I remember that while visiting the Capitolio I met a local who sold crafts he made himself. He was born in New York of Puerto Rican parents. They were poor, very poor. When he grew up, he unsuccessfully tried to change the familiar situation but couldn’t get any jobs and started to starve. “No hay na’ peor que no tener pa’ comer, sabe”- There’s nothing worse than not having anything to eat he told me. He returned to Puerto Rico and no matter if his situation has been better or worse, since then, he’s always had something to eat. Puerto Ricans will always open their home doors to give food to those in need, and that generous attitude is what truly makes this country.
San Juan is one of the most charming cities you’ll ever have the pleasure of visiting. Its colorful houses are just a piece of the wide range of vernacular architecture that makes up this beautiful island. You’ll have to explore this city with your eyes wide open not to miss the elegant colonial buildings and the cozy corners which are filled up with cheerful people singing and dancing.
Founded in 1521 by Juan Ponce de León, who named it City of Puerto Rico (Rich Port). The history of San Juan begins a long time before its official foundation, in 1493, during his second voyage, Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico. He named the island “San Juan Bautista”, in honor of John the Baptist. But was not until 1508, that the Spanish government appointed Juan Ponce de León as the first governor of the island.
Be delighted by its Latin atmosphere while you wander around San Juan’s streets and discover some of the top places of the capital. This is a list of my favorite architecture spots. Which do you like best?
1. Narrowest Home in Puerto Rico
Location: 101 Calle Tetuan (Google)
Description: Considered one of the narrowest houses of Old San Juan, this house in Tetuan Street was used as an alley between structures and also as storage space. It is only 53 “(134 cm) wide and 37 ‘(11 m) deep. It was inhabited by a family for many years and is now an art gallery. Read more here.
2. Hotel Villa Herencia Patio
Location: 23 Cll Caleta Las Monjas (Google)
Description: Quietly nestled in the cool shadowed streets of the oldest part of Old San Juan, between the famous San Juan Gate (Puerta de San Juan) and the Cathedral of San Juan Citadel is this quaint and unique gem. Tiled floors and a private patio are found in each exotic room of the Villa Herencia Hotel, a former convent, which now is a small eight room property. Don’t miss the Virgin Mary statue, one pf the oldest in the island. Read more here.
3. Capilla de Cristo
Location: Calle del Cristo (Google)
Description: According to the local legend, the builder found himself one day riding aboard a runaway horse heading straight toward the end of the street. Try as he might, the man just could not get the horse to stop. As the steep drop drew closer, the man prayed to God, begging for salvation. Suddenly, at the very last instant, the horse stopped, directly on the spot where Cristo Chapel now sits. The event was seen as a miracle, which was marked by the construction of the Chapel. It took 23 years to build the small and simple structure that today, some 230 years later, remains an enduring symbol of faith and one of Old San Juan’s most unique attractions. Read more here.
4. La Concha Resort
Architect: Osvaldo Toro and Miguel Ferrer
Location: 1077 Ashford Avenue (Google)
Description: The hotel was first opened in 1958 during the Tropical Modernism Movement and then restored in 2008. The structure is considered a crowning achievement of local architects Osvaldo Toro and Miguel Ferrer, designers of the Tel Aviv Hilton and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court building, among others. The iconic seashell-shaped floating restaurant designed by internationally-renowned architect Mario Salvatori, is one of the high-water marks of Puerto Rico’s national architecture. Read more here.
5. La Fortaleza
Location: 63 Calle Fortaleza (Google)
Description: La Fortaleza was the first defensive fortification built for the city of San Juan, and the first of a series of military structures built to protect the city which included the Fort San Felipe del Morro and the Fort San Cristóbal (also included in this article). It is the current official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. The structure is also known as Palacio de Santa Catalina and it’s the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the New World. Don’t miss the beautiful front entrance, one of my favorite spots of San Juan. Read more here.
6. San Juan Bautista Cathedral
Location: 151 Calle del Cristo (Google)
Description: This Roman Catholic cathedral is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas. The current building dates from 1540, the old building originally on this site was destroyed by a hurricane. The cathedral contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer and settlement founder Juan Ponce de León. Don’t miss the front door sculpture of Jesus. Read more here.
7. Castillo San Cristóbal
Location: San Cristóbal (Google)
Description: Built as a fort to protect against land based attacks on the city of San Juan. It was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World, it covered about 27 acres of land and basically wrapped around the city of San Juan. Don’t miss La Garita del Diablo gate, one of the oldest parts of the fort being built in 1634, which can be seen from the upper part of the fort. There are several legends surrounding the guerite, some of them say that soldiers disappeared randomly from the guerite. However, it is mostly believed that the only soldier that apparently disappeared was a soldier called Sánchez, who fled his post to escape with his girlfriend, called Dina. Read more here.
8. Calle de San Justo
Location: Calle de San Justo (Google)
Description: There is no place in the island with houses as beautiful as those in San Juan. Some of the most colorful ones are located here at San Justo St. The façades, composed by colonial balconies, window frames and plants, will make you smile as you walk by. At the end of this street is the door which overlooks the shore, San Justo Gate, adorned with four statues which represent the stations, decorating Plaza de Armas. Get to the end of it and watch the sea in the horizon while the sun sets. Read more here.
9. Hotel el Convento
Architect: Rene Jean and Jorge Rosselló
Location: 100 Calle del Cristo (Google)
Description: This hotel used to be an old Carmelite monastery founded by three nuns brought especially from Santo Domingo. Certain elements stand out in the facade of the chapel, besides the entrance, the pair of Tuscan columns, the two towers and the latticed choir arch. The building was closed from 1903 to 1959 and then sold. It reopened in 1962 to the stars of the day, including Rita Hayworth. Read more here.
10. La Aduana de San Juan
Architect: Albert B. Nichols
Location: 1 Cll La Puntilla (Google)
Description: The Customs building of San Juan occupies one of the most prominent places in front of the Bay of San Juan’s port. Since the eighteenth century the port’s customs has been here. The current building was built in 1924 in Plateresque style, typical of Spain in the late 15th century. It is a modification of Gothic spatial concepts and an eclectic blend of Mudéjar, Flamboyant Gothic and Lombard decorative components, as well as Renaissance elements of Tuscan origin. Read more here.
11. Parroquia de San Francisco de Asis
Location: 301 San Francisco Street (Google)
Description: Originally the third church built in Old San Juan was built where Burger King now stands (kind of sad). It was demolished and rebuilt across the park in 1770. Impressive The Catacombs beneath Iglesia San Francisco. Don’t miss La Bombonera, founded in 1902, which has survived the dramatic changes of the city. It was a Social gathering place for intellectuals, politicians and artists. Read more here.
12. El Capitolio
Architect: Rafael Carmoega
Location: Puerta de Tierra (Google)
Description: Former resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico Luis Muñoz Rivera promoted the idea of constructing a capitol building as early as 1907; later he was the prime mover in seeking the capitol building’s construction between 1925 and 1929. The dome, however, was not completed until 1961. It holds the offices of senators on one wing and those of representatives on the other, with galleries, friezes, mosaics and an impressive rotunda in which Puerto Rico’s constitution is exhibited. Read more here.
13. Plaza de Armas
Location: Plaza de Armas (Google)
Description: The Plaza de Armas is one of the main squares in San Juan. It features four statues representing the four seasons; all are over 100 years old. It was carefully planned as the main city square and has served as a social meeting place for generations. Beautiful Alcaldía de San Juan, located here, was built between 1604 to 1789, looking like Madrid’s city hall building. Read more here.
14. Puerta de San Juan
Location: Cll Caleta De San Juan (Google)
Description: Spanish ships once anchored in the cove just off these ramparts to unload colonists and supplies, all of which entered the city through a tall red portal known as Puerta de San Juan. This tunnel through the wall dates from the 1630s. It marks the end of the Paseo de la Princesa, and stands as one of three remaining gates into the old city (the others lead into the cemetery and the enclave of La Perla). Once there were a total of five gates, and the massive wooden doors were closed each night to thwart intruders. Read more here.
15. Cuartel de Ballajá & Museo de las Américas
Location: Calle Norzagaray (Google)
Description: This beautiful building was built as military barracks of which the cuartel is a three-story building with large gates on two ends, big balconies, a series of arches and a protected central courtyard. It was the last and largest building constructed by the Spaniards in the New World. The 2nd floor features the Museo de las Américas , which gives an overview of cultural development in the New World. It features changing exhibitions, and Caribbean and European American art. Read more here.
16. Fortín de San Gerónimo
Location: Calle Rosales | East of the Caribe Hilton (Google)
Description: Built as a small fort across from the historic sector of Miramar, to replace a smaller battery (called El Boquerón) that stood here. The original Boquerón battery was used by the Spanish to defend the city of San Juan from attacks by Sir Francis Drake in 1595 and George Clifford, the third Earl of Cumberland in 1598, who managed to destroy it during his attack. Read more here.
17. Museo de Casa Blanca
Location: Calle San Sebastián 1 (Google)
Description: Stepping into Casa Blanca is like stepping back in time. Built in 1521, Casa Blanca was the original first fortification in Old San Juan, overlooking San Juan Bay. It was the residence for Juan Ponce de León and his family, and also his cousins, although de Leon died in an expedition to Florida without ever getting to occupy the structure. It was used as the residence of his descendants, until the mid-18th century. Today the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture has turned Casa Blanca into a museum depicting life as it was back in the 16th and 17th Century’s. Read more here.
18. Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery
Location: End of Calle Norzagaray (Google)
Description: One of Old San Juan’s best-kept secrets, this remarkable cemetery provides a peaceful respite from the bustle of the city. Sandwiched between El Morro and the La Perla neighborhood, it offers a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and an enviable resting place for the many notable figures fortunate enough to be buried here. The colonial Spanish government at the time construction of the cemetery commenced, viewed death with fear because it was a mystery. Therefore, they decided to build the cemetery to overlook the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. Read more here.
19. Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Architect: Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli
Location: Calle Norzagaray (Google)
Year: 16th century
Description: Also known as Fort San Felipe del Morro or Morro Castle, is a 16th-century citadel. Lying on the northwestern-most point of the islet of Old San Juan, Castillo San Felipe del Morro is named in honor of King Philip II of Spain. The fortification, also referred to as el Morro or ‘the promontory,’ was designed to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay, and defend the Spanish colonial port city of San Juan from seaborne enemies. During the Spanish government of the island, El Morro survived several attacks from foreign powers on various occasions. Read more here.
20. Puerto Rico Convention Center
Location: Bulevar Saint John (Google)
Description: Built as it the largest convention center in the Caribbean and one of the most technologically advanced in The Americas. The Convention Center’s design was inspired by the ocean. It has a signature roof imitating a wave, and the ocean theme continues throughout the facility, including details like its custom designed carpets and door pulls. The PRCC is located in the San Juan peninsula known as the historical district of Miramar in what used to be a US Naval Base in Isla Grande. Read more here.
21. Plaza del Mercado de Santurce
Location: 1348 Calle Roberts (Google)
Year: 19th century
Description: Puerto Rico’s traditional marketplace is filled with locally grown fruits and vegetables, medicinal herb shops, cafes serving coffee, fruit drinks, and Puerto Rican food and classic salsa and bolero musical recordings. Santurce’s revitalized mercado rocks just like old times. The show starts not long after dawn when bleary-eyed market traders stock up their permanent stalls with homegrown treats from around the island. Read more here.
22. Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center
Architect: Rodolfo Fernández
Location: 22 Av. Ponce de Leon (Google)
Description: Built in the 70s’ as a multi-use performance centre. Since then, it has become the most important performing arts venue in the Puerto Rican capital, presenting the highest level of commercial theater in Puerto Rico along with ballets and operas, and also hosting artists such as Plácido Domingo. The building itself is an award-winning piece of architecture that inspires creativity. Inside you will find the Carlos Marichal Experimental Theatre which features 210 seats arranged in a semi-circular pattern around the stage. Read more here.
23. University of Puerto Rico General Studies Building
Architect: Toro Ferrer Arquitectos
Location: Avenida Barbosa y Avenida Juan Ponce De León (Google)
Description: Built as an extension of Facultad de Estudios generales which is part of the Rios Piedras University complex. The addition is a four-story reinforced concrete annex building which forms part of a new Master Plan and marks a new entrance to the eastern edge of Campus. Its east façade includes a monumental sculpture by a local artist in colored perforated aluminum that provides sun and hurricane protection. Bas-relief concrete walls with punched openings allow breezes and light to filter through and recall the pattern of the sunscreen. Read more here.
Check these and other amazing buildings of San Juan on the map below or download The Free Architecture Guide of San Juan (Puerto Rico):