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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
Getting to Old San Juan
T’was pretty convenient. Our great Condado Beach hotel in San Juan, 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!
Sunday 11th of April 2021
Alright, you've convinced me girl! I'm in San Juan, PR right now and was wondering what to do with my day. Today's agenda is now beach early, nap :P, and trip to Old San Juan in the afternoon. The fact that you traveled with a little one is also inspiring to someone like me who is on the fence about deciding if I should take the mother plunge (so thanks for that too). Cheers to you both for doing that. :)
Sunday 11th of April 2021
This comment makes me so happy! I hope you have a wonderful time. Do report back if you go! I’m sure some things have changed recently.
Wednesday 9th of August 2017
San Juan is the place i like most in Puerto Rico, Specially there colourful houses in the old Old San Juan. You have taken very good pictures of it.
Thursday 11th of May 2017
I took a prehistory course with Ricardo AlegrÃa at the UPR in the late 60's. I had met him about two years previously when he went to my high school to see a drama/poetry montage the students had created. He was so impressed with our work that he invited us to show it to the governor and the mayor at the San Juan City Hall. In those days people like AlegrÃa (in coordination with the Department of Education) participated actively in student cultural and historical development. He, and many like him, enriched our lives and gave us pride in our heritage.
Thursday 11th of May 2017
What an amazing detail! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this!
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Tuesday 5th of May 2015
[…] Old San Juan, Puerto Rico â€” Photo from Around the World L. […]
Thursday 24th of July 2014
That looks amazing I love the colors in the city and I personally think it makes living there a lot better. You made some amazing pictures.
Sunday 27th of July 2014
Thanks! Bright colors make all the difference in a person's mood. I'm so glad they chose them.