No passport? No problem. For many in Upper Manhattan, the coastal city of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, is a staple getaway—a vibrant Caribbean experience rich in Spanish, African, and Taino culture, with a veritable abundance of traditional foods and a lively nightlife scene to boot. Crack a fresh coconut and explore miles of beaches before enjoying some of the best rum in the world. Cue the salsa.
Not all beaches are built the same. At least that’s definitely the case in Culebra, a small island off the coast of San Juan only accessible by plane or boat. With pristine turquoise waters and white sand, it’s the optimal venue for snorkeling and immersing yourself in sea life—the island is a nesting site for giant sea turtles and the endangered brown pelicans. Pro tip: Book your tickets for a day trip on a catamaran.
El Yunque National Forest
Up for an outdoor excursion? Look no further than El Yunque—the only tropical rainforest in the United States. A favorite of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, this must-see sight includes miles of hiking, zip-lining, and waterfalls in one of the most diverse ecosystems on the island. Be prepared, as it does (unsurprisingly) rain here quite often. (It isn’t called the rainforest for nothing.) El Yunque is located only 35 minutes by car from the airport, and many hotels offer day trips and guided tours. Find the rope swing, it’s a must.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
As a New Yorker who loves to walk everywhere, I quickly fell in love with every colorful cobblestone street in Old San Juan, lined with pastel-painted buildings and bustling shops, perfect for capturing that outfit of the day pic. Make sure to stop by Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a six-level fortress overlooking the Atlantic ocean at the very tip of town. The views here are unmatched—the 500-year-old Spanish castle sits high on a hill surrounded by acres of meticulously manicured grounds. How do they mow all that grass? Sip on a piña colada and contemplate.
At Caña, having an amazing meal won’t be an issue; the hardest part is figuring out what to order. Whether you prefer street stands or dining ocean side with magnificent views, chef Juliana Gonzalez has developed a menu using her culinary background of Spanish influences to serve a modern take on classic Puerto Rican dishes (think: blue crab rice and grilled prawns). The restaurant lives inside the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, facing the shores of Isla Verde beach—the ideal vista for an awesome sun set.
You must, I repeat, must, have the fish of the day. Named after Puerto Rico’s most decorated chef, the acclaimed José Enrique is housed in an inconspicuous building, but don’t be fooled: Inside, the allure lives on the table. From mofongo and pork belly bites to the beloved bacalaitos (crispy fish flatbread), you’ll quickly realize how Enrique has attracted so much attention for mixing local ingredients into a plate of deliciousness.
Classic and contemporary flavors combine at Santaella in the best possible way. The menu boasts elevated traditional plates with a distinctly tropical vibe. Enjoy staples like the rice of the day and empanadillas (fried Puerto Rican turnovers), and don’t dare call it quits without trying the alcapurrias (fritters)—Jimmy Fallon approved during his last visit to the island.
The vibes at Club Brava are simply unmatched. Previously known as Club Babylon, the high-energy lounge is a hot spot for celebs, in addition to serving as one of the most vibrant going-out spots on the island. Conveniently located inside the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, Club Brava is a great choice for a girls’ night out. We recommend dressing specifically for the flashing neon lights to attract attention on the dance floor. If you’re a guest of the hotel, then you’re in luck, as admission is free.
Voted one of the top 50 bars in North America for five years in a row, La Factoría specializes in craft cocktails and having a really, really good time. Its signature drink, the Lavender Mule, is a particularly good choice for listening to salsa. When you feel the urge to dance, hit the dance floor in the back room—and bring a buddy.
Pair each criollo-inspired dish with a craft cocktail made by San Juan’s premier mixologists at this popular Caribbean restaurant. The custom pairing experience will quickly make it your favorite upscale dining option on the island, not to mention the ultimate setting to celebrate your next birthday.
Fairmont El San Juan Hotel
You’ll feel like the main character of your own movie at San Juan’s epicenter for culture and entertainment. The newly renovated Fairmont El San Juan Hotel features 11 restaurants, lounges, a casino, and a fitness center. Translation: You could spend an entire day experiencing the amenities. Get your spa sesh in before taking in the live cabaret band at Chico Cabaret, followed by a luxe casino experience. Try booking the newly opened Banyan Villas, complete with a private terrace and direct access to one of the property’s four pools, and just a few steps from the beach. There’s never a dull moment here, which makes it very hard to leave, but if you’re itching to explore, the Fairmont sits just 15 minutes from Old San Juan.
Hotel El Convento
Since 1962, Hotel El Convento has had a strong reputation as Old San Juan’s premier boutique hotel. Formerly a convent in the heart of Cathedral Square, the 16th-century El Convento sits next door to some of the best shopping and nightlife in the area. After spending your day at the beach club, take a three-minute walk to La Factoría, or just enjoy a coffee on the terrace as you take in the old world charm.
Once Puerto Rico’s first post office, Palacio Provincial has since underwent a charming, contemporary renovation. Mainly, beautiful courtyards with open-air dining, rooms with wood-beamed ceilings, polished checkered floors, 12-foot windows, and Juliet balconies, and the highlight: a rooftop infinity pool with a bird’s-eye view of San Juan bay.