Visiting Old San Juan, or Viejo, as it is called on the Island, is a pure delight! When visiting Puerto Rico, it’s an absolute must to wander the centuries-old blue cobblestone streets, surrounded by the dreamy, brilliantly colored historic buildings. Hotels, restaurants, designer and artisanal shops make up the commerce of this thriving city.
It’s interesting to state that Old San Juan was almost completely destroyed! Old San Juan was settled by the Spanish in the early 1500s, and the conquistador, Ponce de Leon, and his subsequent offspring lived in the city for centuries. By the late 1940s, however, Old San Juan had become decrepit, unsightly, and dangerous. Politicians called for the historic old buildings to be demolished to make way for sleek, modern ones.
That was until hero and anthropologist, Ricardo Alegría stepped in. Alegría convinced the government to preserve the beautiful colonial architecture of Old San Juan. The area would then be zoned so that subsequent development would follow the historic visual pattern, instead of destroying it. The government then began to funnel money to developers who agreed to rehabilitate historic buildings and clean up the city. This had made Old San Juan a major tourist destination instead of just another boring city. The area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visiting Old San from most parts of San Juan is about a 10-minute drive. You will find taxis and public transportation readily available! If you decide to drive, there are several parking lots on different sides of the historic city that have reasonable parking rates. ($2 an hour)
The best way to experience Old San Juan is just to wander. You’ll feel inspired to take plenty of photos, while periodically stopping to eat or drink in the many cafes and restaurants. Do you love cats and fascinating statues commemorating history? Veijo is home to both! There are gangs of sassy felines and an animal Santurary that helps get these cats adopted out. They are an essential part of the vibrant personality that lives within these city streets. It does and does not help that the restaurants and tourists feed these cats, making them super friendly! I saw one very fat cat, who looked drunkenly passed out like some pirate on steps – it made my day! My favorite souvenir was a coffee table book I came upon in an art gallery entitled, “Cobblestone Cats: The Cats of Old San Juan. Art galleries are a staple here in the Old City. I love cat art, but there are some very high-end galleries exhibiting the work of both classic and up and coming artists on the island.
And of course, if shopping is your thang, there are more than enough shops, from small souvenirs to high-end clothes. It’s rather funny to see stores like Foot Locker and Radio Shack be thrown into the mix of the beautifully colored historic buildings.
It’s important to note that there is a constant stream of tourists in Old San Juan, in particular from the hulking cruise ships which dock at the port each day. Luckily, you can wander off the main streets to find there are virtually no other tourists around. And it is safe to do so!
My biggest recommendation is that you stay for sunset, this way you can see the colors of the sunset skies dance with the lights and building walls! Viejo is truly a majestic city.
We can’t wait for you to come down and experience the beauty here and keep coming back year after year. We will see you soon.
Safe & fun travels!