San Juan is the capital and largest city in Puerto Rico is located in the Northern Coastal Plains. San Juan was founded by Spanish colonists in 1521 and is the oldest city in Puerto Rico. Today, San Juan serves as Puerto Rico’s most important seaport, as well as the main manufacturing, financial, cultural, and tourist center.
San Juan is subdivided into 18 wards (barrios), 16 of which fall within the former (until 1951) municipio of Rio Piedras. 8 barrios are further subdivided in to sub-barrios, including both barrios of the former municipio of San Juan.
Old San Juan/Puerta de Tierra San Juan is a traditional, colonial city that is bordered by walls. As the seat of the island’s bicameral government, it houses La Fortaleza, home of the Governor and El Capitolio, the seat of the House of Representatives. The Senate, on the other hand, is located in nearby Puerta de Tierra. However, both districts can be found on the islet of San Juan and are connected to the mainland via several bridges. Old San Juan itself consists of narrow streets encompassing over four hundred years of history and tradition. Dine in one of the great establishments on Fortaleza Street, party in San Sebastián until dawn, or simply stroll along the charming avenues and thoroughfares. Similar to Europe, a famous tradition in Old San Juan is to people-watch, and there is no better place to indulge in this activity than from one of the several plazas that are located throughout the city. This town has something for all ages, young and old. A must-see is the impressive Spanish fort El Morro located on the north side of the islet. Puerta de Tierra houses hotels such as the famous Caribe Hilton and the Radisson Normandie. While a lot of Old San Juan has been in a state of disrepair, the current renovations are making this once decrepit community an acceptable tourist destination.
East of Old San Juan lies the hotel and condominium filled district of Condado, which lies in land that used to be owned by Pablo Ubarri y Capetillo, Spanish railroad developer and Count of San José de Santurce under the Spanish colonial period. Beaches popular with swimmers and surfers are present all along the district’s Atlantic coastline. On December 31, 1986, 97 people died in a fire set by disgruntled employees at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, near the Condado’s geographical center.
Near Condado are two separate business districts, Santurce and Miramar. Miramar is mainly a residential area rising south of the Condado Lagoon. It comprises the former barrio of Miraflores, as well as drained marshland and landfill in which San Juan’s first airport, the Isla Grande airport (proper name: Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport) was erected. Miramar now hosts the Puerto Rico Convention Center, as well as some of San Juan Harbor’s cruise ship piers.
Santurce, originally named San Mateo de Cangrejos (Saint Matthew of the Crabs), was a settlement for freed African slaves during the early days of the city. After Pablo Ubarri sought permission to link Santurce with San Juan proper via trolley in 1878, the township was split in three parts and its main settlement merged with the city and renamed using the Spanish spelling of Santurtzi (Saint George in Basque), Ubarri’s birthplace in Vizcaya, Spain. The “Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico” (Art Museum of Puerto Rico) is located in Santurce.
South of Santurce is one of its former barrios, Hato Rey, which was grazing ground for cattle owned by the royal government (hence its name, the King’s Herd in Spanish) as early as the 16th century. Hato Rey is now considered the financial center of the island. A section of this district is often referred to as the “Golden Mile” (actually 0.47 miles long), due in part to the many banks and businesses located there.
In the southern part of the city is the mostly residential area of Río Piedras. Río Piedras was a separate town, founded in the mid 1850s, which hosted sugar cane plantations and the estates of some of San Juan’s wealthiest inhabitants (as well as their working class staff). The Spanish colonial governors also had their summer home there, in land which eventually gave way to the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico. In 1951 the municipalities of San Juan and Río Piedras were merged to delimit San Juan’s current city limits. Today Río Piedras, home to a renowned traditional Plaza Del Mercado, comprises the largest area of the municipality of San Juan.
Isla Verde is home to high-rise apartment buildings, huge clubs and luxurious hotels. This area is actually part of the municipality of Carolina, connected to San Juan via several highways and streets. It spans from the Punta Las Marías area (adjacent to Ocean Park) to the land just beyond the International Airport. Isla Verde hosts world-class hotels that include the Ritz-Carlton and El San Juan. Its nightlife is exciting, and the enormous balneario, or public beach, is where locals and guests come to sunbathe and get their fill of people-watching.
Guaynabo is the main suburb of San Juan. Guaynabo is an upscale district that is home to several of the island’s most prosperous residents. It is full of boutique malls offering fine accessories, jewelry, and designer labels. The houses here are simply colossal.