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.
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.
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.
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.
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.