Last updated on April 1, 2023
The streets of Old San Juan were practically built to be strolled for hours. With colorful, Spanish colonial architecture, picture-perfect corners, and mesmerizing views of the Caribbean Sea, you’re bound to have at least a few awe-inspiring moments during your tour of this historic city. Founded in 1521 by Spanish conquistadors, this port city has long been the cultural and commercial hub of Puerto Rico. It is home to some of the country’s most important landmarks, from fortresses to art galleries. Old San Juan is a charming neighborhood at the heart of the city with cobblestone streets, brightly-colored buildings, a plethora of bars and restaurants, and a whole lot of soul. This post will show you how to put together your own walking tour of Old San Juan and experience the must-see sites in the city. It includes a map so that you can follow along on your phone.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, as explained in my disclosure policy
Time required for a tour of Old San Juan
Old San Juan is a compact area so this tour would take you about 60 minutes if you simply walked to each location without stopping. I would budget about 3-4 hours to give you enough time to take in the sites, tour the historic buildings, and enjoy the food.
Items to bring with you
- Comfortable shoes – some parts of the tour are hilly so it’s a great idea to wear running shoes or something that won’t kill your feet after three hours of walking and climbing fortresses. This is completely up to you. I wore sandals and was mostly fine, except when it came to climbing steep concrete. Next time, I’ll wear definitely wear tennis shoes.
- Water – stay hydrated, my friends!
- Snacks – pack some fruit, a granola bar, or my go-to travel snack, the WanderBar, a protein bar made specifically for travelers and frequent flyers. I can’t get enough of the Cocoa Crunch flavor.
- Map or GPS – Google maps, Apple maps, or whatever works best for you. Puerto Rico is a US territory so your phone service from any major US carrier should work just fine.
- Camera – you can use your phone camera, but a DSLR will capture those picturesque streets so much better! I always recommend the Nikon D3400 for beginners.
Old San Juan Walking Tour with Map for First-Time Visitors
The best sites to see, food to eat, and things to do in Old San Juan
Castillo San Cristobal
We’ll start at Castillo San Cristobal, the largest fortress that the Spanish built in the New World. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this fortress is part of the San Juan National Historic Site, an area that includes fortresses, bastions, and the old city wall. Castillo San Cristobal was built in 1783 to protect the city from attacks when other European powers were trying to take over.
You need a ticket to tour the inside of the fortress, but there’s an outside area with bastions overlooking the Caribbean Sea that anyone can visit. The ticket is $7 and is valid for two days to allow you to see other parts of the San Juan National Historic Site.
There are three levels to this fortress: the lowest level, the main firing battery, and the observation deck at the top. To get into the fortress, you have to go through some dingy tunnels at the lowest level. Along the way, there are dimly lit rooms, including a dungeon where prisoners were kept for execution. It was creepy, to say the least.
Once you get past the tunnels, then everything brightens up – literally. You arrive at the main firing battery with rooms on the periphery that overlook the city. There are plaques explaining what the rooms were used for. Lastly, there’s the top level of the fortress, with breathtaking views overlooking the city. I spent a lot of time here just taking in the scenery.
You can purchase your ticket at the San Juan National Historic Site office or call +1 787 729-6777 . The fortress is open every day of the week from 9 am to 6 pm.
Address: 501 Norzagaray Street San Juan, PR 00901
Hours: 9 am to 6 pm every day
Calle de La Fortaleza
Calle Fortaleza is a shopping street in Old San Juan, located by the governor’s mansion. There are tons of little shops and restaurants here. This street used to be an Instagram hotspot when there were umbrellas floating at the top. When I visited San Juan in Old San Juan in July 2019, the umbrellas were unfortunately no longer there. The street was barricaded during my visit to San Juan because of protests against the government due to an political scandal. Not going to complain. People’s livelihoods are more important than my Instagram photos. That said, the umbrellas could be back again, as they are a major tourist attraction. I’ll have to confirm when I visit again.
Address: Calle de la Fortaleza San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
La Fortaleza, also known as Palacio de Santa Catalina, is the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. Located at the base of Calle de La Fortaleza, it is the oldest, continuously used governor’s mansion in the western hemisphere. This blue building sits on a fortification by the Caribbean Sea that was built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the city against foreign attacks. You can take a free 30-minute tour of the interior, courtyards, and gardens every weekday from 9 am to 4 pm. To book a tour of La Fortaleza before you arrive in San Juan, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1 (787) 721-7000. Just can also arrive in person at the tourist office next to the mansion and book your tour, although same-day availability is not guaranteed. I didn’t know you could tour this building when I visited so I’m bummed! Now you know.
Address: 54 Calle Fortaleza Edificio de la Real Audiencia San Juan, PR, 00901
Requirements: Must be at least 21 years and have a valid photo ID
Hours: 9 am to 4 pm
El Batey Bar
I was looking for some cheap mojitos and found this place on Yelp. When I walked in, I felt like I had stepped into some kind of punk rock tattoo parlor. That’s the vibe of this place – dimly-lit and dingy. With the somewhat pretentious writings on the wall, like ‘Prohibido Joder,’ and “Donald Eres Un Pendejo,” (not that I disagree with this statement), I didn’t have a good feeling about the place at first.
But it turns out the mojitos were good and cheap. Also, the bartender, Javier, engaged me in a conversation for like an hour. Then, I ended up chatting with some locals at the bar, too. So I ended up liking this bar after all. It’s a great place to unwind and maybe meet new people. El Batey is known for its casual atmosphere, politically incorrect posters, and affordable drinks.
Address: 101 Calle del Cristo, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Requirements: Must be at least 21 years and have a valid photo ID
Hours: 3 pm to 12 am every day
San Se Marisquería Bar de Tapas
San Se Marisqueria is a tapas bar-restaurant located down the street from the co-living community, Outsite San Juan, on Calle San Sebastian, from which it gets its name. This is by far the best restaurant in Old San Juan where I had the privilege of dining. I would recommend their Mofongo, a signature Puerto Rican dish consisting of mashed plantains, and their impeccably-seasoned Pulpo, or octopus (shown above). They are both unbelievably delicious! I’m sure the other items on the menu are equally so.
There is also a bar area serving cheap piňa coladas, mojitos, and other cocktails, which are around the same prices as other San Juan establishments. The food, though, is more expensive than at your average Old San Juan restaurant, but I think this place is definitely worth a visit. You can order takeout, but there’s no delivery.
Address: 152 Calle de San Sebastián, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Hours: 3 pm to 2 am every day except Tuesday, when it’s closed
Calle Imperial is one of the iconic streets in Old San Juan with a flag of Puerto Rico on the wall. This flag is no ordinary mural; it has cultural significance. Known as Callejon de la Puerta Bandera, it is a symbol of Puerto Rican identity and pride and one of two flag murals in Old San Juan. The other one, located on Calle San Jose, is black and white. Calle Imperial is one of the most iconic places to snap a photo in San Juan. I wanted to get a photo of myself here and waited for someone to walk by. No one did so I just took a photo of the wall. The struggles of solo travel. Next time, I’ll be sure to take a tripod!
Address: Calle Imperial San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Castillo Felipe del Morro
Further west of Castillo San Cristobal is another fort called Castillo Felipe del Morro, simply known as El Morro. This fortress is also part of the San Juan National Historic Center. It has six levels which were built over the course of 200 years, starting in the 1500s. This place has so much history, it will take you at least 90 minutes to fully tour and appreciate all the parts, from the dungeons in the lower level to the narrow stairwell that leads to the top level to the canons on the roof.
El Morro was one of the original fortifications built by the Spanish to protect San Juan from foreign invaders. Today, it’s popular among locals and tourists alike. The different levels, particularly the higher ones, offer incredible views of the Caribbean Sea and the entire city of San Juan. All around the structure, you’ll find many garitas, or guard posts, which are a great place to snap a photo.
The best way to experience El Morro is to do a guided tour, like this guided tour of El Morro with an entry ticket that includes stops at other must-see places in Old San Juan. This tour is organized by Get Your Guide, a tour operator I’ve been using since 2016. I love how deeply informative and engaging their tours are, from Spain to China. I always leave their tours with tons of notes on my phone. The local tour guides they employ are knowledgeable and friendly.
Address: 501 Calle Norzagaray, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Hours: 9 am – 5 pm every day
Paseo de la Princesa
Paseo de la Princesa, which translates to Princess Promenade, is a pedestrian walkway by the San Juan Bay. Located in the historic district of Old San Juan, this picturesque promenade was built in 1853. It has undergone various renovations since then. You’ll take in breathtaking views of the San Juan Bay on one side, with the waves from the Caribbean Sea crashing against the shores. On the other side, you’ll get a good look at the majestic fortifications that were built centuries ago to protect the city from invasion.
Beyond the views, you’ll find a long line of street vendors selling everything from empanadas to handmade crafts to beaded jewelry. There is also an famous work of art, the Raíces Fountain, that features paintings of the different ethnic groups that make up Puerto Rican society – the African-descended people, the indigenous Taino people, and the Spanish conquistadors. This promenade is the perfect place to go for a stroll in the afternoon, people watch, and go souvenir shopping.
Address: Paseo de la Princesa, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Catedral de San Bautista
Catedral of San Juan Bautista, also known as the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, is the second-oldest cathedral in the Americas. Completed in 1540, this Roman Catholic cathedral finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture. It features a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture, with an ornately-decorated altar made of gold. This towering cathedral has played a pivotal role in the cultural and spiritual life of Puerto Ricans for centuries, with many weddings, baptisms, and even state occasions taking place here. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León is also buried at this cathedral. There are many churches in San Juan but Catedral de San Bautista is perhaps the most important. That makes it a must-see on your visit to Old San Juan, even if you’re not Catholic. The church is open to the public for free.
Address: 151 Calle del Cristo, San Juan, 00902, Puerto Rico
Hours: 9 am – 4 pm every day
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is the main plaza, or public square, in Old San Juan. Originally built as a training facility for the Spanish military, the plaza is now a a place of leisure. Tourists and locals alike gather here to enjoy concerts, festivals, and other cultural events. There are also a few notable structures at this plaza, including a a statue of the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León and a statue of King Juan Carlos I of Spain. At the center, you’ll find a fountain with statues of religious and historical figures. This plaza is a great place to end your tour of San Juan. In the vicinity, you’ll find the San Juan City Hall and the Department of State building of Puerto Rico. You can sit down, relax, and bird watch before returning to your accomodation.
Address: FV8M+48H, San Juan, 00969, Puerto Rico
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Want to tour Old San Juan with a local guide?
While I’m a huge fan of self-guided walking tours, I also know the value of having a local guide show you around their city and explain what you are looking at. That’s why I’d recommend doing at least one guided tour of San Juan with a local operator in addition to your own self-guided tour.
One of the perks of doing a guided tour with my favorite tour operator, Get Your Guide, is being able to skip the long lines. If you wait until you arrive in San Juan to buy your tickets, you may be waiting for a long time, especially during the peak summer travel season. With a guided tour, you also get to learn directly from a local about the culture and history of San Juan, allowing you to better appreciate the sites, food, and other attractions. Below are the Get Your Guide tours I’d recommend in Old San Juan.
First, we have a foodie walking tour of Old San Juan that will give you a taste of Puerto Rican cuisine. A local guide will take you to the must-try restaurants in Old San Juan, where you’ll sample 10 delicious bites. You’ll also participate in a culinary class, where you’ll learn how to make the classic mofongo. The 3-hour tour comes with a bonus rum cocktail so that you can try Puerto Rico’s specialty drink.
The second tour I’d recommend is a sunset walking tour of Old San Juan. The sunsets in San Juan are something special, and you’ll get epic photos of the city at this time of the day. During this tour, a local guide will take you to historic places that aren’t included in this self-guided walking tour, such as the iconic Plaza Colón, Plaza de la Barandilla, and the ancient Palacio de la Intendencia. You’ll also discover the urban legend and mystery behind a chapel known as Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud. This 2-hour tour will fully immerse you in Puerto Rican culture and history.
Last but not least, it’s a good idea to get off the island and take in the whole scenery from a sailboat! This 90-minute sailing tour of San Juan is one of the best ways to experience the city. You’ll board a topsail and cruise around Old San Juan, taking in the city from a different vantage point. The sailing adventure comes with complimentary drinks, including rum, of course, so that you can unwind while you spot El Morro, La Fortaleza, and other iconic structures in the city. This would be an epic way to conclude your visit to San Juan.
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