Old San Juan may look, at first glance, like a few other charming cities built during the height of Spanish colonialism—Havana or Santo Domingo, for example—but what sets it apart is the extent to which its architectural infrastructure from that era remains visible. It’s the only city that has its original colonial wall almost entirely intact, and both of its principal forts are in excellent condition, remain accessible to the public, and offer panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean (so bring your camera). Both El Morro and Fuerte San Cristobal are run by the National Park Service; guided tours will leave you with greater knowledge about the era, as well as the forts’ construction and their role in Puerto Rican history. (There are other, smaller forts in and around the capital, next to the Caribe Hilton, and in Luís Muñoz Rivera Park, plus Fort San Juan de la Crúz in the nearby town of Cataño.)
Exploring El Morro
We visited El Morro during a brief cruise visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We only had from 3pm - 10pm in port, but we know the one thing on our must do list: El Morro. We arrived at El Morro & the fort’s sprawling lawn after a 20 minute walk from the port. The day we visited was a bank holiday & hundreds of families enjoyed their day off of work & school by running around the sprawling grass, flying kites high in the air. It took about 45 minutes to explore the fort, with plenty of stair climbing & squeezing in tight spaces to see the same vast sea view that a sentry from centuries ago saw as he kept watch in his garitas. Since it is now part of the U.S. National Park Service, there are guided tours on different topics available throughout the day. In addition, they have canon displays several times per week & on holidays you can see historic reenactments. A National Park site also means there is a charge for admission: $3 per adult or $5 per adult for a ticket to explore both forts.
Have you been here? Tell us about it below!
Almost 500 years old, El Morro defended the bay of San Juan from the English, the Dutch, and everybody else.
Kneeling at El Morro
When exploring San Juan, notice the many religious statues and figurines hiding in windows, on doorsteps, and elsewhere. Someone still pays his respects near this statue of Jesus at El Morro, San Juan’s fort; the candles must have been lit by a worshiper.
Exploring the Corridors of El Morro
While diving deep down into the corridors of the old fort, I realized that I would have to navigate my way back up and out. Instead of doing that, we scaled a wall and ended up on the Atlantic with another set of obstacles involving a mile-long walk to the entrance. The walk was filled with great views, iguanas, and cats. It’s a must-do.
Touring Historic Forts In San Juan
Absolutely a must when in San Juan: to tour the Castillo San Felipe de Morro and Castillo San Cristobal Forts which make up The San Juan National HIstoric Site. These two historic sites are a part of the U.S. National Parks System and as a result, preserved so well with excellent way-finding to tour on your own. We definitely spent a good few hours going through both the forts and it was a lot of fun exploring all the ins and outs...which included a dungeon with drawings of ships on the walls, reading about the history, and seeing great views from the top. The forts were constructed under Ponce de Leon to help the Spanish Empire maintain its control of the Caribbean during the 1600s and 1700s when war and trade traveled on sailing ships. The architecture was an example of exemplarily military engineering at the time. We started at Castillo San Cristobal, and since it was incredibly hot, so we hopped the free tourist shuttle to take us to El Morro. When at El Morro, be sure to peek at the cemetery east of the site.
The Perfect Day in Old San Juan
It was a bright and sunny day in Old San Juan, and there were many local families out and about enjoying picnics and flying kites on the vast green grasses of Castillo San Felipe del Morro. From our vantage point we could see the waves crashing on the shore below, the beautiful Santa Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery nearby, and kites flying high through the skies. It was the perfect day to be in Old San Juan!
Fantastic view from El Morro
Puerto Rico is a great option for a weekend getaway. It’s not too far, the beaches are beautiful, and you don’t even need a passport. There’s also plenty of things to do beside the beach. My boyfriend and I have since gone on many trips together but San Juan is particularly memorable because it was our first real trip together. It was a lazy trip compared to our current norm but it was a beautiful setting to relax. We did make sure to explore Old San Juan a bit and on one of our walks we ended up at the old fort. The view was unexpected and we both savored that moment.
Flying a Kite at El Morro Lighthouse
Spend a lazy afternoon flying kites with the locals in the massive field in front of El Morro. Bring your own from a local shop, or purchase one on site from vendors. Nearby, explore the fortress itself, the Americas Museum, and Ponce de Leon’s Casa Blanca.
Climbing the Ramparts of an Old Fortress
Climb the ramparts and stroll the grounds at San Cristobal Castle, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. Built to protect against land-based attacks on San Juan, it covered 27 acres when it was finished in 1783. Visitors who prefer a tour with commentary can book a guide, but I would recommend wandering around the fortress and stopping occasionally to read information posted throughout and take in dusty exhibits on the history of the fort and of San Juan. A small gift shop offers cookbooks, leather goods stamped with images of the fort, and coquis (Puerto Rico‘s famous tree frogs), as well as postcards, T-shirts, and bottles of water. If you also plan on visiting El Morro, save a buck and buy a ticket to both fortresses (valid for 7 days including the day of purchase). On a side note, wear sunscreen or cover up. I don’t normally burn, but I came away from the few hours I spent at the fortress with the back of my hands quite red. Apparently, Puerto Rico is too close to the Equator to do without UVA protection.
Wandering the Wall
Old San Juan teems with the rich cultural history of Puerto Rico, and it should be part of anyone’s journey to this island. The country has done a great job of maintaining the old fort, El Morro, and the walls that guard the old city. You can walk from the fort down to the bay area (port side) just by following the outer wall. It’s worth the walk to see the beauty and envision the past. Ask any local to tell you stories and histories of the old city. You can even grab an apartment for the night downtown and sleep in the old architecture with indoor courtyards and balconies covered in plants. There are great spots for drinks and eats—wander the streets and try everything.
Fort San Cristóbal
While El Morro protected San Juan from attacks by sea, Fort San Cristóbal was built to protect the city from land attacks. Its construction started in 1634, after the Dutch successfully—though briefly—took the city by land. By the late 1700s, San Cristóbal had become massive, with walls that encompassed the old city. As part of the San Juan National Historic Site, Fort San Cristóbal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a U.S. National Historic Site. Visitors can explore the tunnels and dungeon, walk the walls with their garitas (sentry boxes) and see the Santa Barbara chapel.
Storming the Castle
The Castillo de San Cristóbal is a Spanish fort in San Juan. Built by Spain to protect against land-based attacks, it is now part of the San Juan National Historic Site.
Snowed In With Plenty To Do
After a week in Fajardo, I wound up stranded in Old San Juan (and later St. Thomas) for a few days while airports were shut down in Boston due to massive snows. The city is clean, safe, and affordable with plenty to see and do. There is captivating architecture, intriguing history, as well as great food and nightlife. I wish I could get snowed-in at places like this more often.
Getting Lost (in a Good Way) at El Morro
Wandering through the maze of corridors at El Morro, San Juan’s historic fort, I realized I had lost my traveling companion. Gazing at the pale, peaceful hallways, I felt at ease with being lost. Some things are best experienced on one’s own.
Stand in a Piece of History
Castillo de San Cristóbal in old San Juan: Don’t miss the opportunity to visit a piece of history standing over 500 years. Walk, marvel, inhale, and continue... Repeat...
Castillo de San Cristóbal
Construction on El Castillo de San Cristóbal began in 1634 and it is the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New World! It was built to protect San Juan from enemy attacks by land, and climbing through the fort is quite a rewarding experience. The views from the top of the fort are spectacular, while cannon openings and barred windows offer beautifully framed views of San Juan.