Travel
3 min

San Juan

Beaches, history, music and a youthful, energetic club scene

The narrow streets of Old San Juan.

The ocean is warm, the trade winds are cool, and life’s pace is refreshingly slow. Gay travellers seeking these simple pleasures will love San Juan. Puerto Rico’s largest city is a surprisingly easy destination for North Americans and Europeans in search of a beach getaway, and the US dollar is the legal tender.

There’s lots of gay life, too, from the relative quiet of Ocean Park, San Juan’s upscale beach community, to the bustling Condado, famous for its casinos and nightlife, to Old San Juan, where the ancient forts, cobblestone streets and colonial houses hark back to a time when this was one of the busiest ports in the New World. Since 18 is the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico, there’s lots of youthful energy in the nightclub scene.

Music has always been an important part of Puerto Rican culture, so opportunities abound for hearing live salsa, bomba, plena, seis and reggaeton. Renowned opera singer Justino Díaz hails from here, as does pop singer Ricky Martin. The Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Pablo Casals Museum, the Museum of the Americas and the National Gallery are a few of the local museums and galleries.

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Neighbourhoods
Old San Juan, the original walled city, has street after street of lovingly restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish buildings. More than 400 have been refurbished, making this one of the prettiest colonial capitals in the Caribbean. Parts of the thick city walls remain, as do two impressive fortresses. Most people head to El Morro, but Castillo de San Cristóbal is just as grand and much less crowded. Old San Juan has no gay bars, but gays do patronize its many bars and clubs.

Once a bit dowdy, Condado has gotten a facelift courtesy of a couple of grand hotels and a strip of high-end retailers, such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton. This oceanfront neighbourhood has several gay or gay-friendly bars and hotels and a noticeably gay beach scene. Nearby Santurce, a more workaday neighbourhood, is where you’ll find most of the city’s gay bars and clubs.

Quiet Ocean Park is mostly a residential neighbourhood, but it has a handful of gay-owned hotels. Its beach is one of the best, and it’s never crowded. Isla Verde is where the old-money crowd lives. It’s a snooze of a neighbourhood, but there are some wonderful resorts and boutique hotels.

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Beaches
San Juan’s miles of sandy beaches are its star attractions, and they’re well appointed with lockers, showers and water-sport equipment rentals. Condado Beach, lined along its back with high-rise hotels, has been a playground for the rich and famous since the 1920s. It has a small, cruisey gay area near the Atlantic Beach Hotel. Ocean Park Beach attracts a younger and friendlier crowd with a more obvious gay cruising scene.

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What to do
Old San Juan and its two hulking forts are the primary destinations for most visitors. Also visit La Fortaleza, a not-so-successful fort that was transformed into the governor’s palace, and Casa Blanca, the homestead of explorer Ponce de Léon’s family.

For a more traditional San Juan experience, try shopping in Old San Juan, where the narrow streets are crowded with fine jewellers, galleries and craft shops. There are lots of cafés and restaurants to stop in if you need a break. There’s also a free historic trolley that runs through the neighbourhood if you’d like to pass through quickly.

Head to the Plaza Pársena marketplace in Old San Juan each Saturday from 6pm, after vendors have packed up their stalls, for Festival La Casita. Musicians, dancers and puppeteers perform; people dance to bands and orchestras; painters, sculptors and other artists display their works. On Sundays from 4pm, you can take in theatre productions and concerts.

The Bacardi factory is more than just an opportunity to see how Bacardi distills its spirits. The interactive visitors’ centre tells the story of rum, from the beginnings of European colonization of the Caribbean, to the first sugar plantations in Puerto Rico, to the Bacardi family’s first distillery in Cuba, to the emergence of Bacardi as a major international brand.

Beyond San Juan, be sure to visit the rain forest of El Yunque. Nearby is Luquillo Beach, with its lovely stretch of sand and a long string of outdoor eateries selling fried seafood. If you have plenty of time, visit the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra, where you’ll find small gay enclaves lounging in the tropical sun.

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Historic sites
San Juan’s history stretches back almost 500 years, and relics of the old Spanish colony are among Puerto Rico’s most visited sites. The San Juan National Historic Site includes two former Spanish forts built to protect the colony from pirates and other European powers who wanted it: Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal. Both fortresses offer fascinating insights into military life from the 16th to 18th centuries and stunning vistas of the city and the bay.