12 Hours in San Juan
The Caribbean meets the US in this colorful island capital
When my original spring break travel plans fell through, I spontaneously joined a friend on a trip to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. We spent six days in the capital San Juan. It is vibrant and colorful with a relaxed yet lively Caribbean flair, but its ties to the US can definitely be felt throughout. You can spend the day walking through narrow streets lined with colorful Spanish architecture but duck into a Walgreens if you forgot your sunscreen at home.
Historic San Juan is one of the oldest and most beautiful places in the Caribbean. It’s located on a smaller island off of the north shore of the main island of Puerto Rico. If I only had one day there, this is how I would spend it:
10 a.m.: Overlooking the Plaza Colon in beautiful Old San Juan, Café Berlin is a stylishly cozy breakfast café. Its name made me feel at home instantly. Besides serving a twist on traditional eggs, bacon and potatoes, you can also choose from a large number of delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. And of course Café Berlin serves a strong and aromatic Puerto Rican blend of coffee guaranteed to keep you energized for a day full of adventures.
11 a.m.: Old San Juan is quite small, so everything is pretty much within walking distance. If you’re feeling lazy however, there is a trolley running between the most important sights. If you venture down to the waterfront you can watch thousands of tourists pour out of the enormous cruise ships that anchor there. It definitely makes for some interesting people watching as they shuffle into busses for guided tours or determinately start exploring by themselves clad in khaki shorts and big sun hats.
12 a.m. – 2 p.m.: A must-see for history buffs: the Castillo San Felipe del Morro which thrones on the Western tip of Old San Juan. It’s a historic fort that was used by the Spanish as a first line of defense against enemies and competitors seeking to roughen the turquoise seas of the Caribbean. It’s a national historic site. The entrance fee will only set you back $5.
2 p.m.: My favorite place to eat in Old San Juan was the Cafetaria Mallorca. Tourists sit beside locals in this little joint which was full every time we walked past. From breakfast until lunch it serves inexpensive local treats that are to die for. Whether you have a craving for grilled platanos, seafood or just pastries and coffee – they’ve got you covered. One of the things we tried were the signature Mallorcas. These are grilled cheese or cheese and ham sandwiches dusted with powdered sugar. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work but they are actually quite yummy.
3 p.m.-7 p.m.: After walking around town all day, it’s time to head to the beach. It is the Caribbean after all. Old San Juan has a small beach that you can go to, but I recommend taking the bus to the white sand beaches of the Isla Verde area of San Juan. One ride costs only 75 cents but bussing can be tricky since schedules are basically non-existent. The folks over at Puerto Rico Daytrips figured it out as best as they could and made this helpful plan.
7 PM: Your first tan lines in the bag, it’s time to check into a hostel. I stayed at the Posada San Francisco. It’s smack in the center of Old San Juan in a gorgeous historic apartment building. The rooms are spread out over several stories and during spring break they were filled with fellow college students and other young travellers. The shared bathrooms are on the hall and the rooms are quite small. Ours was so small in fact that my friend named it ‘the prison room experience.’ You know, if prison had wifi and a mini fridge. Also, everything was squeaky clean and overall we enjoyed our stay there. So did our wallets.
8-12 p.m.: There are cute little bars all over Old San Juan. On our first night we ducked into one that was showing the Oscars and had a couple of local beers. Added bonus for younger College Tourists, the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18 and we didn’t have to show our ID once. You could also return to the waterfront and watch a local band perform while kids skate past you on their longboards.