San Juan, Puerto Rico: More Than Beaches and Bacardi

by Gray Cargill on March 8, 2011

El Morro

El Morro

A couple of weeks ago, one of my Twitter acquaintances (@retroguy777) asked me: “As a solo traveller, where should I go next?” This of course begged two follow-up questions from me, which were:

“Where have you been before?” and “What are your interests?”

He replied that his interests were “history, urban setting, architecture” and that he had been to Chicago and Philadelphia and loved them. He added that Boston and DC were on his list, so no need to mention those.  I thought for a moment. Any city in Europe would be terribly obvious. So instead, I suggested San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Fort San Cristobal

Fort San Cristobal

When many people think of San Juan, they think of the beaches, or the fact that it’s a popular cruise port, or the tasty pina coladas and mojitos that seem to be everywhere (there is a Bacardi rum factory on Catano, a short ferry ride away). But for history lovers, Old San Juan is a treasure trove. It’s the oldest city in the U.S., founded in 1521. It has two well-preserved forts to explore, Fort San Felipe del Morro (aka “El Morro”) and Fort San Cristobal; a one-time fort that is now used as the Governor’s Mansion, La Fortaleza (built in 1540); two very old churches that are still standing today, Cathedral de San Juan (originally built in 1521, destroyed in a hurricane, and rebuilt) and Iglesia San Jose (built in 1523); El Convento, the luxury hotel that was built as a convent in the 1600s (the Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San Jose); La Princesa, a former penitentiary built in the 1800s; and many more fascinating historical sites.

Cathedral de San Juan

Cathedral de San Juan

From the narrow, cobblestone streets and Spanish Plazas to the vibrant pastel colors of the buildings, there is plenty of eye candy here for the architecture lover as well. Much of the architecture of Old San Juan reflects the military history of the island, of course, but it also retains the Spanish Colonial influence even today–arched doors and windows, stucco walls, carved doors, second floor balconies overlooking the streets, and interior courtyards. San Juan is also a modern city, though not packed with skyscrapers the way that New York City or Chicago are. Outside of Old San Juan and the beach resort areas, visitors may find themselves drawn to Rio Piedras, home to the University of Puerto Rico and the botanical gardens.

Building architecture

San Juan's architecture is distinctive

San Juan is a great transition destination for solo travelers who have so far focused on the North American continent and are thinking about traveling further afield. It’s still part of the U.S.–it uses U.S. currency and English is spoken widely here–but it retains just enough Spanish and Caribbean island influence to make you feel like you’re not in the U.S. any more.  Spanish is also widely spoken here, so if you’re hoping to practice your Spanish, just go beyond the tourist zones.

A Street in Old San Juan

A Street in Old San Juan

I can attest to the fact that San Juan is a solo-friendly destination, having traveled there myself last year during my escape from the New England winter chill. So if you, like @retroguy777, are a history and architecture lover looking or a solo-friendly travel destination, you might think about San Juan. Especially if you’re an architecture and history lover who can also appreciate a lazy day on a sunny beach. In that case, dig your toes into the sand and have a mojito for me.

Caribe Hilton Beach

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Gray June 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

Hi, Gigi! Thanks for stopping by. Check out all my Puerto Rico posts under Categories: Puerto Rico (see drop down box in sidebar of this page). That should help dispel some of your nerves. San Juan is very solo-friendly and a lot of fun. Should be quite hot and humid in July. Are you staying on the beach?

Gee May 28, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Hi Gray!

I just stumbled upon your blog and I love it. I’m also a solo traveler who just booked a trip to San Juan for the 4th of July- my first trip to the Caribbean. I’m a little nervous and excited. Its my first trip off of the mainland. Do you have any advice for a fellow female solo traveler?

Thanks and really enjoying your blog!

Gee May 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Hi Gray!

I just stumbled upon your blog and I love it. I’m also a solo traveler who just booked a trip to San Juan for the 4th of July- my first trip to the Caribbean. I’m a little nervous and excited. Its my first trip off of the mainland. Do you have any advice for a fellow female solos traveler?

Thanks and really enjoying your blog!

GRRRL TRAVELER March 18, 2011 at 3:44 am

So yay- your post just reminded me to put Puerto Rico on my list! I’m not big for beaches and bacardi, but the cultural and historical/architectural aspect seems kinda nice.

Gray March 18, 2011 at 10:55 am

It’s definitely worth a visit, Christine.

bluegreen kirk March 10, 2011 at 7:46 pm

I must admit the last place I would have suggested is Puerto Rico. I someone said beaches, women, and Bacardi it would be in my top five. Then again I haven’t travel as much as a lot of the readers and when i do its only for beaches and getting away from the 40 plus hours at work.

Gray March 10, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Whereas I couldn’t do a purely beach vacation. I’d be bored out of my mind. I like places with diverse offerings. Puerto Rico definitely fit the bill. Not that I don’t understand the temptation of “down time” on your vacation, I just can’t seem to do it myself.

hotel in sydney March 10, 2011 at 5:39 am

Nice post, really beautiful photos. I think that Puerto Rico is really a great place to go for holiday. Thanks for sharing.

Alouise March 9, 2011 at 4:08 am

I definitely wouldn’t have thought of Puerto Rico as a historical destination. Seems like a fantastic place to travel to. The fact there’s mojitos is enough to convince me.

Gray March 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm

It’s awesome, Alouise. I highly recommend.

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