There are pros and cons to the various methods of getting around San Juan.
Getting around various parts of the city, and the rest of the island, as well as to and from the airport, will be much more convenient with a car. Though road signs are in Spanish, the road sign shapes are going to be as familiar to you if you are used to American road signs. And when you see the word norte sitting above a numbered-road sign enough times, it won’t take you long to realize that means north. However, a car may entail paying parking fees as you travel around to your destinations so you will need to budget for that. If you go to Old San Juan, parking may be expensive and quite difficult (see that article for how to find the few parking garages there).
Driving in San Juan is very similar to driving in the cities of the northeast U.S. like Boston or New York. People drive quickly, change lanes with little notice, and frequently tailgate, despite narrow streets. Natives of areas with more placid driving styles like the U.S. Midwest may find it frightening, though.
None of the rental car agencies are within walking distance of the terminals, and the shuttle pickup curbs are not clearly marked or signed, so don’t be afraid to ask for help in finding them. Avis and Hertz have their lots located on the airport grounds less than a quarter of a mile from the terminals, and the shuttle trip to and from their facilities is quick and predictable. All other agencies, including Thrifty and Dollar, are located at least one mile away or farther out. You must budget that extra 20 minutes into your planning or you may miss your return flight.
If you are a resident of the United States, check with your auto insurer to see if it already covers you in PR–most do. However, while that means you can decline the collision insurance, you should still take the loss damage waiver (even though it’s expensive) as auto collisions in Puerto Rico are common (you will see a lot of dented fenders) and parking spaces in PR are not as large or forgiving as those on the mainland.
Puerto Rico is still using simple paint to mark lanes rather than modern thermoplastic striping. Unfortunately, paint fades fast in the tropical heat and rain, so road markings are hard to see or completely worn away on many roads. In poorer neighborhoods of San Juan, look out for missing manhole covers and huge potholes.
Like much of Latin American and the Caribbean, proper street signs aren’t on every corner of San Juan, which makes a good street map (with landmarks) or a GPS navigation system essential. Only Condado and Ocean Park have excellent street signage comparable to those taken for granted in mainland U.S. cities.
The closest place to refuel a rental car before returning it is the Puma gas station on the frontage road (“Calle Marginal”) off eastbound PR-26 (Expreso Loiza), at the intersection with Calle Heriberto. Once you’re done there, you can continue down the road to Thrifty or Dollar, or keep going to the next underpass to loop around and head west towards the airport.
The public bus system in San Juan is inexpensive at only 75 cents a ride. Only coins are accepted on board so stock up on those quarters! (5c and 10c coins are fine too). The bus stops are marked “PARADA”, and the system is currently being reworked to fit in with a new train line. If you’re planning on staying in and around a general area of San Juan, you may be able to get by on public transportation. When you see your bus coming, be sure to wave/flag it down otherwise it may just pass you by!
Take notice; contrary to some bus schedules (even ones posted at the bus stops themselves) that state buses may arrive every 15 minutes or so, service can be infrequent and very unpredictable. You may wait anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. Rush hour buses can be very full. Additionally, traffic gets very heavy heading into Old San Juan, so once you board the bus you still are not guaranteed a quick trip. If going into Old San Juan, some useful bus routes include A-5 (from Isla Verde via Mirimar) and B-21 (from Condado). Old San Juan, near the harbor front, has a major bus station for catching numerous routes.
Visitors may find that bus routes directly to and from places of interest around San Juan do not exist, and that a transfer with additional waiting times are involved. Plan your trips wisely as buses generally may stop running around 9:00pm. If you have little time to see/do what you’d like, you’d be better served using a taxi or renting a car.
Also, have in mind, if you are planning to get back to the airport by bus, some bus drivers may not let you board the bus with carry-on baggage. You may want to plan in advance to take a taxi back to the airport if your hotel has no shuttle. Carrying baggage on the city bus tends to be less of an issue when you initally head from the airport.
Check with AMA (Spanish only) to inquire about routes and times. The AMA does not publish a map, but an online bus route map does exist.
There is a free trolley bus routes around Old San Juan – look out for the numbered signs.
As for getting around the rest of the island of Puerto Rico, there are no convenient buses connecting San Juan to the rest of the island. There are vans that are like group taxis with specific routes called “guaguas.” You can inquire about trips outside of San Juan at the guagua terminal in Rio Piedras. But keep in mind, guaguas may make multiple stops to maximize revenue, and it could take ages to get you to where you are going on the island.
The Cataño Ferry (La Lancha de Cataño) is a public ferry serving Old San Juan and Cataño. It crosses San Juan Bay every 15-30 minutes.
Taxis can be found hanging around hotels and the east end of Calle de la Fortaleza in Old San Juan. In theory, they are supposed to be metered (the rates are posted on doors), except for a selection of common tourist routes with fixed fares. In practice, cabbies are well aware that tourists tend to have no idea what those fixed fares are and charge according to what they feel like.
San Juan is now served by a rapid transit rail line called “Tren Urbano” (Urban Train). The line connects San Juan to the towns of Guaynabo and Bayamón, but it avoids points of interest like Old San Juan, Condado, Isla Verde, and the airport, and is thus in practice useless for most tourists. But if you want to give it a spin anyway:
– Take the Acua Expreso ferry from Old San Juan to the financial district, where you’ll find the “Hato Rey” station right next to the ferry dock. The actual ferry is temporarily discontinued for maintenance, but there is a replacement shuttle that will take your $1 ferry ticket and drop you off at Hato Rey.
– Take a city bus to a station, e.g., M3 from the Old San Juan bus terminal to Sagrado Corazon.
– Explore the town of Rio Piedras by getting off at Universidad or Rio Piedras stations and making your way down the colorful Avenida Juan Ponce de León. Explore the side streets and alleys to discover some wonderful street art.
Tickets are $0.75 per ride irrespective of distance. There are ticket machines accepting cash and credit cards at all stations. The magnetic tickets they issue are rechargeable and also usable to pay your fare on the bus. There are discounted fares for students, children and elderly people on both the buses and the train.
- El Castillo San Felipe del Morro“El Morro” : is a sixteenth-century citadel that lies on the northwestern-most point of the islet of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It is part of San Juan National Historic Site and was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1983.
- El Castillo de San Cristóbal, (787) 729-6960. A Spanish fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was built by the Spaniards to protect against land based attacks on the city of San Juan. It is part of San Juan National Historic Site. It covers 27 acres of land and is 150 ft tall. Open every day from 9AM to 6PM.
- Palacio de Santa Catalina“La Fortaleza” (or The Fortress in English) is the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, who is Puerto Rico’s head of Government. It was built between 1533 and 1540 to defend the harbor of San Juan. The structure is also known as El Palacio de Santa Catalina (or Palace of Santa Catalina). It is the oldest executive mansion in the New World. La Fortaleza was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
- El Catedral de San Juan Bautista: contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. It was built in the 1520’s, soon to be wrecked by a hurricane, and then rebuilt in 1540. After being rebuilt, it was robbed in the late 1500’s, and then, in 1615, it was damaged by a hurricane. In 1917, a lot of changes were made to restore the building. Tours are given daily from 8:30AM-4PM.
- Castillo de San Jerónimois a small fort located in the entrance to what is known today as Condado, Puerto Rico lagoon in San Juan. The fort defended San Juan from attacks by Sir Francis Drake in 1595, Sir George Clifford “Earl of Cumberland” in 1598 and Sir Ralph Abercromby.
- Iglesia de San Josedates back to 1523. This building was originally called the Church and Monastery of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Before Ponce de Leon was moved to the San Juan Catedral, his body was buried here for 300 years.
- Ayuntamiento or Alcaldiaor City Hall.
- The municipal cemetery of Santa María Madgalena de Pazzis, located just outside the city walls.
- Fuerte San Geronimois a fort that was built to tighten defense within the city. There is a small museum inside.
- Centro de Bellas Artesis the largest fine arts center in the Caribbean. Concerts, Plays, and Operas are hosted here. This fine arts center opened in 1981.
- Bacardi Rum Factory, (787)788-8400. M-Sa 9AM-4:30PM, Sunday from 10AM-3:30PM. Also called the “Cathedral of Rum” and covers 127 acres. Free tour, including a trolley ride around the premises.
Check out the beaches in Condado and Isla Verde.
A popular point of interest is Old San Juan, a 7-block area that has become popular for tourists as well as residents. The narrow streets of old San Juan are packed with people so it is recommended to experience Old San Juan by foot in order to avoid too much traffic. You can take a taxi for less than $20 from most hotels but for .75 you can also take the B21 bus which picks up from many locations near the hotels and is very easy to use.
Check out the parks in San Juan.
- Central Parkis the park to visit if you’re looking for traditional activities such as jogging, tennis, baseball, etc.
- La Marquesa Canopy Tour– Located about 30 minutes outside of San Juan in Guaynabo you can tour the La Marquesa Forest Reserve via zip line. It is a low impact experience suitable for people of all ages. Those who are up for extreme adventure travel may find this a little too easy.
- Garfield, 7558 calle del cristo (go far west), ☎(787)721-2500.
- Munoz Rivera Park, Av. Ponce de León. Tu-Su 9AM-5PM. Located by the ocean and has beautiful trees and landscaping. A great place to tour by foot.
- Parque de las Palomasoverlooks La Princesa Jail. From this park you are able to see a great view of the mountains, harbor and the city.
- The Casino of Puerto Ricois a large building with a 12 foot chandelier and an open ballroom, built right before World War I.
- The Teatro Tapia, (787) 721-0169 or (787) 721-0180. Built in 1832, this is one of the oldest theaters in the Western Hemisphere. This building, which was named after Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, has been remodeled twice, once in 1949 and once in 1987. Plays, ballets, and other concerts and events are held here.
- Flavors of San Juan Food and Culture Tours, Old San Juan, ☎787-964-2447,. 10am-1pm (tues-sun) & 4:30pm-7:30pm (tues-sat). Local tour operator running daily foodie walking tours, as well as cooking classes and rum tastings. Flavors of San Juan gives an exclusive taste of local food, rum, and coffee in the most memorable restaurants and streets of San Juan. They take you away from the tourist traps to discover the history, the sweet secrets, and the savory enclaves that San Juaneros call home.