When youâre wandering around Old San Juan, youâll feel
worlds away from the United States.
Quaint cobblestone streets. Murmurs of Spanish. Centuries-old
But the capital of Puerto Rico is just a few hours by plane
â and because the island is a U.S. territory, you
need a passport to get there.
You can also use your cell phone and spend U.S. dollars, and
since almost everyone speaks flawless English, you wonât need
to worry if you donât speak Spanish (though most people will
happily let you practice).
I recently spent 10 days in this tropical paradise. It makes a
perfect weekend getaway for Americans seeking exotic sights, sounds
and tastes without having to travel far from home.
What to Expect
As you probably know, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane
Maria in September 2017. The storm caused $90
billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. Many residents went without power for
almost a year.
Given all the negative news coverage, I wasnât sure what to
expect. What would it look like? Would there be hot water and
electricity? Would restaurants and hotels be open?
When I hopped off the plane, I was surprised to see that San
Juan looks, well, normal. Restaurants, hotels and attractions
are open, and the city has been welcoming
cruise ships for months.
Iâm not saying the work in Puerto Rico is done. It is
$71 billion in debt, and the island faces myriad challenges.
While I hope youâll take some time to learn about the
territory before visiting, thatâs not what this article is
So, instead of diving into Puerto Ricoâs politics and
history, Iâll just assure you: The average tourist can have a
perfectly lovely visit. Â
And you should, because one of the
best ways to support the island is to spend money there. Puerto
Ricans are some of the friendliest people Iâve encountered in
my travels; they will likely welcome you with a smile.
When to Go
The temperature in San Juan is around 75 to 85 degrees
High tourist season lasts from mid-December to mid-April and
comes with bigger crowds and prices. Springâs shoulder season
(mid-April to June) has fewer crowds.
Itâs hurricane season from June to November, though that
shouldnât necessarily deter you from visiting. The weather can
still be great, and you can find discounted rates on hotels,
according to U.S. News
& World Report.
What to Do
You wonât find yourself hurting for activities while
visiting San Juan. Hereâs a sampling of offerings in this
historic seaside town.
Old San Juan
For most visitors, simply wandering the charming streets of Old
San Juan could provide days of entertainment.
With 16th- and 17th-century architecture, swaying palm trees,
blue cobblestones and stray cats sleeping on stoops, youâll
feel far removed from big-box stores and strip malls.
Stop into stores, sit in one of the many plazas, grab a cup of
world-class coffee from Cuatros Sombras and watch the
world go by.
Museums and Attractions
History lovers, rejoice! San Juanâs museums are incredibly
Entrance to the San
Juan National Historic Site, which includes the 16th-century El
Morro Fort and Fort San CristÃ³bal, is $7.
La Casa Blanca, the oldest continuously occupied house in the
western hemisphere, costs just $3 to enter. Â
Ready to spice up your day of history? Take a $15 historical
tour of the Bacardi rum distillery.
When it comes to
beaches, you usually have to get out of the city to find
beautiful ones. But thatâs not the case here.
Neighborhoods like Condado, Ocean Park and Isla Verde all have
pristine beaches and are just minutes from Old San Juan. Many
visitors choose to book waterfront hotels here.
But even if you donât stay by the beach, set aside at least
a half day to enjoy the sun, surf and white sand while pretending
youâre in a Puerto Rican postcard.
To get out of the city, the most budget-friendly option is to
rent a car. (When I looked, it was only $17 per day.)
You can then cruise 30 miles to El Yunque, the
only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Most of its trails closed
after Maria, but theyâve been steadily reopening. Even so, you
can always take in its lush surroundings and waterfalls.
On your way back, hit up PiÃ±ones, a beachside town famous for
its laid-back food kiosks.
Where to Eat and Drink
Although you donât hear about it as much as other foodie
destinations (yet!), Puerto Ricoâs culinary scene has got
it going on.
Its most famous dish is âmofongoâ: garlicky fried
plantains, sometimes shaped into a bowl and filled with meat and
broth. You can find it anywhere from hole-in-the-wall
establishments to fine-dining restaurants. Â
As far as budget options go, here were a few of my favorite
Lote 23: This
industrial lot is filled with over a dozen food kiosks â
itâs an absolute must visit. Be sure to try manchego
croquettes at Croqueteria (two for $4) and homemade cashew milk
lattes at Cafe Regina ($7). El Jangiriâs poke bowls ($8-$12)
are also excellent.
Bombonera: One of the oldest restaurants in San
Juan, this bakery has been open since 1902. Its most famous
offering is the âmallorcaâ, a flaky pastry filled with
cheese and topped with powdered sugar ($3.95). Yum.
ManolÃn: Stop by this unpretentious local joint
to sample chicken mofongo ($10.95) and âempanada de
lomilloâ, or breaded beef steak ($11.95).
Paleta: In San Juanâs tropical climate,
youâll probably get a hankering for something cold. This
gourmet popsicle shop has a range of inventive flavors; my favorite
was Nutella-filled strawberry ($4).
restaurant claims to have invented the piÃ±a colada. Although
another bar in the area claims it, too, all you really need to know
is the piÃ±a coladas here ($8) are delicioso. Sit at the
bar in the courtyard, and youâre guaranteed to have a good
La Placita de Santurce: For a fun night out, grab
a beer ($2) and wander around this lively bar area, where the
streets fill with locals and tourists alike. Itâs perfect for
people-watching â and if you stay late enough, youâll
undoubtedly see some spontaneous salsa dancing.
Where to Stay
When deciding where to stay in San Juan, youâll face a
tough decision: old town or the beach. While Old San Juan offers
plenty of charm, staying at the beach is, well, staying at the
The good news is that most options are fairly close together,
and by choosing one, youâll probably only be a $5 to $7 car
ride from the other.
You can also choose an Airbnb, but be mindful that it
isnât always best for a cityâs residents.
Large, resort-style hotels abound in Condado, a touristy beach
area a few miles east of Old San Juan. Iâd recommend staying a
little further afield, though; youâll get more for your money,
and wonât, be sleeping at a Holiday Inn in Puerto Rico.
Here are two wonderful options:
This trendy hostel is located just a few blocks from the beach.
It has a fabulous rooftop â complete with hammocks and lounge
chairs â that overlooks the ocean. It also has a shared
kitchen, allowing you to cook meals to save money.
Even though Iâm past the point of sleeping in dorms, I
book private rooms at hostels. Theyâre a great way to
enjoy the low rates and sociability of a hostel without listening
to other people snore.
Here are its nightly rates:
- Dorm bed: $32 and up
- Rooftop tent: $45 and up
- Private room: $64 and up
- Deluxe private room: $88 and up
This boutique vegetarian bed-and-breakfast feels like itâs
out of an Instagram catalog. (I know thatâs not a thing, but
if it were, this hotel would play a starring role.)
Each room is uniquely decorated with vintage finds, and the
grounds, filled with plants and hammocks, ooze tranquility. Rates
depend on which
room you book but start at $89. You can opt for fresh
vegetarian breakfasts ($11) and also make use of a shared kitchen.
How to Get to San Juan
Many airlines, including Southwest, Spirit and JetBlue, offer
daily departures to San Juan. (Note that with Spirit, youâll
pay extra for all luggage, including carry-ons.)
When looking at flights about a month out from my trip, here are
some round-trip rates I found:
- From Chicago OâHare: $279 (Spirit)
- From Newark: $307 (JetBlue, direct)
- From Baltimore: $331 (JetBlue, direct)
- From Atlanta: $182 (Spirit)
Once you get there, renting a car isnât necessary if
youâre just staying for the weekend.
Ubers and Lyfts are plentiful and cheap â with the
exception of arriving at the airport, when youâll have to take
an official taxi to your hotel. Within the city, walking and biking
are great options; some hotels even offer free bike rentals.
Although you wonât get to see everything in Puerto Rico in
a weekend, you can always save things for your next trip. Because,
once you go â there will always be a next trip.
Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She
covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save
money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at
susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.
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The Perfect Weekend Getaway? It Might Just Be Puerto Rico