San Juan

Founded in 1510, San Juan, the capital, spreads several kilometres along the north coast and also inland. The nucleus is Old San Juan, the old walled city on a tongue of land between the Atlantic and San Juan bay. It has a great deal of charm and character, a living museum, lovingly restored. The narrow streets of Old San Juan, some paved with small grey-blue cobblestones which were brought over as ships' ballast, are lined with colonial churches, houses and mansions, in a very good state of repair and all painted different pastel colours. Although the old city is lovely, the rest of San Juan is modern, sprawling, without a semblance of planning and devoid of attractive features. The beach resorts are massive, high-rise, expensive and international in character.

Getting there

Getting a taxi from the airport is your best bet; buses from the airport to San Juan and back are complicated. There is a despatch desk for
públicos
at the airport.

Getting around

Small yellow buses, or trolleys, run around the old city all day. There is a city bus (
guagua
) service with a fixed charge for standard routes. They have special routes, sometimes against the normal direction of traffic, in which case the bus lanes are marked by yellow and white lines. Bus stops
paradas
have white and orange signs or yellow and black notices on lampposts. Up until the 1950s tramcars ran between Río Piedras and Old San Juan along Avenidas Ponce de León and Fernández Juncos. To this day directions are given by
Paradas
, or tram stops, so you have to find out where each one is.

Old San Juan

One of the restored and interesting buildings to visit is
La Fortaleza
, the Governor's Palace, built between 1533 and 1540 as a fortress against Carib attacks but greatly expanded in the 19th century. It is believed to be the oldest executive residence in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Access to the official areas is not permitted. The
cathedral
 was built in the 16th century but extensively restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. The tiny
Cristo Chapel
, with its silver altar, was built after a young man competing in 1753 in a horse race during the San Juan festival celebrations plunged with his horse over the precipice at that very spot. Next to it is the aptly named
Parque de las Palomas
, where the birds perch on your hand to be fed. 
San Felipe del Morro
, www.nps.gov/saju, was built in 1591 to defend the entrance to the harbour, and the 11-ha
Fort San Cristóbal
, www.nps.gov/saju, was completed in 1772 to support El Morro and to defend the landward side of the city, with its five independent units connected by tunnels and dry moats, rising 46 m above the ocean. There are good views of the city.

Next to El Morro is the
St Mary Magdalene
cemetery, also called the San Juan cemetery, which is beautiful and well worth a visit, though crowded. The
Plaza del Quinto Centenario
 is a modernistic square on several levels with steps leading to a central fountain with hundreds of jets (good view of El Morro, the cemetery and sunsets). The restored
Cuartel de Ballajá
, once the barracks for Spanish troops and their families, was also inaugurated 12 October 1992 to house the
Museum of the
Americas
, www.museolasamericas.org,
on the second floor tracing the cultural development of the history of the New World. The
Dominican Convent
, built in the early 16th century, later used as a headquarters by the US Army, is now the office of the Institute of Culture, with a good art gallery. Cultural events are sometimes held in the patio, art exhibitions in the galleries. The 16th-century
San José church
, originally a Dominican chapel, is the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and once the family church of Ponce de León's descendants. Ponce was buried here until moved to the Cathedral in the 20th century. The
Casa Blanca
 was built in 1523 by the family of Ponce de León, who lived in it for 250 years until it became the residence of the Spanish and then the US military commander-in-chief. It is the oldest continuously occupied residence in the Western Hemisphere. It is now a historical museum which is well worth a visit. The
Alcaldía
, or City Hall, was built between 1604 and 1789. The
Naval Arsenal
, was the last place in Puerto Rico to be evacuated by the Spanish in 1898.

Apart from those in historic buildings listed above, there are the
Pablo Casals Museum
, in an 18th-century house beside San José church, with Casals' cello and other memorabilia. The
San Juan Museum of Art and History
, built in 1855 as a marketplace, is now a cultural centre with exhibition galleries. The
Casa del Libro
, is an 18th-century house on Calle Cristo, has a collection of rare books, including some over 400 years old. The
Museum of the Sea
, has a collection of maritime instruments and models. The
Indian Museum
, concentrates on Puerto Rican indigenous cultures, with exhibits, ceramics and archaeological digs. Another museum in the old city is a military museum at
Fort San Jerónimo
.

Metropolitan San Juan

The metropolitan area of San Juan includes the more modern areas of Santurce, Hato Rey, and Río Piedras. In
Santurce
, the
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
, www.mapr.org, showcases 500 years of Puerto Rican sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and graphic arts. There are also temporary exhibitions, films and classes. The west wing contains the last remnant of the former Municipal Hospital and has a permanent collection in 18 exhibition halls. The east wing is a modern, 5-storey structure, designed by local architects, Otto Reyes and Luis Gutiérrez, containing an atrium, a conservation laboratory, an interactive family gallery and ActivArte, a computer learning centre, as well as studios and workshops, museum shop, restaurant and café. The
Sacred Heart University
with the
Museum of Contemporary Puerto Rican Art
, is in Santurce. The
Centro Bellas Artes Luis A Ferré
(Fine Arts Centre)
, www.cba.gobierno.pr,
 opened in 1981, with theatres and halls at the corner of De Diego and Ponce de León.

Río Piedras
, was founded in 1714 but became incorporated into San Juan in 1951. On the edge of Río Piedras, the gardens and library of the former governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, are open to the public, with a museum showing his letters, photos and speeches. The
University of Puerto Rico
at Río Piedras is in a lovely area. The
University Museum
, has archaeological and historical exhibitions, and also monthly art exhibitions. The
Botanical Garden
, www.upr.clu.edu, has over 200 species of tropical and subtropical plants, a bamboo promenade (one variety can grow 4 ft in a day), an orchid garden (over 30,000 orchids), and an aquatic garden.

Hato Rey
is the financial district of San Juan nicknamed 'the Golden Mile'. The
Luís Muñoz Marín Park
, covers 35 ha, which can be toured by a 1 km cable car. The residential area
Miramar
has several moderately priced hotels as well as some expensive ones. Miramar is separated from the Atlantic coast by the
Condado lagoon
and the Condado beach area, where the luxury hotels, casinos, nightclubs and restaurants are concentrated. From Condado the beachfront is built up eastwards through
Ocean Park
, Santa Teresita, Punta Las Marías and
Isla Verde
along the narrow strip beyond Isla Verde, between the sea and the airport.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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