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Old San Juan

Coordinates: 18°27′59″N 66°6′37″W / 18.46639°N 66.11028°W / 18.46639; -66.11028
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Old San Juan
Viejo San Juan
Historic district
Aerial view of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Old San Juan
Aerial view of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Old San Juan
La Ciudad Amurallada (The Walled City)
Satellite image of Old San Juan within San Juan Antiguo alongside Santurce
Satellite image of Old San Juan within San Juan Antiguo alongside Santurce
Location of Old San Juan within San Juan Antiguo shown in yellow and San Juan shown in light grey
Location of Old San Juan within San Juan Antiguo shown in yellow and San Juan shown in light grey
Old San Juan is located in Puerto Rico
Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Location in Puerto Rico
Coordinates: 18°27′59″N 66°6′37″W / 18.46639°N 66.11028°W / 18.46639; -66.11028
Commonwealth Puerto Rico
MunicipalitySan Juan
Time zoneUTC-4 (AST (no daylight saving time))
ZIP codes
Area code787, 939
Subbarrios (sub-wards)Ballajá, Catedral, Marina, Mercado, Puerta de Tierra, San Cristóbal, San Francisco
Official nameLa Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico
Designated1983 (7th session)
Reference no.266
RegionThe Americas
Official nameZona Histórica de San Juan
DesignatedOctober 10, 1972
Reference no.72001553[2][3]
LocationNW triangle of the islet of San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Governing bodyState

Old San Juan (Spanish: Viejo San Juan) is a historic district located at the "northwest triangle"[4] of the islet of San Juan in San Juan. Its area roughly correlates to the Ballajá, Catedral, Marina, Mercado, San Cristóbal, and San Francisco sub-barrios (sub-districts) of barrio San Juan Antiguo in the municipality of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is the oldest settlement within Puerto Rico and the historic colonial district of the city of San Juan. This historic district is a National Historic Landmark District named Zona Histórica de San Juan and is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places as the Old San Juan Historic District (Spanish: Distrito Histórico del Viejo San Juan).[3] Several historical buildings and structures, particularly La Fortaleza, the city walls, and El Morro and San Cristóbal castles, have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since 1983.[5] Historically the mixed-use commercial and residential real estate in the main streets of Calle Cristo and Calle Fortaleza from Calle Tanca to the Governor’s Mansion is the most valuable in the area and it has kept its value and increased steadily through several years despite the past economic turmoils.


Aerial view of Old San Juan in 1952

Old San Juan is located on a small and narrow island which lies along the north coast, about 35 miles (56 km) from the east end of Puerto Rico, and is united to the mainland of Puerto Rico by three bridges. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and to the south by San Juan Bay (or "Bahia de San Juan")—which lies between the city and the mainland. On a promontory (Spanish: morro) about 100 feet (30 m) high, at the west end of the island and commanding the entrance to the harbor, rise the battlements of Fort San Felipe del Morro, in which there is a lighthouse.

The "Caño de San Antonio" lies to the southeast, where the island of Old San Juan connects to the mainland through Santurce, by three bridges, "Puente Dos Hermanos" (Ashford Avenue), "Puente G. Esteves" (Ponce de León Avenue) and "Puente San Antonio" (Fernández Juncos Avenue).

The city is characterized by its narrow, blue cobblestone streets, and flat-roofed brick and stone buildings, which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries—when Puerto Rico was a Spanish possession. Near Fort San Felipe del Morro, is the Casa Blanca, a palace built on land which belonged to the family of Ponce de León.





In 1508, Juan Ponce de León founded the original settlement, Caparra[6] (named after the Province of Cáceres, Spain, birthplace of the then-governor of Spain's Caribbean territories, Nicolás de Ovando). The ruins of Caparra are known as the Pueblo Viejo sector of Guaynabo, behind the almost land-locked harbor just to the west of the present San Juan metropolitan area. In 1509, the settlement was abandoned and moved to a site which was called at the time "Puerto Rico" (meaning "rich port" or "good port"), a name that evoked that of a similar geographical harbor in the island of Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. In 1521, the name "San Juan" was added, and the newer settlement was given its formal name of "San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico", following the usual custom of christening the town with both its formal name and the name which Christopher Columbus had originally given the islands, honoring John the Baptist.[verification needed]

Expansion and growth

The 42-foot (12.8 m) wall that surrounds Old San Juan (as seen near the San Juan Gate)

Constructed in 1521, Casa Blanca served as the first fortification of the settlement and residence of Juan Ponce de León descendants, until the mid-eighteenth century.[7][8][9]

La Fortaleza was built between 1533 and 1540, which was followed by the construction of a battery at "the Morro." Plans for the castle portion of San Felipe del Morro were made in 1584. Extensions to the Morro, plus construction of El Cañuelo, and El Boquerón, were made between 1599 and 1609. Circumvallation of the city commenced in 1630 and was concluded by 1641. San Cristobal fort was completed by 1771.[10]

By 1776, the population totaled 6000, half of which were soldiers. The garrison town of San Juan included 250 acres of military installations and 62 acres of public and private use. By 1781, the city's fortifications included 376 cannon. By 1876, 24,000 lived inside the walls of San Juan, encompassing 62 acres, and 926 buildings.[11]

Prior to the 19th century, the area outside the city walls occupying the east side of Old San Juan Island, was almost uninhabited. In 1838 the so-called area of Puerta de Tierra (or "Land Gate") had a population of 168 residents, mainly of African descent.[12] According to a census made in 1846, the population had risen to 223 inhabitants living in 58 houses. On March 3, 1865, the municipal government of San Juan approved a resolution promoting the city expansion across the Puerta de Tierra which included the plan for demolishing the city walls along the eastern side.[13] On May 28, 1897, the wall demolition was officially started after a proclamation was issued by Queen Maria Christina.[12] By the year 1899, the population of Puerta de Tierra had risen to 5,453; while the area comprising the old walled city had a civilian population of roughly 18,103 inhabitants.

Maintaining architectural integrity


During the late 1940s, disrepair in the old city was evident. The local authorities were considering development proposals for renovating the old city and incorporating modern architecture on new constructions. Anthropologist Ricardo Alegría vehemently advised against the idea of demolishing old colonial buildings in favor of contemporary building designs. He followed the example suggested by his father, a local civic leader who had successfully prevented the demolition of the Capilla del Cristo in favor of a traffic redesign. He advised mayor Rincón de Gautier in having local zoning laws changed to favor remodeling and the incorporation of Spanish colonial motifs in any new construction. This helped preserve the city's architectural profile, and has been a key to San Juan's current status as a tourist destination.[citation needed]

Luis Muñoz Marín, as a senator and later as governor of Puerto Rico, supported and implemented what became known as Operation Bootstrap, which included the development of the tourism industry. In 1948 the government invited one of the organizers of Colonial Williamsburg to lead its tourism development efforts.[14] These efforts were further supported by the 1955 creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña) head by Alegría. He sought legal and administrative changes that would allow for major remodeling efforts to be successful. At the time, most real estate in Old San Juan had devalued under appraised values because the city was perceived as unsafe (particularly because of building disrepair and social ills such as prostitution) and not profitable for business (because of rent control statutes, as well as the reluctance of commercial banks to fund remodeling). Under combined efforts by the institute and the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, "model" remodelings were made to show potential property owners how their renewed properties could look. Strict remodeling codes were implemented to prevent new constructions from affecting the common colonial Spanish architectural themes of the old city. As with other Operation Bootstrap projects, mainland corporate investors were lured in with tax breaks and other incentives. When a project proposal suggested that the old Carmelite Convent in San Juan be demolished to erect a new hotel, the Institute had the building declared a historic building, and asked that it be converted to a hotel in a renewed facility. As in other Operation Bootstrap projects, the Woolworth family was invited in 1957 to reconstruct the former convent (which had more recently been a low-rent apartment building and city garage) into the luxury Hotel El Convento.[15] The Bank provided low interest loans to remodelers, and the government gave triple tax exemptions to commercial activities in the old city (they were exempted for a limited time, not only from property taxes and municipal taxes, but from income tax from activities generated in their properties as well). At least one retailer from the shopping district in Charlotte Amalie was given incentives to set up shop in the Calle del Cristo (the city's red light district during the early 1940s) in order to persuade other retailers to follow suit and somehow "clean up" the district. Potential developers were offered sketches of their properties after a remodeling, as to suggest which architectural elements to improve or change. The paradigm to reconstruct and renovate the old city and revitalize it has been followed by other cities in Latin America, particularly Havana, Lima and Cartagena de Indias.

Paseo de La Princesa

Historic designations

Door painted with a Puerto Rican flag, Calle de la Virtud, Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico

The San Juan National Historic Site was established in 1949 to preserve historic fortifications in Old San Juan. The historic site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.[3] La Fortaleza along with the San Juan National Historic Site were then declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 1983.[16] The casco histórico (old city within the city walls) of San Juan was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013.

Landmarks and attractions


La Fortaleza and the San Juan National Historic District sites

  • San Cristóbal Castle (Castillo San Cristóbal), the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the Americas, which provided defense against both land-based and sea attacks by pirates and foreign powers during the colonial period.
  • San Felipe del Morro Castle (Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or just El Morro), a 16th century citadel in the northwestern edge of the islet that provided defense against foreign and pirate attacks during the Spanish colonization, also the site of a historic lighthouse.
  • Santa Catalina Palace, popularly known as La Fortaleza (Spanish for the fortress), a former fortification and currently the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. It is the oldest executive residence in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The San Juan City Walls surround Old San Juan and it gives the city one of its nicknames, "La ciudad amurallada" (the walled city). About 3/4 of the city walls remain intact but only one of the city gates remain in existence. San Juan is one of the six cities under United States jurisdiction that possessed defensive walls and it is the only US city that still preserves its colonial defensive wall system.

Plazas and squares

Raíces Fountain at the end of Paseo de La Princesa is dedicated to Puerto Rico's European, African and native Taino roots.
  • Paseo de La Princesa (Spanish for promenade of the princess) is a famous promenade named after the former La Princesa Prison. It extends for a quarter of a mile and runs along the southern city wall of Old San Juan. It provides views of San Juan's city walls and San Juan Bay, and it is a popular location that becomes very lively during festivals and other cultural celebrations. A boardwalk at the end of the promenade connects it to Puerta de San Juan (the San Juan City Gate), formerly known as Puerta de Agua (Spanish for water gate), the only remaining city gate.
  • Plaza Colón (Spanish for Columbus square or plaza) is located in the eastern end of Old San Juan where the former eastern city walls used to be located. Originally named Santiago Square, the plaza is now a popular meeting place for locals and tourists as it is located next to famous landmarks such as the San Cristóbal castle and the Tapia Theater.
  • Plaza de Armas is the main town square of San Juan where several administrative buildings such as the historic San Juan City Hall are located. A plaza de armas is a large square often found in Spanish-founded cities across the Americas and the Philippines that were originally intended for military parades, hence the name "plaza de armas" (literally arms or weapons square).
  • Plaza de la Catedral (English: Cathedral Square), popularly known as Plazuela Las Monjas, is located south of Hotel El Convento and west of the main entrance to San Juan's cathedral.
  • Plaza de San José (English: San José Square), formerly known as Plaza de Santo Domingo, is located next to San José Church. It is also a popular meeting place due to its location next to restaurants and other businesses important to Old San Juan's nightlife. The statue of Ponce de León located in the center of the square is famous for being built from melted British cannons obtained after Sir Ralph Abercromby's failed attempt to capture San Juan.
  • Plaza del Quinto Centenario (English: Square of the Fifth Centenary) is a modern square built to commemorate the 500th year anniversary of San Juan and the European discovery of Puerto Rico and the Americas. The square is located next to the Ballajá Barracks and El Morro.
  • Plazuela de la Rogativa is a small plaza located close to La Fortaleza that is famous for the bronze sculpture of La Rogativa. The sculpture, completed by New Zealand artist Lindsay Daen in 1971, portrays "La Rogativa" (Spanish for the pleading), from a legend that says that the British invasion led by Sir Abercromby was foiled thanks to a pleading procession led by the bishop of San Juan and a group of women carrying torches. The story states that the British mistook the procession for Spanish reinforcements.[17]
  • Parque de las Palomas (Spanish for park of the pigeons), despite its name is a public plaza rather than a park located at the end of Calle del Cristo next to the chapel of the same name. In addition to the wonderful views of San Juan and the bay that this space offers, the plaza is famous, specially among children, for the numerous pigeons that live there. There are vendors who sell bird food to feed the pigeons.

Churches and religious buildings

Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud
  • San Juan Cathedral, officially the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist (Spanish: Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de San Juan Bautista), the Catholic cathedral and one of the oldest buildings in Old San Juan. It is considered the oldest cathedral in the United States and the second oldest cathedral in the Americas (after the Santo Domingo Cathedral in the Dominican Republic). It contains various relics and tombs, including that of Juan Ponce de Leon.
  • San José Church (Iglesia de San José) is one of the most important architectural landmarks of Old San Juan and the earliest surviving example of 16th century Spanish Gothic architecture in the Americas. The church was closed for renovation for many years and it reopened for visitors and religious services in 2021.
  • Saint Francis of Assisi Church (Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís) is a Catholic parish church located in the San Francisco sub-barrio of Old San Juan.
  • Santa Ana Church (Iglesia de Santa Ana) is an often-missed historical 17th century church located on Tetuán Street.
  • Santo Cristo de la Salud Chapel (Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud), popularly known as Capilla del Cristo, a small 18th century chapel which was saved from demolition in the 20th century that has become a famous landmark and cultural symbol of Puerto Rico and its folklore. The chapel also houses a small museum.


  • Casa Blanca (Spanish for white house) is a house museum located in a historical fortification which was the official residence of Juan Ponce de León and his family.
  • Casa Rosa (Spanish for pink house) is a historical house and former military barracks which once housed a museum for traditional arts and crafts. Today it operates as a daycare center and cannot be visited without previous arrangements.
  • Pablo Casals Museum located in the former home of Pablo Casals dedicated to the famous composer and cellist which also contains his piano, some of his musical instruments and a media and music library.
  • The Puerto Rico National Gallery or Galería Nacional houses one of the largest collections of Puerto Rican paintings and it is located in a former Dominican Order monastery.
  • The Ballajá Barracks (Cuartel de Ballajá) were military barracks which now house several important museums such as Museo de Las Américas (English: Museum of the Americas), in addition to a library, music and dance schools, and spaces for cultural events.

La Perla

La Perla in Old San Juan

La Perla (Spanish for the pearl) is a former shanty town or informal settlement located along the northern section of the historic San Juan city walls. Originally the site of slaughterhouses, the area was later settled by freed slaves and non-white servants in the 18th century. In the 20th century the community grew to become a neighborhood of Old San Juan and its reputation has recently transformed from a dangerous place into a cultural hub. It has appeared on films, literature, TV shows and music videos.[18]

Other places of interest



La Casita in Old San Juan

With its abundance of shops, historic places, museums,[19] open air cafés, restaurants, colorful homes, tree-shaded plazas, and its old beauty and architectural peculiarity, Old San Juan is a main spot for domestic and international tourism.

The district is characterized by numerous public plazas, which are filled with local shops that sell traditional craftwork,[20][21] sculptures and typical musical instruments. Moreover, Old San Juan is known for its historical churches, such as San José Church and the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer and first European to discover modern day Florida, Juan Ponce de León.

Tourists' main spot to visit at Old San Juan is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a fort built by the Spaniards when settled on the Island. Besides the magnificent fort, tourists are drawn to La Perla, a colorful neighborhood outside of the historic city wall.

Old San Juan is one of the two barrios, in addition to Santurce, that made up the municipality of San Juan after 1864 and prior to 1951, in which the former independent municipality of Río Piedras was annexed.

Blockhouses and subbarrios

Old San Juan
Aerial view of Old San Juan as of 2022

The oldest parts of the district of Old San Juan remain partly enclosed by massive walls. Several defensive structures and notable forts, such as the Fort San Felipe del Morro, Castle of San Cristóbal, and el Palacio de Santa Catalina (also known as La Fortaleza), acted as the primary defense of the settlement which has been subjected to numerous attacks. La Fortaleza continues to serve also as the executive mansion for the Governor of Puerto Rico. Many of the historic fortifications are part of San Juan National Historic Site. Old San Juan's land area roughly correlates to the following subbarrios of barrio San Juan Antiguo: Ballajá, Catedral, Marina, Mercado, San Cristóbal, and San Francisco.

Public transportation


Old San Juan is the location for one of two transportation hubs serving Metropolitan San Juan. At one time, a free trolley provided limited service to Old San Juan seven days a week but is not available any longer. People get around the city on foot or by car.[22] There have been plans to turn the historic district into a pedestrian-only zone, and to either rebuild the trolley system or build a new light-rail train system in the recent years.[23]


Old San Juan is the setting for films, books, song lyrics and music videos, including the following:

See also



  1. ^ San Juan, Ciudad Capital. SanJuan.pr. Retrieved 2010-12-22.
  2. ^ Zona Historica de San Juan / San Juan Historic Zone. US Dept of the Interior. National Park Service. NRHP Inventory - Nomination Form. Prepared by Luis M. Rodriguez Morales, Director, Puerto Rico National Archives. 10 October 1972. Accessed 11 February 2019.
  3. ^ a b c "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  4. ^ Zona Historica de San Juan / San Juan Historic Zone. US Dept of the Interior. National Park Service. NRHP Inventory - Nomination Form. Page 1. Prepared by Luis M. Rodriguez Morales, Director, Puerto Rico National Archives. 10 October 1972. Accessed 11 February 2019.
  5. ^ "La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  6. ^ EB-Guaynabo-Puerto-Rico Guaynabo; [with a history of Puerto Rico]; "Encyclopædia Britannica"; 2006; Britannica.com webpage; Text: names Caparra, the first Spanish settlement of Puerto Rico (1508).
  7. ^ (in Spanish) San Juan: Historia Illustrada de su desarrollo urbano, 1508–1898 - Aníbal Sepúlveda Rivera. San Juan 1989. Centro de Investigaciones CARIMAR.
  8. ^ (in Spanish) San Juan Extramuros: Iconografia para su estudio - Aníbal Sepúlveda, Jorge Carbonell. San Juan 1990. Centro de Investigaciones CARIMAR / Oficina Estatal de Preservación Histórica.
  9. ^ (in English)A Conservation Master Plan for the World Heritage Site of Old San Juan; Prof. Martin E. Weaver
  10. ^ Van Middeldyk, R.A. (1903). Brumbaugh, Martin (ed.). The History of Puerto Rico: From the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation. D. Appleton and Company. pp. 109–111. ISBN 9781548743741. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  11. ^ The Forts of Old San Juan. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior. 2018. pp. 67, 69, 72. ISBN 9780912627625.
  12. ^ a b "Historia de Puerta de Tierra". Johnny Torres Rivera.
  13. ^ "Breve Historia del Desarrollo Urbano de la Ciudad de San Juan Bautista, Ciudad Capital de Puerto Rico". Legislatura Municipal de San Juan. Archived from the original on 2009-04-13. Retrieved 2009-08-04.
  14. ^ Merrill, Dennis (2009). Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 186.
  15. ^ Hotel El Convento. History of Hotel El Convento.
  16. ^ "La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site". UNESCO. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
  17. ^ "The Legend of La Rogativa". Tour Old San Juan. 2013-01-25. Retrieved 2021-09-23.
  18. ^ "La Perla en Puerto Rico, el renacimiento de uno de los barrios más peligrosos del Caribe". BBC News Mundo (in Spanish). 2015-12-17. Retrieved 2021-09-23.
  19. ^ Golden Tales: Myths, Legends, and Folktales from Latin America. Scholastic Inc. September 18, 2001. p. 70 – via Internet Archive. old san juan.
  20. ^ Philpott, Don (February 28, 2003). Landmark Puerto Rico. Hunter Publishing, Inc. ISBN 9781901522341 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ Ring, Trudy; Watson, Noelle; Schellinger, Paul (November 5, 2013). The Americas: International Dictionary of Historic Places. Routledge. ISBN 9781134259304 – via Google Books.
  22. ^ "Currently not running! Hop Aboard the Free Trolley in Old San Juan | Puerto Rico Day Trips Travel Guide". www.puertoricodaytrips.com.
  23. ^ Roger. "Tren Liviano / Light Rail Train (LRT) – Bahía Urbana | Railroads of Puerto Rico / Ferrocarriles de Puerto Rico". Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  24. ^ "En Mi Viejo San Juan - Marc Anthony Sings En Mi Viejo San Juan". San Juan Puerto Rico. 2014-08-09. Retrieved 2020-10-06.
  25. ^ Scott, A. O. (2011-10-27). "In San Juan, on the Road to Gonzo (Published 2011)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-10-06.
  26. ^ Stavans, Ilan (2020). Poets, philosophers, lovers: on the Writings of Giannina Braschi. Aldama, Frederick Luis, O'Dwyer, Tess. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Pittsburgh. ISBN 978-0-8229-4618-2. OCLC 1143649021.
  27. ^ Braschi, Giannina. (2011). United States of Banana. Las Vegas, NV: AmazonCrossing. ISBN 978-1-61109-067-3. OCLC 760912360.
  28. ^ "'We Feel Forgotten': In Storm-Battered Home Of Musical Hit, Help Comes 'Despacito'". NPR.org. Retrieved 2020-10-06.