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The capital city of Puerto Rico, San Juan is one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean and home to a third of all Puerto Ricans. Nearly every visitor to the island arrives at San Juan, many on cruise liners. It's one of the largest home-based cruise ports in the world, hosting many vessels with more being added each year.
San Juan is divided into three distinct districts: Old San Juan, the historic walled city; the beach and resort area; and the outlying suburbs. Tourists mainly visit Old San Juan, the site of most restaurants, shops, entertainment venues and some exquisite beaches.
The old city is linked to the new by the largely residential barrio of Puerta de Tierra and a series of modern highways leading to the Condado beachfront, which is reminiscent of Florida's Miami Beach with its high-rise hotels and apartment blocks.
It is not only tourism that keeps the financial mills grinding in San Juan. The city is an important centre for petroleum and sugar refining, brewing and distilling, and the manufacturing of cement, pharmaceuticals, metal products and tobacco products.
In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there are numerous attractions in San Juan to amuse, entertain and interest many tourists, and the city is a perfect base for exploring the rest of what this small Caribbean island has to offer.
Encompassing about seven blocks, this area dates back about 500 years to the Spanish occupation when it served as a military stronghold that even withstood Sir Francis Drake's armies. The original cobbles on the streets are blue-tinged and were originally used as ballast on Spanish ships. More than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings fill Old San Juan, drawing thousands of tourists who walk the narrow, steep streets every day. The old town is enclosed by thick, high walls and features numerous attractive plazas bearing sculptures and memorials.
Built in 1540, the mighty six-level fortress of San Felipe del Morro towers 140 feet (43m) above the sea on San Juan Bay, its 18-foot thick (5m) walls having proved a worthy defence against many an invasion. One of the largest fortifications in the Caribbean, it is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, lookouts and ramps, offering spectacular views from atop its ramparts. In Old San Juan, stands El Morro's partner in defending the city, Castillo San Cristobal, built in the 17th century to a confusing and intricate modular design.
La Fortaleza was built in 1540 as a fortress to guard the entrance to the San Juan harbour, but later became the official residence of the governor. During the following centuries, the original structure has been remodelled and expanded, with a neoclassical façade being added in 1846 to lend a certain palatial trait to the place. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the oldest administrative mansion still in use in the New World.
Puerto Rico's showcase art gallery is housed in a former city hospital in Santurce and offers a permanent and visiting exhibition. The aim is to highlight the island's heritage through the work of local artists, such as Francisco Oller, who studied in France with Cézanne, and Jose Campeche, a late 18th-century classical painter. The museum has been described as a living textbook of Puerto Rico, providing an overview of the island's history through the medium of art. The museum also hosts events such as concerts and festivals throughout the year.
The Caribbean National Forest, 35 miles (56km) east of San Juan, is the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park system and was named El Yunque by the Spanish. Its 28,000 acres contain about 240 different species of tree and numerous other plants, from tiny, delicate wild orchids to gigantic ferns. Visitors can start their visit at the El Portal Tropical Forest Centre where there are films, exhibits and interactive displays. Maps are available of the dozens of walking trails through the forest, graded according to difficulty. Nearby is Puerto Rico's best beach, Luquillo Beach, famous for its soft white sand and towering coconut palms.
Undoubtedly one of the top tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, a trip to the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre is a must for travellers to San Juan. Following exile from Cuba in the 1950s, the Bacardi founders moved to Puerto Rico and set up a small rum distillery on the outskirts of San Juan. It now produces a jaw-dropping 100,000 gallons of rum per day and 21 million cases per year. Tours of the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre last about an hour, as tour guides show visitors around a variety of exhibits and vintage rum stills, as well as explain the company's history. It culminates in a visit to an on-site, classically-styled bar, where a bartender will show you the proper methods of preparing Cuba libres and mojitos.
Isla Verde is San Juan's trendiest area and home to many of its best beach resorts and upmarket hotels. The area's name is inspired by the colour of the water in its bay: a rich green, turquoise hue that proves irresistible to swimmers and divers. The beautiful beach boasts soft sand and the shade of tall palm trees, while visitors can also enjoy world-class spa treatments and a vibrant nightlife. Isla Verde is home to two of the island's best casino hotels and a wide range of raucous clubs and bars with live music. A natural base for well-heeled travellers to San Juan, Isla Verde makes for a luxurious home away from home during your holiday in Puerto Rico.
San Juan, like all of Puerto Rico, has a tropical monsoon climate and enjoys warm, sunny days for most of the year. The tropical climate ensures an average temperature around 81°F (27°C), with an average low of only 71°F (22°C) year-round. Humidity runs continuously at around 80 percent. The rainy season peaks in August, and rain can be extremely heavy with each month receiving rain roughly half of its days. The driest months are February to April. Between August and November the island is vulnerable to hurricanes.
San Juan's downtown area is old with charming cobble-stoned roads, great for those wanting to explore on foot. So just remember to take comfortable walking shoes, or even hire a bicycle. In fact, many attractions have no convenient parking spots, making driving downtown frustrating.
The Metropolitan Bus Authority (AMA) service covers most of San Juan. Several routes, including those between the old town and the tourist districts, may be useful to visitors. To go farther afield, visitors can flag down one of the plentiful taxis or minibus taxis (publicos).
There is a flat-rate system for most destinations in the city, which often makes getting around by taxi quite economical but most travellers who want to explore the rest of Puerto Rico opt to hire a car, with international car rental agencies well represented.
San Juan is the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean and a major tourist destination for North American travellers. It is a city with much to offer its visitors: the beauty and history of the old town, artistic treasures of the Museo de Arte and sun-soaked beaches only minutes from the city centre.
The best way to see the sights and experience the city's attractions is to take a walking tour; either using a guidebook or professional guide. The city is compact and flat, meaning it's ideal to explore on foot. Travellers can take regular rests at the charming piazzas while exploring the old town. Also, the area can get busy and crowded as the day wears on.
High tourist season is from December to April, while June to November is far quieter. A note of caution though is that the island can experience hurricanes during this period.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination
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