Puerto Rico en Moda
Those comparisons to South Beach don't really make it, but San Juan -- and much of Puerto Rico, really -- has its own sense of style that is just as vibrant and a whole lot more soulful. Sure Puerto Rican royalty (from Benicio del Toro to Marc Anthony and J-Lo to Ricky Martin) are regularly jetting in, but it's the local talent that will more likely wow visitors. The city has been transformed by the opening of the Puerto Rico Miguel José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum (500 Arterial B St., Hato Rey; tel. 877/265-4736; box office Mon-Fri 10am-5pm) and the Puerto Rico Convention Center (100 Convention Blvd., San Juan; tel. 800/214-0420). Since the opening of "the Coliseo," as the coliseum is known locally, performers such as Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, the Police, and Billy Joel have played there, and it regularly gets top-name Latino acts, such as Shakira and Juanes. The Convention Center is attracting all sorts of national groups as well as other entertainment events. CIRCO, an annual art fair, is getting serious attention, and the center is also the host of an annual fashion week with shows by local and international designers. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company has held an annual New Year's Eve party here that is broadcast live on Spanish-language television and features some of the top names in Latino music. Even when there are no stars, both venues have cafe-bars that have become hangouts for young urban professionals to let loose after work, especially on Thursday and Friday nights.
There is no trendier place in San Juan today than the new temple of island art, Museo de Arte. It took $55 million to turn this 1920s city hospital in Santurce, an eyesore for decades, into this new home for art. The new museum has become a way of life for some Puerto Ricans, many of whom go here at least once a week -- perhaps to see a production in the 400-seat theater, named for Raúl Juliá, the late Puerto Rican actor, or perhaps to go for a romantic stroll through the museum's 5-acre (2-hectare) garden.
San Juan even has SoFo, a once abandoned sector of La Fortaleza Street that is now buzzing with activity, home to some of Old San Juan's best restaurants, bars, and clubs. A play on the name of New York City's SoHo, SoFo purportedly refers to South Fortaleza Street. The name has stuck, even though it's geographically inaccurate, as the area is actually East Fortaleza Street. The Parrot Club is the original hot spot of the neighborhood, opening more than a decade ago with its brash and flavorful Nuevo Latino cuisine in a land of crusty Chinese restaurants and delis, run-down tourist shops, and dusty fabric stores. Today, these run-down businesses have been renovated. The area is a center for world cuisine, where you can find everything from French Trois Cent Onze to Indian Tantra to Asian Fusion Dragonfly.
We would put the beach at Ocean Park against that at South Beach. It's just naturally far more beautiful, and its guesthouses and restaurants attract an eclectic set of trendsetters: students, surfers, gay people, and urban creatives from the East Coast who prefer its low-lying skyline and laid-back ambience over the big resorts and condos of Condado and Isla Verde.
The Condado, however, has undergone its own revival, with the renovation of La Concha hotel, the opening of some of the city's best restaurants (such as Budatai and the relocated Pikayo), the establishment of an ocean front park, and a string of boutiques of the world's top names in fashion and jewelry.
And there's perhaps no place as timelessly chic as the Plaza de Mercado de Santurce (near Calle Canals and Av. Ponce de León). The traditional food market is a great place to buy tropical fruits and vegetables, and there's a bunch more oddities, such as old Puerto Rican music recordings, herbs, and religious artifacts involving santería. There are several good restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood (José Enrique's and La Tasca del Pescador) and several bars. The neighborhood is a swirl of activity from early in the day through late evening. On Thursday and Friday nights, large crowds gather as the streets are blocked off from traffic. Several spots have live music. It's a favorite after-work spot for locals and a lot of fun. Just join the crowd and meander from one spot to the next. Seafood fritters, chicken kebabs, and meat turnovers are sold from street vendors, and there is music everywhere.
The city also has several beautiful green parks with loads of activities during weekends. A plan to connect them via bicycle and pedestrian pathways is underway. It will build on the Parque Lineal Marti Coli, which stretches for nearly 2 miles (3.2km) along Caño de Martín Peña, from Hato Rey to Parque Central. Eventually this boardwalk will reach a distance of nearly 12 miles (19km), linking the Old City with Río Piedras. Biking, hiking, and jogging pathways are planned; one day bikers will be able to go along the breadth of San Juan without having to encounter traffic. In the meantime, enough trails have been completed for a memorable stroll.
Later you can head to Old San Juan for some island music, either to Rumba or the Nuyorican Café to dance the night away to the sounds of salsa and Latin rhythms with an African beat.