Editor’s Note: This blog is brought to us from our friend Sherri Savchuk. This has some great ideas for those traveling to Puerto Rico, which will be the home port for the Disney Magic in the fall of 2014. Thanks Sherri!
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is a vibrant mixture of old and new… of colors, scents and flavors, all safely packaged in a 7 square block area. Separated by modern San Juan by only a short bridge crossing, Old San Juan is like a self-contained world, a true “get-away”, and whether stepping off of a plane or a cruise ship one is immediately immersed in a different culture, and transported to a different time.
First settled in 1508, Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) is not a recreation of historical sites, it is the real deal. Along with the ancient forts of El Morrow and Castillo San Cristobal, authentic blue cobblestone streets and glittering Spanish churches, all dating from the 16th and 17th century, you will find a plethora of shops, museums, art galleries, jewelry designers, open air cafes, and plazas. Near the piers visit the famous Senior Frog or Don Q Rum, or mosey up to the trendy “So Fo” area at South Fortaleza Street, just south of Plaza de Colon. Here you will find your ideal destination for nightlife, and some of the nicer outdoor dining options.
Spanish roots are strong in Old San Juan and if traveling to this area it would be wise to learn a bit of “travel necessary” Spanish before arriving. In the shops expect prices to be similar to other tourist areas in the Caribbean… but expect shopping options to be exceptional! The west side of the island contains some particularly impressive art galleries, and scattered throughout the entire island are incredibly talented furniture and jewelry designers. Coach and Polo Ralph Lauren have a presence in Old San Juan, and if shopping is your thing the largest shopping mall in the entire Caribbean is located not too far away, across the bridge to modern San Juan.
Many businesses in Old San Juan close on Mondays, restaurants as well, and most shops on any day are closed by 6:00 or 7:00 PM if no cruise ships are in port. If coming from a cruise ship you can access just about anywhere on the island by hopping on one of the free open-air trolleys which run every 15 minutes or so. For a nice walk turn left when exiting the piers and enjoy the Paseo de la Princesa, a smooth seaside walkway where artisans gather on weekends to sell their handiwork. This promenade of sorts will provide you with a ground level view of the towering city walls, the Atlantic Ocean, and will take you right through the city gate into the highly prized west side. Once through the gate stunning panoramic ocean views (and photo opportunities!) are easy to locate on the north, south and west side of the island… and have no fear if you linger until after dark. Old San Juan, with a little travel sense, is a very safe place, even at night.
Old San Juan is filled with shady plazas. These parks are a favorite gathering place and none more visited than Plaza de Armas, which on weekends becomes a huge party for all ages when the live musicians arrive. All plazas light up at night, their trees shimmering with moving and stationary lights, all helping to make Old San Juan seem so alive, so vibrant, just like the people who reside there. Every day is worthy of celebration in their minds, and they do so without reservation. Despite the many tourists who invade their streets they live their lives peacefully and with respect. The young men feel no need to be obscene, and the cleverly concealed and frequent trash bins are used more often than not. People from Old San Juan know how to enjoy life and their sense of ease, community, and consideration for others is refreshing to experience… and frankly, contagious.
For some hidden gems in Old San Juan stop by St. Germain, located on Calle del Sol, for lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch. They offer excellent food at very reasonable prices and stay open late. For free souvenirs visit Old San Juan’s “Hidden” beach, just across from the Capitol Building. This often missed and normally deserted beach is not ideal for swimming but is covered with sea glass! All shapes, sizes and colors are free for the taking! And for the perfect ending to your adventure stop in at Anam Spa, just across from Pigeon Park on Calle del Cristo. Their 15 minute foot soak and massage, while sipping a free sangria, is sheer bliss for tired feet. Along with a Fudge Brownie Ala Mode and a prized cup Puerto Rican coffee at St. Germain’s, there is no better way to end a day of sightseeing in captivating Old San Juan.