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old san juan colorful historic puerto ricoIt'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.

What to See
Check out the historic sites of Old San Juan, such as El Morro, whose original parts were completed in 1539 (and which successfully deterred would-be colonial powers from capturing the island). Also in Old San Juan is San Cristobal Fort, which was built in 1771. On weekends, the grounds of both forts are thick with locals flying kites. Both sites are maintained by the National Park Service.

Other historic buildings in San Juan include La Fortaleza, which dates back to the 1530's and currently serves as the governor's residence. The lovely Cathedral of San Juan was built in 1540.

Fans of the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals should check out the Museo Pablo Casals, where the Spanish master's collection includes manuscripts, photographs and a library of video tapes of Festival Casals concerts (played on request).

While Old San Juan doesn't really boast any of its own beaches, you can find some nearby in Condado and Isla Verde, only a 5- to 10-minute taxi ride away from Old San Juan (longer during rush hour). The beaches that run in front of Isla Verde's luxury hotels are best for short visits; ask the cabbie to drop you off at the Ritz-Carlton or the El San Juan

Visit the Bacardi Rum Factory. To get there, take the six-minute ferry (which leaves from Pier 2, right next to the cruise ship dock, every half hour) to Catano, and then catch a bus or ferry for the 10-minute ride to the factory. (Don't walk -- it's long and hot.) The factory itself is lovely. There are gorgeously landscaped grounds (lots of hibiscus), an open-air pavilion for Bacardi-influenced drinks, a gift shop, a tour that includes an interesting film on the company's history, and other activities (such as testing your sense of smell, making postcards and learning about rum distillation).

Visit El Yunque, the only rain forest designated as a U.S. National Forest. Located about an hour south of San Juan, it is home to numerous waterfalls, ferns and wildflowers along the marked trails. Because it's a rain forest, it will probably, well, rain during your visit -- so pack a slicker.

The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce (just south of Condado) exhibits elegant Puerto Rican art, along with visiting themed shows. Also a must-see for art lovers is the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, which houses some 700 post-1940's works from artists of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America.

bahia beach golf course san juan puerto rico aerial For golfers and beach bums, Bahia Beach is a hidden treasure. A car rental is required to get to this out-of-the-way resort, which has a lush 18-hole public golf course that sits at the base of El Yunque. The resort fronts the sea with a gorgeous, secluded beach, framed by palms and palmettos. The golf course is totally public and open to non-golf-playing visitors (although the club does request that you politely ask permission). Golf clubs are available for rent.

Try your luck with casino gambling at the big hotels, from the Sheraton Old San Juan (right across the street from the cruise piers) to the Ritz-Carlton.

Luquillo Beach (near El Yunque) is a real locals' haunt; there, you'll find long stretches of sand, water sports equipment rentals and a great line of food stands, offering classic Puerto Rican beach food.

Where to Eat
San Juan has a truly cosmopolitan restaurant scene, with culinary options from around the globe. But if you're looking for local favorites, you'll find plenty of arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), empanadillas (fried turnovers filled with meat or seafood) and many varieties of plantains. Medalla Light is the local beer, and while Bacardi is the better-known rum produced in Puerto Rico, the locals prefer Don Q -- an equally (if not more) venerable brand.

The Parrot Club is the restaurant that inspired San Juan's gourmet revolution, and while it's a bit more passe these days, it's one of the few in the trendy SoFo (south of Fortaleza restaurant district) to open for lunch. It's known for its Nuevo Latino cuisine, and it hosts live Latin jazz several nights a week.

Also in the aforementioned SoFo area, one of the hip restaurants of the moment is Marmalade, which offers a U.S.-inspired menu -- think Maine lobster, Colorado lamb shank lasagna and wild Alaskan halibut -- as well as a wine bar.

Nearby is Kudeta (314 Calle Fortaleza), which, with its pan-Asian cuisine, feels like something out of Bangkok; order the paella valenciana risotto or the shrimp curry.

Aguaviva is another trendy place; the specialty here is seafood, and it has an extensive oyster/ceviche bar. (Note the whimsical, octopus-like chandeliers.)

In Old San Juan, hip, colorful El Buren serves up a mix of Puerto Rican and international dishes, including excellent gourmet pizzas.

Belly up to the counter at La Bombonera (259 Calle San Francisco) and order a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice and one of their delicious mallorcas (or, for lunch, a classic Cubano sandwich). The circa-1903 bakery-lunch eatery is open all day.

Baires (Plaza del Mercado 9, off San Sebastian Street) was an unexpected find on our last visit to San Juan. The Argentinean-themed restaurant has live music some nights and delicious fare, ranging from grilled sweetbreads and steaks to pasta.

Dragonfly (364 Calle Fortaleza), a fabulous Latino-Asian restaurant, offers "Dragonfries" -- French fries dusted with cinnamon and ginger -- as well as a selection of dumplings, sushi and other Asian dishes.


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