San Juan (Photo:Gary Ives/Shutterstock)
2018 Top-Rated Eastern Caribbean, Bahamas & Bermuda Destinations
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic
Cruise Critic Staff

Port of San Juan

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.)

About San Juan


Pro

This city, split into new and old sections, shares vibes with Europe, South America and even Cuba

Con

Shopping malls and chain restaurants can make it difficult for visitors to see the "real" San Juan

Bottom Line

This U.S. territory does a great job of mixing American influences with old-world culture


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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).

Good to Know

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. ATMs are widely available throughout Old San Juan and in tourist beach resort areas, and credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and attractions.

Language

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

Shopping

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. El Galapon has gorgeous masks.

The pocket-sized Plaza Arturo Somohano, just a block behind the Sheraton Old San Juan (located at pier central), is a tree-shaded park that's home to artisans, who sell handmade 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.

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.)


San Juan Awards

Cruisers’ Choice Destination Awards

2018 Top-Rated Eastern Caribbean, Bahamas & Bermuda Destinations
2017 Top-Rated Eastern Caribbean, Bahamas & Bermuda Destinations