Type to search

Featured Tourism/Transportation

36 Hours in San Juan, Puerto Rico

By Luisita López Torregrosa

Luisita López Torregrosa was born in Puerto Rico and has written a memoir recalling her childhood on the island.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — There’s new optimism in this Caribbean capital. Tourists are coming in record numbers, and the city is recovering the energy it lost after the devastation of Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017; the emigration of tens of thousands to the mainland; a bankrupt economy; and the pandemic. In Old San Juan, the 500-year-old colonial enclave of pastel-colored architecture and ancient forts, and beyond, eclectic restaurants, experimental art and celebrated gritty bars like La Factoría are firing up the Puerto Rican spirit. Calle Cerra in the former working-class barrio of Santurce is now the epicenter of the island’s public art movement, featuring giant murals alongside a lively nightlife scene where you can join in on the chinchorreo, a local term for bar hopping and street dancing.

People walk down a street in Old San Juan, the colonial enclave of pastel-colored architecture and ancient forts.



Castillo San Felipe del Morro

3:30 p.m. | See colonial history
Old San Juan is easily walkable. Start at the Paseo de la Princesa, a promenade with fountains and sculptures that runs along San Juan Bay and the city’s fortress walls. It goes by La Fortaleza, the 16th-century governor’s mansion, and comes close to the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, where it is said the bones of Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who became Puerto Rico’s first governor, are buried. The stroll ends on Punta del Morro, a waterfront path that culminates at the bottom of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, also known as El Morro, a 16th-century fortress. It still has some original cannons facing the Atlantic. Entry, $10; 2 1/2-hour tours, $49. Or just relax on the expansive green lawn where kite-flying is popular.

5 p.m. | Shop for art and trinkets
From El Morro, descend the single-file sidewalks on Calle del Cristo, with its galleries, bars and outdoor cafes. Take a brief break inside El Convento hotel’s serene courtyard, or on a tree-shaded bench at the intersecting Calle Caleta. Continue down Cristo to Galería Botello, a free museum in a 350-year-old house dedicated to Ángel Botello, the Galician artist who came to San Juan in the 1950s and was known as the Caribbean Gauguin for his paintings of Haitian women. Botello prints run $50 to $125, and his santos, carved wooden figures, sell for $500 to $3,000. Nearby, the Puerto Rican Art and Crafts stocks acrylic paintings, ceramics and vejigantes, folkloric masks that resemble the faces of colorful demons, sporting horns. Masks from $15 to $44.

6:30 p.m. | Relax in a wine bar

Pio Pio

Across Plaza de Armas, the wine bar Pio Pio, a secluded space that declares its name with a Barbie-pink sign over the bar, has luxury plates like lobster rolls with sturgeon caviar ($32), unusual wines (including Llopart Corpinnat Rosé, an organic sparkling rosé from Catalunya, Spain, $14 a glass), and cocktails like a vodka martini that hits the spot with a dash of orange bitters ($17).

8 p.m. | Savor a beautiful dinner
By this time, the celebrated bar La Factoría, inside a century-old building, already has a line down the sidewalk. It’s worth waiting to enjoy the signature Lavender Mule (ginger tea, vodka, lavender and citrus; $12.80) in the bar’s standing-room-only scruffy main room or one of its smaller drinking dens, reached via dark passageways. Then stroll downhill to Marmalade, whose pale rooms of arches and alcoves evoke Moorish Andalusia. The ahi tuna tartare, seasoned with harissa (North African chile paste), and the bite-size pieces of paella served like sushi rolls are memorable. Leave room for the Choco-L8, eight flavors of local organic chocolate with hazelnut accents. Five courses (each course has eight to 10 choices), $135. Wine pairings, $79 per person. Reservations recommended.


People dance to salsa music at Factoria.


8:30 a.m. | Stroll by the sea
Enjoy an espresso ($1.50) with a fresh mallorca pastry (a spiral sweet bun; $3.50) at Sobao, an indoor-outdoor cafe at the AC Hotel by Marriott, then walk along Avenida Ashford until you reach a small park called Ventanas al Mar (Windows to the Sea), which has a path that leads to the beach. It is packed, mainly with hotel guests, but anyone may rent a chair for $5 and an umbrella for $10. (All beaches in Puerto Rico are public, even those claimed by hotels.) In the lobby of the Condado Vanderbilt hotel next door check out Wild Side, a boutique that carries fine beachwear and sculptural jewelry in gold and silver by the Puerto Rican artist María Blondet.

The sun deck at the Condado Vanderbilt hotel

11 a.m. | Visit a museum
The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, in a neoclassical building in Santurce, a center of the arts and nightlife, exhibits the major works of artists from different generations, periods and media (entry, $12). Absorb the haunting self-portrait “Azabache,” by Puerto Rican painter Arnaldo Roche Rabell. Walk to another hall to find “No Crying in the Barber Shop,” a room-size installation depicting a Bronx barbershop, by Puerto Rican artist Pepon Osorio, exploring the Latino culture’s machismo. Before leaving the museum, visit the quiet sculpture garden and stop by La Tienda, the museum shop, which stocks locally made works like the brightly colored tiles depicting a still life of red flowers, by Susana López Castells ($40).

1:30 p.m. | Have a Castilian comida
Bodegas Compostela, in the Condado neighborhood, is a fixture among San Juan’s high-end restaurants, with a classic, understated dining room favored for family gatherings, birthdays and business lunches. Start with the Galician-style octopus, cooked with olive oil, paprika and potatoes ($23.95), and follow it with the roast suckling pig, with crackling skin and juicy meat ($74.95), and a rich chocolate soufflé ($15.95) for dessert. If all that seems too much, order the fresh and light lobster salad ($42.95). Compostela is also known for its fine wines. Try Attis, an albariño from Spain, $51.95 a bottle. Reservations recommended.

3:30 p.m. | Look at street art
Calle Cerra, not long ago a street of rundown buildings and abandoned shops, is now a hotbed of nightlife and the center of the island’s urban art movement. Stroll to take in the street art, much of it exploring political and social issues. An imposing mural painted on a water tower shows a boy carrying a glacier on his back while the ice melts around him. A building-wide mural of three skeletons sinking in the sea symbolizes colonialism and slavery. At the end of one block, a pinkish high-rise, covered from ground to roof with graffiti, murals, swirls and scrawls, looks abandoned. People live in it. At the top of the strip, take a break at Café con Cé with an iced latte ($4.50) and a vegan pastry ($4).

7 p.m. | Taste a cuisine’s roots
Dine in the open patio at Cocina al Fondo, a restaurant in Santurce, whose chef, Natalia Vallejo, last year became the first Puerto Rican to win a 2023 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Try traditional favorites like pastelillos de calabaza (pumpkin fritters, $15) and jarrete de cerdo al caldero (ham hock with rice and beans and ripe plantain; $42), familiar dishes made with a local, farm-to-table ethos. Reservations recommended.

Jarrete de cerdo al caldero at Cocina al Fondo

9:30 p.m. | Embrace chinchorreo
After dinner at Cocina al Fondo, wander back to Calle Cerra, which draws bar-hoppers to its cocktail clubs and salons until the wee hours. Young crowds gather at Botánico, where a giant mural of a face overlooks an open-air dance floor. Farther down the street, where chickens roam free and an old church stands on a corner, are several more bars, including Machete, Graziani and Galeria, and the crazy chinchorreo — what locals call the street dancing-and-drinking scene — is often centered on Esquina Watusi, an iconic dive bar. After the hubbub of Cerra, walk or take a taxi to the secluded tapas bar Primitivo, in the Miramar neighborhood nearby. Sample the nigiri, a slice of tuna set over a tiny alcapurria fritter, a Puerto Rican favorite ($14), and sip a silky Negroni ($15).


A beach near Parque del Indio

9 a.m. | Step into the waves
Parque del Indio, in Condado, is a refuge, a neighborhood beach park on Avenida Ashford in Condado at Calle C.F. Krug. It’s a favorite of children, dog walkers, pickleball and volleyball players. Rent a chair ($5) and an umbrella ($10) and watch the waves, read a book, or take a long walk on a beach that goes on for miles, along seafront homes, informal grills and beachside guesthouses.

11:30 a.m. | Go where locals go
Everyone in San Juan knows La Casita Blanca, one of the city’s most popular home-style restaurants. It is so popular that it won’t take reservations. Guests wait chatting in line on the sidewalk along the restaurant, which is in a modest white house with a facade draped in flowers, on a busy corner of the densely congested Santurce, where traffic is bumper to bumper. Every day the restaurant posts 10 to 12 dishes on a blackboard. The biftec encebollado (well-done filet cooked with onions, $18.95) is a favorite. Another standby, mofongo (mashed plantains, $5.95) and the arepas con bacalao (cod fritters, $12.95) seem unchanged over the decades. And the friendly staff waves goodbye with smiles and hugs, like family.



Galería Botello, housed in a 350-year-old mansion in Old San Juan, shows art and a collection by Galician artist Ángel Botello.

Cocina al Fondo, with a James Beard Award-winning chef, reconstructs Puerto Rican cuisine, but remains loyal to the traditions of the island.

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico has the island’s most important collection of art by Puerto Rican and Caribbean artists.

Calle Cerra is the epicenter of Puerto Rican urban public art and a hot nightlife destination.


La Casita Blanca

Marmalade, arguably the best restaurant in San Juan, is reinventing local dishes, injecting Japanese, French and Moroccan accents.

Bodegas Compostela is a classic Spanish restaurant with outstanding wines.

Primitivo, an intimate tapas bar, specializes in nigiri and crudo appetizers and specialty cocktails.


Pio Pio, a wine bar across Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan, offers quiet sophistication, luxurious bites and special wines and cocktails.

La Casita Blanca, a local favorite, is rooted in traditional Puerto Rican dishes served in a homey and friendly atmosphere.

La Factoría is a popular nightspot in Old San Juan that houses six bars connected by dark passageways.

Botánico is a bar and restaurant with Central American dishes and an open-air dance floor.

Esquina Watusi often hosts the crazy chinchorreo, a street dancing-and-drinking scene.


The Condado Vanderbilt sweeps you in with an open view of the ocean from its opulent pink marble Art Deco lobby. Opened in 1919, the hotel was renovated and reopened in 2014. Rooms in April start at $651.

O:LV Fifty-Five, a design marvel with a black-and-white marble art deco lobby, features a romantic rooftop with a plunge pool and soaring views. Adults only. Rooms start at $449.

El Convento, a bright yellow Spanish colonial landmark, has a serene courtyard. Rooms start at $278.

For short-term rentals, search in the neighborhoods of Old San Juan, Condado, Santurce and Miramar.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. All images are by Scott McIntyre/The New York Times.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *