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San Juan - Attractions

A game of dominos in Old San Juan


Condado, east of Old San Juan, is the closest thing to Miami Beach outside of Florida. With all the high-rise hotels and the haute couture boutiques, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd taken a wrong turn at Hispaniola. If you like your Caribbean with a twist of Vegas, this is the place. The area also has a smattering of good restaurants, pubs and clubs like El Centro des Bellas Artes, which features some of the region's best entertainment.

The suburb of Santurce may have seen better days, but it's a good place to get away from the tourism mill. The area lies southeast of Condado across San José Lagoon, where windsurfers wave to the shanties on the shore. Santurce offers interesting shops, markets and the Museum of Contemporary Puerto Rican Art, located on the grounds of the Sacred Heart University.

Old San Juan

The walled city of Old San Juan is a seven-square-block historic precinct of narrow cobblestoned streets, pastel-coloured colonial architecture and shady plazas. It's located at the western end of San Juan Island, surrounded by sea on three sides and laden with the atmosphere of a bygone era.

The monumental 16th-century fortress of El Morro at the western end of the district has had as much to do with preserving Old San Juan as the recent restoration efforts of government bodies. It repelled raids by Caribs, pirates, the Dutch and English sea-dog Sir Francis Drake. It rises nearly 45m (150ft) above the sea, has walls 4.5m (15ft) thick and contains a labyrinth of ramparts, tunnels and dungeons. In these peaceful days, El Morro is also known as the world's best kite-flying site.

Its twin, El Castillo San Cristóbal, lies a mile to the east. Construction of San Cristóbal began after 1598, when the Earl of Cumberland's English forces took El Morro by siege, demonstrating the need for land defences. This was the only time El Morro fell and even then it was only a matter of months before the invaders succumbed to disease. Both forts are studded by Puerto Rico's trademark garitas (sentry boxes) jutting over their outer walls.

In the lee of these two enormous structures lie the hundreds of treasured buildings of Old San Juan, including early-16th-century gems such as the Iglesia de San José and the Casa Blanca, which was built for Juan Ponce de León though he probably never lived there. Today the house is a museum furnished with Spanish colonial-era furniture set in beautiful grounds overlooking the bay. The original Catedral de San Juan has blossomed over the centuries from a rude thatched-roof affair to a soaring Gothic structure. La Fortaleza, down by San Juan Gate, was originally designed as a fort, but it has mostly been used as dwellings for the rich and powerful.

The best way to experience Old San Juan is to tramp through its streets, sit in its squares and poke your nose in every building and courtyard open to the public. There are heaps of boutiques, hotels and cafes in the area and a corresponding number of museums dedicated to everything and everyone from the Taínos to cello fellow Pablo Casals. In the latter, there's even a spooky cast of the maestro's hands.

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