Old San Juan
Home to among the hemisphere's finest restorations of Spanish colonial fortresses and buildings, the Old City is all the more beautiful for its dramatic location sprawled across a headland on the western end of an isleta, or peninsula that splits the roaring Atlantic Ocean from San Juan Bay. It's encircled by water; on the north is the Atlantic Ocean and on the south and west is the tranquil San Juan Bay. The historic Spanish wall built to hold off attacks still circles the city, which is filled with beautiful churches, shady plazas, majestic promenades, and wonderful residences and gardens. It's a robust cultural and commercial district with theaters, galleries, clubs, bars and restaurants, and some of the most interesting shops in the region. There are fine lodgings with sundecks and pools, so you can work on your tan and stay in the city if that's your thing.
Puerta de Tierra
Translated as "land gateway," Puerta de Tierra lies just east of the old city walls of San Juan. It is split by Avenida Ponce de León and interconnects Old San Juan with the Puerto Rican "mainland." Founded by freed black slaves, the settlement today functions as the island's administrative center and is the site of military and government buildings, including the capitol and various U.S. naval reserves. It is dominated by the green Luis Muñoz Rivera Park and the oceanfront Third Millennium Park and adjacent El Escambrón public beach. Its southern end is home to a rough and tumble neighborhood with a few interesting eateries.
Miramar is an upscale residential neighborhood, with a small business district and a large port across San Juan Bay. It has two marinas where fishing boats and yachts lie at anchor. The whole harbor-side area is being redeveloped, spearheaded by the state-of-the-art Puerto Rico Convention Center. A new hotel has just opened, and adjacent luxury retail, office, and residential units are being planned, as is a huge bayside promenade to connect the area to Old San Juan. It's also the site of Isla Grande Airport, where you can board flights to the islands of Vieques and Culebra.
Linked to Puerta de Tierra and Old San Juan by a bridge built in 1910, the Condado was once known as the "Riviera of the Caribbean," enjoying a voguish reputation in the 1920s, which was renewed by revivals in the 1960s and again today, with several restored hotels and other properties opening after dazzling renovations along this district wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Condado Lagoon. It's one of the most coveted neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, and offers resorts and guesthouses right on the beach for tourists.
The beautiful oceanfront Window of the Sea Park is at the center of the area; it opens onto the Atlantic Ocean and is fronted by gleaming townhouses and luxury towers, home to glamorous residences, restaurants, and designer fashion stores. These include Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, luxury condos, and Budatai, one of the island's best restaurants. The former La Concha has opened next door after a 10-year renovation, and luxury condos are being built in the former Vanderbilt hotel nearby. Luxury hotels and more modest guesthouses fill the sector, as do wonderful restaurants of all types.
One central road, Avenida Ashford, runs through Condado, which, at night especially, still evokes something of Miami Beach, with its restored Art Deco properties and modern luxury condos and hotels. The area is popular with locals, the gay community, and visitors.
Dividing the competitive beach resort areas of the Condado and Isla Verde, Ocean Park is a beachfront residential neighborhood with probably the prettiest and most low-key beach in San Juan. The beaches are wide here, and the sun beats down on the beach longer because there are few large condominiums. It's great for windsurfing and kite-sailing, games of paddle ball and body surfing. The tree-covered streets are filled with beautiful suburban homes, a charming mix of Malibu, Spanish, and Caribbean influences.
The white, arching Ultimate Trolley Beach delineates the border between Ocean Park and Punta Las Marias. Adjacent to that, the neighborhood of Santa Teresita, with its share of equally stunning residences, has an equally nice park, Barbosa Park.
The park is usually filled with soccer and basketball players. There are tennis courts, a baseball field, and a track, which are always a beehive of activity.
The beach disappears into a rock formation at Punta Las Marías, which is a gated community open to pedestrian visitors during the day. But unless you're a windsurfer using one of the neighborhood's famed launching points, your experience of the area will likely be confined to the string of fine restaurants along Calle Loíza, right before it turns into Avenida Isla Verde. The neighborhood is also popular with the gay and lesbian community, both residents and visitors.
East of the Condado, en route to the airport, Isla Verde -- technically a part of the municipality of Carolina but in spirit more a part of San Juan -- is both larger than the Condado and probably has more hotels. Here there is also an oceanfront row of luxury condos and hotels along a main oceanfront boulevard. But where Condado may score higher with its restaurants and shops, and its older and more artful architecture, Isla Verde wins hands down in the beach department -- you'll find a wide, clean, white-sand beach running the full length of the neighborhood just off its main strip. The main road here is called Isla Verde Avenue. Pine Grove Beach, a favorite with sailors and surfers, is located east of where the main beach ends. After Isla Verde is a municipal public beach and then the undeveloped area of Piñones, with its rural coastal charms.
Don't come here for history or romance. Two features put Isla Verde on the tourist map: some of San Juan's best beaches and its most deluxe hotels. This district appeals to travelers who like a hotel to offer everything under one roof: entertainment, vast selections of dining, convenient shopping, pools, and an array of planned activities.
The city's financial district, the Wall Street of the West Indies, occupies several streets. There are high-rises, a large federal complex, and many business and banking offices.
The sector has been transformed by the Puerto Rico Coliseum and the Tren Urbano, which snakes through the towers of capitalism on elevated tracks. The new arena gets top acts (it's had the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney). There's also the Fine Arts Cinema, with art and foreign films, luxury seats, gourmet food, and yes, beer and wine.
The sector also contains the huge Luis Muñoz Marín Park, with miles of bicycle and jogging paths, picnic areas and fields, interrupted by scores of small ponds and islands of tropical vegetation. The park also features a top-notch amphitheater and a cable car ride.
South of Hato Rey and Santurce, this is the site of the University of Puerto Rico, whose buildings look like an Ivy League school except for the tropical vegetation. It's dominated by the landmark Roosevelt Bell Tower, named for Theodore Roosevelt, who donated the money for its construction. It's a top-notch institution than can boast beautiful grounds as an added attraction.
There's also a large shopping area surrounding the Río Piedras Marketplace (selling fresh fruit and vegetables) and the pedestrian walkway Paseo de Diego, lined with shops, eateries and bargains galore. The shops attract travelers from across the Caribbean.
The UPR Botanical Gardens are located here as well, with a beautifully arranged array of tropical trees and plants.
Suburban San Juan
The San Juan sprawl has enveloped surrounding towns, reaching all the way down south into Caguas. Neighboring Bayamón, Guaynabo, and Carolina are practically considered part of the city, however. Guaynabo and Caguas have fine arts centers with top-name acts and full cultural performances, while Bayamón has such family activities as a bicycle linear park and the Luis A. Ferré Science Technology Park. Visitors will also likely go to Cataño to visit the Bacardi Rum Plant. It's a modest community built right across the bay from Old San Juan.