My great grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, so it was a “must-see” for us while visiting the Eastern Caribbean. San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and an unincorporated territory of the United States, purchased in 1898. Similar to American Samoa, Mariana Islands and Guam, Puerto Rico is an organized, self-governed territory consisting of locally elected governors and territorial legislatures. Founded by Spanish colonists in 1521, San Juan is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas. Half of Puerto Rico’s 2M people live and work in San Juan. Old San Juan is a colorful neighborhood of cobblestone streets and historic Spanish Colonial buildings from the 1500s. While visiting San Juan, we had to explore the historical, defensive fort San Cristobal.
First stop, San Cristobal Castle~ Castillo San Cristóbal, also known as Fort San Cristóbal, is part if the San Juan National Historical Site and was built by Spain to guard Puerto Rico against land attacks. San Cristóbal was completed in 1783 on 27 acres of land and is the largest fort that the Spanish built. Built on a hill, Cerro de San Cristóbal contains cisterns (tanks to store water) that are 30 feet high and 60 feet wide which were used during the ages of the Spanish Colony. The cisterns doubled as bomb shelters during World War II. Tourists walk around at their leisure, exploring the grounds and reading the historical significance.
Let’s eat!!!! At Barrachina Restaurant in Old San Juan, you can eat, drink and even get married!! There are usually people standing around waiting for their name to be called, a sign of how popular and fabulous the restaurant is. The piña colada is the national drink of Puerto Rico since 1978. National Piña Colada Day is celebrated on July 10th in the Caribbean. Ramón Portas Mingot claims to have created the drink in 1963 at Barrachina Restaurant. The piña (pineapple) colada (strained) is made with rum, coconut cream or milk, and pineapple juice. They offer virgin pina coladas for the kids. Try the specialty sampler or monfongo! It was our first experience eating monfongo, which is made of plantains.
Barrachina Restaurant Old San Juan is recognized as the king of “Paella”. They have been serving up creative Spanish and International cuisine for over 50 years.
Mofongo is an African-Puerto Rican dish made of fried plantains. The plantains are picked green, before they are ripe and mixed with garlic and salt. Mofongo is served in a variety of ways but most commonly with fried meats and soup. The dish is often packed with vegetables, chicken, beef, shrimp or octopus. Mofongo relleno has seafood inside along with braised meat or seafood poured over the top, pictured above. I would describe it as very firm, dense and not much flavor.
Shopping!!! There are several places to shop in Old San Juan, Calle (street) Fortaleza, Calle San Francisco, and Calle del Cristo to name a few. Calle del Cristo has higher end shops such as Coach, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Tommy Hilfigger, Dooney & Bourke, Crocs, and Polo. You’ll also find galleries with Puerto Rican crafts, local cigar shops, clothing and shoes stores as well as boutiques and souvenirs. Calle Fortaleza, also known as SoFo, has shops, restaurants and hotels for up and down the street for blocks. It is considered the main shopping district for Old San Juan. Calle San Francisco is the place to shop for artisans, skateboard & surf wear, street fashion and bistros. The Mall of San Juan, Plaza del Sol and Martemar Plaza are located in Calle San Francisco.
$$ Saving Tips: The portions at Barrachina are huge, so be sure to split. We took a guided tour through Old San Juan, but it’s really not necessary to pay for a guided tour if you just want to shop and walk the streets of Old San Juan. The streets are accessible from the cruise ship and there is a lot to see and do. Bring your own sunblock, hat & bottled water as it is very hot! We were there mid-March and it was humid and sticky.