Old San Juan dates back to the 16th Century and some of the buildings that remain are over 500 years old, and the two original Forts, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro and the fortified walls still surround this section of the city. Old San Juan would be roughly a 15-minute drive from the airport, but we arrived on an extremely busy Saturday night, and our Rideshare had to wait in stopped traffic to get us to The Gallery Inn, located in the heart of Old San Juan.
The streets of Old San Juan are lively at night, with open air bars, outdoor dining, local vendors, and musicians playing on multiple stages throughout the city. Even Alice found the night life entertaining, as the many cats roamed the streets. We stopped at the Save a Gato headquarters to greet even more cats and donate to the cause.
The Gallery Inn
The Gallery Inn was an experience that’s easily described by the photographs. Our room was on the top floor, with an enormous patio. While we were a first disappointed to not have an ocean facing room, we later realized that it was to our benefit. The museum is directly above La Perla, the historic shanty town that lies outside the walls of the city and is now the epicenter for Saturday late night parties (and by late night we mean the bar strip looked like it was still 1am even at 7am when we went to get coffee.) We were thankful to have our very quiet suite that was disconnected from the main part of the Inn. The owner of the Gallery Inn is an artist, and she uses the historic building as a gallery for her paintings and for art she has collected. We found sculptures, dollhouses, carved toys, and antique furniture at every turn in the gardens and rooms that were open to guests of the Inn. The rooftop patio was the highest point along the Calle Norzagaray, giving us a panoramic view of the ocean and city.
We had dinner on our first night at the Cannon Club in our Inn. The club is open to the public and showcases local musicians inside the bar, where the owner’s parrots join her many nights to enjoy the show. The guests’ patio of the Gallery Inn becomes restaurant seating, where we enjoyed drinks and dinner just after we arrived (there were heaps of vegetarian choices; the vegetarian tacos and hummus plate were excellent.)
It was hard to choose from the many dining options for our full day in the city. For lunch, we found the Santísimo Restaurant, located in the renovated historic Abbey. There we had our first vacation mojitos (with added blueberries so they were basically the same as health smoothies), and I found my new favorite appetizer, French fries covered in olive tapenade.
While we weren’t able to secure dining at the popular Barrachina (home to the first Pina Colada, although there is some debate), we did enjoy traditional Puerto Rican food at the Café El Punto, a restaurant with multiple small rooms that are covered with murals. This restaurant served my first of three mofongo meals of the trip. Traditionally, the fried mashed and fried plantain dish is served with meat, but I had no trouble finding vegetarian versions at most restaurants.
Our first day we visited the Castillo San Cristóbal and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the two forts that acted as defense of the island for the Spanish soldiers. Both are now managed by the National Park Service and one admission fee is required to visit both.
Castillo San Cristóbal is on the eastern side of the peninsula, and provides an extensive history of the island’s trade and military defense structures. An audio-tour company offers a tour for an additional fee, or you can choose to explore self-guided using the NPS map. We used the fort as more of an opportunity to view the city and ocean surrounding the structure. Seeing modern San Juan, cruise ships and beach resorts to the east, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the historic old San Juan offers a glimpse of the full history of Puerto Rico.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro is on the western side of the peninsula, and we had an easy 15-minute scenic walk along the Calle Norzagaray to reach it. It was actually our second visit; we had noticed the fort lit up on Saturday and were able to explore the exterior grounds at night. The interior of the fort was a maze of four levels, pitch black walkway corridors, and multiple small staircases. The top level holds the lighthouse, and museum exhibits are found on the main level beneath. From the fort we saw a the Paseo del Morro, a walkway that lead along the waterfront. After multiple attempts to find it, we finally asked a Park Ranger where to go, and he pointed us in the direction of a small staircase hidden on the right-side exterior of the Castillo.
From there, we descended layers of steps to reach the bottom. This walk was the “wildest” of our old San Juan adventure, as we realized iguanas were basking on the nearly vertical rock faces. A section along the Paseo del Morro is home to feral cats that are cared for through a local non-profit, Save a Gato. The cats were mostly disinterested in us, as they wandered through the dense brush and basked in the sun on rocks overlooking the water. The end of the walkway lead us to the Puerta de San Juan, which dates back to 1520.
Puerto Rico means “rich port” and the city acted as the main shipping center after the Spanish colonized the island. As with the history of the entire Caribbean, the island owes its wealth to people that were exploited by the colonizers. The Indigenous population of Taino shared their knowledge of the plants that would become major food crops before they were eliminated by disease and murder by the Spanish. Unfortunately their stories aren’t able to be told by subsequent generations. The forts and other buildings were built by African slaves, who were also forced to work to grow the crops and ship the crops that would build the colony’s wealth. With more time in San Juan we would have visited many of the other attractions, including Museo de las Americas, the Museo de San Juan and Museo La Casa del Libro, as well as the historic cathedrals.