Seems like a lot of people I know are heading to this sunny island soon. Here’s a re-cap of my favorites, and what you’ll have to seek out on your own! First off, a little background on PR.
Puerto Rico (Spanish for “rich port”) comprises an archipelago that includes the main island of Puerto Rico and a number of smaller islands, the largest of which are Vieques, Culebra, and Mona. The main island of Puerto Rico is the smallest by land area of the Greater Antilles. It ranks third in population among that group of four islands, which include Cuba, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Jamaica. Due to its location, Puerto Rico enjoys a tropical climate and is subject to the Atlantic hurricane season.
Originally populated for centuries by indigenous aboriginal peoples known as Taínos, the island was claimed by Christopher Columbus for Spain during his second voyage to the Americas on November 19, 1493. Under Spanish rule, the island was colonized and the indigenous population was forced into slavery and wiped out due to, among other things, European infectious diseases. Spain possessed Puerto Rico for over 400 years, despite attempts at capture of the island by the French, Dutch, and British. In 1898, Spain ceded the archipelago, as well as the Philippines, to the United States as a result of its defeat in the Spanish-American War under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1898. Since then Puerto Rico has remained under United States rule. (Source: wikipedia)
Where To Stay
I booked everything on Airbnb.com, a great online service, especially if you’d like to save money or stay in more unique locations. You can book a single room, a whole house, and many times they also list small boutique hotels. I found the quaint Pop Art Hotel in the center of Old San Juan, for two nights and their sister hotel, Villa Herencia for one night. I’d characterize the Pop Art as a boutique hostel, similar to my favorite place at home, The Cleveland Hostel. The staff was super friendly and their motto is exactly how I like to travel: “Live like a local.” I had a small room, with a bathroom and it was totally bare bones, but they had a complimentary breakfast and the staff helped me make sure that I would find all the best places in PR. That’s what matters most to me when I travel, anyway.
Villa Herencia was the most amazing boutique hotel. It’s owned by the same hotel group as Pop Art, so I was happy to see some of the same friendly staff. It’s not very expensive (I think I paid $90 per night), but has the most luxurious and quaint details, including a beautiful roof deck with covered beds and kitties. The rooms are all different, with a collection of art and vintage furniture. My tiny room had a beautiful bed with a canopy and it’s own bathroom. Again, they had a complimentary breakfast, which I enjoyed on top of the roof before it got too hot.
Ok now the story gets interesting. The Gallery Inn is an amazing boutique hotel that I stumbled upon just after leaving El Morro (you’ll here more about this in a minute). And this is how: along the northern historic wall of the city, a historical community took root in the 19th century, called La Perla. Now, unfortunately it’s very crime ridden and just kind of desolate. But of course I started walking toward it because I was curious, and just at the very start, amid the ruins of houses yet on the very same beautiful coast lies a place that I thought might be a house/beach shack. I’m pretty adventurous so I went down the stairs to find a really nice beachy feeling place, yet I still had no idea if I had entered someone’s private house, or worse yet, some drug lord’s beach house. It turned out to be the private bar/extension to The Gallery Inn (photos below).
The bartender was just about to take a group from the bar back up to the hotel for dinner, so I decided to join and explore. I found the most amazing boutique hotel, decorated with antiques, it’s own pool, a bunch of birds and one of the most beautiful views in Old San Juan. It was the perfect place to grab a glass of sparkling wine and watch the sun go down over the city.
my favorites: El Morro, the beach in Santurce (a neighborhood 10 minutes by cab from OSJ), flamenco, wandering around the old city
This place is amazing. It is one of the fortresses built by the Spanish to protect Puerto Rico from invasion. It is walkable from the old town, and was just a few steps from Villa Herencia. I spent a beautiful, sunny day exploring the many rooms, grounds and vistas of El Morro. You can take a tour of the tunnels below the fort, but I ended up not having time. Do not miss this place!
Best for breakfast/brunch/lunch: Bistro St. Germain
Best for dinner: Restaurante La Madre (I’ve also heard Marmalade is amazing, but I didn’t get there)
Best drinks: Michelada, Sangrita, Ginger Martini
Best neighborhood beer bar: La Taberna Lupulo (good music, great craft beer selection, limited but good kitchen)
Worst beer: Old Harbor Brewery. Do not go here. Really bad beer and even worse ambiance.
This is a shipping container restaurant in Santurce, called Cafe Tresbe. The tacos were great, but the ambiance isn’t great (it’s right on the street) and the staff was kind of annoyed to be there, which seemed typical of a fancy hotel bar. It’s still worth it, so grab tacos there and then head over to their fabulous beaches, about a 5 minute walk. You’ll need to take a taxi to Santurce from OSJ. I did have a difficult time finding authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, as most places that served that seemed to be super touristy.
Ok, I have to mention Bistro Saint Germain, just steps from the Pop Art Hotel. I had at least 4-5 meals there, and even did a happy hour on their rooftop bar. Get the quiche, ceviche, dessert, and don’t forget the fresh-made ginger martini. They also have ginger lemonade, which is spicy and tangy. It’s best for brunch and lunch, and then move upstairs for their happy hour drinks. You’ll get some little bar snacks complimentary with drinks, but I’m not sure if they have a full dinner there or not.
The bar at St. Germain is dark, but lit with constantly changing colored lighting. You can sit inside or outside on a small balcony. Drinks are handcrafted, and you can get exceptional service.
I first noticed the elusive sangrita in Mexico City. Everyone was getting beer, then two shot glasses would arrive as well, one with tomato juice and one with tequila. I think that’s traditional, but you can make sangrita with any fruit or vegetable, but it’s always served with the same amount of tequila, so you can sip both. It’s essentially a deconstructed margarita, served along side a tasty beer. My favorite was at Restaurante La Madre, which also had the best food I found in Old San Juan. They have traditional Mexican entrees served in a hip, fun bar scene. It also seems like it’s a mostly local joint. The bartender made a special sangrita, passion fruit, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. And get the tacos. You won’t be disappointed.
Restaurant La Madre, 351 Calle San Francisco
Michelada is a beer mixed with tomato juice, sometimes spicy. It was super refreshing and I loved drinking these at the beach. I’ve vowed to start making these at home, but I have yet to do it!
If you’re ever in Rincon, you’ll definitely have to stop by La Copa Llena. It’s got the most beautiful view, and amazing food and very addictive spicy cocktails. Now, onto something healthier……
This was some amazing juice from Carta Buena in Rincon. Fortified with banana vinegar, kelp, kale, banana, orange and some more stuff that I can’t remember. Sipping it by this beach was pure heaven.
This place, Cafe Lola, was run by a former Ohioan who moved to Puerto Rico with her husband to start a horse farm and then opened a bar. I have no idea how to get there, but it was on the road from San Juan to Rincon. Even though it seems like it’s totally off the beaten path, there were so many cars and so much traffic. I got to try one of the most amazing drinks on the planet there, homemade coquito, which is essentially Puerto Rican eggnong, and it was what I believe I could become addicted to. For all my peeps that are trying to avoid dairy, this would be perfect.
**Coffee: I did not find one single place that was roasting coffee better than Rising Star Coffee Roasters in Cleveland.
It was a m a z i n g.
To Shop: The only stores I came across that weren’t totally touristy were Concalma and Hecho a Mano.
Concalma had a bunch of local, handmade goods, and I actually got to meet the artists, so I think that’s what I’d recommend for sure!
I bought nothing. I made amazing memories, had some drinks and spoke French with some crazy French sailors in Old San Juan, snorkled my ass off in Rincon (where I saw a sea turtle, and some of the most amazing coral reefs in the Caribbean). I also definitely decided I want to make more exotic cuisine at home, and host a sangrita party! How amazing is it that there is an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant here, in CLE, and that is where I’ll try my first rice and beans and mofongo.