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Old San Juan, Puerto Rico: Must-See Colorful Buildings!

Colorful Old San Juan Puerto Rico street
This Old San Juan street makes me hungry for pastel-colored cupcakes.

Beautiful Candy Colors of Historic San Juan

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is a delight. Wander the centuries-old blue cobblestone streets, gaping at the brilliantly colored historic buildings. Did you know, however, that this treasure was nearly DESTROYED?

Green and purple walls in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Green house? Mauve house? I want both!

History of Old San Juan

Old San Juan was settled by the Spanish in the early 1500s after they took over the land from the Tainos. The conquistador, Ponce de Leon and his subsequent offspring lived in the city for centuries.

By the late 1940s, however, Old San Juan had become decrepit, unsightly, and dangerous. Politicians called for the historic old buildings to be smashed to make way for sleek, modern ones. Forces mobilized for the destruction.

Old San Juan Puerto Rico has colorful paint
The tree growing atop the yellow house is like a tuft of hair.

How Ricardo Alegría Saved Old San Juan

Heroically, an anthropologist by the name of Ricardo Alegría stepped in. Alegría convinced the authorities to preserve the beautiful colonial architecture of Old San Juan, and to zone the area so that subsequent development would follow the historic visual pattern instead of destroying it.

Old San Juan is surrounded by water, and from certain streets you can see the ocean at the end.
Old San Juan is surrounded by water, and from certain streets you can see the ocean at the end.

Preservation of Old San Juan’s Buildings

The government began to funnel money to developers who agreed to rehabilitate historic buildings as “models” for others to see and emulate, to show it was both possible and pretty. There was a particular push for these rehabilitations to take place on streets where — ahem — uncouth behavior was taking place.

Old San Juan is a rainbow feast of historic architecture.
Old San Juan is a rainbow feast of historic architecture.

How Old San Juan Became a Tourist Destination

Slowly, Old San Juan was revitalized, in alignment with its colonial Spanish architectural roots. Because of Alegría’s ideas, Old San Juan is now a major tourist destination instead of just another boring city. By 1983, the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The bright orange of the construction fence fits right into the colors of Old San Juan.
The bright orange of the construction fence fits right into the colors of Old San Juan.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Old San Juan

Other cities around the world began to follow Old San Juan’s lead, and I can attest that both Havana, Cuba and Lima, Peru are all the more beautiful for it. On another Caribbean island, the entire center of Willemstad, Curacao is a UNESCO World Heritage site for similar historic preservation! Isn’t the story of Ricardo Alegría inspiring?

This Old San Juan mural celebrates Ricardo Alegría and the pride he felt for Puerto Rico and instilled in others.
This Old San Juan mural celebrates Alegría and the pride he felt for Puerto Rico and instilled in others.

Tips on Visiting Old San Juan

So now that we’ve delved into its history, what are the logistics of touring Old San Juan today? Allow me to share our experiences so you may avoid the bumbling we did!

The metal gates and balconies are so ornately crafted.
The metal gates and balconies are so ornately crafted.

Getting to Old San Juan

T’was pretty convenient. Our great Condado Beach hotel in San Juan (click for affiliate hotel info and rates), was just a 10 minute drive in our rental car from Old San Juan, and taxis and public transport are a good option, too.

If you drive, there are several parking lots on different sides of the historic center that have reasonable parking rates ($2 an hour) compared with the highway robbery that is Boston parking.

Old San Juan Puerto Rico: Purple, blue, and red houses
I’ll take the lilac colored house with the balcony, please.

A Note on the Temperature in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is HOT! We were fools and visited Old San Juan on the first day at high noon. Despite slopping on loads of sunblock and donning dorky hats, we (ok, mostly me) got so faint after fifteen minutes that we (ok, I) demanded to hide out in an air conditioned cafe to regain sanity. Happily, there were many to be found, and I soon felt well enough to venture out again.

Old San Juan Puerto Rico
Even the stop signs fit into the color scheme.

What Time of Day to Visit Old San Juan

Given the heat, I’d suggest you do what we did the second day of our touring, and arrive in Old San Juan around 4pm. Then you have time to wander around in less oppressive heat, grab dinner, and catch the sunset over the water.

I also liked going to Old San Juan on two different days so we didn’t feel rushed, but you could probably be content with just one day if you were in a rush.

Painting Old San Juan walls
Colin demanded I put this photo in: We mustn’t forget the hard work of all the painters and maintenance folk who keep Old San Juan beautiful.

Old San Juan Travel with a Baby: Stroller?

As you may know, we’re traveling with a 7.5 month old baby, and debated whether a stroller or a front backpack baby carrier would be better to lug. We opted for the latter, which was a wise choice because Old San Juan has mostly cobblestone streets (see the photo below) and many hills, which would make a stroller a pain — though we did see some locals using them anyway!

Many cats roam Old San Juan. This was my favorite.
Many cats roam Old San Juan. This green-eyed guy was my favorite.

Things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our favorite activity in Old San Juan was just wandering the beautiful streets and taking photos, then periodically and repeatedly eating in the many cafes and restaurants. Love fascinating statues commemorating history? There are plenty in Old San Juan.

There are also two extremely famous San Juan forts which you can read more about by clicking that link to my forts article! And if shopping is your thang, there are more than enough shops, from small souvenirs to high-end clothes. It’s rather funny to see stores like Foot Locker and Radio Shack housed in these beautifully colored historic buildings.

Old San Juan: A perfectly preserved building next to a decrepit one. Why?
Strange: A perfectly preserved building next to a decrepit one. Why?

Food in Old San Juan

You can find all sorts of cuisine in Old San Juan, and certainly could break your budget if so inclined! We did, but justified it because it was all delicious.

Old San Juan street: See the blue cobblestones and the upward swoop of the street?
See the blue cobblestones and the upward swoop of the street?

Cruise Ship Crowds in Old San Juan

There is a constant stream of tourists in Old San Juan, in particular from the hulking cruise ships which toot-toot into port each day. Happily, however, if you wander just one street away from the main thoroughfares, there are virtually no other tourists anymore. How convenient!

Pint building in Old San Juan
Colin was awfully tempted to call the “For Sale” number.

Should I Drive into Old San Juan?

Warning: Do whatever you can to NOT drive into the heart of Old San Juan. We accidentally did after taking a wrong turn leaving the parking lot on the outskirts of the historic district, and ended up in a endless loop of One Way streets, tiny alleyways, and hairpin turns.

Oh, and smartphone GPS apps do not know the correct direction of the One Way streets! Instead, park on the outskirts and walk in.

Beware of all the One Way streets in Old San Juan!
Beware of all the One Way streets in Old San Juan.

Preservation in Old San Juan

Keeping Old San Juan stunning is a never-ending job, but the results are worth it. Respect and thanks to the workers, government, and island that makes this possible!

The upkeep of most of the buildings in Old San Juan is exceptional.
The upkeep on most of the buildings in Old San Juan is exceptional.

Similarities: Love surprisingly colorful rainbow buildings around the world? Check out the Gingerbread Cottages on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (very different idea, but same happy hues), and the peeling historic facades and dangling laundry in Old Delhi, India!

The ample trees and narrow streets make Old San Juan cooler than the usual Puerto Rico swelter.
The ample trees and narrow streets make Old San Juan cooler.

What Do YOU Think of Old San Juan?

So there you have a glimpse of beautiful Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. If you’ve been, what were your impressions? If you haven’t, does it entice you? Do share!

Enjoy this article? Check out this list of most beautiful architecture around the world! Trip planning? To save you time, I did the TripAdvisor search already, so you can just click these easy affiliate links for San Juan hotel deals, the best Puerto Rico hotels, and beautiful Puerto Rico vacation rentals. A small commission goes to support this site at no extra cost to you from these links, so thanks in advance, and happy travels!

Old San Juan: At night, the color of the sunset purple sky dances with the lights and building walls.
At night, the color of the sunset purple sky dances with the lights and building walls.

Starting to enjoy the water.
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