It's not hard to tell that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory -- the dollar is the reigning currency, and you'll never want for a McDonald's Big Mac. Get beyond that, though, because of all America's Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico offers the most exotic aura. Its culture blends indigenous Taino traditions with European and African influences, creating unique cuisine, music and art. Folks who have traveled to Cuba say that Old San Juan reminds them more of Cuba, at times, than Cuba itself! San Juan is also very Spanish (think Seville) and even a bit Italian (reminiscent of Naples). Finally, the city evokes just a wee taste of Buenos Aires.
San Juan's biggest appeal is its exquisitely preserved old city, which dates back to the 16th century. Its sprawling forts, cobblestone streets, antique shops and art galleries make it an ideal first stop. And even for repeat visitors, it's worth a second look; Old San Juan is undergoing an awesome renaissance. If you haven't visited lately, you'll be amazed at how beautiful and spiffed-up its European-style buildings are, particularly the many that are freshly painted in cheerful pastels of lavender, blue, yellow and pink.
Old San Juan's main attractions include the imposing El Morro fort, which dates back to 1539; the Cathedral of San Juan, where the island's first governor, Ponce de Leon, is buried; La Fortaleza, the oldest governor's mansion on U.S. soil; several colonial plazas; and the triumvirate of Calle del Cristo, Calle San Jose and Calle Fortaleza for shopping. Calle del Cristo, in particular, is chock-full of art galleries, artisan studios and distinctive boutiques.
Beyond Old San Juan there's much more to explore, including the city's vibrant restaurants and nightlife. The Latino music phenomenon has led to the rebirth of new, fresh "nuevo Latino" cuisine, which, in turn, is attracting more attention to the island's quality art, crafts and antiques.
--written by Carolyn Spencer Brown