Blessed with the only tropical rain forest of the U.S. National Forest System, world-class beaches and historical attractions, Puerto Rico attracts over four million visitors annually, with the majority from the United States. If you’re thinking of visiting this U.S. territory located in the northeastern section of the Caribbean Sea, you won’t have to bring along a U.S. passport. What may surprise you or others planning for a trip is the official currency of Puerto Rico is the U.S. dollar, although it will help to understand at least a few Spanish words or phrases. For more information on the “Isle of Enchantment,” this travel guide will introduce you to ways to get there, where to stay and dine and the best attractions to see in San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico.
The primary airport serving Puerto Rico is Luis Muñoz Márin International Airport (SJU). Located nine miles northeast of San Juan, the capital and largest city, the international airport handled more than 8.5 million total passengers last year. Among the major domestic airline carriers flying into SJU are American, Delta, Southwest and United Airlines along with low-cost carriers Spirit and Jet Blue. International carriers include Air Canada, Air Europa, Condor and Norwegian Air Shuttle. SJU’s ground transportation consists of car rentals, airport shuttles like the Puerto Rico Shuttle, taxis and public transportation provided by AMA Metrobus
By Cruise Ship
Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Seabourn are among the major cruise lines offering trips to Puerto Rico. The majority of American cruise departures originate in either Fort Lauderdale or Miami, Florida.
How To Get Around
By Rental Car
Although rental cars are available at the airport and in San Juan, the recommendation is to take public transportation, tour buses or taxis. However, a rental car allows visitors more freedom to roam other sections of the main island more quickly. On the other hand, visitors who do rent a vehicle in Puerto Rico must be able to understand road signs in Spanish as well as understand local driving laws and speed limits.
The primary mode of transportation in San Juan and around Puerto Rico is public transportation provided by AMA (Autoridad Metropolitana de Autobuses). Unfortunately, public bus service is not available throughout the island and information is limited via the official website. The best available sources of online information on AMA buses and routes can be found on sites like SanJuanPuertoRico.com or Puerto Rico Day Trips, a private tour company operated by a couple originally from New Jersey.
Train service in San Juan and its surrounding areas is provided by the Urban Train (Tren Urbano). Similarly, because online information on the Urban Train official site is very limited, a clearer explanation of the train service can be found via SanJuanPuertoRico.com. The majority of service is in San Juan, where visitors can board from 12 different stations.
Old San Juan Trolley
The old section of San Juan operates a free trolley service over four routes. The service operates daily and runs approximately every 15 minutes. Visitors can board and deboard at several noteworthy attractions, including San Juan National Historic Site, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo del San Cristobal.
A number of ferry services operate around the main island with the Cataño Ferry providing frequent transportation between San Juan and Cataño across the Bay of San Juan.
Taxi service is readily available in the capital city and can provide transportation to area hotels, restaurants and major attractions. Taxis in San Juan operate with fixed rates to destinations in five different zones. The aforementioned SanJuanPuertoRico.com and Puerto Rico Days Trips are excellent resources for additional information on taxis.
Several tour companies operate in San Juan. Among the best rated are Charlie’s Custom Day Tours, Castillo Tours and Puerto Rico Day Trips. Sample tours include a trip around Old San Juan, a culinary tour, a tour of the Bacardi Rum Company and fascinating bioluminescent tours of Laguna Grande or Mosquito Bay.
Where To Stay
Many of San Juan’s finest and most popular hotels can be found in the trendy Condado Beach area. This includes St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, the only AAA Five Diamond Resort in Puerto Rico, and Royal Isabela, featuring one of the world’s finest golf courses. However, San Juan’s most famous hotel might be Hotel El Convento, located in Old San Juan. Built more than 350 years ago, El Convento was the first Carmelite Convent in the Americas.
Where To Dine
Puerto Rico is well known for its outstanding cuisine, including traditional favorites like mofongo, lechón and arroz con gandules. Many of the most acclaimed restaurants can be found in the newer section of San Juan, more specifically in the Condado Beach area. One of the most luxurious restaurants is Pikayo, led by celebrity chef Wilo Benet, a former guest chef of the James Beard Foundation. In Old San Juan, a recommended choice for dining is Marmalade, a frequent choice as the best restaurant in San Juan.
Of all the gorgeous beaches in Puerto Rico, perhaps the most famous is Condado Beach. Situated a few miles east from the heart of San Juan, the upscale beach area perched upon an exclusive peninsula is home to many of the city’s top seaside resorts, including La Concha Resort, San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino and the historic Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. Additionally, many of the best restaurants are located here, including 1919 Restaurant, Oceano and Pikayo, led by award-winning celebrity chef Wilo Benet. Often described as Puerto Rico’s version of Miami Beach, Condado Beach also offers a number of water activities from surfing, parasailing and kiteboarding to stand up paddle boarding, kayaking and jet skiing.
Old San Juan
Designated as a National Historic Landmark District, Old San Juan is the oldest section of the commonwealth’s largest city. The original settlement dates back to 1509, when famed Spanish explorer Ponce de León founded the site known as Puerto Rico (Rich Port). Many of Puerto Rico’s most significant attractions are located here along the historic cobblestone streets, including Casa Blanca Museum, Castillo de San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Castle) and Catedral San Juan Bautista, Iglesia de San José (Cathedral of San Juan Bautista), the second oldest church in the Americas. Other must-see point of interests in Old San Juan are Paseo de la Princesa, known for its breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea, and Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, acclaimed for its impressive 19th-century architecture.
San Juan National Historic Site
One of just 12 National Heritage Sites within the National Park System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Juan National Historic Site is a collection of fortifications built between the 16th and 19th-centuries. Located on a strategic point overlooking the Caribbean Sea, walls and fortresses were erected to protect the city later named Puerto Rico. The oldest structure is La Fortaleza (The Fortress) and currently serves as the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. The 73-acre historic site also features three castles — Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal, Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (Fort Saint John of the Cross) and the defensive city walls of Old San Juan.
One of the trendiest neighborhoods in San Juan, Santurce is home to a thriving art community, vibrant nightlife and dining scene and world-class beaches. It’s also the largest and most populated section of the capital city, with an estimated population of 100,000. Among the feature attractions in Santurce are the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Centro de Bellas Arts Luis A. Ferré (performing arts center), Plaza del Mercado and of course the beautiful beaches.Two of the most popular beaches in San Juan are located in Santurce — Condado Beach and Ocean Park Beach, a very popular seaside destination for the locals.
Consistently voted one of the best islands in the Caribbean, Vieques is best known for pristine beaches and the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay. Located southwest of the main island of Puerto Rico, Vieques is accessible by plane, tours or boat, with low cost ferries operating daily from Fajardo, just west of El Yunque National Forest. The top attraction is Mosquito Bay, home to bioluminescent microorganisms which illuminate the water with a extraordinary bluish glow best viewed at night. Vieques has several fabulous beaches to enjoy, such as Blue Beach, Caracas Beach, Media Luna Beach and Navio Beach. If there’s not enough time for an all-day trip to Vieques, another great spot to view bioluminescent waters is at La Laguna Grande in Fajardo.