As soon as you arrive you’ll hear the sounds of salsa music filling the cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan. The nearby pristine beaches add to the tropical allure of the Caribbean, and the food scene in San Juan is absolutely exploding.
San Juan is a popular port of call and departure port for many cruise lines, but with only 8 – 10 hours of time in port you have to plan your time wisely. Here are the top 10 things to do within the 15-foot-thick walls of Old San Juan and beyond.
El Morro was built in the 16th century and yet, almost 500 years later, it still commands immediate attention from every ship entering San Juan. The architecture and views from El Morro are a photographer’s heaven. Children of every age will enjoy exploring secret passages and watching costumed park rangers fire a cannon. The fort’s front lawn is the perfect open, grassy landscape for flying kites. You can purchase a variety of kites at a hot dog stand near the parking lot. And since the fort is located in Old San Juan, amazing local food is available at plenty of nearby places. From the cruise terminal, El Morro is only a 25-minute walk or a 10-minute taxi ride (approximately $12).
Puerto Rico’s European roots can be seen throughout Old San Juan; it feels like a city of a bygone era. Its narrow cobblestoned streets are lined with beautiful pastel-colored shops and restaurants with occasional views of the ocean. Restaurants within walking distance from the cruise terminal provide traditional food items such as mofongo or tostones with a unique twist, fresh seafood, sweet plantains and coffee to keep you going. If you’re not feeling up to walking the streets or exploring on your own, take a guided tour of the area: Segway Tours, Rent a Bike Tours and even a free trolley.
A unique Latin-infused tour of authentic Puerto Rican cuisine can be a great idea with a group of friends, especially if they’re foodies. Try taking the Old San Juan Food Tour through Flavors of San Juan. You’ll visit six off-the-beaten-path restaurants and sample their specialties. In between bites and sips you’ll stroll along the cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan, learning about the history and architecture from a tour guide with a personality you’ll never forget. Come hungry and ready to deepen your appreciation of the cuisine and the culture.
El Yunque Rain Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s biggest tourist attractions — and for good reason. Many beautiful hikes and waterfalls are scattered throughout the area. El Yunque is fairly easy to navigate because it has helpful trail signs and information booths. There are a wide variety of trails, from family-friendly to more challenging for the experienced hiker. All of the trails are beautiful and most include waterfalls and rivers. You’ll even find natural rock waterslides. Excursions are available through the cruise lines, but renting a car and doing the one-hour trek on your own is also a good option if you enjoy exploring and flexibility.
The Mount Britton Trail offers a hike to a lookout tower with spectacular views. This hike is fairly intense but less than a mile, and it takes around 45 minutes (one way).
Just a 45-minute drive east of San Juan is Luquillo Beach. Although this beach is farther away than the San Juan beaches, it is usually less crowded and has calm water, making it great for families. Rent a beach umbrella and chairs and enjoy relaxing by the crystal-clear water. If you are feeling more adventurous, rent a kayak, snorkel gear, Jet Skis, or even try out a flyboard. Just a short walk up the beach are dozens of food kiosks. Although they don’t look impressive from the outside, these small kiosks are famous all over Puerto Rico. You can find anything here, from gourmet Italian to grilled burgers and fries. Some private tour operators offer excursions to Luquillo Beach as part of a tour of El Yunque, but if you want to spend the whole day there you should rent a car.
Fajardo’s bioluminescent bay is one of the last remaining bio bays on the planet.
Experience a unique phenomena created by tiny starlike bioluminescent plankton during a nighttime tour. The glowing trails of water rippling off the edge of the kayaks is a truly magical experience. If your ship has a late departure or you are embarking in San Juan and have time before or after your cruise, this is worth the effort. The brilliance of the bioluminescence is dependent on the tide and the cycle of the moon, so you’ll want to check ahead of time to be sure the tide will be right for viewing the bio bay during your trip. This is an approximately four-hour excursion including transportation to get to the bay and is around $90 per person. Don’t forget to pack bug spray.
If you have an extra day or two, make the trek to the bio bay on Vieques, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. A quick 20-minute flight or ferry will get you there. Because Vieques is harder to get to, there are fewer people and less light, making the bioluminescence more powerful.
This beach has been rated one of the best beaches in San Juan for its cleanness. It is located conveniently near the Old San Juan area. For $25 you should be able to grab a taxi for the 15-minute drive to this beach. Just bring a beach towel and sunscreen to enjoy the beautiful Caribbean-blue water while soaking up the sun. Beach mats, chairs and body boards are free when available. If you’re looking for a little more excitement, try out kite surfing or body boarding at a nearby rental booth.
This beautiful beach also has a number of great restaurants for grabbing a drink or something to eat. Third Base Bar is a local favorite close to the beach.
Plaza Las Americas is the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean and only a 15-minute taxi ride from the cruise terminal (approximately $20). The mall may not be everyone’s idea of what to visit while on vacation, but if the weather is not cooperating for other plans, then Plaza Las Americas has plenty to entertain the whole family. Puerto Rico also has outlet malls nearby in Barcelona and Canovanas. The Mall of San Juan was recently opened and has upscale stores, including Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
For the adrenaline junkie, Zip Line Tours is the shore excursion for you. Fly through the air on secure, double-lined zip line cables over 800 feet above the tropical forests and rivers at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.! Packages can be booked that include transportation from the cruise docks, lunch, several zip lines, rock climbing, rappelling and suspension bridges. This eco-adventure park is about 45 minutes to an hour from San Juan. You can either book as an excursion (transportation included) or through Zip Line Tours. Bring a GoPro to capture the action.
Who wouldn’t want to tour the world-famous Bacardi Rum Distillery? Sample a selection of rum flavors and appetizers, then finish with a drink on a shallow cove at Dorado Beach. If booked as an excursion, this fun tour includes transportation from the cruise docks, or you can get transportation on your own. One tip, though: Don’t take a taxi from the cruise terminal. Taking an eight-minute ferry ride across the bay from Pier 2 is a cheaper option than taking a taxi around the bay. Once across the bay, a taxi will run around $5 to the rum factory. Tours at the distillery run from $12 to $45, depending on the amount of rum included.
For a more relaxing way to view the city, take a water tour of the Bay of San Juan. You can sit back, relax and take amazing pictures. Enjoy the beauty of San Juan Harbor and learn about the fascinating history of the magnificent 500-year-old city. View the Old San Juan Gate, Paseo de Princesa walk, El Morro Fort, the Governor’s Mansion and much more. Learning about the intriguing history of Puerto Rico on this tour will help bring to life the landmarks of Old San Juan.