All photos by Keshia Gutiérrez
Today’s San Juan City Guide is from Keshia Gutiérrez, a freelance fashion and textile consultant who lives in Brooklyn. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she tries to visit her native island as often as possible, especially to escape the cold New York months. When not working or traveling, she can be found writing a poetry/cultural blog in Spanish called Musarañas under the pseudonym Lola. Today she shares the many cultural, culinary and charming gems of this capital city. Thanks, Keshia, for this spectacular guide! — Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump . . .
Puerto Rico is well known for its wonderful beaches, festive energy and warm people, but the capital San Juan is also full of art, music and a great restaurant scene. I always suggest staying for couple days to have enough time to get out of the city and explore the rest of the island. Good day trips or weekend getaways include El Yunque rain forest, the offshore islands of Vieques and Culebra, the surfing town Rincón and the city of Ponce.
The below guide includes only the main tourist neighborhoods of San Juan and a curated list of places based on my experiences as a visiting New Yorker. And I would like to thank my dear friend, Lizmarie Domenech, for her help suggesting some of the night hangouts.
I hope you enjoy it!
OLD SAN JUAN
The charming Old City with its narrow cobblestone streets and old colonial architecture bursts with art and culture. Walk around and visit the shops, art galleries and local cafes. Embark on a DIY tour and discover the many squares, historic buildings and hidden interior patios. One of my favorite things to do is watch the array of flying kites in the open grass of El Morro, overlooking the city and the ocean. Look for the colorful pushcarts selling piraguas, a traditional frozen treat made of shaved ice and flavored syrup. And at night, there are many bars and lounges where one can listen to music and meet people.
401 Calle San Francisco, (787) 723-7731
A favorite spot for coffee! This lovely café prepares beautiful drinks using local products and serves a delicious breakfast. The large, airy, Old Spanish-style room is decorated with chandeliers and tall wooden doors propped open for people watching.
259 Calle San Francisco, (787) 722-0658
A real Old San Juan institution, this diner/bakery dates back to 1902. Artists, literary luminaries and politicians have gathered here for more than a century. This place is legendary for their mallorca, a delicious and buttery-sweet bread toasted and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Also known for their excellent café con leche, poured from a 1940s coffee maker. Always busy on the weekends, I recommend coming here early in the morning or after lunchtime.
300 Calle San Francisco, (787) 724-4607
Another authentic cafetería serving the notorious mallorcas. There are specific places where I prefer to sit at the bar, and this is one of them. A seat at the long counter offers you the best spot to experience the energy of this old-school diner while having breakfast, lunch or simply enjoying a cup of café.
This is a quaint, European-like bistro with a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. What I love about this place is that it’s located away from the main streets of Old San Juan. Excellent for breakfast, lunch or an afternoon treat. They have wonderful salads and sandwiches!
407 Calle San Francisco, (787) 722-5205
Overlooking Plaza Cólon and with outdoor seating, this German/Puerto Rican café has many interesting vegan, vegetarian and seafood options to choose from. Also offers an excellent Sunday brunch.
Cafe El Punto
If you find yourself strolling around Old San Juan at lunchtime, this is the place to experience traditional Puerto Rican food. It is located down a brightly painted hallway surrounded by souvenir and art shops. Either the seafood or the vegetarian stuffed avocados are a must!
366 Calle San Francisco, (787) 725-0271
This little joint prepares yummy fruit juices and smoothies. They also have a variety of organic yogurts as well as healthy salads and wraps.
359 San Francisco St.
An excellent deli-café to enjoy healthy Creole food at great prices (most menu items are under $10!!). They also have vegetarian options, fresh fruit juices, smoothies and a back patio!
Patio Del Nispero
Inside the Old City’s most historic hotel, El Covento, this beautiful open-air patio restaurant is a comfortable place to catch lunch or afternoon drinks and starters.
51 Calle Cristo, (787) 722-0124
This casual and bohemian bistro decorated with vintage Puerto Rican memorabilia from the 50s offers a French/Algerian-influenced menu and is also a great place for drinks.
364 Calle Fortaleza, (787) 977-3886
This Asian-Latin fusion restaurant is a hot spot for dinner and late night meals. The portion sizes, called platos (plates), are somewhere between appetizers and entrees. They do not take reservations. But it is recommended to call early during the day of the visit and put your name on the wait list. The subdued ambience of the lounge bar downstairs is perfect for drinks while waiting for a table.
This is a lovely Italian restaurant with a warm ambience that’s perfect for a romantic dinner. The menu offers a selection of Italian specialties, seafood dishes, pizzas and a varied wine list. The pizzas are a must-try! They also have a nice bar area and a patio.
La Taberna Lúpulo
200 Calle Sol, (787) 721-3772
A craft-beer bar with an amazing selection of brews from the US and EU. It is small but cozy and friendly. I like the décor of artsy painted walls and origami birds hanging from the ceiling. Popular among locals, this is the spot for those who want to stay away from the average tourist spots.
Los 3 Cuernos
403 Calle San Francisco, in front of Plaza Colón
Former carnival-mask shop turned local hangout. Try their original take on the traditional drink chichaíto (chee-cha-ee-toh), a mixture of white rum and anise liquor spiked with flavor and served by the shot, or paired with a six pack of Medalla (the local beer). They have many flavors of chichaíto, ranging from coffee, lemon, chocolate, ginger and fruit juices. It is a small establishment, and it gets packed on weekends, but it’s a good place to start the night.
Nuestro Son Bar & Café Teatro
259 Calle Tetuán, (787) 942-2222
A restaurant during the day — serving an international menu that includes sandwiches, quesadillas and pancakes — that becomes a music venue at night. Great to listen to local Spanish rock and indie bands.
Located in a quaint alleyway, this famous dance venue features a live band every night playing a mix of salsa and jazz. The place attracts all ages, as well as beginners and pro salsa dancers.
100 Calle San Sebastián, (787) 725-7819
This unpretentious bar is a casual hangout for locals and visitors. You can come here as early as 11am, or much later in the wee hours because they stay open until 4am. The second floor has pool tables and tall wooden doors overlooking the street and Plaza San José. Also, you can order food from next-door restaurant El Patio de Sam.
The Poet’s Passage
203 Calle Cruz, (787) 721-0564
Owned by local poet Lady Lee Andrews and her husband, French painter Nicolas Thomassin, this magical store showcases original artwork and poetry. Check out the Open Mic on Tuesday nights (from 7–11pm), when local and visiting poets come to read their work. Poems are read in Spanish and English.
San Juan-based label of environmentally sustainable bags by RISD grad Matilsha Marxuach. These trendy handbags, messengers and totes come in a clever combination of colors and cute patterns. All the bags are made by a local industrial women’s co-op.
Iconica sells original hand-screened t-shirts, really cool skateboards and other awesome stuff. The series of the Spacemonkey is my fave.
103 Calle San José, (787) 723-1229
Amazing antique shop with rooms filled with unique period vintage furniture, oil paintings, silver, porcelain and religious art.
Tienda Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
At Plaza San José next to San José Church, (787) 721-6866
The official store of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Here you can find a lot interesting items related to Puerto Rico culture, souvenirs, art and crafts.
200 Calle Tetuán, Corner of Calle Cruz (787) 724-8200
This is the second location of the legendary university bookstore. It serves as an intimate space to exchange ideas, and it’s where many author presentations and readings take place. Their main store in Rio Piedras is worth a visit for those with a passion for Spanish literature.
Colorful shop where you can find a selection of local spices, herbs, sauces, gourmet coffee, chocolate, jams and traditional candies.
Every Saturday from 8am to 1pm, vendors set up at the courtyard of the Museo de San Juan for the Old City’s first organic market. Find local produce like plátanos, cocos and guanábanas, as well as spices, specialty coffee and traditional delicacies and desserts.
A contemporary art gallery located in the former colonial mansion of Angel Botello, one of the most important Latin American-Puerto Rican artists of the 20th century. The gallery displays his iconic paintings and sculptures as well as the artwork of other outstanding Latin American artists.
Obra Galeria Alegria
This beautiful space dedicated to the arts has an impressive collection representing the work of outstanding Puerto Rican and international masters along with works by young contemporary artists.
Catedral De San Juan (San Juan Cathedral)
153 Calle del Cristo, (787) 722-0861
Built in 1540 and restored several times, this Catholic Church holds the tomb of the Spanish explorer and first governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León. Make sure that when you exit the church, you head down Caleta de Las Monjas, a charming tree-lined street that will take you to La Puerta de San Juan (San Juan Gate), where you can start a stroll along Paseo La Princesa, a promenade bordering the impressive fortification walls of the Old City, and the bay.
Castillo San Felipe Del Morro (San Felipe Del Morro Fortress)
At the end of Calle Norzagaray, (787) 729-6960
Called El Morro and constructed in 1540, it’s one of the oldest Spanish forts in the Americas. From this six-level castle 140 ft. above the sea, you will see the most breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and San Juan Bay.
Sala de Exhibiciones Rafael Carrión Pacheco
206 Calle Tetuán, (787) 722-7329
While writing this guide, I discovered a secret room that few people know about (a “born and raised” myself, I never heard of it until now). Inside the 3rd floor of the art deco Banco Popular landmark building, there is a museum that (quoting the article found) “showcases island-centric exhibits.” Currently, it’s showing En Rieles, an exhibition that explores the need and importance of implementing alternative urban transportation systems in the San Juan metro area. Free and open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.
Hotel El Convento
Once a Carmelite convent (365 years ago . . . ), this is a beautiful hotel with a Spanish colonial style and classic elegance. There is an open-air courtyard filled with tropical foliage, an outdoor guest lounge, four amazing restaurants and a sun terrace overlooking the ocean.
This is an intimate and sophisticated boutique hotel in the heart of Old San Juan. Small but very quaint. The modern interiors, high ceilings, arched doorways and windows create a charming and inviting atmosphere. Each of the 18 rooms has a balcony overlooking the streets of the Old City.
Another boutique hotel with an eclectic, Moroccan-style décor. Also located in Sofo (the heart of Old San Juan) and steps away from shops, restaurants and bars.
Located on the quaint, tree-lined street Caleta de Las Monjas, the apartments inside this colonial townhouse are a perfect choice for large families or a group of friends.
This upscale neighborhood is one of San Juan’s fashion hubs. A quick stroll along Ashford Avenue reveals shops bearing names like Cartier, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Salvatore Ferragamo. There are many hotels, casinos, spas, open-air bars and restaurants. It is also a very walkable area with oceanfront blocks, the beach on the north and a beautiful lagoon on the southwest side.
1451 Ashford Avenue, between Fuddruckers and Starbucks, (787) 289-8080
My favorite brunch spot! Owner Alex García has created a great, casual place with a nice and relaxing vibe. Try their yummy fresh wraps, vegetarian options and signature batidas (fruit smoothie/shake).
Pure & Natural
1125 Ashford Avenue, (787) 725-6104
This healthy cafe and juice bar offers wraps, salads, fresh fruit and vegetable juices, and many vegan/vegetarian friendly options. They also have yummy and healthy desserts.
If you are after a fine-dining experience, Chef Roberto Treviño’s Budatai, is a worthy place. This is a gorgeous restaurant with wall-sized windows and a terrace overlooking Ventana al Mar, an oceanfront plaza. The menu is a brilliant and delicious mix of local flavors and Asian ingredients. Make reservations.
Another of Chef Treviño’s restaurants. Right on Ashford Avenue, this is a Spanish Tasca with a tasty menu of authentic tapas, pizzetas and paellas.
1302 Ashford Avenue
Sister tasca to Bar Gitano, this is another great place to grab drinks and listen to music. They have live Latino Jazz every Wednesday night and Flamenco every Sunday.
1507 Calle Loíza, (787) 473-8161
This is a new bar with a vintage barbershop theme. A former barbershop (the name El Bar-Bero is the Spanish word for “barber”), the guys behind the concept wanted to continue the long tradition of the trade. They make popular drinks from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s and serve their own liquor infusions in funny original canecas (liquor flasks). It is very much a local hangout but the place to mingle with young sanjuaneros and listen to live music.
For a South Beach vibe, come to this retro, urban and chic lobby lounge where fancy people sip on fancy cocktails and be seen.
Ventana al Mar (Window to the Sea)
Ashford Avenue left to La Concha Resort
This plaza with a spectacular oceanfront view is a nightspot for music and drinks. If you happen to visit on the last Sunday of the month, do not miss Ventana al Jazz (from 5pm–10pm), a free outdoor jazz concert hosted by Heineken.
Hecho A Mano
Ethnic clothing and handmade jewelry store. Their collections always include beautiful tribal prints, ikats and solid pieces in tropical, bright colors. And all elaborated with organic materials.
1051 Ashford Avenue, (787) 721-0456
This is the boutique of one of the island’s premier designers, Nono Maldonado. A former Esquire magazine fashion editor, Nono is well known for his sophisticated linen resort wear. The store sells his ready-to-wear and couture lines.
Another well-known and internationally respected local designer whose graphic prints, bold colors and long dresses define island chic. He also designs a swimsuit and men’s ready-to-wear line.
At Venta del Mar Square
Event held at Ventana del Mar the first Sunday of every month from 9am to 5pm. Under big tents with oceanfront views, 40 to 50 local farmers and vendors from all over the island sell their homegrown or homemade products. Shoppers can load up on local produce, herbs, sauces, honey, traditional candies, breads, sangria, artisanal cheeses, vinegars and the most interesting ice cream flavors.
A restored architectural landmark, this hotel has a retro-urban style featuring a multi-level infinity pool, oceanfront rooms, their trademark seashell restaurant, La Perla, and a state-of-the-art casino.
Wind Chimes Inn
For a more budget-friendly option, this Spanish colonial villa is a good choice. It is located one block from the beach and has a tiki bar.
This is a laid-back residential community with a nice beach and casual places to eat and hang out. Ocean Park Beach is my favorite location to have a playa day. Rent a chair and umbrella, bring a book and tanning lotion and have fun in the sun. Buy drinks and cervezas from vendors passing by announcing their products. Take a walk on the beach and head east to a small surf spot called Punta Las Marias. Try windsurfing and kayaking!
Eat and Drink
This is a local panadería (bakery), perfect for breakfast and lunch. Come here for tempting pastries and treats, homemade soup or one of a wide range of sandwiches. On weekends, be prepared to wait in line.
La B de Burro
2000 McLeary St, (787) 242-0295
Stop here for a casual bite after a day at the beach. This is a small and mellow Mexican joint with a lucha libre meets Día de los Muertos décor. Awesome burritos, elote and margaritas.
57 Calle María Mozco, Corner of Mcleary (787) 998-8111
A nice after-beach hangout, this sports bar with outdoor seating has an eclectic menu of American and Caribbean cuisine.
1911 McLeary St, (787) 728-3377
This surf shop located at the main entrance to Ocean Park Beach stocks a great selection of major and local brands of beachwear, swimsuits and sunglasses. It’s also a place to find out about events happening around the neighborhood.
Intimate three-story guesthouse right on the beach. Their onsite restaurant, Pamela’s, offers seaside seating and a creative Caribbean-fusion menu. This is a great option if you are dreaming of spending lots of time at the beach.
This oceanfront neighborhood is known for its fancy resorts featuring restaurants, spas, casinos, clubs and private beaches. Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport is located here. An interesting fact is that Isla Verde doesn’t actually belong to San Juan but to the neighboring town of Carolina. Due to its proximity to nearby Condado and Ocean Park, is often included as part of the capital.
Small and casual Peruvian restaurant with an excellent seafood menu of traditional dishes from Peru mixed with Puerto Rican flavor and, of course, ceviche.
This is a cozy and bohemian restaurant that serves amazing and authentic comida criolla. Formerly located in a hacienda in the center of the island, it recently moved into the city. At night, the owners play music or invite other artists to come and play traditional folk music from the island.
This is an excellent Argentine restaurant with a casual and homey atmosphere. Locals and visitors come here for their deliciously authentic food, particularly the parrillada and the empanadas.
For a real feel of the island, take a bus or taxi from Isla Verde to Piñones (just a bit east once you pass the resort strip and along the scenic route 187). The complete opposite from the hotel strip (but very authentic), this is an outdoor area full with roadside eateries selling a variety of frituras (the traditional fried delicacies) and pinchos (skewers of grilled meat). There is a palm-lined boardwalk open for walking and biking that runs through a mangrove forest and along the coastline. It’s just a fantastic spot to get a piña colada and watch a Caribbean sunset. You can rent bikes by the hour at the COPI building near the Boca de Cangrejos bridge. And Soleil Beach Club, a rustic beachfront restaurant and bar, offers free shuttle service to the area from most hotels in San Juan.
Avenida Isla Verde, Punta Las Marías (787) 627-6774
A fairly new, lofty bar where you can enjoy tapas, cocktails, electronic music and good vibes.
2478 Ashford Avenue
Another nice, casual beach bar with outdoor seating, pool tables and live music.
Feel like dancing? This club inside El San Juan Resort & Casino features a mix of hip hop, house and reggaeton music.
This water-sports shop offers rental gear and lessons on paddleboarding, windsurfing, kiteboarding and surfing.
If you are up for splurging, Isla Verde has some of the city’s most exclusive hotels to indulge in days of spas, fine dining and gambling. Three of the best ones are El San Juan Resort & Casino (Hotel San Juan), The Ritz-Carlton San Juan (Ritz San Juan) and San Juan Water & Beach Club (Water Club )
Not necessarily a highly advertised tourist area, this off-the-beaten-path neighborhood has an interesting and emerging cultural scene. Also, it is home to the island’s best museums, art galleries and cultural venues. The area is best reached by taxi, but if you like to explore on your own, during the day, the AMA buses are a local way to go. (Note: I didn’t say easier.) Inquire at your hotel about nearby stops and routes. Also from Santurce, you can take the Tren Urbano rail system (DTOP) at the Sagrado Corazón Station and venture into other nearby neighborhoods like Hato Rey and Río Piedras or simply take a moving tour around the San Juan metro area.
1661 Ponce de León Avenue Suite 101, (787) 200-0447
This awesome café with a cirque-theatrical theme is the creation of a group of magical people. The yellow/white striped walls, vintage circus pictures, Tiffany lamps and wooden tables make a nice theatre café setting. Their breakfast menu includes French toast with brioche bread and fruit shakes. For lunch, they have yummy paninis, wraps and sandwiches. There is a small stage for plays and other events. You just have to love a place with red noses and rabbits.
Close to the Museum of Art, this lively local café is perfect for breakfast and lunch. They serve wraps, sandwiches and burgers but also other, more filling lunch daily specials.
1361 Calle Iturriaga, Esq. Canals, (787) 723.5577
Around the corner from La Placita, this is a rustic restaurant with an outdoor terrace and comfortable bar. Great for drinks and tapas on a Friday night.
La Casita Blanca
351 Calle Tapia, (787) 726-5501
Family home converted to a restaurant, and the place to taste authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. Their food is almost as good as my abuelita’s . . . I suggest you come for an early dinner.
At Calle Capitol and Calle Dos Hermanos
On weekend evenings, from Thursday through Saturday, this open-air plaza transforms into a block party with music, cheap drinks and late eating. The streets surrounding the Plaza del Mercado become alive with a diverse crowd — from college students and young professionals to old locals and older.
A bar with an underground vibe that holds art exhibitions, poetry events and shows by local indie bands. The atmosphere is very local since it’s outside the main tourist areas, but it can be a good opportunity to experience the island’s emerging cultural scene.
The largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, with over 300 stores, 40 eateries and 13 movie screens, it could be a good walking tour on a rainy day. It is located 15 minutes by taxi from Santurce (and from the rest of the areas mentioned in the guide), in the neighborhood of Hato Rey.
Plaza del Mercado
Calle Capitol at Calle Dos Hermanos, (787) 723-8022
This is a historic farmers’ market dating back to the late 1890s. Inside the West Indian-style building, you will find fruit and vegetable stands, vendors selling local produce, botanicas and some counters where you can get a bite to eat. Outside, around the square plaza, there are many bars and small eateries.
A cultural space dedicated to promoting contemporary art in Puerto Rico. The gallery showcases paint, sculpture and graphic work by local and international artists.
Housed in a three-level former tire warehouse, this gallery displays a collection that includes innovative works by emerging and well-known contemporary artists. Also holds the private collection of the Berezdivin, the art-collecting Cuban-born couple who have played an important role in the diffusion of visual arts in the island. Visit by appointment.
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR)
Housed in a 1920s neoclassic former municipal hospital, it has been transformed into 14 galleries featuring a wide range of Puerto Rican and global art masterpieces from the 17th century to the present. Make sure to visit the beautiful Sculpture Garden (behind the museum) containing contemporary sculptures by 15 local artists, a large koi pond and pathways through trees and plantings.
Museo De Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC)
Located a few blocks from the Museo De Arte De Puerto Rico, this museum features two floors of galleries around a large open courtyard. The art ranges from paintings to mixed media, sculpture, photography and video installations by artists from Latin America, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.
So many extraordinary Puerto Ricans! Well-recognized celebrities like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Benicio Del Toro belong to a long, long list of past and present singers, artists, writers, activists, boxers and baseball players, among others.
Below is a personal list of some Boricuas who are doing awesome things in the island or proudly representing elsewhere.
- Karla Cott: interdisciplinary artist
- Katia “Nubeluz” Modestti: mixed media artist
- Lorraine Rodríguez: photographer and illustrator
- Aby Ruiz: painter
- Kristine Servia: interdisciplinary artist
- Atarraya Cartonera: editorial project of hand-made books
- Elsa María Meléndez: mixed media artist
- Norein and Michelle Otero: fashion designer duo Ecliptica
- Omar Banuchi: illustrator