to the 1520s that was home to Puerto Rico’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León.
Two other streets to explore are Calle de la Fortaleza and Calle del Christo. Fortaleza begins in front of the governor’s mansion, and there is usually an artistic display over the street (we’ve seen kites and umbrellas).
As you walk along, you’ll find the street continues through the city’s main shopping area with a variety of stores, bars, and local restaurants that shouldn’t be missed.
Calle del Christo begins at the Parque de las Palomas (Park of the Doves, but there are thousands of pigeons here) and continues north to the oldest cathedral in America.
San Juan Bautista Cathedral dates to the 16th century and is the final resting place for Ponce de León. Across the street you will find Hotel El Convento, a former convent that is now a luxury hotel in San Juan.
Dance the night away
San Juan is home to some of the best nightclubs, bars, and lounges in the entire Caribbean. No trip to Puerto Rico is complete without enjoying at least one night out. La Placita de Santurce is a great place to find live music. Another option is Calle Loiza, where the streets pulse with music as soon as the sun goes down.
Both locations can be found in the Santurce neighborhood which is known for its street art and festivals. It is also the home of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. It’s a great spot to really soak up some Puerto Rican culture and nightlife.
If you’re more in the mood to check out Old San Juan’s nightlife, Calle San Sebastián is one of the best places in the area. It has unique bars (there’s even a speakeasy) that are perfect for a night out.
Spot Manatees while kayaking or paddle boarding
If you’re up for exploring offshore, head to Condado Lagoon for one of the island’s most unique experiences.
Caribbean Manatees love visiting the calm waters of this natural lagoon thanks to the amount of seagrass it contains. This makes it one of the best spots on the island to catch glimpses of these gentle creatures. While you may be able to see a manatee walking around the lagoon, the best way to see them is on a kayaking or paddle board tour.
The shopping scene in San Juan is nothing short of epic. If you’re looking for amazing items to bring home, you’ll find that Puerto Rico’s local shops won’t disappoint.
For unique artisan products, Seven Seas, the Poet’s Message, and Mi Pequeño San Juan are all great spots to find everything from accessories to gorgeous home decor.
If you happen to fall in love with Puerto Rico’s food scene (and you very likely will), head over to Spicy Caribbee Spice Shop, where you’ll be able to grab everything you could ever possibly need for your own at-home recipes ranging from hot sauces to homemade goodies.
Coffee lovers shouldn’t miss Café Cuatro Sombras who grows sustainable single-origin coffee in Puerto Rico. The café also serves coffee and small snacks (their paninis and croissants are some of my favorites), making it a perfect stop while exploring the old city.
Go on a snorkeling adventure at Escambron Beach
It’s not a secret that the Caribbean boasts some of the best snorkeling in the world. If you don’t have much time, you can find some amazing spots to go snorkeling in San Juan!
Escambron Beach, located at the entrance of Old San Juan, is protected by coral reefs. This makes it ideal for an easy snorkeling day that doesn’t require much advance planning.
Day trips from San Juan
Explore the only tropical rainforest in the United States
A rainforest might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about an island in the Caribbean, right? You also wouldn’t expect to be able to visit a rainforest as a day trip, but that’s Puerto Rico for you, an extremely diverse place full of surprises.
Only 45 minutes away from San Juan, El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the United States. Because it is relatively small compared to other rainforests, it is possible to explore it in a day.
At 29,000 acres, what El Yunque rainforest lacks in size, it makes up for in biological diversity. With dozens of miles of amazing hiking trails, waterfalls, and natural pools, a day trip to El Yunque is a must on any San Juan itinerary!
Go kayaking in one of the bioluminescent bays
One of the most unique things you can experience in Puerto Rico is the bioluminescent phenomenon. Microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates can be found in Laguna Grande (near Fajardo), Mosquito Bay (in Vieques), and La Parguera (in Lajas).
When you kayak out to their location, you will see these organisms glow-in-the-dark when movement occurs. When your paddles stirs the water, they give off a blueish-green light. It’s a magical experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Spend the day at Luquillo Beach
Just thirty minutes from San Juan is Luquillo Beach, one of the most popular beaches in the area for locals and tourists alike.
Here you can find white-sand beaches, palm trees, and food stands serving up local treats and drinks. So grab your beach towels and spend the day at one of the best beaches on the island.
Take a day trip to heaven – Culebra Island
Okay, it may not be actual heaven, but we’re pretty sure Culebra is close.
Boasting white sandy shores and shimmering turquoise waters, Culebra is one of the islands that make up the Puerto Rico archipelago. It’s proximity to San Juan makes it a wonderful day trip if you want to take a break from the hustle of the city. You can spend a day beach hopping and immersing yourself in the nature of one of the most beautiful destinations in the entire Caribbean.
Besides its gorgeous beaches (Flamenco Beach is the best in Puerto Rico), another great thing to do here is to hit a trail or two at the island’s wildlife refugee.
Culebra is surrounded by gorgeous coral reefs, making it one of the best destinations to explore via snorkel. Playa Carlos Rosario and Playa Tamarindo are two of the best spots to start exploring underwater and it’s one of the best places to find sea turtles.
The fastest way to reach Culebra is by taking a small seaplane from San Juan. If you’re traveling on a tight budget, going to the nearby town of Ceiba. From here you can take a ferry directly to the island or plan for a catamaran tour to Culebra.
Hopefully, this list of the best things to do in San Juan will help you craft an itinerary. These sights are a must on any first-timer’s visit. They are the perfect introduction to the local culture and historic significance of the city.
Don’t miss this article if you’re looking for the best things to do in Puerto Rico with kids!
Book Your Flights
You can find discounted fares using sites like Momondo or Skyscanner. If you want to keep an eye on discount fares, we suggest signing up for Scott’s Cheap Flights, a daily newsletter with flight sales around the world.
If you travel frequently, consider investing in a Priority Pass for airport lounge access. It’s nice to have a space where you can relax before your flight.
Book Your Accommodation
We regularly use Hotels.com and Expedia.com to find lodging when we travel. It’s a great way to compare vacation rentals, hotels, and resorts.
If your family knows they want to stay in a vacation rental, we recommend looking at VRBO and Plum Guide.
Book Your Transportation
For rental car agencies, try Rentalcars.com. We tend to use Hertz simply for the quality of service.
Book Your Tours and Travel Photos
We regularly used companies like Viator and GetYourGuide to book tours when we travel. Both have great communication and a large variety of activities that work for all ages.
If you’re visiting a city with multiple attractions, be sure to check out a discount pass, such as CityPASS or Go City. Tiqets is another place to purchase tickets for attractions.
Context Travel is another option and they offer more educational based activities. The former teacher in me loves their tours.
One of our favorite things to do annually is take photos with Flytographer. They have photographers around the world and we’ve used them on four separate occasions. This is our favorite travel souvenir.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
With the state of travel these days, it’s important to have some type of travel insurance to cover any unforeseen accidents, illnesses, threat or cancellations. We always travel with insurance and would recommend SquareMouth, Travelex, or Medjet as good options. And if you want to compare different insurance options, use Travel Insurance Master to find the best policy for your group.