San Juan, Puerto Rico, the cruise port is popular as a cruise port-of-call and an embarkation spot. I’ve visited via a cruise port-of-call and flown to the island to begin a week-long cruise. Whatever way you get there, you will enjoy a bounty of offerings in a cultural, colorful Caribbean setting that will knock your socks off. Welcome to an American territory (an independent country) with fascinating attractions, an affordable price tag, and apparent Spanish influence.
There are many things to do in San Juan for the foodie, history buff, gambler, outdoor lover, and families. Here are my suggestions for what to do at the cruise port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as I experienced on my last Carnival Cruise a week before COVID shut down the world.
What a Foodie Might Like
There isn’t any better way to taste your way through a new place than through a food tour. On the Flavors of San Juan tour, recommended by Cruise Critic, I had the opportunity to try local cuisine and eateries and learn to make perfect mojitos.
The two-hour tour weaved us through the cobblestone streets and 16th-century Colonial architecture, stopping in the town’s hotspots for a nibble. Bites included rice and beans, ham croquettes, tres leches cake, and Mofongo, the local dish made of mashed green plantains with olive oil and garlic, stuffed with pork, seafood, or chicken topped with garlic sauce and tomatoes.
The favorite stop on the food tour was Rosa di Triana (unfortunately, now closed), where we ate vegetable and ham croquettes, beans, and tapas items. The Flavors of San Juan tour included Puerto Rican coffee, sangria, and mojitos drinks. If you’d prefer to eat your way around San Juan on your own, be sure to include a piece of Tres Leches cake and drink a strong Puerto Rican coffee.
A place I recommend is Pirilo Pizza Rustica. The Empanada Sampler is an excellent starter to whet your appetite. The pumpkin-filled ravioli is to die for, and the top-notch Margherita pizza.
SOFO, south of Fortaleza, is known for fine-dining and awesome outdoor food festivals.
Tip: Wear comfortable shoes for your cruise port day in San Juan. Walking around on cobblestones all day is tough.
What a History Buff Might Like
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, consists of hundreds of preserved buildings and is made up of only seven blocks. There are beautiful courtyards and colored patterned tiles, while picturesque parks and squares, such as Plaza de Armas, are plentiful with sculptures and fountains. You can find the Christopher Columbus statue at Plaza Colón, formerly known as Santiago Square.
A quick overview of Puerto Rico’s history is that Columbus arrived in 1493, and the country was settled in 1511. By 1898, Puerto Rico was under US rule.
Five-hundred-year-old Castillo de San Cristóbal fortress, once a military threshold, is my favorite place to visit in San Juan. The circa 1783 historical attraction is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service since 1973. If you collect NPS stamps, you can get four stamps in San Juan at:
- Castillo San Cristóbal
- Castillo San Felipe Del Morro
- City Walls of Old San Juan
- Fortin San Juan de la Cruz
San Cristobal is where you will find the well-preserved city wall and bastions, tunnels, a dungeon, three levels of fortresses, and an observation deck. The Cristóbal property is really steep and requires some strenuous walking to reach the top. Stay determined—the 360-degree views are sensational from there. It costs $10 for a day pass, getting you into El Morro, a citadel built between the 16th and 18th centuries to guard the San Juan Bay entrance. El Morro dates back to 1539.
Fun Fact: You’ll be able to view Castillo San Felipe del Morro as you sail into the cruise port of San Juan.
Take To The Streets
Take Colonial Street to visit La Fortaleza, the Governor’s mansion and 16th-century fortification. Another impressive stop is the San Juan Cathedral, which holds the remains of explorer Ponce de Leon. His body was moved here in 1913 and encased in a marble crypt. This cathedral is the second oldest in the Americas.
You’ll find a fun Instagram-worthy flag of Puerto Rico mural on Calle Imperial worth the visit. It has six levels of tunnels and barracks. A stroll around Plaza de Armas is perfect for sightseeing, snapping photos, bird and cat watching, and taking selfies.
What a Gambler or Shopper Might Like
San Juan, Puerto Rico’s most significant capital city, has quite a few casinos, and with that always comes high-end shopping. For more traditional shopping, Calle Fortaleza is the top shopping area.
Visit the plush San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, the Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort, and Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino for the best gambling. Most casinos offer slots, roulette, blackjack, video poker, keno, craps, and Caribbean stud poker.
Pro Tip: Always be aware of pickpockets. I wear a cross-body purse and always leave expensive jewelry in the safe on the cruise ship.
What an Outdoor Lover Might Like in San Juan
My family has always enjoyed our time in San Juan, an affordable destination, and its gorgeous beaches. The entire coastline is picture-perfect, and the photos look more like postcards. Sunbathing, lying on the beach, and swimming are popular activities, as are fishing, golf, and water activities. You’ll find a superb selection of these activities—water skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, kitesurfing, and boat rentals— at Isla Verde Beach West.
San Juan is also a perfect place to unwind and do absolutely nothing but soak up the sun. We like to do just that at Condado Beach, with plenty of cafes and spots for refreshments. Laguna del Condado is where to go for a manatee lagoon.
Family Fun in San Juan, Puerto Rico
The picturesque Old San Juan has a beautiful collection of preserved buildings and Puerto Rico’s rich culture and history. Dreamy courtyards and bold-colored homes are scattered between old churches, newly developed parks, and the vibrant Caribbean Sea. You can easily walk this part of town within an hour from side to side, and that be one of the best things to do at the cruise port of San Juan. Keep your eye out for huge iguanas and stray cats (fed through a devoted community program) on land and dolphins and whales in the water.
A fun attraction to visit is the San Juan Botanical Garden of Puerto Rico, with over 75 acres of urban parks and tropical flowers to explore, smell, and enjoy.
Pro Tip: If you have a US cell phone, you can use it in Puerto Rico with no additional roaming charges. You can take advantage of this to catch up with your family.
Make It An Overnight
The Piña Colada, an island staple made from white rum (Puerto Rico is Bacardi’s home), coconut milk, and pineapple juice, was supposedly invented over fifty years ago in San Juan at the Caribe Hilton Hotel. A bartender from the hotel’s Beachcomber Bar won a contest with his brilliant recipe in August 1952. I have stayed at the Caribe Hilton Hotel property a few times, and it is always spic and span, plus absolutely beautiful. You can often find great rates using Kayak, too.
Fun Fact: You can tour the Bacardi Rum Factory and get a personal look at how the rum is made.
The Caribe Hilton sits on a 17-acre peninsula between Old Town San Juan and Condado. The beach views are phenomenal, rooms are tastefully decorated, and the immaculate pool and lush landscaping are to be admired. You may never want to leave the pool and relaxation area, complete with bed-style lounges on the waterfront. There is also the Oasis Spa for ultimate relaxation.
Enjoy your time exploring San Juan, Puerto Rico, on your next cruise vacation.
San Juan Photo Gallery
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