This article was originally published in May 2013 and updated in April 2018
Despite being blessed with white sand beaches, a huge national forest on its doorstep, tropical weather and a historic town centre, the majority of tourists only spend a day in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Why? Because it’s all about the cruise ships.
Puerto Rico is one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean, which means many travellers only arrive the night before or day of their cruise, then fly out again as soon as the sailing ends. It’s a shame, since there are plenty of things to do in Old San Juan and travellers could easily spend a week exploring the rest of this beautiful island. For those who don’t have the luxury of extra time, here’s how to make the most of your quick Puerto Rico itinerary.
San Juan beaches
If you’re looking to bronze your bod and feel the soft sand between your toes, then San Juan is your place. Both Condado and Isle Verde are lined by expansive beaches, along with swanky high-rise hotels and vibrant nightlife.
Spend the day relaxing on the beach or jump in the turquoise water for some snorkelling, then kick off happy hour with a rum cocktail (made with Bacardi of course, which is produced here and you can even tour their factory) before patio-hopping down the strip. Finish the evening at the trendy San Juan Water and Beach Club Hotel, which has a rooftop pool and comfy loungers making it a great spot to enjoy the sunset.
Old San Juan tours
The best place to learn about Puerto Rico’s history is by taking a tour through Old San Juan. Established in the 1500s as a settlement, the town is fortified by huge stone walls, perched over the ocean. There are two forts that most visitors flock to: the San Juan National Historic Site. There are many areas around the centuries-old World Heritage Site to explore, including Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Fort San Cristobal which are considered among the top Puerto Rico attractions. Guided tours are available of Fort San Cristobal, including an hour-long one of the tunnels, and another that takes visitors around the outside of the property.
El Morro is the most popular of the two forts, as it affords some incredible views and photo-ops. At six levels high, there’s plenty to explore including a lighthouse and sentry boxes which are located all around the complex. Opt for the free orientation, or explore the site yourself with the map included in the entrance fee. Admission is $3 for people aged 15 and up, and combo tickets granting entrance to both forts costs $5.
The next stop on the San Juan itinerary should be wandering around Old San Juan and stop in the artisan shops to pick up souvenirs, or heading to a tax-free factory store to freshen up your wardrobe. Be sure to wear comfy shoes to combat the cobblestone streets and hills that trip most travellers up, or jump on the free trolley.
As for accommodations, a great spot to stay if you just want to tour Old San Juan then hop on your cruise ship is the Sheraton Old San Juan. The hotel is just steps away from the action, and close to the port.
El Yunque tours
If getting in touch with nature is more your style, book an excursion to the tropical rainforest El Yunque. About an hour’s drive from San Juan, it’s made up of 28,000 acres of lush green foliage, waterfalls, mountains and streams. Most visitors come as part of an excursion, but it is possible to do as a day trip on your own as long as you have transportation there. The park is open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. which makes for a full day of hiking through the many trails, including a trek to La Coca Falls or climbing the Yohaku observation tower. A trip up the tower will see you brave hundreds of steps to get to the top, but the panoramic view of the lush valley below is worth it.
Budget a few hours to explore El Yunque on your own, or book a tour as part of a guided excursion through a tour operator or the cruise ship. It’s a great way to see a different side of Puerto Rico, and can be a welcome break from the city grind—plus you’re sure to get some great pictures.
Where to stay in San Juan
Being a tourist hub there are plenty of accommodations in San Juan to suit all budgets. It’s important to decide if you want to be close to the port, in Old San Juan, or near the beaches since they’re all quite spread out. Some top-rated options include:
- Condado Vanderbilt Hotel: Located right on the beach in Condado, guests love the infinity pool and ocean views. Click here to book
- O:live Boutique Hotel: Part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this property has gorgeous suites, great decor and friendly staff. Click here to book
- Decanter Hotel: This budget-friendly spot has huge rooms, and is within walking distance of the old town which makes it easy for sightseeing. Click here to book
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