A bracing walk along the sea front
San Juan is one of the world’s top cruise ship destinations, with most of the pleasure boats docking at the port by the old town.
As recently as the 1970s, Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) was a reminder of better times, a run-down collection of Spanish colonial relics, in little better shape than the collapsed empire that constructed them. Now, however, after extensive and careful restoration, this seven-block-square area is considered one of the best-kept troves of Spanish colonial architecture and has become a World Heritage Site.
Before continuing your holiday across the Caribbean you just have to stop off at San Juan, with its steep, narrow streets distinctively cobbled with smooth, iridescent bricks known as adoquines, originally used as ballast in ships, and feature buildings – some of the oldest in the Western hemisphere – with bright pastel facades and wrought-iron balconies abloom with plants and flowers.
The old town occupies the headland of a 4km-long island (connected by bridge to the mainland) that shelters the San Juan Bay, for centuries a key port in the New World. It was originally known as Puerto Rico, or “rich port”, because its position made for such a fine stop for shipping.
Begin your wanderings in the old town along the Paseo de la Princesa, a busy cobblestoned promenade, and head west along the southern city wall. The prim, grey and white Neoclassical building you'll see is known as La Princesa. Built as a prison in 1837, it now houses the main PRTC offices, as well as a gallery showcasing the work of contemporary Puerto Rican artists.
The city wall itself, known as La Muralla, is an impressive sight. Until the late nineteenth century, it encircled all of Old San Juan with 3900 metres of sandstone, culminating in the fortress of El Morro at the headland.