36 Hours in San Juan
Puerto Rico’s capital is open for business, welcoming visitors with its winning combination of lovely beaches, energetic night life and gregarious island charm.
By Paola Singer
Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, stories of hope and progress are emerging in Puerto Rico, just as the island’s tropical vegetation is flourishing once again. While there is still much work to be done, and some rural areas might not fully recover for years, the capital of San Juan has been humming along for months. With a few exceptions, shops, hotels and restaurants are operating as usual, and there are some noteworthy additions to the city’s lively dining scene. The cultural landscape is energetic as well: Lin-Manuel Miranda made headlines with his reprisal of the lead role in the musical “Hamilton,” which played at San Juan’s main performing arts center last month, and galleries in Santurce and Old San Juan are showcasing thought-provoking works by local artists. As always, you’ll find picturesque beaches, heady cocktails, contagious music and gregarious locals, more eager than ever to welcome visitors to their sunny corner of the C
1) 2 p.m. Sweet sandwich
Start your visit with a literal taste of the city. Bakeries throughout San Juan sell a beloved pastry called mallorca, a doughy sweet bun shaped like a spiral. It derives from a Spanish specialty called ensaimada, originally from the Balearic Islands. The Puerto Rican version is a testament to Spain’s strong influence on the local cuisine (Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from the early 1500s until the late 1800s), but mostly it’s an ode to indulgence. At Kasalta, a popular cafe and restaurant in the residential Ocean Park neighborhood, regulars order their mallorcas stuffed with ham and cheese. The line cook slices the bread, assembles the sandwich, presses it on a griddle until the cheese is melted and then showers the whole thing with copious amounts of confectioners’ sugar. It’s a snack to end all snacks ($7.95).
2) 5 p.m. Sunset sail
Bask in the soft evening sun and warm Caribbean breeze while getting both a visual and historical overview of San Juan Bay aboard a classic sailboat. The bay’s massive, centuries-old stone fortifications convey the zeal of the conquistadors, who leveraged Puerto Rico’s strategic location to protect their vast interests in the New World (British and Dutch armadas, as well as a miscellany of pirates, were frequent threats). Led by East Island Excursions, the 90-minute maritime jaunt includes informative talks, snacks and cocktails ($79).
3) 7:30 p.m. Vegetarians’ soiree
Every Friday, the Dreamcatcher, a cozy bed-and-breakfast in Ocean Park, hosts vegetarian dinners prepared by a rotating group of local chefs. These events, which are open to the public, have a relaxing, convivial atmosphere, with patrons seated at candlelit communal tables under a leafy canopy. During a recent meal, the chef Verónica Quiles paid tribute to the Taínos, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, with a tasting menu that included dishes like tobacco-smoked pumpkin with creamed taro root. Every ingredient was locally sourced with the help of the sustainable agriculture advocate Tara Rodríguez Besosa, who researched the types of crops that existed in pre-Columbian times (from $45 for four courses, reservations required).
4) 8 a.m. Local beans
Puerto Rican coffee farmers, who had been doing a brisk business as a result of the global obsession with flat whites and cold brews, lost about 80 percent of their crops in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But thanks to a group of agricultural entrepreneurs and activists, the industry is poised to get back on its feet. Head to up-and-coming Loiza Street to sample a blend from selected local farms at Café con Cé, a tiny cafe with interiors featuring deliberately tattered walls and Scandinavian furniture. On weekends, they have brunch items like French toast and omelets. Hacienda San Pedro Coffee Shop, on nearby Avenida de Diego, sells espressos and lattes made with beans from an award-winning farm in the mountains of central Puerto Rico. Sandwiches are also on the menu.
5) 10 a.m. On the beach
San Juan has miles of lovely beaches washed by turquoise waves. Isla Verde’s wide, uninterrupted swath of sand fringed by palm trees is a favorite among both locals and visitors. If swimming and strolling isn’t enough, you can book a surf lesson or rent a Jet Ski from Wow Surfing School & Jet Ski, a water sports outfit with a permanent kiosk right behind the El San Juan Hotel ($70 for a 30-minute Jet Ski rental).
6) Noon. Local produce
Wander into the ample courtyard of the former Museo de San Juan, a 19th-century building that houses the Mercado Agrícola Natural Viejo San Juan. This volunteer-run green market, held every Saturday, is where Puerto Rican farmers sell their produce: avocados, mangos, papayas and much more. There are ready-to-eat snacks and drinks too, including empanadas, soups and freshly squeezed fruit juices.
7) 2 p.m. Old San Juan
Old San Juan is one of the most charming and culturally significant colonial districts in the New World, filled with colorful old houses and cobblestone streets. After taking in the views from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century fortress perched on a seaside bluff ($7 for adults), take the short walk to the frequently overlooked Museo de las Américas, a small museum on the second floor of a military barracks from 1854. It offers an overview of the region’s history, as well as temporary exhibitions by noteworthy Puerto Rican artists such as José R. Alicea, a printmaker and painter ($6 for adults). Just steps away is the Liga de Arte, an art school with shows by emerging and established artists. Its interior garden, shaded by various tropical trees, is a lovely spot to take a break (free).
8) 6 p.m. Beyond piña coladas
At some point during your visit, you’ll probably have a piña colada, which was invented in San Juan in the 1950s. But don’t miss out on the city’s contemporary mixology scene. An unmarked door in the Miramar neighborhood leads to Bar la Unidad, a dimly lit lounge decorated with dark wood and tufted leather. Ask the talented bar staff to create a cocktail just for you, or try a signature drink like the cortadito, a take on the old fashioned, flavored with espresso and chocolate bitters ($12). Jungle Bird, in nearby Santurce, a colorful and centrally located dining district, offers Asian small plates and creative drinks like a banana cocktail, made with gin, ginger beer, bitters and dried banana slices ($13). Take your drink to the casual, tiki-style outdoor patio.
9) 8 p.m. Pretty plates
Francis Guzmán and Amelia Dill, a husband-and-wife team who worked at the James Beard award-winning Blue Hill in New York City, moved to Puerto Rico with plans to open their own restaurant soon before Maria hit. The project was delayed but not abandoned. Vianda, which opened last March, offers an eclectic seasonal menu. An appetizer called raices locales ($12), consisting of roasted red and golden beets, shaved carrots marinated in turmeric and shaved radishes, is arranged into a colorful tableau over a horseradish sauce. And the short rib encebollado, a take on Puerto Rico’s traditional bistec encebollado (steak and onions marinated in a mix of oil, vinegar and garlic), arrives with crispy onion rings and pickled shallots ($29).
10) 10 p.m. Nocturnal rhythms
La Placita de Santurce, a quiet market by day, is now the heart and soul of San Juan’s night life. After dark, when the scores of bars that surround this plaza open for business, the area becomes a veritable street party. Salsa tunes blast from various speakers, people break into impromptu dance routines and the rum flows. Nearby La Respuesta is the place to go for live music. This small, rough-around-the-edges venue books a roster of both local and international bands that play everything from bomba and plena to indie rock and pop punk.
11) 10 a.m. Spa splurge
Grab a quick café con leche and drive 30 minutes west to the Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach — arguably the most beautiful resort in Puerto Rico — for an indulgent massage. Because of extensive hurricane-related damages, the sprawling waterfront property remained closed for about a year. It finally reopened in October, with redone rooms and public areas and a refreshed, mostly al fresco Spa Botánico, ensconced in fruit trees (more than 300,000 plants were added to the resort’s gardens as part of the renovations). End your trip on a luxurious note with the manos santas massage, which uses local botanical oils inspired by folkloric healing practices (60-minute treatments from $185).
12) Noon. El brunch
Sabrina Brunch and Bistro Bar doles out brunch classics with a Caribbean twist, including poached eggs atop mashed plantains with sliced avocado on the side. This cheerful restaurant on Loiza Street takes its name from the classic Audrey Hepburn movie, but the interiors call to mind Carmen Miranda’s “Copacabana,” with tropical flowers painted on the walls, neon pink signs and potted palms (brunch runs about $25). Or, if you prefer your last meal here to be outside, head to Lote 23, a food park with hipster vibes and young chefs offering everything from slow-roasted Puerto Rican pork to Asian noodles and Peruvian anticuchos.
Set in a former Carmelite convent across from the street from Old San Juan’s cathedral, El Convento is one of the most atmospheric hotels in town. Its 58 spacious rooms feature a mix of contemporary and colonial details, and its plant-filled interior courtyard, home to a bar and restaurant, was recently renovated. Doubles from $205.
The El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, known for its opulent lobby crystal chandelier from the 1950s, reopened in December after extensive renovations and repairs. This amenities-laden, 388-room hotel is perched on Isla Verde Beach. Doubles from $239.
Condado is a central, walkable neighborhood near the water that is dotted with pleasant cafes and shops. Airbnb has several listings for two-bedroom apartments there for about $100 per night.
Follow NY Times Travel on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Get weekly updates from our Travel Dispatch newsletter, with tips on traveling smarter, destination coverage and photos from all over the world.