Recently, my friend and I took a girls’ getaway to St. Lucia. We were both excited to get away from the office for a week; we planned on unwinding at the beach on Sunday – the day we left New York – then spending six days swimming, sunning, and sleeping.
Then we looked at our plane tickets. Yes, we were leaving Sunday morning and returning Friday night, but we actually had just four full days in St. Lucia – and eight hours in the San Juan airport in both directions. While more and more direct routes to smaller Caribbean islands are becoming available, the cheapest flights still require layovers, and often long ones, in the Puerto Rican capital.
As it turns out, Old San Juan – which is full of charming cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, fantastic Caribbean dining, and bay views to boot – is only a twenty-minute drive from the airport. We hopped in a cab – extremely easy to find once at the airport – and paid $20 for a friendly driver to drop us in what we called, “the center of Old San Juan” (since we didn’t know a single landmark that could serve as a starting point).
We arrived in Plaza Colon, next to a large statue of Ponce de Leon. (We later learned we could have taken a much cheaper bus – 75 cents per person – to near the same spot. Ask someone working at the airport where to find the bus stop if you have trouble finding it, but be prepared to wait as there doesn’t appear to be any set schedule to which the service actually adheres.)
We sat outside and ate lunch at Café Berlin (407 Calle San Francisco), overlooking central Plaza Colon, which served flavorful vegetarian fare like citrus-tofu wraps and large glasses of sangria, to start our vacation off right. Those looking for more traditional Caribbean fare should check out La Fonda del Jibarito (280 Calle Sol), a no-frills restaurant with mouth-watering homemade specialties like conch ceviche and shredded beef stew, or the famous El Patio de Sam (102 Calle San Sebastián), which has been around since 1953. If you’re looking to spend a little more, try Marmalade (317 Calle Fortaleza), where we had dinner (yes, we were there long enough for two meals), one of the trendiest restaurants in the city.
From Plaza Colon, you’ll have old city at your fingertips, with cobblestone streets perfect for ambling and full of boutiques that sell everything from Caribbean kitsch to dried chili peppers to hand-crafted jewelry. A free trolley through the city is available if you want to cover more ground than you would by foot. You can’t miss the numbered stops throughout the city, and you can hop on and off wherever you please.
A must-see spot is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 140-foot citadel constructed in the 16th century to defend San Juan against enemies. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited attraction in Puerto Rico; entrance costs just $5, and kids and adults alike will love exploring the six levels of ramps, barracks, dungeons, turrets, towers and tunnels. Just outside El Morro, as it’s called, is a large expanse of grass overlooking the bay, where we spent an hour relaxing while local families flew kites and picnicked on the sunny Sunday.
Another top destination is the Catedral de San Juan, one of the only examples of authentic medieval architecture in the New World. Just a couple blocks south is Paseo De La Princesa, a tree-lined promenade with local street vendors and artisan stalls.
No matter where you end up wandering, you’re likely to stumble upon even more historical gems (like the impressive 18th century fort, Castillo de San Cristobal) and narrow streets with colorful homes and storefronts. You’ll find it doesn’t get much more charming, friendly, and manageable than Old San Juan.
Note: You’re best off taking a taxi back to the airport in order to give yourself plenty of time before your flight. The white vans are impossible to miss on the main streets throughout Old San Juan; there’s also a taxi stand at Plaza Colon.