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.
Flavored ice, incognito
Sampling San Juan's most underground dessert feels like stepping into a spy movie: Visitors enter an unmarked apartment building, call to the proprietor through an iron gate in the lobby, and within minutes, Eddie shows up to tout the day's flavors—say, pineapple and tamarind. When he returns with the limber, a flavored-ice treat that's the love child of shaved ice and sorbet, it's delivered in a plastic Dixie cup, straight from the freezer—the same way it has been for 40 years. Caleta de las Monjas 9, limber 75¢.
A bygone vacation village
The Condado district, four miles east of Old San Juan, is now synonymous with condo towers and trendy shops, but it began as a sleepy, turn-of-the-century beach community where the city's wealthiest families kept grand, Spanish-style second homes. A few of the historic buildings remain, to new purpose: One houses El Canario Inn (Avenida Ashford 1317, canariohotels.com/inn.htm, doubles from $90), and another is the restaurant Ajili Mojili, where travelers can taste traditional Puerto Rican dishes in an old-fashioned setting (Avenida Ashford 1006, 787/725-9195, entrées from $16).
A high-flying show
On weekends, while sightseers throng El Morro, the 16th-century citadel at the northwest tip of Old San Juan, residents take to the lawn in front of the fort to unfurl an impressive array of kites. The real spectacle is on Sundays, when families come from inland to launch their elaborate fliers, made from old fabrics and papier-mâché. El Morro, nps.gov/saju.
The island's not-so-secret sauce
Just as every Southern barbecue joint has its signature slather, every street-food stall worth its salt in Puerto Rico has its pique, a fiery homemade condiment with a vinegar-and-red-pepper base. You'll find it, often in repurposed rum bottles, on snack counters island-wide.
An all-day arts crawl for $1.50
Thanks to the new Tren Urbano rail system, anyone can embark on a DIY citywide arts tour. From the Sagrado Corazón terminus in Condado, it's one stop to an independent-film screening at the Popular Center's Fine Arts Café cinema (Torre Norte, 787/765-2339, tickets $9.50); five more stops to the Sala Teatro Beckett in Río Piedras, where plays and concerts are staged (Avenida Ponce de León 1008, 2nd Fl., salateatrobeckett-paca.blogspot.com); and then a short walk to the gallery and music venue Río Cantina Urbana (Avenida Ponce de León 1016, 787/282-6262). The cantina's pink-and-blue muraled façade fits right in with the area's graffiti-tagged cafés and old-school holdouts like Heladería Los Chinitos, an ice cream shop that's been going strong since 1964 (Avenida Ponce de León 1061, 787/765-3395).
The next big thing in bags...
It's easy to spot trend-savvy Puerto Ricans: They're often carrying Concalma totes, launched by designer and San Juan resident Matilsha Marxuach. The colorful, sturdy satchels, which come in stripes and floral patterns, are made by the women's collaborative Cooperativa Industrial Creación de La Montaña. Calle San Francisco 207, concalmalinea.com, totes from $25.
...And a great place to fill them
Attention, foodies: There's a worthy new reason to visit El Museo de San Juan, one of the Caribbean's top art museums. Every Saturday, vendors set up in the courtyard for the Mercado Agrícola Natural del Viejo San Juan, the old city's first organic farmers market. Shoppers can load up on tropical produce, local artisanal cheeses, and prepared foods like empanadas stuffed with hearts of palm. Calle Norzagaray 150, mercadoagricolanatural.com, Sat. 8 a.m.–1 p.m.
A chic hotel with a dreamy view
It's ironic that one of the best hotels in San Juan is actually Moroccan-themed: At 2-year-old Hotel Casablanca in Old San Juan, mosaic tiling and colored lanterns ornament the lavish lobby, and the 35 guest rooms have hand-loomed tapestries and carved-wood furniture. Look out from the rooftop terrace, however—over rows of pastel storefronts and the baroque cathedral in the distance—and you'll see an unambiguously Spanish-colonial scene. Calle Fortaleza 316, hotelcasablancapr.com, rooms from $95.