Your Ultimate Cruise Guide

San Juan Cruise Port

Port of San Juan: An Overview

As an anchor on Eastern and Southern Caribbean itineraries -- not to mention a turnaround port for many ships -- San Juan is a place where just about all cruisers, at some point or another, are going to wind up. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and San Juan is its urban hub. The city, by and large, is divided into new and old. The new includes a business district and outlying neighborhoods, more ...
As an anchor on Eastern and Southern Caribbean itineraries -- not to mention a turnaround port for many ships -- San Juan is a place where just about all cruisers, at some point or another, are going to wind up. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and San Juan is its urban hub. The city, by and large, is divided into new and old. The new includes a business district and outlying neighborhoods, concentrated with hotel chains like Isla Verde. The old is, of course, the historic city within ancient walls. Both offer many Americanisms. (Senor Frog's has a prime outpost, and you'll never want for a McDonald's Big Mac.)

Get beyond that, though, because of all America's Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico offers the most exotic aura. The melange of indigenous Taino culture, combined with European and African influences in San Juan (and all of Puerto Rico, for that matter), is one major factor. Add to that its own unique influences in areas ranging from cuisine and music to history and art. And there's more: folks who have traveled to Cuba say that Old San Juan reminds them more of Cuba, at times, than Cuba itself! It's also very Spanish (think Seville) and even a bit Italian (reminiscent of Naples). Finally, the city evokes just a wee taste of South America (like Buenos Aires).

For those who visit San Juan as a day-stop on a Caribbean itinerary or embark or disembark there, the island's biggest appeal is the old city. Most cruise ships dock right in the heart of Old San Juan, which dates back to the 16th century. The old, walled city has been exquisitely preserved, and its sprawling forts, cobblestone streets, antique shops and art galleries make it an ideal first stop. Its mainstream attractions include the imposing El Morro fort, which dates back to 1539; the Cathedral of San Juan, where the island's first governor, Ponce de Leon, is buried; La Fortaleza, the oldest governor's mansion on U.S. soil; several colonial plazas; and the triumvirate of Calle del Cristo, Calle San Jose and Calle Fortaleza for shopping. Calle del Cristo, in particular, is chock-full of art galleries, artisan studios and distinctive boutiques.

But, if you're a "been there, done that" visitor to Old San Juan, there's much more to explore.

And there's one more thing to keep in mind: many cruises stay in port until late at night. That makes it possible to sample some of the city's vibrant restaurants and nightlife (as long as you keep an eye on the clock). less

Find a San Juan Hotel

Sponsored links

Things To Do
Info
Cruises
Port Reviews
Shore Excursions
Forums

Hanging Around

Old San Juan is undergoing an awesome renaissance. If you haven't been there lately, you'll be amazed at how beautiful and spiffed-up its European-esque buildings are, particularly the many that are freshly painted in cheerful pastels of lavender, blue, yellow and pink. The Latino music phenomenon has led to the rebirth of new, fresh "nuevo Latino" cuisine, which, in turn, is attracting more attention to the island's quality art, crafts and antiques.

Don't Miss

Shopping in Old San Juan. While San Juan is not a duty-free port, at least its stuff isn't taxed. You'll certainly find plenty of craft and T-shirt shops (particularly along Fortaleza and San Francisco Streets). One tip: the further east you walk (going away from the cruise pier), the more interesting the shops and restaurants become.

One great street for window shopping is Calle Cristo; highlights include Magia (99 Calle Cristo), an artisan who crafts works of art from recycled objects -- old mirrors, wooden shutters, antique windows and even pocket-sized religious icons. Prices start at $15 for one-of-a-kind pieces.

And, while not exactly exotic, we've had good luck at factory stores for Ralph Lauren, Coach and Gant on Calle Cristo. Sunny Caribbee (154 Calle Cristo) is an offshoot of the Tortola classic and features crafts, hot sauces and coffees, made from Puerto Rican recipes; across the hall, El Galapon has gorgeous masks.

A new find on our most recent visit to Old San Juan was the pocket-sized Plaza Arturo Somohano. Just a block behind the Sheraton Old San Juan (located at pier central), this tree-shaded park is home to artisans, who sell hand-made and designed crafts. They must be approved by the government to open stalls (no "made in China" stuff here). While vendors vary, on my trip, there were beautifully scented soaps from Taino Soapworks (the anise lavender is a favorite), hand-tooled leather belts, pretty (and reasonably priced) beach-glass jewelry, gourds and coconut shells and charming, hand-made, burlap handbags.

Check out the historic sites of Old San Juan, such as El Morro (tours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., entry fee for adults), whose original parts were completed in 1539 (and which successfully deterred would-be colonial powers from capturing the island). Also in Old San Juan is San Cristobal Fort (tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), which was built in 1771. On weekends, the grounds of both forts are thick with locals flying kites.

Take a tour of La Fortaleza (9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.). Visit the Catedral de San Juan, which dates back to 1540. Fans of the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals should check out the Museo Pablo Casals (Plaza San Jose, Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.), where the Spanish master's collection includes manuscripts, photographs and a library of video tapes of Festival Casals concerts (played on request).

The beach: While Old San Juan doesn't really boast any of its own, the beaches in the nearby areas of Condado and Isla Verde stretch along high-rise hotels and are a 5- to 10-minute taxi ride (longer during rush hour) from the cruise pier.

Visit the Bacardi Rum Factory. This is commonly offered as a ship-sponsored tour, but it's easy to go on your own, too; take the ferry (which leaves from Pier 2, right next to the cruise ship dock, every half hour and costs $1, roundtrip, for the six-minute ride) to Catano, and then catch a bus or ferry for the 10-minute ride to the factory. (Don't walk -- it's long and hot.) The factory itself is lovely. There are gorgeously landscaped grounds (lots of hibiscus), an open-air pavilion for Bacardi-influenced drinks, a gift shop and a tour that includes an interesting film on the history and other activities (such as testing your sense of smell, making postcards and learning about rum distillation).

Natural Wonders: Visit El Yunque, the only rain forest designated as a U.S. National Forest. Located about an hour south of San Juan, you'll see numerous waterfalls, ferns and wildflowers along the marked trails. Because it's a rain forest, it will probably, well, rain during your visit -- so pack a slicker.

Art & Culture: The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce (just south of Condado, 299 De Diego Avenue, open from 10 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday) exhibits elegant Puerto Rican art, along with visiting themed shows. Also a must-see for art lovers is the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico (229 de Diego Avenue), which houses some 700 post-1940's works from artists of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America.

> For Golfers: Bahia Beach is a hidden treasure; a car rental is required to get to this out-of-the-way, 18-hole public course that sits at the base of El Yunque and fronts the sea with a gorgeous beach, framed by palms and palmettos. Being totally public, it's also open to non-golf-playing visitors (though the club does request that you politely ask permission). Golf clubs are available for rent.

Lady Luck: Try your luck with casino gambling at the big hotels, from the Sheraton Old San Juan (right across the street from the cruise piers) to the Ritz-Carlton.

Getting Around

On Foot: It's walking distance into compact, yet fascinating, Old San Juan. Streets are uneven (constructed of blue cobblestones, cast from furnace slag), and hills are steep, so wear comfortable shoes.

Taxis: They're available at the dock. You can also hail mini-buses (called "omnibuses"), which shuttle along main routes; to hail one, respond with a wave when the driver toots his horn.

Trolleys: There's a free trolley that will take you around Old San Juan and to the forts. You can pick it up across from the information booth, between cruise piers three and four.

Renting a Car: Rental car agencies, such as Hertz (800-654-3131) and Avis (800-831-2847), operate out of Condado (about five miles from Old San Juan).

Beaches

Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: The beaches that run in front of Isla Verde's luxury hotels (about a 20-minute cab ride) are the best for short visits; ask the cabbie to drop you off at the Ritz-Carlton or the El San Juan.

Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Luquillo Beach (near El Yunque) is a real locals' haunt; there, you'll find long stretches of sand, water sports equipment rentals and a great line of food stands, offering classic Puerto Rican beach food.

Best Secluded Beach: The aforementioned Bahia Beach is great for those looking for some peace and quiet.

Lunching

El Buren Pizza Restaurant (103 Calle Cristo, 11 a.m.) has gourmet pizzas.

Bagua is a local favorite in Condado, offering a creative menu of Puerto Rican dishes such as plantain-crusted mahi mahi. Past diners rave about the sangria and the ceviche.

A good spot for a light, healthy lunch or dinner is St. Germain Bistro & Cafe, where you can choose from a selection of sandwiches and salads -- like the Arabian (pesto chicken, grape tomato and hummus on pita bread) or the Ginny (mixed greens, shrimp, carrot, tomato and parmesan cheese with a ginger vinaigrette). Also on the menu are quiche and crepes.

The Parrot Club (363 Fortaleza) is the restaurant that inspired San Juan's gourmet revolution, and while it's a bit more passe these days, it's one of the few in the trendy SoFo (south of Fortaleza restaurant district) to open for lunch. It's known for its Nuevo Latino cuisine.

Because many ships spend evenings in San Juan and don't depart until late-night, cruisers should also consider dinner options. Head to the aforementioned SoFo, where the hip restaurants of the moment include Marmalade (317 Fortaleza), which offers a U.S.-inspired menu.

Aguaviva (364 Fortaleza Street) is another trendy place; it serves seafood. (Note the whimsical, octopus-like chandeliers.)

Where You're Docked

Ships dock in two places. The best location is just across from the Sheraton Old San Juan (formerly known as the Wyndham) because you walk off the ship into the heart of the old city. Other times, your ship will dock just across the bay -- a stone's throw away -- but it's farther than it looks, and you'll need to take a taxi to get anywhere.

Photos of San Juan

See photos of San Juan from a cruise on Holland America Line's Eurodam.

Watch Out For

Sidewalks in Old San Juan are narrow and uneven. When more than one ship is in town, they're almost impassible. Also, beware that crowds do inspire pickpockets; keep an eye on your wallet.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

Since Puerto Rico is an American territory, the currency there is the U.S. dollar. ATM's are widely available throughout Old San Juan and in tourist beach resort areas.

Language

Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico. In tourist areas, English predominates.

Best Souvenir

Top-notch bottles of Bacardi or Don Q rum are great souvenir ideas. We also love the artisan crafts that are showcased at the Plaza Arturo Somohano in downtown Old San Juan. (While artisans vary, products include hand-tooled leather belts, gorgeous sea-glass jewelry and herbal soaps.)

Best Cocktail

Medalla Light is the local beer, and while Bacardi is the better-known rum produced in Puerto Rico, the locals prefer Don Q -- an equally (if not more) venerable brand. For a great thirst quencher, try the signature drink at the hip Marmalade restaurant; the M317 martini consists of Cointreau jelly, limoncello, triple sec, Campari and grapefruit espuma (a whipped cream without eggs).

For More Information

Visit the Puerto Rico Tourist Board (www.gotopuertorico.com)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: San Juan, Puerto Rico (boards.cruisecritic.com)
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Puerto Rico (boards.independenttraveler.com)

--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Great Time cab5015
05/16
Itinerary My other half wanted St Thomas and Aruba, and this cruise not only gave us that, but embarkation was from San Juan, which is my favorite island. The itinerary.was excellent, a great mix of both lush and desert islands. I read in some ... Read more
Anniversary Cruise bertram15146
05/16
• Background information This was a “solo” cruise for me and my husband. When I say solo, I mean that we weren’t traveling with any other people. That doesn’t happen very often, but we were celebrating our 15th ... Read more
I have been on this boat about 2 other times about 10 years ago. I had a really wonderful time. I didn't give it 5 because I feel the boat is getting old and can use upgrades. There were areas that needed paint and fixing. But the boat was clean ... Read more
We just returned from a week on the Adventure of the Seas......although the interior is a little dated, she is due to go into drydock in October...the entertainment was excellent! We went to Giovanni's Table one night.........so much food!! If ... Read more
05/16
We originally tried to do this Southern Caribbean cruise in Sept, 2015, however, the first port was our last, as the engine room of the carnival Liberty caught fire and the cruise was over. Carnival flew most passengers home and refunded all the ... Read more
First Time Cruisers KadeyLane5
05/16
This was our very first cruise so we were not sure what to expect. We chose the cruise for it's destinations and for the fact that we would be on shore all day. i must say we had a fantastic time. The staff were excellent right from our cabin ... Read more
05/16
May 1st 2016 Sailing from San Juan - First off let me state we're not full time cruisers like some so this will be short. This is our second cruise in nine years with the last being on the Glory out of Port Canaveral in 2007. Cruising is fine ... Read more
Read 4 San Juan Cruise Reviews

Thank You For Signing Up!

Please Note: To ensure delivery of your free e-letters, please add news@cruisecritic.com to your address book.
We're committed to protecting your privacy and will not rent or sell your e-mail address. By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.