A few years ago, David and I boarded a plane, running shoes in tow on the way to speak at my first race expo prior to his first ever half marathon! Our destination: Puerto Rico.Talk about go big or go home for firsts, right?!
At the time I was so focused on the race, I didn’t get a chance to dive in to the wonderful city and the sites we explored. In case you’ll be doing a racecation or just a good old vacation, here’s the low down on Old San Juan.Old San Juan, the heart of the capital city of Puerto Rico, combines history, art, architecture, food and fun. The neighborhood, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was first settled by Europeans in the early 16th century and remnants of that era are present throughout Old San Juan.
Whether you prefer to marvel at colorful buildings with intricate ironwork, savor fried plantains or the local version of the Spanish paella, shop for everything from craft items to high-end consumer goods, or relive San Juan’s history by touring the old Spanish fort, El Morro, there’s truly something for every taste in Old San Juan.
What to see and do in Old San Juan
Let’s be honest, since we had a race coming up we didn’t get to experience ALL of Old San Juan…but we’re kind of crazy, so we set out on foot and found ourselves pondering why we hadn’t heard more about this place.
Although it’s a compact neighborhood, there are scores of interesting and fun things to do in Old San Juan. Of course, everything is framed by glimpses of the sparkling Caribbean Sea that surrounds the area. Just a few of our favorite things to do in Old San Juan include:
- Wandering the cobblestone streets. No one should visit Old San Juan without taking an hour or two to just get lost wandering the picturesque streets. The area isn’t big enough to truly get lost, but exploring the many, narrow side streets can give you a better feel for the neighborhood as well as lead you to an eatery or local shop that you might not have discovered otherwise.
- Exploring El Morro. Located on the northwestern-most tip of Old San Juan, El Morro was once the primary defense for the settlement from pirates, invading navies and other marauders. Built in the 16th century, the massive fort is still largely intact, despite centuries of storms and wind. Visitors can tour the barracks, see the ancient cannons and learn a little more about Puerto Rico’s many layers of history. AND take a tip from two people who hoofed it in the 80 degree weather, when it’s hot, try hoping on the tram that runs back to the main part of town!
- Shopping the outlet stores. Somewhat surprisingly, Old San Juan has a sizeable number of outlet stores, all housed in historic Spanish-style buildings. You’ll find Ralph Lauren, Coach, Dooney & Burke, Tommy Hilfiger and Guess factory stores within a few, short blocks of one another. Admittedly this is at the bottom of my travel interest list, but I know it can make the trip for many so there you have it…shopping!
Dining in Old San Juan
Food is an integral part of any visit to Puerto Rico (or anywhere, really!).
The local food combines elements of Spanish, Caribbean and Africa cuisines to create a wonderful–and delicious–style of cooking. Bean and rice are plentiful as are the indigenous plantains (a relative of the banana plant that are prepared in a variety of ways, taking the role of potatoes in American cuisine.) Slow-roasted pork and chicken are popular as are simply grilled fish and seafood, pulled from the surrounding sea. The Spanish influence can be seen in dishes like paella (a one-dish combination of rice, meat and seafood) and chorizo (the traditional Spanish sausage.) You’ll also find a wide selection of tasty street food from vendors along the waterfront and surrounding the parks.
The weather in Old San Juan is tropical, like most of the Caribbean.
The average temperature in January varies between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, while summer inn August jumps to 78 and 89 degrees. September and October are the rainiest months, with the chance of some precipitation being around 70 percent daily. That percentage dips to 39 percent in March. The good news is that most storms on the island are brief.Travel Tips
Traveling to Puerto Rico is as easy as crossing a state line for U.S. citizens. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, you don’t have to have a passport like you do for most other islands in the Caribbean. You only need to show a valid photo ID. San Juan International Airport, located about 40 minutes from Old San Juan, serves more than 8.5 million passengers annually and offers non-stop flights to more than 100 destinations throughout the world, including Miami, Atlanta, New York City and Chicago.
And for those of you who are wondering how the race turned out…it was spectacularly hot and David still killed it! Read all about it — >>
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