Sunday, June 16, 2013

Visitor's Guide To Old San Juan

Hey Folks-
Juni here!  You may or may not have noticed that it's been a while since I have posted.  Or Tommy has posted.  Zorra has seemed unusually quiet as well.  What's been going on?!?!?!
Wellllllllll, let's just say that we moved beyond the "Honeymoon" stage of ex-pat living and have entered Phase II (aka "I'm so homesick!") and have been dealing with a few challenges.  I don't want to go into the details but the long and short of it all is that we are LEAVING San Juan (yes, ANOTHER move) and heading to where we originally intended to be, Rincón.  Rincón  is on the West Coast of the island and is a surfer mecca with a large ex-pat community.

Like the states, the West Coast is definitely the "crunchier" area.  You have your beach side yoga spots, fresh squeezed juice joints and plenty of sea glass jewelry floating around.  The air is sweeter, the breeze a little more soothing and the desire to take deep breaths more instinctual.  Kind of like a Spanish speaking Hawaii, with the addition of Caribbean mosquitoes (my only complaint, but I'll deal).  

Yep, that's where this California girl belongs.  Believe it or not, my Philadelphian fiance is also more at home there.  Sometimes he even surprises me with his "Granola Boy"ishness.  
So it's back to Plan A.  
We found a very spacious, and very cheerful little spot on the top of a hill with a view of Pools beach.  We are beyond anxious to get there and settle in to the life that we feel we really intended to live when we decided to embark on this journey. The lower unit/carport are ours:

At this point, you may be asking yourself, "Am I reading the right post?  The subject line says this is a visitor's guide to Old San Juan. WTF?".  Have no fear, it's not you, it's totally me.  I just wanted to get the aforementioned news out the way before I set you up with all the spots to check out if/when you come to visit the Old City.
Don't get me wrong, Old San Juan is amazing in it's way.  It has gorgeous architecture and history unlike any where else I've been in this world.   We've met wonderful people, with kind hearts and artistic souls.  We're just over city life and frankly, can't hang with the party lifestyle that exists here on a live-in basis.  There is a strong indication we are rapidly approaching middle age.  Or are we there already?  OH boy.

So without further ado, I present to you my guide to Old San Juan.  Come enjoy all this beautiful city has to offer!

 Old San Juan is a walking town and parking is quite difficult.  If possible, don't drive when you are on this leg of your trip.  If you do drive, however, street parking can be found if you are patient and parallel parking doesn't spin you into an anxiety attack. Buy the insurance on your rental though, dinged bumpers are kind of guaranteed...If you have more money than patience, park in one of the lots---the cheapest one is near the bus depot across from Banco Popular.  I think it maxes out at $15/day.  If you are going to be there more than three days, buy the monthly pass for around $45. 

Good walking shoes and/or flip flop confidence are essential.  If it rains, which it tends to do, or you happen to have a few drinks, which you will tend to do, slips are very commonplace.  Both Tommy and I have had the cobblestone shaped bruises to prove it too.

Pick up a free tourist map in practically ANY establishment.  It may be a little outdated, but it will really help you get around.


You'll have plenty to choose from, but here are our favorites:
La Taberna Lupulo, Calle San Sebastian
This hip joint boasts the best craft beer selection on the island.  Tommy worked here too! They have over 50 taps and about 120 bottles of different beers.  They also have lots of craft whiskey on hand, although some of it tastes like lighter fluid.  It does to me, at least.  The staff is super cool and they will give you tasters of different beers.  They draw both locals and tourists so you are sure to meet some interesting folks in this popular bar. 

The Mezzanine, Corner of Calle Cruz and Calle Sol (upstairs from St. Germaine Cafe)
A converted house of a deceased Puerto Rican revolutionary, this spot is really cute and almost has a San Fran vibe to it.  It's chill, stylish and has the best happy hour in town.  From 4-8pm they do half price on many awesome drinks and their tapas menu (you can get a glass of wine and a tapas plate for $8 total).  The service has always been good in my experience and the prices really can't be beat. 

Bar at the Food Court, Calle San Francisco at the top of Plaza Colon
Another bar that Tommy works at is owned by one of the nicest guys in town, our friend Ozzie, the bar at the food court boasts no-frills drinks and open air socializing opportunities.  We only come here during the day when the vibe is chill and if you ask why they have a sign that says, "Best Pina Coladas on the Island", you will be told it's because, "we put the most booze in it".  Cheap empanadas available.  Artesian Cocktails NOT available.  If you come at night, I can't really tell you what you are in for. 

El Batey, across from El Convento Hotel
This is the bar that all the bartenders come to after their shift is over and as soon as you walk in the door, you know that you will probably leave with a little street cred.  Stabbings and sheisty behavior are always kind of looming although if you don't get lippy you shouldn't have any problems.  Apparently, Benicio Del Toro loves to come here when he visits the homeland.  If you are into dive bars, this place is a MUST (and musty). Smoking is allowed inside the bar, so that may be a plus or minus for you.
Douglas Pub, Calle San Francisco
There's nothing Irish about this joint but I have always liked it.  It's dark and divey but not as intimidating as El Batey.  The first floor has a jukebox and stripper pole and the upstairs level has lots of pool tables.  The vibe changes often so sometimes it's chill, other night's you will think you are in the middle of some kind of black metal fraternity party.  Does that make any sense?  No? That's the charm.  WILD CARD! Drinks are no frills, relatively cheap and the staff is not uppity.  If you are there, look for our friend, Brian.  He'll be the guy playing Bruno Mars on the jukebox and possibly getting punched.
Best Coffee Shops

If you drink coffee, then you MUST try the Puerto Rican variety.  It's awesome.  They don't do the regular drip style here, it's pretty much all espresso and it's most commonly served "Cortado" (short shot) or "Con Leche" (latte).  If you don't drink coffee, but need to get connected to some free WiFi, check out our picks:
Cafe Poetico, Calle Cruz (near Supermax)
Not the cheapest prices in town but the quality to back it up.  The coffee here is really good and I have been blown away buy the food.  Mostly vegetarian, the food is always fresh and super tasty.  The desserts are some of the best I've ever had.  Definitely from scratch.  I may have broken my "no gluten" rule here on more than one occasion and deemed it "so totally worth it".  Don't tell the Paleo Police...The other half of the cafe houses a little gift shop and they do a weekly open mic Poetry reading.  Each table has blank paper and pencils in a little bucket.  They encourage patrons to leave their creative writing in a basket by the door.  The staff can sometimes be a little aloof but overall, very nice.  Sebastian, our favorite barista, is one of the coolest/nicest guys we've met here.  Good vibes, creative energy and charm.

Cuatro Sombras, Calle Recinte Sur
Not quite as comfy as Poetico but still cool. They are a farm-to-table joint.  This means they grow, roast and sell their own coffee produced on their own land.  Pretty cool.  

Food is very expensive here.  Tourist prices for sure.  There are lots of restaurants to choose from but here is what we recommend:
Breakfast Spots
Breakfast is the hardest meal to find here  but these are the better places.
Cafeteria Mallorca, Calle San Francisco
If you don't feel like eating any more Puerto Rican food, you can get a cheap diner-style breakfast here.  Nothing special but kind of cool to sit and people watch.  I like their paper hats too.
St. Germaine Cafe, Corner of Calle Cruz/Calle Sol
They have a few brunch specials and one of the best breakfast menus in town that will appeal to a Californian palate.
Do not expect to find many veggie options here.  You may also want to consider suspending your dietary restrictions while you are here.  If you order something like Rice & Beans, be aware that virtually ALL bean dishes will include pork.  Never assume something is Veggie and always ask!
Verde Mesa, I think this is on Calle Recinte Sur (all the way at the end)
This is supposedly one of the best restaurants in town and the menu is fresh and locally sourced/organic whenever possible.  The atmosphere is very charming and the owners are very well liked in the community.  Prices are a little on the higher end but people rave about it.  We never made it here but hope to one day.
Cheap Eats
As I mentioned, food here is super overpriced.  The best value we've found has been the $7 plate at 
Delicias Columbianas, back of the Food Court, Calle San Francisco
The meat can be a little chewy but you if you are doing things on a serious budget, this is the kind of place that you can get rice and beans to last you all day if you need to roll like that...
Mezzanine, tapas Happy Hour, corner of Cruz/Sol
Are you sick of me jocking this place yet?  As I mentioned before, the Happy Hour here serves half price tapas.  Not the best tapas you'll eat ever, but more than decent. 

Puerto Rican Food
You have to at least try it!  I think it's delicious, but can be a bit heavy.  Lots of flavor!
Cafe Puerto Rico, across from Plaza Colon
A lot of tourists come here, but so do the locals.  That's always a good sign.
Barrachina, Calle Tetuan
They claim they invented the Pina Colada but so do a few other spots.  Just as pricey as any other joint but the service is very good and the atmosphere is nice. They speak good english too.
El Jibarrito, Calle Sol
I was told by Puerto Ricans that this is one of the best places to get Puerto Rican food  but the prices are a bit high so we haven't made it in yet.
The only real grocery store in Old San Juan sucks.  If you have a car, go to the SuperMax in Condado, about 15 minutes away.  It will be worth it, I promise, and they have an amazing/cheap deli section.  If you  have no choice though, you can get the basics at the Old San Juan location, but they'll be expensive and kind of lacking in quality:
SuperMax, Calle Cruz across from Marshalls

Buen Provecho!

I kind of think the only way to go these days is vacation rentals.  Usually cheaper than a hotel and with way more amenities, you basically rent an apartment or house.  You can also cook your own food if you have dietary restrictions.  Here are some good sites to browse what's available:

I've also heard that this hotel is the nicest boutique hotel in the city if you'd rather get that kind of treatment:
Hotel El Convento
This is an old convent, converted.  Some say it's haunted, but I've heard no real proof.

Live Music and Dancing:
Nuyorican Cafe, in the alley off of Calle San Francisco near El Asador

DON'T BE SCURRED BUT DO BEWARE------------------------------------------------------------------------
Like I mentioned, everything here is at Tourist prices.  I just ducked into a mini-mart to buy a roll of paper towels and a single roll was $4.25.  I was pissed but they have you by the balls.  Or in my case, your figurative "Lady Balls".

If you need to do laundry, there are a few joints around town but expect to pay a minimum of $6/load.  Also, don't expect the clothes to be dry when they come out of the dryer.  You can drop all your stuff off and they will wash/dry/fold but you can easily rack up a nice bill this way.  At this point, June 2013, they charge $1.50/lb of clothes.  You can easily drop $20 this way on a large load of laundry.  Boo!
Lavanaderia Del Sol, is on Calle Sol
There is another spot on Calle San Francisco near the Food Court, don't know the name, look for the sign out front.

If you don't see prices posted on things, ask first.  Tommy ordered a Ketel One Martini at a restaurant last night that was off the menu and they charged him $16.  Yowza!

Well there you have it, my unofficial guide to Old San Juan.  Go see the forts, make some friends and take photos. Old San Juan photographs beautifully!


  1. "lady balls" = ovaries. lol
    great post!

    1. ha! Guess you're right, Jocelyn. :)

  2. Flexibility is important & the next chapter in your lives is sure to be exciting. I love being able to share this adventure with you vicariously. Terribly sorry you'll be leaving your beautiful old apartment, but "spacious, cheerful and a view of the beach" certainly sounds great too. I have a feeling that being around some other ex-pats will make a big difference. Here's to a smooth and happy transition for both of you!

  3. Loved reading this! Hope you eventually find a way to overcome your mosquito woes.

    We didn't get a chance to tell you, but we faced two additional black termite infestations that were worse than the night you stayed over. Freaked me the fuck out one of the nights. Quickly learned to just stay away from the house when the sun set after a big rain, keeping all lights off so that the swarm isn't drawn to our bulbs.

    Also, "You may also want to consider suspending your dietary restrictions while you are here." Very true. But wish we were still there, dietary suppression and all.

    1. I think one of my next posts is going to be about insects here. There are some crazy crazy things creeping and crawling. Moreso here in Rincon as opposed to Old San Juan!