Old San Juan Puerto Rico’s ultimate visitors guide

Old San Juan Puerto Rico

The best way to begin our exploration of Puerto Rico is to take a 2 hour walking tour of Old San Juan.  We will pick up a copy of this self-guided walking tour map at La Casita, the tourist information center, located next to Pier 1, right on the waterfront and prepare for the ultimate visitor’s guide.

Plaza de Colón (Columbus square) was originally called St. James Square was renamed in 1893 to honor Christopher Columbus on the 400th anniversary of his discovery of Puerto Rico; bronze tablets at the pedestal of the Columbus statue record important episodes in the explorer’s life.

Castillo de San Cristóbal is El Morro’s partner in the Old San Juan Puerto Rico’s defense. Built in 1634 (completed in 1771), it was considered the Gibraltar of the West Indies. San Cristóbal was supported by a massive system of outworks which provided defense in depth and is is one of the largest defenses ever built in the Americas. It rose 150 feet, covering 27 acres of land. As if its size and height weren’t sufficient to intimidate enemies, its intricate modular design was sure to foil them. A strategic masterpiece, it features five independent units, each connected by moat and tunnel; each fully self-sufficient should the others fall. It’s a World Heritage and National Historic Site, administered by the U.S. National Park Service. Open daily from 9am to 6pm.

Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery) is located between El Morro and the rocky cliffs above the Atlantic is considered one of the most picturesque of burial grounds anywhere. The cemetery is particularly noteworthy for its elaborate tombstones and the circular neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen. The most notable piece is a circular, red-domed chapel, which dates back to the late 19th century.

With a history that dates 500 years, this stone structure truly deserves its place of honor in the National Historic Register. The English and the Dutch attacked the Morro repeatedly in its time. Located on the San Juan Bay, the six-story fort was originally constructed in 1540, although its exterior walls were not erected for another 200 years. Inside the walls is a veritable labyrinth of chambers, barracks, hallways and prison cells. The fort was given a complete facelift in 1992.

Walk down the street with Plaza de Beneficencia on the left. At the southwest corner of the plaza is the entrance to Casa Blanca, the original home of the Ponce de León family. Juan Ponce de Leon was the guy looking for the fountain of youth and found Florida instead. He served as governor of Puerto Rico for a bit, but was removed from office because of his brutality to the natives.

The Catedral de San Juan (San Juan Cathedral) was built in the 1520’s, the original church on these grounds had wooden walls and a thatched roof. It was destroyed by hurricane in 1526 (October 4th), rebuilt in in 1540, looted in 1598, and damaged by another hurricane in 1615. This Cathedral is an authentic and rare New World example of medieval architecture. The cathedral contains the marble tomb of the island’s first governor Juan Ponce de León and the relic of San Pio, a Roman martyr. San Juan Cathedral still holds religious services on a regular schedule. It is also open for tours daily from 8:30am to 4pm.

Most of the shopping in Old San Juan is done in the numerous shops along Cristo, Fortaleza and San Francisco streets. The best spots to buy high-quality crafts are the two craft markets.

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