Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to a perfect day of San Juan fort tours. The old forts, El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal, are two of the most popular attractions in all San Juan. Plus, they’re both run by the US Parks Service, so you can see them both on the same day for one low price!
That’s why it makes sense to have one amazing 24 hours of San Juan fort tours. But do not worry! Our day will not only be filled with fort tours. We will also have amazing food and a relaxing stay in one of San Juan’s wonderful hotels. Let’s not waste any more time! Follow me!
San Juan Fort Tours
How To Get There
Now, I wish I knew where you lived, Internet Stranger, because I could send you a box of the finest rum. But sadly, I do not, and so I can’t tell you exactly how to get from your home to the Caribbean.
But I can tell you that I used a lovely airplane to get from my hometown NYC to London, and then I took a shorter flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I recommend Expedia for the best way to find the cheapest flight to the Caribbean at the best time of day.
You can even use Expedia to rent a car so you’ll be all set when you arrive at your destination. (I can’t drive, but if you can, this must be helpful.)
Just click here to start looking for the best possible deals on your flight, so you can head out on your San Juan fort tours ASAP.
San Juan Fort Tours
Where to Stay?
Both of these forts we’ll be seeing today are in Old Town, so you might want to choose a hotel in the Old Town too. But if you want to start your day with a beach break before hitting the forts, then you’d probably rather stay in Ocean Park. Up to you!
If you do choose a hotel by the beach in Ocean Park, then I have two suggestions for you. The first is called the Andalucia House. This is a cozy and small guesthouse with an extremely friendly owner; I’ve stayed here more than once which is definitely a compliment to the hotel.
They also used to have a jacuzzi but it wasn’t working the last time I stayed there. Maybe you’re lucky and it will be when you go!
Or you could try the Dream Inn PR, which is located right nearby in Ocean Park, has a lovely rest area with a hammock, and including breakfast and coffee at the famous, nearby Kasalta Bakery every morning. It was also within perfect walking distance from the beach.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t care about the beach, and you want to stay in Old San Juan because it’s an easier choice for our day in San Juan. In that case, look at the Decanter Hotel which is quite affordable as Old San Juan Hotels and also within walking distance of both forts. It had a great location and felt very safe, even at night.
If you prefer luxury and glamour to affordably, set your hat down at El Convento, which is one of the most luxurious hotels I have ever stayed at. (Keep in mind that I’ve stayed at very few luxury hotels, but it’s the thought that counts.) A lovely wine and cheese evening is included each day, and you can see how gorgeous the rooms are from my photo above
I do think The Decanter would be the easiest choice for this San Juan fort tours itinerary, so you can book it if you click here. However, if none of my hotel suggestions look appealing, and you want to strike out on your own to look for San Juan hotel deals, you can do that if you click here.
San Juan Fort Tours
What to Pack?
- Shiny sandals because they’ll keep your feet breezy and comfy on our day of San Juan fort tours.
- An umbrella that will keep your head protected in case it rains during our San Juan fort tours.
- A cell charger so that your cell won’t die just when you’re about to snap that perfect photo of the kite flyers outside El Morro
- A fabulous vintage swimsuit if you do decide to stay in Ocean Park.
- A great spray sunscreen which you should definitely reapply in between fort stops.
- My favorite guidebook to Puerto Rico
- Since we’re getting so much San Juan history today, bone up with History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of Its People. That way you can impress the others on your San Juan fort tours with your knowledge!
- I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age, and you don’t want to get stranded in a foreign country without help. You never know when extreme weather will strike or some other emergency. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you’re attacked by deranged sentient coconuts on your San Juan fort tours.
San Juan Fort Tours
Morning: El Morro
El Morro is an astonishingly old fort with parts dating back to 1539. That makes it almost as old as San Juan itself, and that’s why this is the perfect place to start our day of San Juan fort tours. Just pay one price at the entrance to El Morro, and you can get into San Cristobal later this afternoon for nothing! What could be easier?
Because El Morro is part of the San Juan National Historic Site, it’s run by the National Park Service. That means you can get free ranger tours included with the price of admission. (It’s not even permitted to tip a park ranger.)
I highly recommend going on one of these tours because they are entertaining and informative. Plus, you’ll walk away with knowledge of…
Approximately Top 5: El Morro
Of course, one of the highlights of visiting any fort is getting to see the historical weapons. This beauty above is a bronze cannon from the 1700s. The Spanish, who were ruling Puerto Rico at the time, would have used it to defend the fort from any attackers, who would certainly have been English or Dutch. (Yup, the Dutch had an empire; they weren’t just always known for weed and stroopwafels.)
Of course, the enemies would have been using cannons too. That’s why the walls of San Juan had to be strong enough to stand up to cannonball attack. They’re not just there to be beautiful!
2) The lower level of the fort
Not all parts of the fort date back to the 16th century. In fact some parts are from the 20th century, as we shall see later. But according to my ranger, parts of the lower level of the fort are in fact that old, and one of the turrets dates back to 1539. Let your ranger guide take you down here on your San Juan fort tours and you’ll be able to experience a building that was around in Shakespeare’s day! That’s pretty hard to find in the Americas.
Back in those early days of the fort, the British actually did succeed in capturing El Morro, but it didn’t last because they all got beat down by dysentery and had to flee the island. Man, every day I just feel thankful that I’m not a 16th century soldier, no matter what else is going on in my life.
A lot of El Morro was devoted to army barracks where the Spanish soldiers would have been stationed. A soldier’s life in this fort would have been difficult because of the lack of good food, strict discipline, disease, boring movies on the flight over from Spain, etc. But somehow they managed to make it work, at least until some of them died from dysentery.
There’s not that much kept in the barracks at El Morro these days, so I wouldn’t say it’s the most interesting part of the fort. But I still think the ordinary Spanish soldiers who kept this place going shouldn’t be forgotten. Even if I don’t know any of their actual names, so in my head they are all Inigo Montoya.
4) Those Walls
Of course, the commanders had a slightly easier life than the ordinary, dysentery plagued footsoldiers. And one of El Morro’s commanders was the marvelously named Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman who pledged allegiance to Spain and became one of its great military leaders. (He was born with the name Alexander, but let’s forget about that.) If I ever have a son, I’m going to name him Alejandro O’Reilly. I don’t care what his father’s last name is.
Anyway, in addition to having an awesome name, Senor O’Reilly was also a master military strategist. So when he told the Spanish that they needed to reinforce the walls of El Morro to keep those pesky Brits and Dutchies out, they did as he said. That’s why El Morro has such majestic walls to this day!
5) Lookout boxes
The lookout boxes are one of the prettiest and most important features of the fort. Of course, the main job for many of the soldiers stationed here was to stand watch for any British or Dutch ships on the prowl. It must have been so boring–they didn’t even have an iPhone to entertain them.
The United States seized control of Puerto Rico from Spain after the Spanish-American War, and the last time El Morro was used as a military fort was during World War II. You can see a more modern lookout box made from what appears to be black metal where the American soldiers stood on guard keeping a weather eye out for Nazi ships. And it must have worked too because as far as I know, the Axis powers never invaded Puerto Rico.
San Juan Fort Tours
Afternoon: Castillo de San Cristobal
And here we are at our second half of our day of San Juan fort tours. Why do the Spanish have so many forts? Well, the Spanish didn’t found San Juan because they wanted a nice beach house. It was meant to be a trading port. That’s why the name of the island is Puerto Rico, which means Rich Port. But of course, riches bring thieves. Ocean’s Eleven taught me that much.
So the Spanish needed to fortify their rich port to protect it from scurvy dogs like the English, the Dutch, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, or any other pirates lurking out there. One of the earliest ports was Castillo San Cristobal, which was built in 1634, making it the Little Pete to El Morro’s Big Pete.
I suggest starting your afternoon at San Cristobal at the movie theater, where you can see a short film on the fort that’s included with the price of admission. I’m not going to give you a blow by blow of the movie, but I will share some of what I learned with…
Three Fun Facts: San Cristobal
1) What if I’m hungry?
Don’t worry! I won’t let you starve to death on our day of San Juan fort tours. In between the two forts, head over to Chocobar Cortes where you can get a twist on the traditional Puerto Rican plantain dish, the mofongo. This one is made with pork and a chocolate mole sauce, plus chocolate guacamole. I’d be lying if I said I could taste the choc in the guac, but chocolate definitely makes sense in a mole, and the whole dish was super yum.
I don’t always recommend getting dessert for lunch, but at Chocobar, you need to indulge in something like this decadent chocolate-marshmallow concoction, only made with churros instead of graham crackers. You can’t go to a chocolate bar and not get a chocolate dessert. That’s just science.
2) Were the Spanish the only ones who ran San Cristobal?
San Cristobal proved to be an enviable fortress for the Spanish, especially when it came to fending off attacks from the British who were beginning to sweep their way through the Caribbean. But it all came to an end in the Spanish-American War when Spain had to give up control of Puerto Rico to the United States, which is why PR is now a US territory.
It’s for this reason that you can see three flags flying at San Cristobal: the American flag, the Puerto Rican flag, and the red and white flag, which is the flag of the Spanish monarchy, so don’t be confused if it doesn’t look anything like the Spanish flag you see today.
As an American, it’s very weird for me to think of the US being at war with Spain. Our countries have had peaceful relations my entire life, and like most millennials, I tend to assume if I don’t remember something happening, it didn’t happen.
3) What’s the coolest part of San Cristobal?
It’s either the lower levels or the amazing views from the top level. Let’s start at the lower levels, where pirate ghosts probably roam the halls. (BOOOO! and ARRRRR!) You can even see markings and drawings of ships down here from when this area was sometimes used to lock up prisoners.
No one knows for sure who made them, but it’s fun to use your imagination and try to make up a story about it! I’d say it was the Count of Monte Cristo, except there were no French in this fort, and it’s the wrong time period, and he’s fictional. But other than that, it works.
And don’t miss the views of Old San Juan from San Cristobal during your San Juan fort tours. You can really take in the colors of San Juan’s buildings from here. Plus you can wave to the cruise ships. HELLOOOOO! (I don’t think they can hear me.)
San Juan Fort Tours
Evening: Dinner at Cocina Abierta
Cocina Abierta is a glamorous and creative restaurant in the trendy Condado neighborhood, and it’s the perfect place to go after a day of San Juan fort tours. I’ve been here a couple of times, so I was happy to see that it was up and running so soon after Hurricane Maria.
One reason I recommend this place is that many of these dishes contained items I had never heard of before, and I think I’m a fairly experienced eater. Any restaurant that has the power to surprise me is aces in my book.
The first time I came here, my first course was a tuna and watermelon ceviche with leche de tigre, corn, and caramelized sweet potato. I had never eaten sweet potato and watermelon in the same dish, and I had never heard of leche de tigre at all.
Even with my weak understanding of Spanish, I could tell that it mean “tiger milk”. But tiger milk is just a nickname for the combination of citrus juices and spices that the ceviche fish marinates in. The citrus juice sort of “cooks” the fish.
I would give one million dollars to anyone who could explain to me why this mixture got to be called tiger milk in the first place. I’m just imagining an angry tiger with Robert DeNiro’s face saying, “I have nipples. Could you milk me?“
And the next time I came, I had an oven roasted pumpkin with coconut sour cream that somehow managed to be sweet and savory all at once. I can’t guarantee that pumpkin is always on the menu at Cocina Abierta, but every time I have gone, it has been on the menu.
See what I mean! The first time I came here, the main dish was steak with pink pumpkin. There were two completely amazing things about this dish. The first was that I got a fantastic filet mignon with two sides for 20 dollars. The second is that there is such a thing as pink pumpkin.
I would love to find some real pink pumpkins so I could make a pink pumpkin jack-o-lantern. It would be the girliest thing ever. In terms of flavor, the pink pumpkin is sweeter than your average bear, so keep that in mind if you do ever find a pink pumpkin and can stand to ruin its cuteness by cooking it.
And the second time I came here, I dined on yet another mofongo, except instead of being stuffed with chicken or pork like all the other mofongos I have loved before, this one came with Peking duck. Such clever and delicious fusion! And where else can you get two creative and sassy mofongos like this in one day? Only in San Juan.
Because the steak was a heavy main course, I kept it simple for dessert with lemon curd with passion fruit agar, meringue, and vanilla crumble. Here the passion fruit jellies were the food item I had never tried before. This dessert had a grillion texture combinations: jelly, a kind of smooth custard, meringue, and then some crumbly bits. An interesting texture in food is like color in movies. Is it necessary? No. But I always appreciate when it’s there.
If you’re more in the mood for chocolate, try this insanely decadent hazelnut-chocolate-caramel-mango bar, which looks like a modern art sculpture. And don’t blame yourself if you can’t finish it. If only there were some way we could send the leftovers to the ghosts of those poor Spanish soldiers guarding El Morro. But sadly science has not advanced that far yet.
That’s a Perfect Day of San Juan Fort Tours!
What would you do on a perfect day of San Juan fort tours? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in San Juan right now? And do you wake up every day just full of relief that you don’t have to worry about dysentery? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY have 24 hours of San Juan fort tours when you visit San Juan. If you want another San Juan in one day itinerary, add this itinerary.