No trip to Old San Juan is complete without a stop at its historic gate, la Puerta de San Juan ... and this helpful guide covers everything you need to know (history, location, and more) before your visit!
Old San Juan will make any top 10 list of the best places to visit in Puerto Rico. And for good reason ... it's simply chock-a-block with attractions, including massive forts, amazing restaurants, fascinating museums, and so much more!
There are many interesting sites in Viejo San Juan. To truly understand this vibrant neighborhood though, you need check out its imposing walls and its historic gate, la Puerta de San Juan (AKA the San Juan Gate and the Puerta de Aguas).
A visit to this colorful gate will whisk you on a journey back in time! As you walk through the gate, you'll follow in the footsteps of the colonial city's most important visitors, entering the walled city just as they did centuries ago.
This guide covers everything you need to know about the historic San Juan Gate before you visit. Keep reading for all the details, then start planning your own trip!
History of the Puerta de San Juan
The Puerta de San Juan was once the main gate into Old San Juan. It's part of a series of fortifications that helped Spanish conquistadors maintain control of Puerto Rico for nearly 400 years.
What is now Puerto Rico was first settled by indigenous Taíno people over 1000 years before Christopher Columbus visited the island in 1493, during his second voyage to the New World. The Caribbean island provided everything the Spanish colonizers needed following their ocean voyage, and when Juan Ponce de León arrived in 1508, he founded the island's first European settlement, which was eventually named Puerto Rico (meaning "rich port" in Spanish).
The Spaniards spent over 250 years fortifying Puerto Rico, starting with La Fortaleza in 1533 and Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) in 1539. About 50 years after construction began on El Morro, a few primitive walls were added along the bay. After the city fell to the Earl of Cumberland in 1598 and then to a Dutch commander in 1625, the Spaniards realized that more protection was needed.
Following the Dutch invasion, work began on another fort, Castillo San Cristóbal. New walls were also added along the south and east sides of Old San Juan, and existing walls were repaired and improved. When the city walls (La Muralla) were completed, five closely-guarded gates controlled access into and out of the city.
The imposing Puerta de San Juan—which faces the bay and measures 16 feet tall and 20 feet thick—was built in 1635. Located near La Fortaleza (the governor's home), the gate was considered the city's ceremonial entrance. Spanish dignitaries were welcomed here, then led to the Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista (the second oldest cathedral in the Americas) to give thanks for a safe voyage.
Today, the Puerta de San Juan is the only remaining gate, and it serves as an impressive reminder of the city's colonial history. Along with the city's forts and walls, the gate is part of the San Juan National Historic Site, and it's considered a World Heritage Site, as well.
Visiting the San Juan Gate
Visiting the San Juan Gate is free and easy! You can enter it from inside or from outside the city walls, and you'll find photos of both entrances below.
Inside the City Walls
Let's start inside the city wall first. Look for the entrance at the end of Caleta de San Juan, a block from the Cathedral.
Before you walk through the opening in the wall, take a moment to pause. If you look down, you will see Old San Juan's famous blue cobblestones. If you look up, you will see ceramic tiles bearing an image of the gate's namesake, Saint John the Baptist. There is an informational sign to the entrance's right, as well.
Tip: There is usually someone selling water and / or piraguas (shaved ice) inside the city walls by the gate. If you venture slightly further away, up Calle Clara Lair to Caleta de las Monjas (near Plazuela La Rogativa), look for a window with a sign for Limbers (another frozen treat).
As you walk through the entrance, you will be amazed by those colossal city walls, which are 20 feet thick!
The tunnel has a curved ceiling, and as you proceed through it you'll reach the imposing wood doors. The massive doors may appear small in the photo below, but they're actually 16 feet tall. After you pass through them, turn around to view the historic red gate.
Outside the Gate
You can also reach the vibrant red gate from outside the city walls via the Paseo de la Princesa, a scenic promenade dating back to 1853.
The city once had five gates, and the Puerta de San Juan was used for welcoming important visitors. All other city business was conducted through different gates.
Look above the door, where you'll see an inscription reading "Benedictus Qui Venit In Nomine Domini". This is a passage take from the Sanctus, a Catholic hymn, which means "Blessed who comes in the name of God".
There's a sentry box just outside the Puerta de San Juan. Guards watched this entry point around the clock, and the doors were closed each night. If you were outside the gate when it closed, you weren't getting back in until morning!
After the Spaniards warded off another attack by the English in 1797, the city walls were considered invincible. And by 1897, the city had grown so much (and residents felt safe enough) that most of the east wall and parts of the south wall were destroyed.
Although the San Juan Gate is the only remaining gate, the city walls still encircle three-quarters of Old San Juan.
After you've explored the gate, you can walk outside the walls, taking in beautiful views of the San Juan Bay along the way. As you are facing the Bay, turn right to walk along Paseo del Morro (which is part of the San Juan National Historic Site), or turn left to wander the romantic Paseo de la Princesa.
The San Juan Gate is located on the west side of Old San Juan near the Cathedral. It can be reached from both inside and outside the city walls:
- Inside the Walls - Find the gate at the intersection of Caleta de San Juan and Calle Clara Lair, one block from the Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista.
- Outside the Walls - To reach the gate from outside the city walls, start by walk along the Paseo de la Princesa. When you reach the Raíces Fountain, make a right, then continue walking along the wall until the you see the gate.
Tip: Use this Google map if you need directions or help locating it.
Other Things to Do in Puerto Rico
Looking for more things to do in San Juan and Puerto Rico? Here are some of my favorites:
- Visit the San Juan National Historic Site. The gate is part of this National Park, and the Old San Juan Forts are a must see, too!
- Explore historic Old San Juan. There are so many other fun Things to Do in Old San Juan ... from museum to restaurants, shopping, and more.
- Check out the rest of San Juan. Viejo San Juan is just one small part of the city. Read my guide to the 20 best Things to Do in San Juan before your trip so you don't miss a thing.
- Get off the beaten tourist path in Santurce. Don't miss my favorite neighborhood, artsy Santurce. Check out the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico while you're there or spend an evening at La Placita!
- Hit the Beach. You can’t go to Puerto Rico without spending a day (or three) at the beach. Relax on Condado Beach, check out Isla Verde Beach in Carolina, visit the Piñones, or head to Luquillo Beach which is one of the best beaches on the island.
- Visit El Yunque National Forest. A visit to El Yunque Rainforest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, is a must on any Puerto Rico bucket list!