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San Juan (Photo:Gary Ives/Shutterstock)

Like a Local: San Juan

San Juan (Photo:Gary Ives/Shutterstock)
Kevin McGovern

Dec 5, 2019

Read time
12 min read

There's always something going on in San Juan. From big fun to little moments, locals and visitors mix it up in style -- on the beach, in the bars and beyond. Here's a guide to some can't-miss spots where those in the know go to hang out, eat, drink, shop or work up a sweat. Not a Spanish speaker? Not to worry as most people with whom you will cross paths are likely to be fluent in English to some degree.

Neighborhoods in San Juan

Puerto Rico's seaside capital packs a potent mix of historic charm and modern flair unmatched anywhere in the Caribbean. As a cruise passenger, the San Juan Islet and nearby tourism hubs will likely be the focus of your adventures, offering up a wide-array of activities within easy reach.

Old San Juan: Step off the dock and back in time in this restored Spanish-Colonial sector unrivaled in the rest of the Americas. Ringed by centuries-old fortresses and embattlements, this picturesque gem's seven square blocks boast a thriving commercial, cultural and culinary scene playing out along blue cobblestone streets lined by pastel-colored row houses. Plazas big and small stud this iconic enclave, where history awaits around every corner. Known as the Old City, it is a perennial draw for families from around the island and home to a colorful band of fiercely proud residents. Within Old San Juan you'll find the smaller neighborhood of SoFo.

Condado: Across the Dos Hermanos Bridge on the mainland is the Condado, an upscale quarter of beachfront hotels, outdoor eateries and residences at the epicenter of the tourism zone.

Puerta de Tierra: Technically a part of Old San Juan, this smaller neighborhood has a very different feel. It is east of the core of Old San Juan, linking the Old City to the Condado.

Santurce: To the east of Condado is Santurce, a somewhat gritty residential and commercial area where a burgeoning arts scene and a bloom in tech businesses are sparking a rebirth of what was once the cultural heart of the capital. A traditional farmers market (Plaza del Mercado) transforms into one the city's hippest hangouts once the sun goes down.

Hato Rey: Also known as the Golden Mile, this neighborhood is the city's financial hub.

Where to Eat in San Juan

La Mallorca: A no-frills diner best known as a breakfast spot and celebrated for its strong Puerto Rican cafe con leche and namesake mallorcas -- sweet pastry bread, buttered, toasted and topped with powdered sugar (plain or packed with roast pork, ham and cheese). (300 Calle San Francisco, Old San Juan)

El Jibarito: This tried-and-true favorite has long been a draw for its traditional criollo classics at tasty prices. (280 Calle Sol, Old San Juan)

Carli's Fine Bistro & Piano: Romantic and cozy piano bar that also has an outdoor dining area. Good food and smoking jazz, especially when proprietor Carli Munoz, a former touring member of the Beach Boys, is on the keys. (206 Calle Tetuan, Old San Juan)

Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar: High-end gastronomic hot spot in SoFo, the Old City's cutting-edge culinary hub. Multicourse tasting menus and wine pairings make it a standout. (317 Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan)

Casa Cortes: A piece of paradise for chocoholics. This is a temple for Puerto Rico-made chocolate, which finds its way into martinis and onto grilled-cheese sandwiches at this crowd-pleaser. Also offers a full menu, including weekend brunch. Once sated, head upstairs to the private gallery featuring a collection of contemporary Puerto Rican art. (210 Calle San Francisco, Old San Juan)

El Hamburger: Follow the smoke to this longtime local favorite that cranks out thick, bun-size burgers almost around the clock. The grill is stoked before lunch and isn't doused until the wee hours of the morning. Great for lunch or a late-night refueling after a night on the town. (402 Munoz Rivera Avenue, Puerta de Tierra)

La Cueva del Mar: Crowds come for the straightforward seafood -- fresh and simply prepared. Anchors an expanding roster of popular eateries along a bustling commercial corridor in an up-and-coming area. (1904 Calle Loiza, Santurce)

La Casita Blanca: Beloved low-key landmark where businesspeople belly up with blue-collar workers for heaping helpings of home-style Puerto Rican classics. Get there early for lunch because the daily specials disappear fast. (351 Calle Tapia, Santurce)

Jose Enrique: Rising celebrity chef Jose Enrique gives traditional criollo cuisine an eclectic spin at his eponymous eatery. The spotlight is on fresh Puerto Rican ingredients, including organic produce plucked daily from the adjacent Plaza del Mercado farmers market. The menu changes from day to day, the crowds remain. (176 Calle Duffaut, Santurce)

Tasca El Pescador: A family-owned seafood restaurant serving up some of the best paella and squid-ink rice outside of the Iberian Peninsula. Small, boisterous and worth the wait. (178 Calle Dos Hermanos, Santurce)

Laurel Kitchen/Art Bar: A showcase for chef Mario Pagan's nuevo Caribe cuisine inside the Puerto Rico Museum of Art. (299 De Diego Avenue, Santurce)

Where to Drink in San Juan

There's no shortage of welcoming watering holes in San Juan, a party town where "last call" is rarely heard and everything is on tap from boisterous brew pubs and hip lounges to intimate nooks and plush oases. The Old City is a bar-hoppers dream, particularly along San Sebastian Street, but plenty of other options await for those willing to venture out a bit.

Polo Norte: A genteel gem carved out of an old soda factory tucked along one of the Old City's quietest streets. The wine and bubbly list is stellar, but it is the selection of scotch, bourbon and other whiskeys that make this spot really shine. Club chairs and jazz combos round out the experience. (261 Calle Tetuan, Old San Juan)

La Taberna Lupulo: By far the best beer selection -- dozens on tap, nearly 200 bottled -- on the island. Brews from around the world are within easy reach at this divey temple of hops. Perfect for rehydrating after pounding the pavers. (151 Calle San Sebastian, Old San Juan)

The Mezzanine at St. Germain: Kick back on one of the small balconies or an interior nook on the shabby chic second floor. Or head to the rooftop of this converted colonial townhouse for drinks under the stars on the terrace lounge. The vibe, breeze and cocktails are cool. Not to be missed. (156 Calle Sol, Old San Juan)

La Factoria: There's more than meets the eye at this hip, artsy hangout. A large bar up front is dark and cozy. A doorway opens up to a chill wine and tapas bar. Another leads to a larger bar and an often packed dancefloor. (148 Calle San Sebastian, Old San Juan)

Old Harbor Brewery: Try a sampler of San Juan-made suds in this lively taproom not far from the cruise docks. Live music if you are lucky. (202 Calle Tizol, Old San Juan)

El Picoteo: The city's most sophisticated sippers flock to this elegant and expensive dining room. (3620 NE 2nd Avenue, Design District)

El Batey: Iconic dive bar across from the lovingly restored El Convento Hotel. A colorful crowd and roster of regulars from all walks of life bend their elbows along the well-worn wooden bar. Find some space to scrawl your name on the graffiti-covered interior walls. Bring quarters -- the jukebox is justifiably famed. (101 Calle del Cristo, Old San Juan)

El Bar Bero: Creative cocktails, friendly barmen and a laid-back atmosphere are the rule at this locals' favorite at the edge of the Condado tourism district. The classic barbershop-theme, complete with vintage chairs, adds to the fun. (1507 Calle Loiza, Santurce)

Lobby Bar at La Concha Resort: This retro-chic lobby bar ranks as one of the hottest scenes in Puerto Rico by night. DJs spin under a seductive lightshow, the crowd spilling out toward the pool area and beach. (1077 Ashford Avenue, Condado)

Plaza del Mercado (La Placita): The bars and restaurants ringing the traditional farmers market really come alive as the sun goes down. No better place to rub elbows with a thirsty local crowd. Pop over for a quick drink or hop from spot to spot. Pace yourself; La Placita picks up as the night goes on. (Santurce)

Where to Shop in San Juan

San Juan is a shopping mecca for thousands of visitors from the Caribbean and Latin America. From funky shops to glittering malls to designer boutiques, the capital city has it all.

Old San Juan: High-end retail outlets share space with one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and shops stocked with locally crafted items. Jewelry stores abound at all price points, like the Butterfly People Gallery, which lures shoppers with gorgeous arrangements made from real tropical butterflies (257 Calle De La Cruz). Galeria Botello offers a fine collection of artworks. The gallery is in the stunningly restored 350-year-old former home of artist Angel Botello, whose sculptures are on prominent display (208 Calle del Cristo). Traditional works such as santos (hand-carved wooden figures of the saints) and paper mache carnival masks can be found at a variety of shops, including Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts (204 Calle Fortaleza). Local artisans also sell their wares along the Paseo de la Princesa and farmers market sprouts on Saturdays at the site of the San Juan Museum of Art & History. Almacenes Fernandez is a good fit for guayaberas, the classic four-pocketed linen or cotton shirt that's traditionally worn by men throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (262 Calle San Francisco).

Condado: Shopping along Ashford Avenue runs the gamut from art galleries to jewelry stores and from unique boutiques to funky novelty shops. Luxe retailers including Louis Vuitton and Gucci are clustered around the Window on the Sea Park, making that area the focal point of high-end splurging in San Juan.

Loiza Street: Young entrepreneurs are breathing new life into what was an unremarkable line of fast-food joints, pawnshops and bargain bins. Vintage clothing shops, high-end tattoo parlors and yoga studios now share space with some of the city's most creative eateries.

Downtown Rio Piedras: A balance of the old and the new in this traditional downtown pedestrian mall not far from the University of Puerto Rico's flagship campus. Decades-old specialty shops bump up against recognized retailers. Bookstores abound.

Where to Have Fun and Get Active in San Juan

Sun and sand is all around, and kicking back on the beach with friends and family -- and full coolers -- is a favored pastime for San Juan's fun-loving residents. Year-round sunshine and balmy temps make it easy to squeeze in an outdoor workout to make up for those lazy days.

Condado Lagoon: Rent a standup paddleboard or kayak and cruise along the clear, calm waters of this urban reserve. SUP classes, including paddleboard yoga, are available. Landlubbers can stick to the cross-fit gym along the shore.

San Juan Bay Marina: Standup paddleboard tours, guided jet ski jaunts around the base of Old San Juan and sailing lessons are all offered from this marina at the crossroads of the Convention District, the San Juan Islet and Condado. Check out a fishing charter for a quick strike on Marlin Alley, a blue water drop-off not far offshore that is rich with big billfish.

El Escambron Beach: This public beach at the entrance to the San Juan Islet has been awarded a Blue Flag under an international program that recognizes high standards of water quality and facilities. A large area protected by a reef makes it a good spot for the whole family. Snorkeling is good and the adjacent La Ocho is a big draw for surfers.

Ocean Park: This long span of sandy beach stretches east from the Condado, ending at Barbosa Park, a safe place to jog given its well-kept track and local police station. The beach itself is packed with the toned and tanned while kiteboarders ride the breezes just offshore.

San Juan Bike Rentals: San Juan is getting more bike-friendly by the day. This, along with several other businesses, can get you geared up for a two-wheeled tour around the capital or a thigh-burning workout across the waterfront.

Parque Central: This sprawling park at the edge of the Convention Center District boasts long stretches of jogging trails, tennis courts and spinning classes. A lighted track is also an option.

Where to Watch the Local Teams Play in San Juan

Get in the swing of winter league baseball by catching the Santurce Cangrejeros or the San Juan Senadores, with both teams sharing home field at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in the Hato Rey area of San Juan (601 Biscayne Boulevard). Superior Basketball League team, the Mets de Guaynabo, plays at Mario Morales Coliseum in nearby Guaynabo, while crosstown rivals the Vaqueros de Bayamon tip off at Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum. The adjacent Juan Loubriel Stadium is home to Bayamon FC, a professional soccer team owned by NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony.

What to Avoid in San Juan

The handful of restaurants located just off the cruise ship docks are generally passable in a pinch, but rarely serve up the local flavor and charm of their counterparts just blocks away Old San Juan's cobbled streets.

The Old City's seaside La Perla sector is a picturesque former slum that may be best viewed from atop the Spanish-Colonial walls that shadow it. Wary residents are not always ready to roll out the welcome mat to unfamiliar faces.

For those making the walk from Old San Juan to Condado, it is best to stay on the ocean-side avenue that links the two neighborhoods. The bay-front street is fine for driving but crosses through some areas that are not pedestrian friendly.

Where to Get the Scoop on San Juan

SAL: This publication bills itself as Puerto Rico's most complete restaurant guide and includes customer reviews of hundreds of restaurants, as well as schedules of activities. Most entries are in Spanish.

Puerto Rico Eats: This keeps tabs on the island's foodie scene, running the full gamut of grub hubs under its "from food trucks to foie gras" ethos.

Puerto Rico Tourism Company: The government-run website provides a decent overview of things to do.

Updated December 05, 2019
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