We have visited San Juan a number of times over the past few years, as our cruise ship departures often originate from San Juan. It has become one of our favorite cities to visit, and we have found that it has a unique flavor and charm. And on every trip, we have stayed in Old San Juan rather than the newer parts of the city because of the atmosphere offered, and because every site we wanted to visit was within walking distance. Some might compare it to the French Quarter in New Orleans (except it has hills!), and it is a convenient 30-minute cab ride from the airport.
On our first visit we stayed at El Convento Hotel. The El Convento was built as a Carmelite Convent over 360 years ago, was converted to a hotel in 1963, and bills itself as the Grande Dame of San Juan hotels. The El Convento is across the street from the cathedral that houses Ponce de Leon’s tomb and, while it only has 58 rooms, it has three diverse restaurants ranging from Tapas to traditional Puerto Rican menus on the premises, a very comfortable ourtyard area, and offers a daily wine and cheese reception for guests.
We enjoyed this reception every evening of our stay and had dinner in one of the courtside restaurants on one occasion, having met the chef earlier in the day. El Convento’s relatively small size allows for great personal service from all of the staff at the hotel. Legend tells that former ghosts from the Carmelite Convent (Dona Ana – Former Mother Superior who has never left the site.) visit some of the rooms in the evening, and while we haven’t experienced any, if you believe in ghosts, you might believe this to be possible. A friend of ours who stayed there told us that he has heard unique sounds in one of the rooms that he attributes it to being haunted.
Other than El Convento, we have also stayed at the Sheraton in Old San Juan because it is “across the street” from the cruise ship terminal that our line uses, eliminating the need for another cab ride and making embarkation for our cruises much easier. Although a much larger hotel, we found that its convenience offsets our preference for a smaller hotel. It offers an in-house casino, several nice restaurants and bars, and has a very nice “pool deck” on its upper floor.
On our visits to the area, we have discovered three restaurants that we visit on every trip:
* Toro Salao (The Salty Bull) is located two blocks behind the Sheraton, and we have spent several afternoons on their street-side tables,watching the people, and enjoying the appetizers and drinks. (Although I haven’t tried it, several people have commented on their tasty Sangria.)
* Carli’s Fine Bistro and Piano is also a restaurant that we have enjoyed. It is owned by Carli Munoz, a jazz piano composer and recording artist. He played with The Beach Boys, George Benson and many others. His restaurant offers a rather unique menu and live entertainment on many nights of the week.
But our favorite restaurant in San Juan is Marmalade. It is also walking distance from both hotels, and Marmalade is one of the more interesting restaurants we have ever visited. The décor is very contemporary and the menu is outstanding. We make sure that this is the restaurant that
we visit on the last night of our visit to San Juan. Reservations are strongly recommended at this restaurant, which is rated #1 of the over 600 restaurants in the city by Trip Advisor. On every visit, we couldn’t
resist their tasting menu that consists of small portions of various entrees. Don’t miss their White Bean Soup and their Bread Pudding (which we have found to be the best that we have ever tasted).
And, as you would expect, San Juan has a number of interesting sites to visit. It offers two Spanish forts (Castillo del San Cristóbal & Castillo San Filipe del Morro) that were built in the 1700’s to protect the city and were used in many conflicts since then. And if you want to leave the city, the Rainforest and the Ariecbo Observatory (1000 ft – world’s largest single aperture telescope) are both sites of high interest, as are the many beaches and other cities near San Juan.Tours are easily available to all locations. Although we have been to San Juan a number of times, we have never left the city.
One of our hidden visitor’s sites we recommend is Pigeon Park (Parc De Las Palomas) just down the street from El Convento and a short walk from the Sheraton. On each of our trips to the park, there were a number of school children in the park feeding the pigeons, making an interesting area to visit. But don’t go to Pigeon Park if you are afraid of birds, as a huge number of pigeons make their home at this park and in its trees .
We highly recommend a visit to this unique city in Puerto Rico. It is now serviced easily out of New Orleans by many carriers including Southwest Airlines. From San Juan we board our favorite small cruise ship to sail across the ocean to Malaga Spain, and will write our next review about our Transatlantic Journey.
Enjoy! Bob & Jude