San Juan for the day: What to do while your cruise is in port

Jan 9, 2021

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Colonial history, splendid natural beauty and trendy nightlife make San Juan a must-visit Caribbean port of call. In fact, it’s a staple on Eastern and Southern Caribbean departures sailing round-trip from Florida ports such as PortMiami, Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades and Port Canaveral near Orlando.

San Juan attracts ships from across cruising’s various categories, due in large part to its rich colonial history and fascinating combination of African, Caribbean and European cultures that are expressed in cuisine, the arts and music.

San Juan is also a modern metropolis with upscale dining and shopping. Its numerous attractions make arriving a day or two early a rewarding option for travelers whose ship home-ports in the city.

Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America, MSC Cruises and other lines all have scheduled multiple San Juan calls for 2021. Several Royal Caribbean ships will target San Juan as both a home port — a city from which voyages depart round-trip — and as a port of call in 2021.

San Juan is also found on Caribbean itineraries from premium lines including Celebrity Cruises, Viking and Windstar Cruises. Luxury operators Crystal Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club will also feature San Juan among their 2021Caribbean port calls.

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In This Post

3 things TPG loves about San Juan

  • A walkable historic district
  • Delicious local cuisine
  • Charming cultural attractions

What we could do without

  • High prices, as restaurant meals tend to be expensive
  • Limited beach access in the Old San Juan/Condado core districts

San Juan basics

San Juan became a Spanish colonial settlement in the 16th century, and today’s cruise visitors primarily disembark in what is one of the Caribbean’s best-preserved historic districts, known as San Juan Viejo, or Old San Juan. The quarter features imposing city walls, massive forts, cobblestone streets and terraced mansions. Visitors will find just walking about is a great way to spend time in the city.

San Juan is also a modern metropolis and the city’s Isla Verde and Condado resort districts feature trendy hotels, gourmet restaurants, pulsating nightclubs and bars, and upscale shopping.

El Yunque National Forest is one of several natural attractions found across the greater San Juan region, and cultural attractions include rum distilleries offering tours and tastings. Each is accessible within the limited hours of a daytime port call.

Related: How to get to Puerto Rico on points and miles

Arrival details

San Juan Cruise Terminal
The San Juan cruise terminal. (Photo by Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock.com)

The Old San Juan Piers are at Marina Street, conveniently located at the center of the district. This places most of the significant historic and cultural sites, including the iconic El Morro fortress, within easy walking distance. The piers feature modern terminal buildings and passengers will also find tours and transportation staged nearby.

Pier 3 mainly serves Royal Caribbean and its Oasis-class ships, the cruise industry’s largest. The terminal features a two-story complex that houses restaurants, galleries and a duty-free shopping center. Pier 4 is managed by Carnival Cruise Lines and generally serves that line’s ships and affiliated vessels. San Juan’s Pan America Pier is situated south of the Old San Juan district of Isla Grande and serves larger cruise vessels.

Most ships call at the port for up to eight hours, giving cruisers time to explore several Puerto Rico highlights. Ships arrive in San Juan as early as noon and sail late in the evening.

Fast facts

  • Time zone: Eastern time zone
  • Languages: English and Spanish
  • Currency: U.S. dollar

How to get around

On foot: Several of the island’s major sights are within walking distance of the piers, although it’s simple to book a tour of local sites through your cruise line.

By bike: Travelers can rent bikes at establishments that are within walking distance of the cruise piers. Try Rent the Bicycle at 100 Calle del Muelle. A daily rental is about $32, or rent by the hour (around $10).

By taxi: You can also arrange for a taxi or private car, or even a luxury or premium automobile tour.

By car: While you can rent a car, we think it’s far easier to explore on foot, by bike or taxi/ride-hailing service.

By bus: Public buses are also available.

Top sights and shore excursions

The historic Puerto Rican capital of San Juan offers every element of a contemporary warm-weather vacation, with sun-filled skies, white-sand beaches and brilliant blue waters. San Juan also features historic and architectural attractions, from grand colonial palaces to airy public plazas to the massive stone walls that encircle parts of the city.

San Juan’s Condado and Isla Verde districts offer a multitude of bars, restaurants, craft shops and boutiques, plus plenty of nightlife, open-air music and entertainment. San Juan provides visitors with another variable treasured by travelers: fun. There’s an unmistakable atmosphere of good times running across this pulsating port city. Here are some favorite pastimes for cruisers visiting San Juan:

San Juan highlights

Air-conditioned bus tours of San Juan encompass the primary highlights of the new and Old San Juan districts. The tour passes Condado Beach’s luxury hotels and condominiums and the Window of the Sea coastal outcropping. Continuing into Old San Juan, the tour passes the Capitol City Building and San Cristobal Fort. The outing ends at iconic El Morro Castle, the majestic 16th-century fortification. Other tour highlights include San Jose Church, the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest church, and Paseo de la Princesa, which offers sweeping views and a grand fountain overlooking the sea.

Bacardi Rum Distillery

This guided tour of the family-founded Casa Bacardi provides visitors with a historic view of San Juan and Puerto Rico through its sugar-cane industry and rum-making legacies. An introductory video follows the rum-making process from raw cane to molasses to the spirit, from vat to barrel to bottle, after which guests can sample the finished product, pick up some rum recipes and enjoy free time to browse the on-site gift shop and museum, as well as post images and short videos to social media via an in-facility production room. There is also an open-air restaurant adjoining the facility.

Bioluminescent Bay kayak adventure

Kayak the waters of Laguna Grande, a bioluminescent bay located within Las Cabezas de San Juan Reserve, whose waters glow green with each paddle stroke. Kayakers traverse the calm channel through a tunnel of mangroves on their way to the lagoon. Once there, guides discuss the birds, fish and other aquatic life while kayakers have time to enjoy the natural bioluminescent phenomenon, visible only after dark.

El Yunque National Forest tour

El Yunque National Forest. (Photo by HPH-media/Shutterstock)

Passing charming towns and rural communities on the 25-minute drive from San Juan, this tour of the pleasantly cool, 28,000-acre El Yunque National Forest begins with a leisurely walk amid splendid rainforest flora and fauna, followed by a short bus ride within the park to the Yohaku observation tower for panoramic views. Guests also visit an interpretative station at Coca Waterfall, once believed to be the legendary fountain of youth.

Old San Juan walking tour

Puerto Rico’s rich history and architectural heritage comes alive on this guided walk of the colonial city’s oldest sections, which date back 500 years. Stroll the quarter’s cobblestone streets, lined with tropical-hued buildings. Visit elegant plazas as your guide introduces key sights and monuments. The tour also includes San Felipe del Morro fortress.

Best beaches in San Juan

Many of Puerto Rico’s best beaches are found on the island’s eastern and western edges, beyond the San Juan proper. Yet there is still a handful of local beaches worth visiting.

While relatively small and at times a bit crowded, Condado Beach extends for several miles east of downtown and is a short taxi ride from Old San Juan. The entrance to this public beach is tucked between high-rise resorts. The beach offers the added convenience of proximity to the nearby Condado shopping and entertainment district.

Condado Beach. (Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Two-mile-long Isla Verde Beach is located 15 minutes from central San Juan and is very popular with families who enjoy its white sands and warm water. The beach is shared by a strip of premium hotels and features several restaurants. Parasailing, Jet Skiing and other water sports are available, and many consider Isla Verde Beach among the Caribbean’s best urban beaches.

Another intimate beach, El Escambron, borders Old San Juan and the modern Condado District. Framed by a combination of ancient city fortifications and modern skyscrapers, El Escambron is San Juan’s most picturesque beach and is located within Tercer Milenio Park, which offers recreational activities including stand-up paddleboarding.

Where to eat and drink

Dining out in San Juan encompasses everything from white-tablecloth fine dining to local food trucks serving delicious indigenous cuisine. Indeed, Puerto Rico has emerged in recent years as a “foodie” destination whose cuisine incorporates African, Caribbean, Latin and European influences and traditions.

San Juan is also recognized for a vibrant cocktail scene. The pina colada originated in San Juan and innovative refreshing drinks continue to be a city hallmark. There are numerous hip, trendy bars and classic bars and restaurants in Old San Juan, as well as across the Condado and Isla Verde districts. Brewery tours and rum tastings are also available.

Look for these local specialties:

  • Mufungo: Deep-fried green plantains mashed with garlic and served with pork, chicken, crab meat or skirt steak.
  • Tostones: Deep-fried plantain wheels, usually served with “mayoketchup” and garlic.
  • Lechon: A slowly spit-roasted pork dish with juicy meat and crispy skin.

The San Juan suburb of Santurce is home to a lively art scene punctuated with hip restaurants featuring international cuisine spiced by locally sourced ingredients and traditional Puerto Rican recipes.

Food parks like Lote 23 and the Miramar Food Truck Park feature kiosks and food trucks operated by innovative chefs offering exquisite bite-sized dining in a casual atmosphere. Entire streets now feature popular restaurants, including Calle Loiza and Calle Fortaleza. Other top restaurants include:

1919

The “ocean to table” cuisine at this upscale restaurant at the historic Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is the product of Executive Chef Juan José Cuevas’ sophisticated palate. Special selections include crispy grain salad, braised veal cheeks over an apio polenta, passion fruit curd, coconut ganache and pineapple-cilantro sorbet.

Cocina al Fondo

This small, inconspicuous family restaurant on Ponce de Leon Avenue in the Miramar neighborhood can be easy to miss as it is in the back of an art cooperative and lacks obvious signage. Reservations are recommended. Dishes feature creative, fresh and flavorfully spicy Creole food at reasonable prices (between $10 and $24 per entrée).

Hecho en Casa

This family-run restaurant not only has the feel of an authentic Puerto Rican home, its name literally means “homemade.” The eatery’s “comida criolla” entrees include some of Puerto Rico’s most traditional staple dishes and feature products and ingredients grown locally in Puerto Rico, all made from scratch, in-house.

Where to shop

When you’re shopping in San Juan, look for souvenirs like:

  • Handmade arts and crafts
  • Handmade garments in tropical colors
  • Hand-rolled cigars
  • Custom and high-end jewelry
  • Paintings and artwork

The cobblestone streets of Old San Juan are lined with small craft shops, art galleries and artisan goods. Travelers will find traditional vejigante masks in two styles: classic Loiza coconut masks and the Ponce-style papier-mache version.

Visitors will also find woven hammocks, home decor items and ceramics, serigraphs, paintings and sculptures depicting scenes from the Old City or the countryside of Puerto Rico.

Old San Juan also houses numerous art galleries, such as Galeria Exodo and Galeria Botello, which offer original pieces in different mediums by Puerto Rican artists. Shopaholic travelers should also make time to visit:

Ole Hat Shop

Ole Puerto Rico, located at 105 Calle de la Fortaleza, is a wonderful family-run, old-world hat emporium where the friendly staff will create a custom-made Panama hat for you on the spot. The prices are reasonable, and the customer picks the style of hat and the hatband. By the way, “Panama” hats actually originated in Ecuador, but so many workers wore them during the Panama Canal’s construction that the nickname stuck.

Shopconcalma

Located on Old San Juan’s Calle de San Francisco, this shop sells handmade purses and bags designed in collaboration with local artists using multicolored fabrics and recycled denim, and also carries jewelry, clothing and art by local designers.

Pop

This collaborative marketplace showcases young creatives and has a permanent location in a two-floor warehouse space in Santurce. Look for locally designed clothing and accessories, handmade jewelry, books, art and even services like hairstyling.

Bottom line

San Juan combines historic architecture and attractions that embody the island’s rich legacy and historic past with contemporary authentic Latin and American culture evident in the city’s upscale hotels, trendy restaurants and bars, diverse shopping opportunities and homegrown contemporary art scene. There’s really too much to do in one port call but that’s what return trips are for. If there was ever a must-disembark port of call, San Juan is it.

Featured image by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.

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