Greetings Internet Stranger, and welcome to San Juan in a Day. A more pretentious blogger would begin this post about San Juan in a day by peering snootily over an imaginary pair of bifocals and telling you that most Puerto Ricans do not choose Bacardi Rum. Generally speaking, Don Q is the most popular local rum brand.
Also, Bacardi is originally from Cuba, not Puerto Rico. All of these things are true, Internet Stranger. And yet the Bacardi tour still manages to be one of the most popular attractions in San Juan!
So that’s where I’m taking you on this San Juan in a Day tour. Join me for a Bacardi tour and we will learn about Puerto Rico’s rich history, both rummy and un. Leave the pretentiousness for others! As for myself, I choose good times and rum. (Bacardi, I bequeath to you that slogan free of charge.)
San Juan in a Day
Where to Stay?
Ordinarily I have one hotel per city that I recommend to my Very Loyal Internet Strangers! But in San Juan, I have two favorites, depending on where you want to stay. If you want to stay in the tranquil Ocean Park neighborhood, I love the Andalucia House. It’s a beautiful, restored beach house, and the owner Robert is extremely helpful.
If you’d rather stay in the historic Old Town, the Decanter Hotel also has a great location, a beautiful building, and helpful staff. It all depends on which neighborhood you prefer. And we’ll have a chance to check out both neighborhoods in this San Juan in a Day!
San Juan in a Day
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
The Caribbean can get very hot, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
San Juan in a Day
Morning: Bacardi Tour
You read that headline correctly. I am definitely recommending that you start your San Juan in a Day right with a rum tour. In my particular case, I had no choice in the matter. I was taking this tour as a shore excursion on my Royal Caribbean cruise. But the tour of the Bacardi distillery is provided by Bacardi, not by Royal Caribbean, which mostly provides the transportation to the distillery.
So you can easily take a taxi or Uber to and from the Bacardi Distillery and the main part of San Juan. (For what I hope are obvious reasons, I don’t recommend driving to and from the Bacardi Distillery yourself.)
Once you arrive at the Bacardi Distillery, your guide will greet you and take you on a lovely stroll around the premises. He will find that perfect balance between being enthusiastic about the rum without being creepily enthusiastic. Because of my guide’s rum wisdom, I am able to share with you…
Three fun facts: bacardi tour
1) what is its mascot?
The mascot of the Bacardi distillery is the mighty bat. Bacardi rum was founded in Cuba by Don Facundo Bacardi Masso. He and his wife soon discovered that their tiny distillery had a family of bats living inside. Instead of evicting the bats and tying them to railroad tracks, the Bacardis let the bats stay. Soon the bats were pulling their fair share, eating the bugs that were attracted to the sugarcane used to make rum. In gratitude, the Bacardi family made bats their symbol. And that is why Bacardi is every vampire’s favorite rum brand.
2) where is bacardi from?
I mentioned earlier that Bacardi is originally from Cuba. Yet they don’t manufacture it in Cuba anymore! As you can probably guess, the Bacardi family ran into some problems during the Cuban Revolution. The Bacardi Rum company had become quite successful, so they were less than thrilled with Castro’s government confiscating their assets.
However, Bacardi had begun expanding to other areas long before the Cuban Revolution. They first started operating in Puerto Rico in the 1930s. So they were fairly easily able to relocate. Now the Bacardi distillery in Puerto Rico is known as the Cathedral of Rum. I’m pretty sure the Bacardi company started that nickname themselves, but now other people call it that too! It’s always so nice when fetch finally happens.
3) what about the drinking?
My favorite part of the tour was getting to see the different kinds of cocktails made with Bacardi rum. The three classics were the Cuba Libre, the Daiquiri, and the Mojito. A Cuba Libre is lime, rum, and Coke. You make it with 1 part rum for every two parts Coke. The Daiquiri is rum, lime juice, and sugar.
The guide at the Bacardi Distillery said the trick was to mix the sugar and lime juice first, then add the rum. I think adding the rum must be the real trick because no one wants to drink a virgin Daiquiri. Finally the mojito is the most complicated because you need lime, mint, water, bat wings, etc. I think the mojitos here are also considerably stronger than the mojito I had in Morocco.
24 hour treat: daiquiri
The best part of the Bacardi Distillery tour is getting a giant free cocktail all to yourself. Spoiler! You also get to keep the cup. Unfortunately, the mojito is not included with the price of the tour, but you can get a daiquiri or a Cuba Libre. I chose the Daiquiri because I feel like even I could handle mixing a rum and Coke together on my own. It was super refreshing, especially since the bartender used fresh lime in it. And now that we’re pleasantly buzzed before noon, it’s time to go exploring!
24 Hour tip
On weekends the Bacardi Distillery doesn’t open until noon, so you’d want to flip this itinerary. Do the Bacardi in the afternoon and explore Old San Juan in the morning.
San Juan in a Day
Afternoon: Explore Old San Juan
Old San Juan is perhaps the most historically rich city center in the Americas. The city was founded in 1521 by the Spanish, which makes it disturbingly old for an American city. Just for a little perspective, Elizabeth I of England hadn’t even been born in 1521.
Even though I was in San Juan shortly after Hurricane Maria, many of the historic sights were up and running and waiting to welcome visitors. So what are you waiting for? San Juan is old, but she’s still sharp as a tack. We’ll have no trouble finding…
Approximately top 5: Old San Juan
1) Verde Mesa
After that early morning cocktail, you’re going to want to get some food in your belly to soak up the rum. Verde Mesa is a truly special restaurant in Old San Juan that serves local produce. Feast your eyes upon the glorious root vegetables in my salad above! Admire the glow of those pink pickled onions! I didn’t even know vegetables could come in that one particular shade of yellow.
Because the menu changes based on what’s seasonal, I can’t promise that this beautiful rice timbale will be on the menu. But what I can promise is that fresh and delicious vegetarian options will definitely be waiting for you. In San Juan, vegetarian food can sometimes be hard to come by.
For dessert, I simply selected some light coconut cream with banana. Using local, fresh fruit is just as much a part of using local produce as using fresh vegetables is. Also we don’t want to fill up too much. We have our main dessert coming up.
2) castillo San Cristobal
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, any other pirates lurking out there. One of the earliest ports was Castillo San Cristobal, which was built in 1634. That’s almost 100 years before the colony of Georgia was founded.
San Cristobal proved to be an enviable fortress, 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. Spain had to give up control of Puerto Rico to the United States, which is why PR is now a US territory.
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.
24 hour tip
Don’t miss the views of Old San Juan from San Cristobal. You can really take in the colors of San Juan’s buildings from here. Plus you can wave to my cruise ship. HELLOOOOO! (I don’t think they can hear me.)
3) La Bombonera
If you want an unusual snack, stop in at La Bombonera, which is a 100 year old restaurant. As you’d expect from such an aged place, it has a colored glass storefront and old-fashioned spinny bar stools. The service is taciturn, but you’re not here for the smiles! You’re here for one of the most unusual snacks in San Juan, the mallorca sandwich. This is a skinny pressed sandwich stuffed with cheese and dusted with loads of powdered sugar.
“Blurf!” you might be thinking. “Cheese and sugar? What’s next, salt and caramel?” Well, salt and caramel are an amazing combo, and so is this Sugar Cheese Sandwich. If you’re too full to eat it, just buy one to go and save it for breakfast the next morning. I think of everything, don’t I, Internet Stranger?
4) El Morro
So you’re probably not going to have time to actually go inside the other fort in San Juan, the Castillo San Filipe del Morro. But you should at least walk around the perimeter and pretend to defend Puerto Rico from the British. Just start throwing pebbles at anyone who looks vaguely British, shout “Viva Espana!” and run away. It’s a fun game that will definitely get you arrested.
El Morro is even older than San Cristobal, dating back to 1539. That makes it almost as old as San Juan itself. One of its 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.) 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.
5) Colorful houses
My favorite thing about Old San Juan is probably how colorful the houses are. It reminds me of the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans. And it’s not just houses for the rich that are colored like Easter eggs! This right here is a drugstore! After I took this picture, I stopped in to buy some bandaids because my feet are always coming down with mysterious cuts. Sadly the bandaids were not pastel blue.
6) Cats of Old San Juan
OK, I might have lied when I said that the colorful buildings were my favorite part of San Juan in a Day. Actually, the best thing about Old San Juan are the cats that lounge around literally everywhere. Can you see them all in this photo?
It’s like a Where’s Waldo of stray cats. There are so many cats in San Juan they even grow on bushes.
There’s a wonderful organization I’ve contributed to called Save a Gato. They neuter the cats to control the population. The organization also helps the cats get vaccinations and healthcare and even helps them find homes! Because so many cats live on National Park Service land (San Cristobal and El Morro), Save a Gato works with the NPS to help care for the kitties. Some of the cats even grow up to be night watch cats like this noble fellow.
San Juan in a Day
Evening: Dinner at Cocina Abierta
Cocina Abierta is a glamorous and creative restaurant in the trendy Condado neighborhood. I was happy to see that it was up and running so soon after Hurricane Maria. They use local ingredients in creative ways. 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.
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?“
24 hour treat: pink pumpkin
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.
Because the steak was a heavy main course, I kept it simple for dessert. I chose lemon curd with passion fruit agar, meringue, and vanilla crumble. Here passion fruit jellies were the food item I had never tried before. I enjoyed all the different texture combinations in this dessert. We had 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.
That’s San Juan in a Day!
What would you do in San Juan in a Day? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in San Juan right now? Have you ever made a pink pumpkin jack o’lantern? And what is a vampire’s favorite brand of whiskey? 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 see San Juan in a Day. If you want another San Juan in a Day, add this itinerary.