[The home will be closed during renovations until early 2011.] This house was built in 1521 for Juan Ponce de Leon, though he never lived here. Descendants resided here for the next 250 years until the Spanish government seized the home and used it for military housing, making it the oldest continuously occupied residence in the Western Hemisphere. These days it is a museum focusing on Puerto Rican life in the 16th to 18th centuries. Paintings, antiques and artifacts reside within and beautiful gardens bloom in riots of tropical color without.
A two-hour drive west of San Juan is worth it to see this fascinating park with 13 acres originally used by the Taino Indians for worship and recreation. A small museum contains artifacts and explains the significance of the 800-year-old site, which includes carved stone monoliths, petroglyphs and a field where a game, similar to soccer, was played. A botanical garden grows and displays the vegetables and plants that were used to sustain the ancient population. Guided tours are given in English and Spanish.
[Currently undergoing renovations.] The Dominican Friars built this church in 1532. A gem of Spanish Gothic architecture, it is the second oldest church in the western hemisphere. Several valuable artifacts are on display here including an intricately carved crucifix presented to Ponce de Leon (who was buried here for three centuries until his remains were moved to San Juan Cathedral), four oil paintings by Jose Campeche and two canvases by Francisco Oller. Mass is still celebrated each Sunday.
Visitors to this cemetery, which dates bank to the 19th century, are urged to visit during the daytime hours and to use caution since the area is known for petty crime. But aficionados of old graveyards will love the Victorian funeral statues, intricately carved mausoleums and antique marble headstones. A neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene is a centerpiece in these picturesque burial grounds.
El Morro is as awe-inspiring as it sounds: the largest fortification in the Caribbean and named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. It was built by the Spaniards between 1540 and 1783 to honor King Phillip II. Located on a rocky point on San Juan Bay, the fortress rises 180 feet above the sea and features 18-foot thick walls. Inside, a web of corridors, dungeons, ramps and vaults provide plenty of opportunity for exploring. You can purchase a combination ticket to visit Fuerte San Cristobal as well.
Over 170 governors of Puerto Rico have lived in La Fortaleza – it is the oldest continuously operating governor's residence in the Western Hemisphere. The original fortification was built to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay, but was judged to be inadequate for the purpose. Many modifications in varying architectural styles, including Baroque, Arabian, Gothic and neoclassical, have been made through the years. English-language tours are available on the hour. Proper attire is requested.
This magnificent fort is connected to El Morro by a series of walls, dry moats and tunnels. The structure was begun in 1634 and completed in 1771. The walls are more than 150 feet above the sea, and the fortifications cover more than 27 acres. Be sure to visit the Devil's Sentry box while you are there. Local legend claims that guards were snatched by the devil himself as they stood watch in this remote section of the fort. Cannons atop San Cristobal fired at US Navy ships in 1898 – the first shots of the Spanish-American war in Puerto Rico.
Along the promenade of the bay, a winding, weathered centuries-old wall still protects the city. It is punctuated by the sudden appearance of a portal, a massive terracotta colored entrance that is the San Juan Gate. It is the last of the doorways in the wall that used to be shut at sundown to protect the inhabitants of San Juan from marauders. This gate was constructed in 1639, stands 16 feet tall and is up to 20 feet thick.
If you are in San Juan on a Tuesday, plan to visit this lovely chapel with an exquisite silver and gold altar. Built in 1753, the chapel commemorates a young man who was killed in a horse race down this very street. Some versions of the story say he survived and the chapel was built in honor of this miracle. Other versions of the story say the rider died and the chapel blocks the street so a similar accident could never occur again.
Several galleries and a small museum tell the story of El Arsenal, built by the Spanish in the 19th century. Shallow boats were necessary to patrol the mangrove swamps around the city and this marina was where they were housed. El Arsenal was the final Spanish stronghold during the Spanish-American war.