Affordable find: Da House
Da House, a boho-styled hideaway in the heart of the Old City, is a stylish step up from conventional youth hostel. Set in what was once the Centro Nacional de las Artes, the property’s 30 rooms are all individually designed with local and regional antiques and offer prime views of the area’s endless historic sites. Even if staying elsewhere, pop by to groove to the tunes at its ground-floor salsa lounge.
(Courtesy: Ritz-Carlton, Dorado Beach)
Splurge worthy: Ritz-Carlton, Dorado Beach
Set along a palm-studded slice of Caribbean 45 minutes west of San Juan, the 115-room Dorado Beach is a harmonious marriage of location, luxury, and legacy. Spread over 50 thickly forested acres, the resort’s beachfront setting is a testament to the eco-vision of developer Laurence Rockefeller — who built the original Dorado back in 1958. Each of the property’s split-level guest rooms virtually pours onto the Caribbean — including many with rooftop plunge pools. Dorado Beach’s real revelation, however, is its five-acre/12-room Spa Botanico, which includes a pair of towering treehouse platforms for canopy-shrouded therapies.
(Courtesy: O:live Boutique)
Romantic hideaway: O:live Boutique
The O:live Boutique is a bijoux 15-room hideaway in Condado, steps from San Juan’s deep blue lagoon. The hotel’s design was inspired by The Spanish and Puerto Rican owners’ lengthy travels throughout the Mediterranean basin and features interiors with either Spanish, French, Italian or Moroccan decor. O:liva, the hotel’s signature restaurant, offers a pan-Mediterranean menu along with a rooftop lounge.
(Courtesy: Caribe Hilton)
Full-service resort: Caribe Hilton
Perched just beyond Condado’s casino strip, the Caribe Hilton is a hotel icon that dates back to 1949. A classic example of “tropical modernism,” the complex-like property has been upgraded and expanded and now includes 646 rooms — and 264 villas — spread among four wings connected by an sultry open-air lobby. The beach is somewhat tiny, but the spa’s grandeur is more than adequate compensation.
Tres Leche Cake (Photo: Priya Saihgal/Flickr)
Traditional breakfast: Kasalta
This classic cafe in the residential district of Santurce is packed in the morning with locals hungry for traditional island pastries — from tres leches cakes to rich flan — along with thick-stuffed empanadas and hefty pressed breakfast sandwiches. They were good enough for President Barack Obama when he visited the island in 2011. 1966 McLeary; 787-727-7340
Graffiti in Santurce (Photo: davsot/Flickr)
Hipster lunch: Cafe Tresbe
Tresbe is an open-air eatery tucked into a repurposed shipping container with a can’t-miss, day-glo yellow paint job in the heart of Santurce. Simple and unfussy, diners eat at al fresco tables shaded by oversized orange parasols and thatched-roof palapas. Tresbe’s pan-Latin menu is equally straightforward — from perfect fish tacos to hand-made meat, cheese or cod-stuffed empanadillas to ultra-fresh ceviches; all accompanied by freshly made hot sauces and tasty sides like mashed yams and mounds for fries. 1765 Loiza Steet; 787-294-9694
(Courtesy: 1919 Restaurant)
Upscale locavore: 1919
The Vanderbilt Condado Hotel is a Spanish-revival landmark in the midst of a five-year renovation set to be completed in 2015. Already open, however, is 1919 Restaurant — named after the year the Vanderbilt originally debuted. The restaurant’s salon-like dining room and lounge bar area are overseen by Michelin-starred chef Juan Jose Cuevas — a native son who made his mark in top New York City dining rooms including Lespinasse and Alain Ducasse. Cuevas’ ambitious, globally inspired menu is crafted from the mostly organic ingredients he sources from small-scale farmers across the island. 1055 Ashford Avenue; 787-724-1919
Mojito (Photo: Nannydaddy/Flickr)
Market wonder: Jose Enrique
Over the past five years, Jose Enrique has emerged as the city’s most compelling restaurant. Its location could not be more unassuming — a simple, smallish, 50s-style bungalow in the heart of Santurce. Potent mojitos and rich sangria are sipped on the terrace as guests wait for one of Jose Enrique’s sturdy wooden tables in the airy dining room or low-lit terrace where waiters present the evening’s menu scrawled on a chalkboard. The food is ultra-local, with a focus on fresh produce and seafood sourced from the nearby market. Arrive early, as reservations are not accepted — or dine at Jose Enrique’s new outpost in the soon-to-debut El Blok hotel on the nearby islet of Vieques.
Cilantro (Photo: Michael Lehet/Flickr)
Old-city cool: Marmalade
Marmalade owner and chef Peter Schintler is a Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc veteran who runs this seasonally focused restaurant with a mostly French California-focused menu. Decked out with loungey day beds and electrode-like lanterns, the restaurant’s menu is divided into both a la carte and set, multi-course tasting versions and can include dishes such as white bean south topped with pancetta dust and cilantro-grilled, Sicilian-styled swordfish.There’s both a main dining room and buzzy bar area where Schintler himself often holds court.
Exterior hallway of Museo de San Juan (Photo: schweizup/Flickr)
Must-See Market: Mercado Agricolar Natural
Old San Juan’s most exciting culinary arrival is the four-year-old Mercado Agricola Natural — or weekly organic farmers market. Held in the plaza of the colonial-era Museo de San Juan, the market includes some 50 local small-scale vendors offering just-picked produce, freshly made pastries, and artisan cheeses and chocolates. The crowd includes a fair number of top San Juan chefs.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (Photo: Brad Ackerman/Flickr)
Colonial Gem: El Morro
Perched at the tip of Old San Juan, Castillo San Felipe del Morro — commonly known as “El Morro” — is a fortified 16th-century citadel and the city’s most iconic historic monument. A longtime UNESCO World Heritage Site, El Morro was built over stages from 1539 onward. Today, the thick-walled El Morro — in harmony with the nearby La Fortaleza and San Cristobal forts — is one of the three key Spanish colonial must-sees in San Juan. Calle Norzagaray; 787-729-6960
The Cemetario de Santa Maria (Photo: Stephanie Rogers/Flickr)
Day of the Dead: Cemetario de Santa Maria
Just below El Morro is one of San Juan’s most beautiful — and easily overlooked — attractions: The Cemetario Santa Maria Magdalena. As scenic as Buenos Aires’ iconic Retiro Cemetery, Santa Maria Magdelena dates back to 1863 and is dramatically positioned directly facing the sea. Visit to amble around ornate marble tombs and grand crypts laid out in tidy fashion along tiny pedestrian-friendly pathways, containing the graves of everyone from Academy Award-winning actor Jose Ferrer to artist Rafael Tufino.
Old San Juan, Calle Tiburico Reyes
Casa Bacardi (Photo: Jen Gallardo/Flickr)
Cocktail Charm: Casa Bacardi
The Bacardi rum distillery dates back to the 1930s, when the Cuban Bacardi family began their Puerto Rican operations. Today, their 17,000-square-foot facility is the largest premium rum-making operation in the world. Inside are some 20 massive, 50,000-gallon tanks along with a series of distillation towers over six stories tall. Bacardi fans can witness rum-making from fermentation to bottling at the distillation museum — followed by a few rounds of free Bacardi samples and even lessons on preparing iconic Bacardi-spiked cocktails at the factory’s Art Deco-styled bar. Bay View Industrial Park
A piece from Gabriel Orozco’s Natural Motion Exhibit (Photo: Lorenz Seidler/Flickr)
Art Smart: Espacio 1414
Set in a former tire warehouse, Espacio 1414 would fit perfectly into the kind of emerging art quarters found in Brooklyn or Berlin. Opened in 2005, the gallery focuses almost exclusively on the works of cutting-edge Latin American artists such as Argentina Guillermo Kuitca, whose paintings have been shown in the Tate Modern and New York’s MoMA, and Mexican mixed-media master Gabriel Orozco. 1414 Avenida Fernandez Juncos; 787-725-3899
Related: Cheat Sheet: Miami
5 Things to Know
Playa Escambron (Photo: Reuben Cleetus/Flickr)
San Juan is full of beaches, but one of the best is Playa Escambron. Set just west of the Old City a short stroll from the Caribe Hilton Hotel, the beach is sheltered by towering palms and anchored by a wide slab of sandy shore. Escambron’s waves are relatively tame — which makes it as suitable for snorkelers as it is for sun-seekers and families.
Hand painted Puerto Rican taxi (Photo: fotografia cole/Flickr)
Getting around San Juan is relatively easy — though it can be costly. Taxis have set rates to different districts such as Santurce, Condado, The Old City or Ocean Park. Expect rides from the airport to most hotels to run from $25 to $40.
Edificio Banco (Photo: ep_jhu/Flickr)
San Juan is beloved for its distinctive architecture style commonly known as Tropical Modernism. Filled with pastel colors and Art Deco flourishes, the aesthetic is reminiscent of designs also found in South Beach. Two of the best examples of Tropical Modernism are Edificio Miami (from 1936) at 868 Avenida Ashford in the Condado District, along with the Edificio Banco Popular (from 1939) at 206 Calle Tetuan in The Old City.
Museo de Arte de Ponce (Photo: Paul/Flickr)
San Juan may be Puerto Rico’s commercial and political capital, but the city of Ponce is where the island’s cultural heartbeat pulses most strongly. Luckily, Ponce is set barely 90 minutes from San Juan and once there, must-visits include the Museo de Arte de Ponce, which was recently restored to the tune of $30 million. The Museum’s collection of European Old Masters and contemporary Latin American artworks are among the region’s best.
Lechon (Photo: Renée Suen 孫詩敏/Flickr)
Lechon — or spit-roasted pork — is Puerto Rico’s near-“national” dish. Mostly served on Sundays, the succulent treat can be found at traditional lechoneras dotting major roadsides in and around San Juan. Lechonera La Ranchera (km6, 787-789-4706) on Route 173 is particularly beloved for the weekend treat.