SKIP THE CROWDS
20 Best-Kept Secrets of San Juan, Puerto Rico
Follow our insider tips to the hidden hotels, lively local watering holes, and one-of-a-kind experiences most of the city's visitors never discover.
Of the nearly 5 million tourists who pass through Puerto Rico's capital each year, only a fraction actually stray from the beaten path that connects the cruise-ship port with the city's swanky casinos and resorts. They have no idea what they're missing.
A low-key waterfront B&B
High-rise hotels far outnumber San Juan's small, family-run options—which might be what inspired the name of the Numero Uno Guest House, a 15-room inn in Ocean Park, five miles east of Old San Juan. The decor plays up the coastal location, with rattan furniture and unparalleled Atlantic views; and at the on-site 50-seat restaurant, Pamela's, creative seafood dishes like scallops in grapefruit-and-pink-peppercorn salsa are delivered to tables planted right on the beach. Calle Santa Ana 1, numero1guesthouse.com, rooms from $99, entrées from $25.
An iconic bank's secret stash
The 11-story art deco Banco Popular skyscraper has been a popular landmark in Old San Juan for 70 years, but few visitors know of the museum on its 3rd floor. The Sala de Exhibiciones Rafael Carrión Pacheco showcases island-centric exhibits, such as an exploration of area coffee plantations and a 38-foot scalemodel of the old city. Calle Tetuán 206, 787/722-7389, Tues.–Sun. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., free.
Umbrella drinks have some stiff competition
Move over, piña colada. These days, the top cocktail in town is the chichaíto (cheeh-chah-ee-toh), a traditional after-dinner concoction embraced by a new generation of bar-goers. At the Carnival-mask shop turned bar Los 3 Cuernos on Old San Juan's Plaza de Colón, the rum-and-anise mixture is spiked with fruit juices and served by the shot, by the half-pint, or paired with a six-pack of local Medalla beer. Calle San Francisco 403, shot $1.
A picturesque resting place
San Juan's most exclusive stretch of coastline isn't part of some fancy resort—it's the Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis, a nearly 200-year-old burial ground tucked between the ruins of the El Morro fortress and the Atlantic Ocean. A peach-colored chapel stands among hundreds of elaborate tombs, which inter prominent islanders such as singer Gilberto Monroig and actor (and uncle of George Clooney) José Ferrer. Calle Norzagaray, 787/723-3852, Mon.–Fri. 7 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 8 a.m.–noon.
The coffee of kings
Talk about a pick-me-up with a pedigree. Puerto Rican coffee was the favorite of 18th-century European courts, and even as modern brew trends come and go, the island's beans still rank near the top of connoisseurs' lists. Locals order it either black (expreso), with a touch of hot milk (cortadito), or mixed with plenty of steamed milk (con leche). One of the city's best coffee spots is Caficultura, a former Old San Juan residence decorated with chandeliers, marble-topped tables, and heavy wooden doors propped open for easy people-watching on the Plaza de Colón. Calle San Francisco 401, 787/723-7731, coffee from $2.50.
Spanglish was invented here
A singsong, rapid-fire cadence and a tendency to blend English with Spanish set the Puerto Rican tongue apart. Even first-timers may recognize some words: The structure that houses the bank? It's a bildin (bil-deen), and probably not where you'd goof around, or gufear (goo-feh-ar).
The best seats in baseball
While Hall of Famers no longer polish their off-season skills in Puerto Rico's Winter League, there's still plenty to draw folks to Estadio Hiram Bithorn, where the Senadores de San Juan (San Juan Senators) play from October to January: namely, cheap tickets, spirited fans, and stadium fare that includes plantain chips and tropical drinks. FDR Blvd. and Rte. 18, ticketpop.com, tickets from $2.50.
Where the jukebox still reigns
Closet-size Café Celeste is often overshadowed by the famous Nuyorican Café across the street, but the scene inside this Old San Juan hole-in-the-wall is no less worthy. Along with a handful of other timeworn joints, it makes up "the jukebox walk," a circuit of laid-back bars where the vellonera—a jukebox filled with salsa and mambo, from Tito Puente to Bobby Valentín—is the draw, and festive crowds of singing patrons are known to spill outside onto the cobblestones. Callejón de la Capilla 197, cocktails from $2.50.