Family Vacations to San Juan, Puerto Rico

Family Overview - San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan's architecture and culture lure tourists to an array of historic sites before traveling to nearby beaches and rainforests (courtesy, Puerto Rico Tourism)

San Juan Highlights

  • Explore centuries-old forts.
  • Browse for clothes and crafts in Old San Juan.
  • Enjoy trendy Latin fusion cuisine.
  • Take little kids to the hands-on Museo del Niño.
  • Swim and sun on golden sands.

San Juan, bustling with cruise ship crowds and packed with shops and hotels, grew from a colonial heart, where churches and centuries-old forts still stand. The best way to get a sense of Old San Juan, a seven-square-block area of cobblestone streets, 17th-century churches, historic buildings, cafes, and boutiques, is by walking. Pace yourself, as the crowded streets and the uphill climbs to the forts make sightseeing a slow endeavor. Young kids may prefer a city tour in a horse-drawn carriage.

The Paseo de la Princesa is a good place to start a walk. Stroll past the old city walls and through the San Juan Gate. Follow the waterfront to Casa Blanca, the city's first fortress and the home of the family of Ponce de Leon, the great colonizer and first governor of Puerto Rico. He never lived in this property, but his family occupied the residence for 250 years. Now the white house contains a colonial-era museum with an appealing garden.

On the city's rocky northwestern tip is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or "El Morro," begun in 1539 and considered complete in 1787. The fort offers stunning vistas and a labyrinth of tunnels, dungeons, and look-out towers to explore. The sea winds make the grounds a good place for flying kites, available at local shops. San Cristobal, a fort built to protect the city from land attacks, rises where the eastern gate to the city stood. Construction began in 1634 and ended in 1790 on this 27-acre garrison, the largest fortified complex built by the Spanish in the New World. Check out the canons in the courtyard, view a troop's quarter, peer into the dungeon, walk the ramparts, and ponder the Devil's Sentry Box—an ancient, windswept watchtower from which several guards were said to have vanished in thin air.

Other interesting Old San Juan sites include La Fortaleza, the oldest governor's mansion in the Western Hemisphere, and the 16th-century Catedral de San Juan, containing the tomb of Ponce de Leon. In Santurce, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo features paintings, sculpture, and photography by Puerto Rican and Latin American artists.

Teens (and adults) looking for trendy clothes should browse Old San Juan's outlets and designer stores, particularly those on San Francisco, Cristo, and Fortaleza streets. Some say San Juan is the culinary capital of the Caribbean, especially because of its Latin fusion dishes. Trendy restaurants include Aquaviva, Dragonfly, and Tantra.

Although San Juan doesn't serve up the island's top beaches, best bets are the golden sands of Condado Beach and Isla Verde Beach.

Tip: For interesting day trips from San Juan, visit Rio Camuy Cave Park, the world's third largest underground river, and the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory, which has the largest single dish radio telescope in the world.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 1 May 2008 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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