San Juan is known as “La Ciudad Amurallada” (the walled city). San Juan was founded in 1521. In 1508 Juan Ponce de León founded the original settlement, Caparra, now known as Pueblo Viejo, behind the almost land-locked harbor just to the west of the present metropolitan area. A year later, the settlement was abandoned and moved to the site of what is now called Old San Juan. San Juan is one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean and is the second oldest European-founded city in the Americas.
San Juan is a major port and tourist resort of the West Indies and is the oldest city under the U.S flag. The metropolitan area known as San Juan has 3 distinct areas: Old San Juan, the Beach & Resort area, and other outlying communities, the most important: Río Piedras, Hato Rey, Puerta de Tierra, and Santurce. Río Piedras was founded in 1714 but became incorporated into San Juan in 1951.
During the early 16th century, San Juan was the point of departure of Spanish expeditions to charter or settle unknown parts of the New World. Its fortifications repulsed the English navigator Sir Francis Drake in 1595, as well as later attacks.
Points of Interest:
Old San Juan
This is a 465-year-old neighborhood originally conceived as a military stronghold. Its 7-square-block area has evolved into a charming residential and commercial district. The streets here are paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag; they were brought over a ballast on Spanish ships and time and moisture have lent them their characteristic color. The city includes more than 400 carefully restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings. The Old San Juan attracts many tourists, who also enjoy the gambling casinos, fine beaches, and tropical climate. More tourists visit San Juan each year than any other spot in the Caribbean. A leisurely foot tour is advisable for those who really want to experience this bit of the Old World, especially given the narrow, steep streets and frequently heavy traffic. To really do justice to these wonderful old sites, you’ll need two mornings or a full day.
El Morro, the word itself sounds powerful and this six-level fortress certainly is. Begun in 1540 and completed in 1589. San Felipe del Morro was named in honor of King Phillip II. Most of the walls in the fort today were added later, in a period of tremendous construction from the 1760′s-1780′s. Rising 140 feet above the sea, its 18-foot-thick wall proved a formidable defense. It fell only once, in 1598, to a land assault by the Earl of Cumberland’s forces. The fort is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, outposts and ramps. El Morro is studded with small, circular sentry boxes called “garitas” that have become a national symbol. The views of San Juan Bay from El Morro are spectacular. The area was designated a National Historic Site in February, 1949 with 74 total acres. It has the distinction of being the largest fortification in the Caribbean. In 1992, the fortress was restored to its historical form in honor of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Puerto Rico by Christopher Columbus. El Morro Fortress is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. The fort is open to the public daily from 9am to 5pm; (787) 729-6960.
Castillo de San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Fort) is El Morro’s partner in the city’s defense. Built in 1634 (completed in 1771), was considered the Gibraltar of the West Indies. San Cristóbal was supported by a massive system of outworks which provided defense in depth and is is one of the largest defenses ever built in the Americas. It rose 150 feet, covering 27 acres of land. As if its size and height weren’t sufficient to intimidate enemies, its intricate modular design was sure to foil them. A strategic masterpiece, it features five independent units, each connected by moat and tunnel; each fully self-sufficient should the others fall. It’s a World Heritage and National Historic Site, administered by the U.S. National Park Service. Open daily from 9am to 6pm; (787) 729-6960.
The Fuerte San Gerónimo (San Gerónimo Fort) was built on the opposite end of San Juan to strengthen the city’s defenses. The fort is located behind the Caribe Hilton Hotel, with small military museum in Puerta de Tierra.
The Santa Elena Battery building with a long chimney-topped bunker was the formal army storage area.
Buildings and Other Areas of Interest
La Fortaleza (also known as the Palacio de Santa Catalina began construction in 1533 and finalized the 25 of May of 1540, as a fortress. It was authorized to be built by Charles V as a defense against Carib Indian attacks. The building was the first of a series of military facilities constructed in the Bay of San Juan, but soon later proved inadequate to guard the entrance to the harbor, and became the official Governor’s Residence. The oldest governor’s mansion still used as such in Western Hemisphere and part of the old city’s World Heritage Site. It has been occupied twice by invaders; by the Earl of Cumberland in 1598 and by the Dutch General Bowdoin Hendrick in 1625 when the building was damaged by fire. A major reconstruction was undertaken in 1640. In 1846, the building was remodeled and given a palatial aspect, uniting harmoniously 16th century military architecture with the refinements of the 19th century. It has been the home of 170 governors of Puerto Rico and is the official residence of the current governor. Although the original structure (Palatial Building surrounded by gardens) was very primitive, La Fortaleza has undergone numerous changes over its 300 years of history. Free tours are available daily. Open Mon-Fri 9:00am-4:00pm; guided tours in English on the hour, in Spanish every 30 minutes, (787) 721-7000 ext. 2358. Tours last about 40 minutes. Access to the official areas is not permitted.
The Alcaldia (San Juan’s City Hall), started construction in 1602, completed in 1789. In the 1840′s the building was heavily remodeled providing its present day facade intended by its builders to be an exact replica of Madrid’s. The building has a tourism information center and a small gallery for periodic exhibitions. Free admissions. Open Mon-Fri 8am – 4pm, except holidays; (787) 724-7171 ext. 2391.
El Capitolio (Capitol Building of Puerto Rico) hold the offices of senators on one wing and those of representatives on the other, with galleries, friezes, mosaics and an impressive rotunda in which Puerto Rico’s constitution is exhibited. Construction began in 1919 and the building was inaugurated on February 11, 1929. Guided tours by appointment only, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, (787) 724-2030 ext. 2472, 2518.
The Catedral de San Juan (San Juan Cathedral) is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere; contruction began in 1521. The original church on these grounds had wooden walls and a thatched roof. It was destroyed by hurricane in 1526 (October 4th), rebuilt in in 1540, looted in 1598, and damaged by another hurricane in 1615. The Cathedral as seen today is the result of work done in 1917, when major restorations were performed. This Cathedral is an authentic and rare New World example of medieval architecture. The cathedral contains the marble tomb of the island’s first governor Juan Ponce de León and the relic of San Pio, a Roman martyr. San Juan Cathedral still holds religious services on a regular schedule. Visitors can explore the cathedral from 8:30am to 4pm daily.
The Iglesia de San José (San José Church) began construction in 1523. Juan Ponce de León gave the land where the Church now stands. Originally called the Church and Monastery of Saint Thomas Aquinas, it was built by Dominican friars to serve as the monastery’s church and chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas. The section erected in 1532, the Main Chapel or Sanctuary, is an excellent example of 16th century Spanish Gothic architecture. Ponce de León, was buried here for 300 years until his body was moved to the San Juan Cathedral in 1913. This was the family church of Ponce de León’s descendants. Puerto Rican painter José Campeche, who contributed a great deal to the beautiful churches of his island, is buried here. Open Mon-Sat 8:30am – 4pm, Sun mass at 12:00pm; (787) 725-7501.