Puerto Rico's capitol city of San Juan is a bustling modern mecca of glamorous resorts, restaurants and shops. Yet right next door, Old San Juan offers a step back in time where you'll find majestic forts, tree-lined plazas, ornate buildings, and cobblestone streets lined with fine shops and open-air cafes full of Old World charm.
Seven-block-square Old San Juan sits on the tip of a peninsula that forms the westernmost part of San Juan. Juan Ponce de Leon, the frustrated seeker of the "Fountain of Youth" founded the city in 1521. Over the next three decades, Old San Juan was the site of several battles in which the Spanish valiantly fought to keep possession of the island away from the French, Dutch and British. In 1899, Spain handed over the island to the United States as a result of the Spanish American War and Puerto Rico's residents became US citizens nearly two decades later. In 1950, Old San Juan was designated a U.S. National Historic Zone.
For a daylong sight-seeing tour of Old San Juan, plan to hit historic sights in the morning, cruise the shops in the afternoon and end the day with a dinner of Spanish-style specialties.
Fuerte San Felipe del Morro might be smaller than Old San Juan's largest fort — San Cristobal, but the nicknamed "El Morro" is no less impressive and a "must-see" when it comes to history. The main battlements were built in 1591 on earlier foundations set in 1539. Sixteen-foot thick walls rise up 140 feet above the sea and enclose a compact six-levels and many tunnels that today hold a museum housing colonial artifacts. Well-informed guides lead frequent tours that make this majestic structure seem to come alive.
Continue exploring the 500-year-old history of Puerto Rico with a visit to the San Juan Museum of Art and History. Located on San Jose' Plaza two blocks east of El Morro, this once bustling 19th century marketplace is today a modern cultural center housing Puerto Rican art and artifacts from the colonial period. There is a daily audio-visual show of island history, and often concerts and other cultural events in outer courtyard.
Heading south a few blocks will lead you to Old San Juan's shopping district, concentrated around Calle San Francisco and Calle Fortaleza. Small shops sell local Caribbean crafts, hand-rolled cigars, handmade 'mundillo' (a handmade lace fashioned into collars and tablecloths), strange 'vejigante' masks, folksy paintings with a Caribbean theme and of course, men's guayabera shirts. There are also factory outlet shops located in a row on Calle Cristo that offer brand name and designer clothing.
There's no way to go thirsty or hungry in Old San Juan. Restaurants abound and offer an international sampling of the world's cuisines. But, do go native and try some authentic-style dishes. Traditional Puerto Rican fare, called Cocina criolla or Creole cooking, traces back to the original Arawak and Taino Indians that first inhabited the island. Specialties like baccalaitos (codfish fritters), piononos (spicy ground beef in strips of plantain), tostones (deep-fried plantain slices), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), mofongo (fried green plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings, and then mashed) and asopao (a hearty soup made with chicken or seafood), are just a few suggested menu items to look for.
Of course, the best way to end a meal — and a daylong visit to Old San Juan —- is with a decadent dessert. Try coconut flan, coconut with meringue or polvo de amor (love powder), a to-die-for mix of grated coconut and sugar cooked to a crisp golden brown.
Whether arriving for an overnight stay, or by cruise ship, print out the Old San Juan map for a quick reference detailed street map. While in Old San Juan, the shopping options can be overwhelming, definitely stop at these stores for great values on high quality merchandise; A Touch of Gold, Antique & State Jewelry, Bared Jewelers, Blue Diamond, Cappalli (lovely, feminine woman's wear), Diamonds and Diamonds Outlet, Michael Lawrence Studios, Mounts & Gems, Shopper's Paradise, Tropical Jewelers and Vodda Jewelers.
View a complete list of shopping options.