For most visitors to Puerto Rico, San Juan is a stop for a couple of days to visit Old San Juan. They then leave for beach resorts on other parts of the island. To me, that is a mistake. San Juan – the modern city of San Juan outside of the old city walls – is worth exploring. It is vibrant, colorful, and a necessary stop to truly appreciate what Puerto Rico is today, and the people who call the island home.
Puerto Rico is an American territory – somewhere between a colony and a state, though more on that in a later article – in the eastern Caribbean. Home to about 3.1 million people, it is a cross between Latin America and the USA, a fascinating mix of cultures. Roughly three of every four Puerto Ricans lives in the San Juan metro area, with the city itself around 350,000. It is the capital, the economic hub, and the beating heart of the island.
As with any major city, there are cool and quirky neighborhoods all over, and interesting suburbs to explore. However, recognizing that most tourists won’t have a ton of time, we are going to focus on three neighborhoods in this article: Santurce, Condado, and Ocean Park.
Santurce is a bit of a dichotomy. On the one hand, it is very urban, an area only recently gentrified (for better and for worse). On the other, it is the modern cultural hub of San Juan, home to both the San Juan Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the island’s major theatre, the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A Ferre.
The neighborhood is also known for its food scene. Many swear by the Miramar Food Truck Park, but for my money, Santurce has the best lechon (roasted pig) in San Juan, at El Cuerito de la 15.
If you enjoy the upscale life, Condado is your neighborhood. Sitting along the water (the ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other), the high-rise apartments and luxury hotels might remind you of Miami or Panamá City. Condado is home to the majority of US-branded hotels (there is another large cluster near the airport, unsurprisingly) and restaurants, like the ever-present Fogo de Chau and even a Sizzler.
If you like local gems, though, there are some to be found here. Wicked Lily is a hip cocktail bar on the beach; try the Lily’s Colada. Or grab a mofongo (mashed plantains with a protein and sauce) at Orozco’s.
But for the most part, Condado will be your destination for upscale life, luxury shopping, and people watching, if the people you like watching are American tourists or wealthy Puerto Ricans.
This is my favorite neighborhood in San Juan, and also the one I know best since it was my home for two weeks. Life here revolves around two things: the beach and Calle Loiza.
Let’s start with the beach. The sand here is part of the largest local public beach in the city. While there are tourists here, they probably make up less than 10% of the daily crowd. This is the spot for locals, for true residents of San Juan, to get their fix of sand, sun, and surf. On a day with wind – most of them – kite surfers are out in force, and are a dream to watch. (And yes, you can get lessons here, at Kite Puerto Rico.) Others are playing a version of racket ball, and a few play spikeball, an odd game with a small trampoline in the middle. The sand is soft and warm, the water nice, although beware the rip current. Also, you will notice that the locals are incredibly attractive. It’s a fact.
Calle Loiza is the main street running through the neighborhood. It is especially known for its nightlife, although I didn’t partake given that a) it’s a pandemic and b) I am old and like to be in bed by 11. Great food options abound here. My personal favorites? Pinky’s for breakfast or lunch. Get the mallorca sandwich (ham, egg, cheese on a sweet roll with powdered sugar) and thank me. Or in the evening, grab a famous tripleta (a sandwich of at least three kind of meat) at the food truck El Tripleton.
No matter which neighborhood you spend your time in, San Juan is chalk full of impressive street art. Spend some time wandering the streets taking it in.
Modern San Juan is a wonderful city. Yes, Old San Juan is awesome, and the top of the list for a first-time visitor. But don’t miss the chance to get to know the modern metropolis as well, and the people who call it home. You won’t regret it!
Like it? Pin it!