Warm winds and crystal blue waters. Tropical rainforests and rich history. Mountain peaks and colorful old streets. Puerto Rico boasts beautiful natural landscapes, amazing history, and unforgettable experiences. There are so many treasures and memories packed into this sun-kissed Caribbean escape – all without leaving the United States (hey, friends without a passport!). If you’re looking for a memorable island escape, discover your next adventure in Puerto Rico. Here are the best things to do around San Juan, Puerto Rico on your next trip.
As of April 2021, Puerto Rico is requiring a negative COVID test to visit the island or you’ll pay a $300 fine. Click here to learn all the necessary steps to take before arriving on the island.
At the time of this article, Puerto Rico is enforcing a 9PM closure time for all businesses and 10:00PM curfew.
Where to Stay & Getting Around
Let’s get one thing straight: Uber in Puerto Rico is NOT the best if you’re in a hurry! It can take between 20-30 minutes to connect to a driver and be picked up depending on driver availability. I definitely recommend renting a car if you can afford it. Staying in a location as close to Old San Juan or the Condado hotel strip is something I would do next time around to alleviate that. Because we booked our accommodations somewhat last minute, we were limited in options and ended up 20 minutes outside of OSJ. Don’t get me wrong – our AirBnb was awesome and spacious! However, staying outside of Old San Juan with no car was sometimes challenging. But, we made it work and learned early on to call the Ubers as early as possible! Based on our experience, here’s what I’d recommend:
If you’re on a budget…
Book an AirBnb that’s located outside of Old San Juan and use points, discounts, and deals to find a cheap rental car.
If you’re going to stay around Old San Juan….
Find accommodations in Old San Juan and travel on foot, use Uber (call them early!), ride the ferry, or even rent a bike.
Alternative: Stay on the Condado hotel strip and use Ubers to get into Old San Juan. It’s just 6 minutes away so the rides should be quick and cheap! Still, call them early.
If you’re regularly exploring different parts of the island…
Such as Rincon, Aguadilla, Fajardo, or any other locations, a rental car is a non-negotiable. If you’re only venturing out once or twice, you can book tours that come with transportation to minimize the need for a vehicle.
Now, onto the fun!
Things to Do
Wander the Streets of Old San Juan
Colorful buildings, vibrant restaurants, breezy alleyways, quirky shops, and spectacular views. The streets of Old San Juan are a colorful maze you’ll want to get lost in. Old San Juan is the oldest settlement on the island, and is full of buildings dating back to the 16th century. Connect with the history of the city by taking a free walking tour of San Juan with Civatitis. Don’t forget to tip your guide! During our tour, we learned about the military history, the reason behind the architecture, the indigenous culture of the island, and more information that empowered me to feel connected to the culture. Notable spots included seeing the Gate of San Juan, the final resting place of Ponce de Leon (Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista), and the narrowest house in the Northern Hemisphere.
Visit Castillo San Felipe Del Morro
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, also known as El Morro, is a citadel that dates all the way back to the 16th century. Overlooking the San Juan Bay, the fort was built by the Spanish colonialists to defend against sea attacks. It operated as a military base for both World War I and II, and is now protected as a National Historic Site. When you visit El Morro, you’ll see just how grandiose the evolution El Morro and its artillery has been over the past five centuries. Be sure to dress for lots of sun. The courtyard and lawns are very open so you WILL feel the heat.
Day Trip to Icacos Island
Did you know Puerto Rico has a string of offshore uninhabited islands? La Cordillera Nature Reserve is a group of roughly 10 islands located off the coast of Fajardo. The crystal blue water, sandy lagoons, breezy beaches, and coral reef ecosystems are a critical habitat for marine life species such as sea turtles and manatees. Cayo Icacos, or Icacos Island, is the largest of the cays (little islands) that make up the reserve. The picturesque island has no facilities, just an unspoiled natural beach with unbelievably blue water. It’s a popular place for tourists to go snorkeling or just relax for the day.
Hot Tip: The best way to get to Cayo Icacos is to take a catamaran tour, and there are many to choose from! There’s also a water taxi from Fajardo, but the catamaran tours include lunch, drinks, and a fiesta vibe that you can’t beat. I highly recommend Castillo Tours for either the half day or full day experience – click here to check them out.
Hike the El Yunque National Rainforest
Get ready to channel your inner National Geographic! El Yunque Rainforest is a 28,000-acre national treasure on the eastern side of the island. It’s the ONLY tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System – and it’s the number one can’t miss on this list. Enjoy hiking on the trails, bathing in natural pools, rock water slides, cliff jumping, and taking in the scenery.
Hot Tips: First timers to El Yunque will get the best experience having a guide to take you on the best trails and provide information about history and biodiversity of the rainforest. If you’re not renting a car, you NEED to book a tour with transportation because Ubers will not go up to the rainforest. Alejandro from SpotinPR is a wonderful guide who will pick you up from San Juan. Click here for a direct link to his experience.
Visiting El Yunque without a guide? You must have entry tickets for the main recreational area as of March 2021.
Visit Plaza Las Americas
For those who love to shop ‘til you drop, you’ll want to make a stop at Plaza Las Americas. With over 250 stores, it’s the largest mall in the Caribbean and the second-largest in Latin America. Enjoy a wide variety of shopping, dining, and entertainment experiences – all against the backdrop of beautiful touches such as palm trees and fountains. If you’re in the mood to enjoy a movie, the plaza also offers a 15-screen movie theater featuring movies in both Spanish and English.
Take an Evening Kayak Tour
An evening paddle on the water is the perfect way to end your day on a high note. For the bioluminescent kayak tours, a bright blue neon light will glow in the water due to the hundreds of thousands of microorganisms in the water. For these, however, you have to travel an hour outside of San Juan into Fajardo. Since we didn’t rent a car, we decided to do a regular tour with light-up bottom kayaks with Night Kayak. Their award-winning LED Night Paddle “City Lights / G L O W” excursion is unlike anything you’ve ever done before! Paddle around the lagoon, under the stars, and underneath the historic bridge while enjoying the LED glow of your Kayak and cityscape of the Condado Lagoon. We were sad to miss out on the bioluminescent bay, but still had a blast!
Hit the Beach
What’s a Caribbean escape without some quality time with the beach? It’s no secret that Puerto Rico is well known for its 270 miles of coastline and over 300 beaches to choose from. Pristine white sand beaches, coral-rich ocean floors, water as blue as the sky, and sunshine galore will leave you in awe. Whether you’re looking to ride the waves, dive deep below the surface, or just enjoy a day of sunbathing, there are tons of options to choose from.
Beaches Close to San Juan:
Centrally located… Condado Beach
Condado Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the San Juan region for sunbathers and tourists. It’s conveniently located 10 minutes from Old San Juan and is lined with high-rise resorts, bars, and places to eat. Condado Beach is NOT for those who wish to swim. There are many drownings every year due to the rip tide and undercurrents.
For swimming & water sports…. Isla Verde Beach
Three different beaches make up Isla Verde: El Alambique, Pine Grove Beach, and Balneario de Carolina. All three beaches are well-kept and safe for swimmers to enjoy the waves and get some exercise. For watersports, Pine Grove Beach boasts surfing, body surfing, boogie boarding, parasailing and more.
Family friendly… Playita del Condado
Not to be confused with Condado Beach, Playita del Condado is a small beachfront off the Puente Dos Hermanos bridge. The water is crystal clear, the palm trees are perfectly placed for a spot in the shade, and the water is warm and calm. This beachfront is surrounded by urban cityscape views and natural surroundings that make it feel similar to Miami.
Beaches Worth a Trip:
Flamenco Beach is a public beach located on one of the Spanish Virgin Islands, Culebra. With green palm trees, blue mountains, and crystal clear water, it’s no wonder that the beach is one of the best in Puerto Rico. Since Culebra is an island, it’s impossible to drive from San Juan. The only ways to get there are to book a day trip, take a ferry from Ceiba Ferry Terminal, or to book a flight.
For postcard-worthy views and local street food, take a load off on the soft white sand beaches of Luquillo. Warm and shallow waters are perfect for those who want to take a relaxing swim while enjoying mountain scenery. The beach is located just north of El Yunque National Rainforest, about an hour outside of San Juan. If you’re visiting the rainforest in the morning, head to Luquillo in the afternoon to cool off and grab lunch.
Playa Crashboat (Aguadilla)
Playa Crash Boat is one of the most beautiful beaches on the west coast of the island, and is worth the 2-hour drive from Old San Juan. Tranquil turquoise waters, local street food, and snorkeling and diving are just a few of the things to enjoy while spending the day there. If you’re a sucker for a sunset, you’ll definitely want to stay for the show as oranges and yellows paint the horizon.
For more beaches in Puerto Rico, visit their official destination website.
Learn About Rum at Casa Bacardi
Casa BACARDÍ is the largest premium rum distillery in the world. Located in Cataño, the distillery is easily reached by car and can also be accessed via a ferry from Old San Juan. There are multiple experiences to enjoy there including a guided tour to discover how BACARDÍ rum is made, a rum tasting tour, mixology class and even bottling your own BACARDÍ. Be sure to book your tickets online in advance!
Go Dancing in La Placita de Santurce
If you’re looking for nightlife, put your dancing shoes on and visit La Placita de Santurce. The original purpose of the area, created over 100 years ago, was to be the center of a two-tiered marketplace to purchase produce. Today, it’s full of bars and restaurants that provide entertainment and music in the evenings. During regular times, the spot would be dedicated to authentic salsa dancing experiences. However, during this time of the pandemic, the square is mostly rap and hip hop to cater to tourists. We found it pretty disappointing not to dance salsa, but there are plenty classes available if you book ahead! Otherwise, the plaza is extremely lively and still a fun time.
As you can see, there’s so much fun to be had on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico! Remember to be respectful of the island and the locals when you visit – and wear your mask. Where will you go on your Caribbean adventure?
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