Explore San Juan: A First Timers Guide

San Juan, the vibrant capital of Puerto Rico, is rich in history, captivating culture, and amazing shorelines. Whether you’re a history buff seeking ancient fortresses, a foodie yearning for delectable flavors, or a beach bum craving turquoise water, San Juan has something to offer everyone. This guide, based on our own San Juan first timer experience, will give you all the information you need to have an unforgettable adventure.

Table of Contents

Planning Your Trip

Do You Need a Passport to Go to Puerto Rico?

The good news: US citizens don’t need a passport to visit Puerto Rico as it is a US territory. However, you will need a valid form of government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license or a valid passport. For non-US citizens, the same rules apply to Puerto Rico as if you were visiting the continental United States.

When to Visit San Juan, Puerto Rico

Choosing the perfect time to explore San Juan depends on your priorities:

  • Sun-seekers (December – March): We were looking for a warm bastion from a cold winter in February.  We were welcomed by glorious weather with minimal rain and comfortable temperatures. Just expect peak season crowds
  • Shoulder Season Seekers (April – June): Temperatures are pleasant with occasional showers and slightly lower prices. This period coincides with vibrant festivals like Casals Festival (classical music) and Carnival (festive parades).
  • Budget-Conscious Travelers (July – November): This is the hottest period and also in the middle of the rainiest season. You should be able to find deals on travel and accommodation. However, be aware this is also hurricane season (June – November) so watch the forecast and keep your fingers crossed.
view of ramparts of Castillo San Felipe Del Morro lighthouse flags waving on blue sky day

Top Things to Do as a San Juan first timer

Explore the Forts of old San Juan

San Juan National Historic Site which is run by the National Park Service includes Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristobal, the city walls and the San Juan Gate. This is a can’t miss site in old San Juan.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro: This iconic 16th-century fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It offers stunning ocean views and a fascinating glimpse into Puerto Rico’s colonial past.

Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo): Standing guard across the bay from Castillo San Felipe del Morro, explore this smaller fort that was built to further protect the harbor entrance from approaching enemy ships.

Castillo San Cristóbal: Explore the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the Americas, boasting impressive defense systems and panoramic city views.

Don’t miss getting your National Park Service passport stamp! You can find stamps at the main National Park visitor center in San Cristobal or in the bookstore in San Felipe Del Morro.

Immerse Yourself in History

Embark on a walking tour to delve into the fascinating stories and architecture of Old San Juan. There are several options to take in the sites of this iconic city. We went on a self-guided walk around the cobblestone streets and architecture.

Immerse yourself in the local art scene by visiting galleries or attending cultural events like the Casals Festival for classical music enthusiasts.

Indulge Your Senses

Delight in local flavors: Explore the cobbled streets lined with charming cafes and restaurants, indulging in fresh seafood dishes, delicious pastries, and refreshing local drinks like piña coladas, supposedly invented in San Juan. The best mojito I ever had was right here in San Juan.  You can also sample local staples like mofongo (mashed plantains and our favorite!), pasteles (savory pockets), and coquito (a rum-based coconut drink).

a San Juan first timer walking down Cobblestone street of old town San Juan Puerto Rico

Embrace the vibrant shopping scene: Find unique souvenirs, handcrafted items, and local designer pieces at the various shops and boutiques.

Immerse yourself in the nightlife: San Juan offers diverse nightlife options, from lively bars and salsa clubs to rooftop terraces with breathtaking city views.

Take in the Views

Walk along the historic trail of the shores of Paseo del Morro, offering stunning views of the ocean and El Morro fort.

Women looking out over water on Paeso Del Morro walkway as a San Juan first timer on a sunny day
Enjoying the view on the Paeso Del Morro

Take a leisurely stroll along the Paseo de la Princesa, a scenic boardwalk lined with trees, perfect for enjoying the sunset and capturing picturesque views.

Beyond Old San Juan

Puerto Rico offers much more than just the historical charm of old San Juan. Venture beyond the city walls for diverse experiences:

Hit the Beach

  • Isla Verde: Renowned for its calm turquoise waters, soft golden sand, and excellent water sports facilities.
  • Condado: Popular with surfers and sunbathers alike, offering beachfront resorts, restaurants, and vibrant nightlife. Note, while the beach is amazing, the surf can be very rough, and swimming here can be dangerous.

Experience Nature

  • El Yunque National Forest: Immerse yourself in a lush rainforest environment, teeming with diverse flora and fauna. Explore hiking trails, cascading waterfalls, and hidden swimming holes.
  • Kayak through the bioluminescent bays: Witness a mesmerizing natural phenomenon as the water glows with millions of tiny organisms at night.
  • Snorkel or scuba dive: Explore the vibrant underwater world teeming with colorful fish and coral reefs.
Hospital De la Mojitas roof bells and blue sky

Things to Know Before You Go

  • Currency: The US dollar is the official currency in Puerto Rico, so you won’t need to exchange any money.
  • Weather: Pack light, breathable clothing, sunscreen, and a reusable water bottle. San Juan boasts warm weather year-round with occasional rain showers, especially during the summer months.
  • Tipping: Tipping etiquette is similar to the mainland US. A 20% gratuity is customary for good service at restaurants and bars.

Get Your San Juan National Park Stamp (Even If You Missed It)

Letter from National Park Service with Stamp from Puerto Rico

As a San Juan first timer, I missed getting my National Park passport stamp when we visited back in 2008. Luckily, all you need is a Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope (SASE) and a kindly worded letter. The amazing staff sent me a stamp, backdated to the date of our trip! How special!

Final Thoughts

We loved our short weekend trip to old San Juan. It is always there, ready to captivate you with its unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. We could not do it all on our short stay and will need to go back soon to see all that this city and island can offer. Until then, we can look back on the memories we made when we look at the Passport Stamp from San Juan National Historic Site.

Sunset blue red sky pillar statue San Juan Puerto Rico

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