Getting there in 2021 (Post Pandemic considerations)
Puerto Rico is part of the US, so the process of getting into and leaving is a little less challenging than some vacay hotspots right now. To visit San Juan you must either have had the vaccine or had a negative covid test in the last 72 hours. There is a website where you have to create a provide (here), and you include your vaccine and negative test status, as well some other information about you and your visit. To make the experience arriving in PR as painless as possible, make sure to have this filled out ahead of time and print the provided QR code. My husband is a real gem and stayed up the night before getting this done, and it paid off.
2023 update – No more vaccine or negative test requirements to enter San Juan.
There is currently a rental car shortage almost everywhere, and this was true for us in San Juan. A lot of the rental companies sold a large part of their fleet during the pandemic so if you are wanting a car while you are in San Juan, my tip is to book one ASAP. We got there on a Saturday and were not able to get a car until Tuesday. This ended up working out though, as we just spent those first days at the hotel and surrounding areas. If you plan on exploring and going to places like the rain forest, bio bay, or a neighboring Island, a car is recommended. Else, you can use Uber or walk to get to most places.
Uber. I mentioned Uber above. Though we did not use it on our most recent trip, we did use it in the past when we visited San Juan. It was great for getting us to Old San Juan or dinners that were not walkable. Again, if you are going to the rain forest or Bio Bar area, definitely rent a car as they are 1 hour away (or more if you hit traffic)
2023- We used Uber mostly for this trip (ow that Sienna is bigger). We did rent a car for the day we went to the Rain Forest. If you stay at the Marriott (or close by), the Marriott has a rental car place on site.
Where to Stay
I have been to San Juan 4 times. 3 of the 4 times, including our last trip, we stayed at the Marriot Resort & Stellaris Resort. We initially stayed at this Marriot Resort because we had points to burn, but we kept coming back because of location, beach access, and the water slide. This hotel is not all-inclusive. That is a question I was asked frequently. They did give us $25 a day to spend on food and drinks at the pool. I do not remember the $25 the last time we went, so this may have been because they were making up for many of their dining options not being opened. At the time we last went (June 2021), indoor dining was not available, but you could get food delivered to the pool. I mentioned the waterslide above, but that is 100% why my daughter wants to keep going back here. Tip…If you stay here, book a Cabana room instead of the tower. You will be closer to the pool and the rooms are a little newer.
My first trip to San Juan was in 2008 and I stayed at the Caribe Hilton. It is a larger resort and very nice, just not as walkable. I also don’t remember a water slide, but I went there before I had a child, so was not on the lookout for one.
Another place I would consider staying is the La Concha Resort. It has great beach access and is in a walkable area as well (it is super close to the Marriot we stayed at). I also heard it is nice. Once you start going west past the La Concha, the beach is not as easy to access, or you can’t really access at all because of the rocks
Things to Do
Visit Old San Juan – Definitely take a day to visit Old San Juan, if not stay there a night or two. Places to see and things to do…
- Visit the Forts. There are 2, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal . Castillo San Felipe is large and is def a must see. It has a large open field that is perfect for flying kites (San Juan can be super windy). Make sure you have cash to buy one. Also, there is a parking garage at this fort, and the only place we have been able to find parking our last 2 visits.
- Visit Pigeon Park (Parque de las Palomas). Even if you don’t like birds, it is a must see. You can stand back and they won’t bother you; they are after anyone who has birdseed (which you can purchase for a few $$). I was definitely nervous to get in there with all the birds during our first visit, but seeing my daughter so fearless made me a little braver….now I am quite the bird lady. If you look the park up on google, it is showing as closed right now, but the birds are still congregating and still there, so check it out. If birds are not your thing, we also saw an iguana man there.
- Umbrella Street – On our last visit the bright umbrellas had been replaced with Army umbrellas and the street was blocked off. It is right by the bird park, so worth checking out anyway.
- Visit the Home of the first Pina Colada – Barrachina. The food here is decent, but we enjoy just sitting at the bar and have a Pina colada or two.
- Another good place for food and drinks, La Casita de Rones. Nothing crazy about the food here, but good enough. I got a veggie flat bread. I love this place because it is pink, sits on the water, and they have lots of fun and festive cocktails.
- Walk around and explore the shops and other dining options. We dipped into a place that served extravagant ice cream bars where we could choose our toppings, then drizzle it with chocolate. It was pretty delicious and messy. We also checked out some gift shops and Sienna selected a San Juan teddy bear to take home with her
- 2023 update – Senor Paleta – Stop in here for a sweet treat. The yummiest Ice cream bars that your can drizzle with toppings!
Visit the Bio Bay. The Bioluminescent Bay in Fajardo, PR is a bay filled with these tiny organisms that glow at night. If you put your hand in the water and stir it around, you can see them glow. It is such a fun and cool experience. I have been to the bio bay 3 times. The first 2 times I did a Kayak Tour. The last time we went in a motor boat since Sienna is not much of a Kayaker (she’s 5….so really she has no excuse). I personally enjoyed the Kayak tour more, but you do you.
Here is the Kayak Company we used in 2017 – Kayaking Puerto Rico
Here is the Motor boat tour we did on our last trip – Bio Island PR
Tips: 1) Make sure to apply Bug Spray before going on this tour. I cannot stress this enough. I was attacked and had bug bites the size of a golf ball on my thigh. I recovered, but it was definitely not a good look for me. 2) Fajardo is about an hour from San Juan. We got caught in really bad traffic, and it took us almost 2 hours. We almost missed our tour. Give yourself plenty of time to get there! Wost case, you get there early and have snack or a drink at one of the cantinas. 3) The Bio Bay is really close to the El Yunque National Rainforest. If you plan to do both, I would plan to do these 2 things on the same day.
El Yunque National Rainforest – We were not able to visit the Rain Forest on our last visit because due to the pandemic, they are now requiring reservations. I don’t know how long they will plan to keep this in place, but if this is something you want to do, book early. Reservations are filling up months in advance. My husband and I went in 2017. There are multiple trails you can choose to go on depending on what you want to see, and how long you want to spend in the Rain Forest. You can stop at the Visitor Center to grab a map. We walked the trail to La Mina Falls, and it was beautiful! Lots of people were swimming in the falls, so bring a swimsuit if that sounds like your cup of tea.
2023 Update – I failed to take my own advice and did not make reservations for El Yunque. I discovered that some El Yunque areas, such as Puente Roto and Angelito trail do not require a reservation. We visited the Angelito trail, and still had a great time (so not all was lost). Afterwards we stopped at El Yunque Treehouse for a bite to eat.
Touristy Boat Trips
When we went to San Juan a couple years ago, we did a day time boat tour that was kiddo friendly. The weblink is not working, but if you google “San Juan boat tours” you will get several options. They have several sunset tours that look nice. We though about doing a Sunset boat tour our last trip, but by the time we got our act together, they were all booked up. So plan to book this in advance.
We did have a mini boat tour booked this time around. When we showed up though, they were like “Oh, did not one call you??? That tour is cancelled”. So anyways…not the best experience. Even though our boating was unsuccessful our last trip, does not mean yours will be. Just do some research, because there are several option out there.
2023 Update – We did a Sunset Sail with East Island Excursions. The boat departs from Old San Juan, so a perfect way to end your day after touring the city. We had a lot of fun on the sail. The provided drinks and snacks (we were full from pizza and did not partake in the snacks).
Go to the Beach! This is probably an obvious one, but we spent several full days of our trip just enjoying the pool and the beach. Where we stayed (Marriot Resort & Stellaris Resort) has a really good beach. Not all hotels do, so make sure you do your research before you go! There are also other Islands and beaches you can visit, most of them requiring a day trip.
Visit Culebra Island– This has come highly recommended, but I have never done it. When I have researched, you have to catch a super early ferry to get over there. I am sure you can book a tour if you plan ahead. It is suppose to be absolutely gorgeous, so if you go….let me know!
Visit Casa Bacardi – Casa Bacardi is basically a Bacardi Museum with different tours you can book. We went in 2017 (parents only trip), and had so much fun. There are different options, but we did the Tour and Mixology class. As we left, we bought a nice bottle of rum and we were even able to get it engraved with our names! So fun!
Where to Eat/Drink
First things first, you have to get a festive drink inside a pineapple. I get mine at Julius Restaurant and Grill, but there are several places with this delicious concoction.
Cocina Abierta – Such a good option if you are looking for fine dining. This is another place we keep coming back to, and have dined at during our last 3 trips. We even drag Sienna. It is super close to our hotel too. On our last visit they had transitioned their menu to a 6 course tasting menu . You can choose between Carnivore, Omnivore, Pescatarian, or Vegetarian. I am a vegetarian and my husband is not (he did the carnivore menu). and we both loved our meals. I highly recommend.
2022 Update – We dined Cocina Abierta once again, and it did not disappoint!
Kabanas – We have been here twice and it is easy, yummy, and they will sing to your spoiled child on their half birthday. Win, Win, Win. Kabanas has really easy food…tacos, quesadillas, tostones, and such. They have a kids menu as well if you have your little ones with you. The restaurant is not large, so go early to guarantee there isn’t a wait. We arrived at 6pm and got the last available table. By the time we left at 7:30, there was an hour+ wait.
2023 update – We tried to eat dinner at Kabanas twice, and they were closed both times. It looked like they were open for lunch when we drove past one day, so they may have limited hours. It is still worth the try.
Lote 23 – Lote 23 is described as a Gastronomic Park. It is like a food truck park, but most the restaurants are in permanent kiosks. There are several kiosks with different food types to choose from. I had falafel and beet hummus from a Middle Eastern style place, Jonathan got a burger, and Sienna got pizza and ice cream. There are lots of yummy places to choose from, it was such a hard choice! Tip – If you go, your best bet is Uber. Do not park in the parking deck across the street. In order to get out of the parking deck, you have to get validated at the grocery store, and in order to do that you have to buy like $10 worth of groceries. We did not know this and found ourselves in quite the conundrum at the exit gate and cars behind us. Oops!
La Casita de Rones – I mentioned this place above when talking about Old San Juan. I love this place because it is pink, on the water, and has festive cocktails in fun tiki cups. I had the veggie pizzetta, Jonathan had tacos, and Sienna had a cheese pizza. They have a kids menu, always a plus. For cocktails, I had a Rustic Romance and Jail Monkey. They were both great, but to be honest, I just got the jail monkey for the fun cup it came in. They also have the frozen drinks in pineapples here too
PokeBar – For a quick bite, we went to PokeBar one night and it was really good. It is a build your own poke bowl place with a ton of ingredients to choose from. They even have tofu for us vegetarians.
Atabey – We ate at this cute little place our last night. It is small, so get there early! They have a few tables outside, but it was so ridiculously windy, that we ended up going inside to eat. We started with the hummus. I had the vegan tender tacos. Jonathan could not remember what he got, but it had pork in it and it was great. Sienna had waffles. Yum! As for cocktails, I enjoyed the Smoke N mirrors (i love mezcal).
2023 update – We ate here again! This time I got the monfongo with a black bean burger.
Pirilo Pizza – If you are human, I am assuming you like pizza. This place is pretty yummy! There are 3 locations. The Ocean Park location is the one you will want to go to if you are staying in the Condado area (where Marriot Resort & Stellaris Resort is and where we stay). There are other pizza options closer to the hotel, but this was on a “best restaurants” list or something…if that means anything to you.
2023 update – We visited the Pirilo Pizza in Old San Juan (there are multiple locations). If you are in Old San Juan, you should definitely stop in. They have 20+ pizzas to choose from!
CVS – Ok, so technically this is not a dining option, but Jonathan made a run here almost every day to stock up on snacks, cereal and Topo Chico Spiked Seltzers. It is right next to the hotel, and they carry beer and liquor (because those pool drinks get pricey).
Casa Cortes Choco Bar – This place is always on our list, but we never go. It will be a fun place to eat if you are visiting with kids.
Rolled Ice cream – We stopped by Below Zero our last night to get Sienna some rolled ice cream. Be warned…the wait is long. I would ask what the wait is before you order, because you think you are the only one in line….then realized the 20 people hanging out outside are waiting for rolled ice cream too. But…it was yummy, and sometimes good things are worth the wait.
Jungle Bird – This is a fun tiki bar to check out if you are visiting without kids. We went in 2017, so it has been a while, but I bet it is still good!
El Yunque Treehouse – Great little spot right outside the rain forest. The menu had tons of Puerto Rican food choices, including vegetarian options. We enjoyed tostones, fried local cheese, empanadas, plantains, beans & rice. Make sure to go visit the parrots they have on side (far corner of building)
Tacos & Tequila – We have been wanted to try this restaurant, and finally made it there this visit to San Juan. It is at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, and is just fancy-ish mexican. It was definitely a good food option close to our hotel. I got the Sweet Potato and Mushroom tacos.
Just an overview of the tips from above..
***If you want a rental car, book it early!
***If you go to the Bio bay, cover yourself in bug spray and give yourself a couple hours from San Juan to get to Fajardo
***Carry cash with you to Old San Juan so you can buy a kite at the fort and bird seed for the bird
***Parking is horrible in Old San Juan. We have had luck twice parking at the Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort
***Stock up on Adult beverages from CVS, because the hotel pool drinks add up. We had a $200+ tab for food and drink our first day. Oops.
***It was windy AF in San Juan. I have no advice for avoiding wind, except to hold onto your hat!
OK, that is my guide to San Juan, based on my last 3 visits. If you visit, I would love to hear about your trip!