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San Juan National Historic Site, 501 Norzagaray Street, San Juan, PR 00901

GPS: 18.468755491368, -66.120740215195

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San Juan National Historic Site represents the most important Spanish military outpost based in the Caribbean. From the 16th century, the port city of San Juan was fortified for over 250 years by the first conquistadors who came from Spain to protect it from other European powers. Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to discover the island of Puerto Rico in 1493, during his second expedition to America, (he named the archipelago San Juan Bautista). In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was administratively attached to the United States and joined the American Commonwealth in 1952 (the island is 1,600 km from the continental coast of the United States). The bay and the cobbled streets of the old town of San Juan preserve many buildings from the Spanish colonial empire: citadel, historical monuments, colourful houses, defensive works, ramparts, forts and bastions are part of its rich heritage overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

Before the arrival of the explorers of the New World at the end of the 15th century, the archipelago was inhabited by the Indian people of the Taínos (close to the Amerindian people of the Arawaks) and their leader Agüeybaná, cacique (chief) of Boriken (Puerto Rico). Juan Ponce de León quickly made it a Spanish possession. In 1510, he was appointed first governor of the island of Puerto Rico by the Crown of Castile and exploited the Taínos to fortify the archipelago, to search for gold or to work on the plantations as slaves. The foundation of the city of San Juan, also called Ciudad amurallada (walled city), dates back to 1521. At that time, it concentrated its houses and forts on a very small part of the main island. Solidly anchored in the bay, its massive fortresses such as La Fortaleza and El Morro bear witness to five centuries of occupation and a sometimes turbulent history (the town was repeatedly attacked by British, French and Dutch forces). The other peculiarity of these military buildings, of European construction, is that they are located in the middle of a tropical zone.

Particularly lively at night, the charming and historic city of San Juan is the timeless destination of the Greater Antilles and the Caribbean. It is the emblem of a dynamic island with Taino, Spanish, African and American influences reflected in its cuisine, music, dance and art. Its predominantly Hispanic inhabitants vibrate to the rhythm of a Creole culture and a tropical climate.

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  • The 4 historic fortresses of San Juan: Castillo San Felipe del Morro (triangular fortress better known as El Morro), Castillo San Cristóbal (large fortification to defend against land-based attacks), La Fortaleza (official residence of the governor of the island), Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (nicknamed El Cañuelo); the Puerta San Juan (the only remaining fortified entrance to the old town since the 17th century); the watchtowers of El Morro
  • The many cultural museums: Museo de San Juan (historical museum), Casa Blanca (old colonial house built in 1521), Museo del Niño (activities and games for children), Museo Pablo Casals (dedicated to the cellist musician of the same name), Museo de las Americas (historical and cultural exhibitions), Museo del Mar (about the history of the port of San Juan and navigation)…
  • Museums and art galleries: Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Galería Nacional, El Arsenal and Galería Botello
  • Other heritage sites including San José Church (opened for worship in 1532, it is one of the oldest churches in the Americas), the Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista (completed in 1540, it is the oldest cathedral in the United States), the Plaza de La Rogativa and the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery
  • The colourful houses, lined with narrow cobbled streets in the old town; the historic district of La Perla (18th century)
  • The seaside walk along the Paseo de la Princesa
  • The lively nightlife; the culture and traditions of the inhabitants; the local gastronomy; the coffee and rum produced on the island; the local piña colada cocktail
  • Condado beach and Santurce market nearby; climbing, surfing and swimming activities
  • The Calle San Sebastian Festivities (big street festival in Old San Juan in January)
  • San Juan is the oldest city in the United States (it predates the city of Saint Augustine in Florida, itself built by the Spaniards in 1565).
  • According to a legend from ancient accounts written in the 16th century, the first governor of the island of Puerto Rico (Juan Ponce de León) was in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth when he left San Juan on board his ship. His journey finally led him to Florida, where he discovered it.
  • It was after the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, ratified a year later by the United States Senate, that the Spanish-American War ceased and Puerto Rico passed into American hands. Spanish and English are the two official languages of the archipelago, which has a population of 4 million (a quarter of the population lives in the city of San Juan).
  • Because of its specific legal status as an “Associated Free State” granted in 1952, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory in the United States (it does not have the status of a State of the Union). Its inhabitants have US citizenship, freedom of movement throughout the territory and the ability to vote in the US presidential primaries. However, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in the U.S. presidential election itself or elect representatives to Congress. This also applies to other island territories such as the archipelagos of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Philippine Sea), the United States Virgin Islands (Caribbean Sea), the Midway Atoll, Wake Atoll (North Pacific) and American Samoa (South Pacific).
  • The piña colada cocktail is said to have been created in the middle of the 20th century in Puerto Rico. Recognized as the country’s national drink, it is prepared with rum, pineapple juice and coconut cream.
  • San Juan experienced a series of earthquakes and tremors between late 2019 and early 2020 (the largest recorded tremor in over a century). The island is often hit by powerful hurricanes (mainly between June and early December). The hurricane of 2017, named Maria, claimed 3,000 lives and caused significant material damage.
  • Walking is the best way to visit Old San Juan (tram transport is free).
  • The average temperature is 27 °C. It never drops below 16 °C.
  • Special or guided tours are organized by the American services of the San Juan National Historic Site.
  • Some of the city’s museums may be closed on Sundays or Mondays.
  • Complete your immersion in the city with a stop at a traditional bar for a locally grown coffee or a home-made cocktail.

Where to eat

  • Caficultura
    (flavoured breakfast)
  • Greengos
    (Mexican cuisine)
  • Verde Mesa
    (full of plants)

Where to go out

  • Capitol of Puerto Rico
    (magnificent building)
  • Nuyorican Cafe
    (Puerto Rican salsa)
  • El Yunque National Forest
    (high rainfall canopy)

Where to sleep

  • Posada San Francisco
    (for a short stay)
  • Villa Herencia
    (charming house)
  • Hotel El Convento
    (in good hands)

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