1 Edifice Complex The Old City is an architectural delight (and a World Heritage Site) framed by two imposing structures: San Felipe del Morro – built in 1539, the oldest fortress still standing in the New World – and San Cristóbal, begun in 1634. Between them is a grid of narrow cobbled streets lined with pastel-colored houses adorned with wood balconies. Don”t miss La Fortaleza, the governor”s mansion; La Alcadia (city hall); San José Church, one of the few Gothic-style cathedrals in the Caribbean; El Convento Dominicano, a former convent that is now a cultural center; and Casa Blanca, built to house the family of Puerto Rico”s Spanish discoverer, Ponce de León.
2 Hit the Beach San Juan has terrific beaches. The balnearios, such as El Escambrón, in Puerta de Tierra, and Carolina, in Isla Verde, have showers, lifeguards, gazebos, and parking – but locals head for Isla Verde Beach. Backed by a strip of residential buildings and hotels (many of the latter have ocean-facing outdoor bars), Isla Verde Beach is the real San Juan scene. You can rent chairs and umbrellas, and when it”s time for a bite, check out Ciao Mediterranean Café, which has live music on the weekends in summer.
3 La Vida Loca Puerto Ricans take dancing seriously, so dress sharp (as the locals do) and head out into the night. Join the youth movement Fridays at two spots – Mango”s Café in Punta las Marías, and Rumba in Old San Juan; both have live music until very late, and they welcome everyone. On weekend nights, popular bands play at many of the city”s hotels, where newcomers can learn to salsa without even trying. Feeling lucky? Then step from the dance floor to the gaming floor in one of the city”s many casinos, all of which are located in big hotels downtown.
4 A Rum Deal The largest rum distillery in the world is the one operated by Bacardi, on the outskirts of San Juan. Built in the 1950s, it can produce 100,000 gallons of spirits a day – more than 200 million cases a year. To get the low-down on all that booze, take the 45-minute tour, which will lead you past the distillery, the bottling plant, and the museum, known as the “Cathedral of Rum.” Suggestion: Leave the rental car behind so that you can sample safely.
5 Step up to the Plate For traditional Puerto Rican cooking prepared as only a grandmother can, head for Ajili- mojili, in San Juan”s Condado area. Once seated in the plantation-style restaurant, ask your waiter – who will be dressed as a jíbaro, or country person – to start you off with some fritters, known as surtido. Try the yautía dumplings and mofongo, a casserole of plantains and meat or seafood.
6 Past Perfect The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, in Santurce, is a must-see. The permanent collection, housed in a recently renovated neoclassical building, features locally created works from the 17th century to the present. The new east wing – dominated by a five-story-tall stained-glass window – houses traveling shows, a family gallery, and a theater (dedicated to the late Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá) that has a beautiful handmade lace stage curtain. Outside, a five-acre sculpture garden awaits.
7 Romancing the City There may be no better way to enjoy the heart of San Juan – the Old City – than by simply wandering its narrow lanes in the evening to discover what lies around the next corner. It might be a tiny bar where you can sip a cool cocktail, or an open-air café serving a rich espresso. You might discover a garden in the patio of a grand old colonial building, browse an art gallery, or people-watch in one of the many plazas. Plaza San José is an especially popular gathering spot for young people; slightly more peaceful is Plaza Colón, which is also the site of a famous statue of Christopher Columbus.
8 Get the Goods Plaza las Américas (locals refer to it simply as the “Plaza”) looks like a traditional shopping mall on the outside; inside it”s more like a modern-day Puerto Rican marketplace. There are some 21 cinemas, 25 restaurants, and more than 300 stores, from Macy”s and Banana Republic (for that necessity you forgot to pack) to unique independent shops. Artists make and sell their work in the halls, where you can get anything from abstract paintings to santos, traditional carved-wood figures of saints.
9 Play Ball Baseball is huge in Puerto Rico, which has groomed some of the greatest players ever – Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Roberto Alomar, to name a few. At San Juan”s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, you”ll see major-league action for about $5 per ticket. Piña coladas are a favorite refresher, and fried chicken and crab turnovers are the snacks of choice.
10 Daily Bread For the just-right bite before the beach, or after the walking tour or a party, visit one of the city”s traditional panaderías (bakeries). They sell pastries, sweets (great with espresso), sandwiches, and even wine. Try mallorca, a sweet bread covered with sugar, and quesito, a luscious cheese-filled pastry. Three of the best panaderias are España, in Isla Verde (the croquettes are excellent); La Bombonera, in Old San Juan (mallorcas supreme); and Kasalta, an Ocean Park spot known for its sandwiches.