From the classic San Juan highlights to lesser-known spots to eat, shop, and play, Puerto Rico's capital city is ready to welcome visitors!
How is post-hurricane Puerto Rico really doing? Sure, we have 24/7 news and social media at our fingertips, but it turns out it’s difficult to get the real story from the mainland. I truly didn’t know what to expect upon landing at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in February, but quickly found, through on-the-ground, qualitative research (and videography, above), that while the rural parts of the island still need our help, the city of San Juan has bounced back and is excited to host visitors. Here’s my first-hand view of San Juan, the capital of the Island of Enchantment.
1. LIVE LIKE THE LOCALS IN SANTURCE
On the east side of iconic Old San Juan lies Santurce, a hot spot barrio full of energy and culture. Its main street, Calle Loiza, is packed with restaurants, bars, bakeries, and even books. Libros Libres is a “Leave one, take one” concept where books are arranged on milk crate shelves smartly designed along the street for browsing, borrowing or making a trade. El Bar Bero is directly across and is a barber shop by day, and a barber-themed bar by night! You can even order a drink, like Para Pelo or Roja Barba, while getting a hair or beard trim by Puerto Rico’s best.
2. EAT YOUR HEART OUT AT LOTE 23 GASTRO PARK
Sample all of the sweet and spicy San Juan has to offer, outdoors and in stationary food truck form. La Alcapurria Quemá fries up the island’s traditional alcapurrias and pastelitos, but adds an innovative spin by incorporating a variety of delectable fillings. Pernileria Los Proceres, known for its simple and satisfying pork sandwich, was one of the first restaurants to be part of the gastro park and serves its cuisine out of a silver bullet Airstream. Keep an eye on Lote 23’s Instagram in general for live music performances and outdoor movie nights.
3. STRETCH YOUR DOLLAR AT CONCALMA
Support Puerto Rico by shopping! Concalma is a local female-owned business that lifts up other native women by providing jobs not only in the store but at the design headquarters and distribution center too. Each handbag, purse, and fanny pack is created ethically, by Puerto Rican women, for both tourists and locals alike. Concalma means, “with a sense of calm” in English, but after the eye of hurricane Maria passed directly over the land, owner Matilsha temporarily changed the logo to Conprisa meaning “with urgency.” Following the Category 5 hurricanes Concalma became a key distributor of, not just their stylish accessories, but basic goods to help with immediate recovery for the mountain town of Utuado. Keep the help going by purchasing a supportive souvenir!
4. DON’T FORGET THE SAN JUAN CLASSICS
Old San Juan is brimming with history from the colorful facade of La Perla to the sprawling oceanside Santa Maria Cemetery to famous forts like San Cristobal and El Morro. Did you know Puerto Rico was originally named Borikén by its indigenous Taíno people, pre-Christopher Columbus? The term boricua derives from Borikén, which is often used endearingly to identify someone of Puerto Rican descent. If backstories aren’t not your thing, the oceans views at every history addict’s bucket list site happen to be extraordinary.
5. VISIT THE NEW OWNERS OF THE MEZZANINE
Two lawyers and a salesperson walk into a bar… and buy it! Cheesy jokes aside, the bold new owners of The Mezzanine quit their day jobs to become entrepreneurs after hurricanes Maria and Irma. Keeping the history of the space, as it was Puerto Rico's former Nationalist Party Headquarters, memorabilia lines the walls only interrupted by incredible balcony window views in each room. The team of three modernized the cocktail list, maintained the much loved brunch menu, and plan on making their own culinary mark as well. Try the Boricua Breeze, a rum-based ever-refreshing cocktail by resident mixologist Israel, and accompany your drink with savory appetizers such as pineapple shrimp skewers or black bean hummus and pita.
6. CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE IN OLD SAN JUAN
Strolling through Old San Juan without a plan is a perfect plan in itself. Plaza de Armas is a charming central spot to sit with a cafe con leche, and cathedrals, parks, museums, and ports are all within walking distance. Dip into any restaurant along Calle San Francisco for a traditional lunch of rice, beans, plantains, and meat. You’ll find Puerto Rican pride represented throughout the town via flag-themed murals, stickers, doors, and even trees. It won’t take long to sporadically hear live music or experience random breakouts of merengue, cha-cha, and salsa. Speaking of…
7. DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY
La Placita is a major hub for nightlife in San Juan. Dine al fresco on the streets outside the market square, people-watch from open air bars, and salsa dance until sunrise. Taberna La Vazquez has live salsa music more nights of the week than not, and the crowd is a grand mix of ages, backgrounds, personalities and skills. If Latin music isn’t your vibe, head to La Factoria in Old San Juan where five different cave-like corridors of the bar each produce different vibes and styles of music. Delight in the fact that you’re imbibing in the bar where the chart-topping “Despacito” music video was filmed. It doesn’t get more Puerto Rican than that!