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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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La Perla community of Old San Juan.
La Perla community of Old San Juan.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to San Juan, Puerto Rico

La Perla community of Old San Juan.
La Perla community of Old San Juan.
  • By Jhoni Jackson
  • Photos by Dennis Rivera Pichardo
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Picture-perfect beaches are a major draw, and rightfully so. But Puerto Rico is rich in tradition, too — molded by Spanish, African and indigenous Taíno cultures over hundreds of years. In the capital city of San Juan, alongside the heritage, from bomba and plena rhythms and comida criolla — typical Puerto Rican food — you’ll also find innovation. It’s a delicate effort, balancing or blending the new with the storied, and supporting local businesses, whether just-opened or established.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico are bonded more than ever, and their pride shows. You’ll get the most from your trip not just by visiting shops and restaurants, but also by listening to anyone who’s willing to share their stories. San Juan’s future and its history are inseparable, because the people make it so.

Meet Jhoni Jackson

Jhoni, an Atlanta native of Cuban descent, relocated to Puerto Rico in 2012. She first experienced Puerto Rico with her abuelos during her preteen years. Through the friends and community she’s found, San Juan has become an unexpected but fulfilling home.

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IN THE ACTION
Calle Loíza
This Santurce street is buzzing practically ’round the clock. After the last of the street’s late-night clubs and bars finally close — some at sunup — restaurants take over and serve breakfast to early risers. Over the past decade, Calle Loíza has become a hub for ambitious businesses, and because it’s within walking distance to the beach, Airbnb hosts and hostels have capitalized on the influx of tourists. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Ocean Park
Ocean Park is a tranquil coastal neighborhood between the hotel-heavy tourism zones of Condado and Isla Verde, peppered with restaurants and shops just outside a gated residential area. One tucked-away sanctuary in high demand is the 19-room Dreamcatcher, known for its vegetarian meals (with some ingredients picked from the courtyard papaya, acerola and avocado trees) and inviting courtyards with hammocks and fountains. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
El Horno de Pane
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more diverse — and meticulously made — selection of bread anywhere else in Puerto Rico. The European-informed baking process for some styles takes as long as three days for the crew of self-professed “bread geeks” at El Horno de Pane, inside the Montemar Plaza shopping center. Try the monkey bread or pumpkin brioche French toast; eggs poached or scrambled served with ciabatta or sourdough; or peruse the irresistible danishes, croissants and other tempting baked goods.
BTW: Don’t let the inevitable crowd deter you; service is efficient.
El Horno de Pane, Calle Juan Calaf, Hato Rey, San Juan
BREAKFAST
Abracadabra Counter Cafe
This Santurce restaurant’s magic theme runs strong, down to its nostalgic carnival accents inside. On Saturdays and Sundays, the beloved “Magic Brunch” features offerings like veggie-packed omelets, fruit-and-Nutella pancakes, and croque madame or monsieur. Mimosas go beyond the typical orange juice (think passion fruit, tamarind, mango and acerola). Lunch offerings include wraps, panini and burgers, and on some occasions, breakfast is served all day.
BTW: Abracadabra has a small stage and doubles as an arts and music venue.
Abracadabra Counter Cafe, 1661 Ave. Ponce de León, San Juan
LUNCH
Panadería Repostería Moncho Pan Deli and Cafe
A few reasons make this deli, more than two decades old, a favorite: Its freshly baked pan sobao, a chewy, sweet bread. Its classic tripleta sandwich is upgraded way past triple-meat status with steak, turkey, chorizo, pernil (roast pork) and more. And the bakery’s staple sweets — pastelitos de guayaba (stuffed guava pastries), quesitos (a sticky, cream cheese-filled croissant) and doughnuts — are all made in-house.
BTW: Those flags, banners, license plates and the kitschy signage all over the place? They’re the owner’s travel souvenirs.
Panadería Repostería Moncho Pan Deli and Cafe, 145 Ave. Winston Churchill, San Juan
LUNCH
Omrkt
The greenery adorning the outside is telling: Omrkt is an agricultural oasis that’s both a local produce market and a sunlit farm-to-table restaurant next door, whose ingredients, picked right off the market’s shelves, are sourced from small farms still recuperating post-Maria. Dishes, all of them health-conscious, range from Asian to criollo to Mediterranean.
BTW: There are plenty of vegetarian-friendly options here.
Omrkt, 166 Ave. Winston Churchill, San Juan
DINNER
La Placita de Santurce
At this popular plaza, restaurants and bars are clustered around a daytime market. Highlights include the Cuban fare at Asere and the San Juan Smokehouse for barbecue. Nearby, Paxx Caraballo Moll, named one of Food and Wine Magazine’s best new chefs of 2019, helms the kitchen at Jungle BaoBao, inside the neon, tiki-style bar JungleBird.
BTW: La Placita gets busy as the night progresses, with dancing patrons spilling into the streets. Arrive early to eat; stay late for drinks and entertainment.
La Placita de Santurce, Calle dos Hermanos and Calle Roberts, San Juan
DINNER
Lote 23
This outdoor food park, a local favorite, is a patchwork of cuisines dished out of kiosks and Airstream trailers, serving everything from Puerto Rican frituras (fried finger foods, like the alcapurria, a stuffed yuca or plantain fritter), Belgian-style fries, pizza, Southern-fried chicken, heavy-duty burgers and Mexican cantina nachos.
BTW: Lote 23 also hosts events, which it promotes on social media, such as yoga sessions, film screenings, artisans’ markets and more.
Lote 23, 1552 Ave. Ponce de León, San Juan
LATE-NIGHT
Los Pinos
Quality comida criolla — or traditional local cuisine — such as arroz mamposteao (Puerto Rican rice and beans) or bolitas de yuca (fried yuca balls), is served 24/7 at this go-to cafe for late-night meals in the Miramar area. If you’re looking to soak up too many Medallas (the popular local beer), though, go for the super-starchy mofongo (mashed plantains).
BTW: Los Pinos has a full bar.
Los Pinos, 655 Ave. Ponce de León, San Juan
LATE-NIGHT
La Penúltima
Playfully named cocktails and a low-key vibe belie the fact that La Penúltima takes its bar seriously, with smart mixology (the El Bandolero has flavors of poblano, pineapple, lime and mole bitters), craft beers and carefully curated wine. This Santurce spot also serves up stellar food, like ceviche, cubanos and disco fries, with cheese, aioli and scallions, topped with a poached egg.
BTW: The patio with picnic tables is perfect for a late-night hangout.
La Penúltima, 1359 Ave. Ponce de León, San Juan
(San Juan illustrator Ramdwin González for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Don’t bring up statehood — at least, not with your opinion at the forefront. If you want to learn what Puerto Ricans think about the island’s status, ask them and listen.
  2. Puerto Rican culture is varied, and it is not defined by San Juan. Talk to locals, particularly those who hail from elsewhere on the island, for diverse perspectives.
  3. Not everyone speaks English. Yes, many Puerto Ricans do, but if you encounter someone who doesn’t, don’t get frustrated. Look for a generous bystander for help in interpreting or, even better, prepare by learning common Spanish phrases.
(San Juan illustrator Ramdwin González for The Washington Post)

Do

Playas pa’l Pueblo
For more than 14 years, activists have been fighting to protect four acres of coastal Carolina (referred to by locals as Playas pa’l Pueblo) from privatization, caring for its forest and even setting up an encampment for a time. A recent legal win guaranteed that the majority of the terrain will stay public. For tourists who want to witness how Puerto Rico’s people strive to conserve its natural resources, this stretch of beach, just minutes east of San Juan, is exemplary.
BTW: Follow the golden leave-no-trace rule, and be mindful of sectioned-off areas that designate sea-turtle nests.
Playas pa’l Pueblo, 6981 Carr. Boca de Cangrejos, Carolina
Tereques la Tiendita
Tiny as it may be, Tereques la Tiendita is mighty: What began as a holiday bazaar evolved into a shop stocked with local brands. It also functions as a collective, Las Terequeras, that boosts female artists. You’ll find jewelry, beauty products, screen-printed shirts and totes, kitschy home decor and more, made by folks living on the island or in the diaspora.
BTW: The shop is a quick walk from the Sagrado Corazón train station.
Tereques la Tiendita, 1856 Ave. Fernandez Juncos, San Juan
Rooftop sunsets in Old San Juan
Atop Hotel Milano on Calle Fortaleza, Punto de Vista, like its name suggests, offers gorgeous views of Old San Juan. What makes this rooftop restaurant and bar great, though, is that, unlike some flashier counterparts, the casual environment doesn’t lead to a less-than-upscale treatment from staff. Throw back a cleansing chichaíto shot (anise and rum) after working your way through a hearty meat- or seafood-packed mofongo (mashed plantains, often stuffed), sip a meticulously crafted mojito made with Puerto Rico’s Ron del Barrilito, or make a snack of your drink with a tropical-fruit-filled cocktail.
BTW: Arrive early to snag a good spot.
Hotel Milano, 307 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan
Necromancy
As far as Des Ote and Zal Perez know, theirs is the only locally made vegan lipstick line in Puerto Rico. Necromancy Cosmetica’s aesthetic is decidedly goth-punk, but beauty influencers worldwide have embraced the brand and its wide-ranging color palette. Inside the immaculately decorated Río Piedras storefront, you can peruse products or get an artsy manicure at the Bunny Moon nail studio by appointment, via Facebook.
BTW: The shop is just a few blocks from the Río Piedras train station.
Necromancy makeup store, 59 Calle Arzuaga, San Juan
Snorkel off Escambrón
Easily the most scenic of San Juan’s coastlines, the Balneario El Escambrón has three beaches with calm, relaxing waters, a park on its outskirts, and is surrounded by Old San Juan. It’s ideal for laid-back sunbathing; quiet, leisurely soaks; and snorkeling — particularly at Playa 9, where fish gather around concrete boulders. Guided scuba dives are available; check local companies (Scuba Dogs is one) for tour info.
BTW: For snorkeling, bring gear. There are no on-site shops.
Balneario El Escambrón, San Juan
La Respuesta
The premier venue for Puerto Rico’s arts and music scenes. Local independent bands and artists of all styles — metal, salsa, pop, punk, hip-hop and more — take the stage here, as well as U.S. and international touring acts. Mondays are a guaranteed hit: DJs spinning hip-hop and reggaeton get crowds dancing at Lunes Clásico.
BTW: An art space is next to the main venue room; if it’s open, peek in to possibly check out an ongoing exhibit.
La Respuesta, 1600 Ave. Fernandez Juncos, San Juan
Jhoni Jackson
Jhoni, an Atlanta native of Cuban descent, relocated to Puerto Rico in 2012. She first experienced Puerto Rico with her abuelos during her preteen years. Through the friends and community she’s found, San Juan has become an unexpected but fulfilling home.
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jhonijackson
Dennis Rivera Pichardo
Dennis is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in San Juan.
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dennismanuel

CITY GUIDES