Come explore the San Juan National Historic Site with me!
These historic fortifications are a U.S. National Park and a World Heritage Site, and they’re one of the best things to do in Puerto Rico!
Since I wrote this post, Puerto Rico has been devastated by Hurricane Maria, leaving millions of American citizens without food, water, electric, medicine, and other basic necessities. If you’d like to help, you can donate to the Red Cross here or to another disaster recovery fund here.
Have you been following along on my adventures in San Juan, Puerto Rico?
Honestly, I had such a great time that I’m counting down the days until I can go back. In the meantime though, it’s been so fun to share my trip with you!
Today, I’m especially exited, because I’m sharing what just might be my favorite part of the trip … the San Juan National Historic Site. Whether you’re a history buff or simply a casual traveler, this historic fort is definitely one of the best things to do in San Juan.
San Juan National Historic Site
The San Juan National Historic Site is a U.S. National Park and World Heritage Site located in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Hundreds of years ago when Spanish sailors left Europe and crossed the ocean, Puerto Rico was the first major island they reached. After the Spaniards settled here, they soon discovered Mexico, as well as Central and South America, and all the treasures those vast lands held. And of course, they wanted to protect these newfound riches.
Spain spent over 250 years fortifying and vigorously protecting this prized land, keeping Puerto Rico under its control for nearly 400 years.
The San Juan National Historic Site is comprised of these fortifications. It includes three forts (Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal, and Fort San Juan de la Cruz), three fourths of the city walls of Old San Juan, the Paseo del Morro National Recreation Trail, and the San Juan Gate. These forts, walls, and gate surround Old San Juan, the colonial part of the city (except for Fort San Juan de la Cruz, which is located at Isla de Cabras at the western end of the entrance to San Juan Bay).
No visit to San Juan is complete without a stop at these forts in San Juan, and I’m sharing tons of San Juan National Historic Site photos so you can explore these fortifications with me!
Castillo San Cristóbal
Ramp from Castillo San Cristóbal’s Main Entrance to the Main Plaza
I spent most of my time exploring Castillo San Cristóbal, a fort located on the eastern side of Old San Juan.
It only costs $5 (kids are free!) to visit the the San Juan National Historic Site, which is pretty amazing considering all there is to see! I literally spent hours wandering around Castillo San Cristóbal, so I definitely got my money’s worth.
There are two entrances to Castillo San Cristóbal: the main entrance, which has parking, and the historic entrance, which is geared toward walkers.
I entered through the main entrance (I’ll show you the historic entrance later). After checking out the visitor’s center, I headed up a ramp and entered the expansive and beautiful main plaza through an archway.
There were quite a few visitors when I first arrived at the fort. I think most of them were from the two cruise ships docked in San Juan Bay that day.
By the time I left, it was much quieter, and I almost felt like I had the place to myself.
One of my favorite things about Castillo San Cristóbal was the amazing views of Old San Juan. The fort rises above the city providing a stunning birds-eye view of the colorful buildings.
I hadn’t stepped foot into Old San Juan at this point, so the panoramic views of the historic city definitely piqued my curiosity to start exploring!
But before I could do that, I had to explore this historic fort!
The main plaza at Castillo San Cristóbal was used for conducting drills and other activities. It’s surrounded by what was once living quarters for the officers and troops stationed there.
You’ll also find the gift shop here. If you’re visiting on a hot day, like I was, make sure to grab a bottle of water at the shop. I don’t think they were selling much else.
It was so fun wandering around these ancient buildings.
I felt like I was in a castle! And actually, the word castillo means castle or fort, so maybe I wasn’t too far off.
The open windows of the buildings surrounding the plaza provided more colorful views of Old San Juan.
Troops were once housed in the two story building below.
One of the rooms had a replica of the troop’s quarters, but the rest of the was open for exploring.
The inside of this building was bright and airy, and the rooms were connected by series of gorgeous arches.
People were definitely shorter back then. At 5’9″, I almost felt like I had to duck to make it through those arches.
And I have to point out that this was the best I looked all day … red face and all! It was miserably humid, and I’m surprised I didn’t melt.
Isn’t the architecture of this building beautiful?
The giant windows let in lots of light and a much-needed breeze, too.
On the other end of the building were more windows opening to the back of the fortification. That pile of cannonballs was a prime photo spot!
We’ll head out there soon, but first let’s check out one of my favorite discoveries.
On the second level of the troop’s quarters you’ll find an awesome spiral staircase … so cool, right?
The narrow staircase winds up to the roof of the building.
As you make your way up, you’ll pass a few small windows with more unbelievable views of Old San Juan.
Did you notice how thick that masonry is? No wonder this fort has survived so long!
And finally, you’ll exit to the roof.
As you can imagine, the views up here are even more breathtaking.
From this angle, you can look out over the outer defenses of Castillo San Cristóbal, as well as the city.
Those smaller, triangular fortifications you see below are called ravelins. They were another layer of protection from invaders.
You’ll also get a good view of cruise ships docked in San Juan Bay from this angle.
It was about this time that the ship’s whistle blew, and most of the cruisers started to clear out.
Three flags fly above the fort: an American flag, the Puerto Rican flag, and the Cross of Burgundy.
The Cross of Burgundy was a Spanish military flag. It was used from the 16th to the 18th century to identify warships, forts, and regiments of troops loyal to the king of Spain.
By the way, if you’re curious about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S., you can read a little more about it in my first post in this series.
A large bell can also be found on the roof.
I’m assuming it was used to warn the troops when invaders were spotted. Or maybe it was a dinner bell … ha ha!
There was no plaque to help me decipher its purpose.
Below, you can see Castillo San Felipe del Morro, one of the other forts, in the distance.
The walls surrounding Old San Juan are also visible from here.
The next time I visit San Juan, I’ll plan to walking between the forts along the ocean. I took a much less direct route through Old San Juan this time!
Here you can see one of the sentry boxes atop the fort. We’ll get another view of this box shortly.
The passage to the sentry box was very narrow, and I couldn’t get a photo without someone in it … next time!
After exploring this area, I headed back down to the main plaza, then through a dimly lit underground tunnel.
There’s a room down here that’s been called a dungeon. It features ships drawn on a wall that are the subject of a legend about the mutineers who seized control of the cannon of the fort in 1855 and held San Juan for ransom.
Here’s another view of that sentry box from atop one of the ravelins.
Another cool thing about these forts is that you are free to explore almost everything. There were very few places closed off to the public.
Down below that sentry box seen above is the Devil’s Sentry Box, or La Garita del Diablo. It sits at the base of Castillo San Cristóbal right above the ocean.
Can you imagine being out there on a stormy night?
Guarding from this box was an unpopular job because it was so remote and lonely.
After exploring most of the fort, I headed to the Outer Defenses.
This area was quite expansive. You can see the fort we were just on hovering in the distance.
Can you spot the three flags and the sentry box?
It was very quiet out here the day I visited. I only ran into a few other people.
I’m pretty nosy at heart, so I had a good time wandering around, checking out all the nooks and crannies.
There is so much to see!
The area surrounding Castillo San Cristóbal is filled with government buildings, and from the edge of the Outer Defenses, you can see Puerto Rico’s capital building.
So pretty, right?
After making my way back through the main plaza, I exited Castillo San Cristóbal through the Historic Gate.
Isn’t it impressive?
I spotted another sentry box right outside the gate.
This one was much easier to photograph … I had it all to myself!
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Of course, Castillo San Cristóbal is just one of the forts in the San Juan National Historic Site. Castillo San Felipe del Morro (also known as “El Morro”) is another.
According to the National Park Services, El Morro is perhaps the most iconic fortification built by the Spanish in the Americas. It covers a 140 foot-high promontory at the entrance to the Bay of San Juan, and the fortress consists of 6 levels facing the Atlantic Ocean, all of which were designed to create a devastating artillery fire over enemy ships.
By the time of its completion around 1790, Castillo San Felipe del Morro had the reputation of being unconquerable and was the most feared of all the Spanish colonial fortifications.
I didn’t have time to tour the inside of Castillo San Felipe del Morro on this trip, although I was able to see it from afar.
It’s definitely on my list for next time.
If you’re short on time like I was, I’d recommend checking out Castillo San Cristóbal. It’s much larger, and it has a dungeon!
Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery
While you’re at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, make sure to visit Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery.
This beautiful and historic Old San Juan cemetery is located right on the ocean. It’s the final resting place for a number of prominent Puerto Ricans.
San Juan Gate (Puerta de San Juan) and the Paseo del Morro National Recreation Trail
Back in the day, Old San Juan could be accessed by one of five gates, or puertas, in the the three mile long wall that surrounded the city.
Guards watched the wall at night, and if you were outside the gates when they closed, you were stuck there until morning. Not exactly somewhere you want to be with the constant possibility of attack, right?
As you approach the gate from inside Old San Juan, you can see the blue cobblestones the city is famous for.
Built in 1635, the San Juan Gate is the last one of those five gates standing.
The gate is huge and imposing (look at the thickness of that wall!), and I found it interesting to imagine what life was like back when it was first constructed.
As you walk through the gate, you’ll spot another sentry box.
If you head to the left, you’ll have beautiful views of the San Juan Bay. On the day I visited, the bay was mostly empty except for a few boats and paddle boarders.
As far as I’m concerned this path is the ideal spot for a romantic walk in Old San Juan … especially at sunset!
You can’t see it, but on the other side of this high wall is La Fortaleza, the current official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico.
La Fortaleza was built between 1533 and 1540 to defend the harbor of San Juan. It is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the New World and is considered a World Heritage Site.
If you head to the right after entering the San Juan Gate, you will be on the Paseo del Morro, a National Recreation Trail.
The trail follows the wall surrounding the city from the San Juan Gate to Castillo San Felipe del Morro along the entrance to the San Juan Bay. It dates back to 1630.
I wish I would have had more time to walk the Paseo del Morro! It was so beautiful, and this is where I first started noticing the many stray cats of San Juan (more on that in my next post!).
Tips for Visiting San Juan National Historic Site
I hope you enjoyed these San Juan National Historic Site photos and a little bit of history! To see everything that I saw, you should plan on spending at least half a day (with lots of walking) … although you could definitely fill a whole day these sites and see even more, too.
Here is more information to help plan your trip:
- Official Website – Make sure to visit the National Park Service site for this fascinating World Heritage Site. Check it out for everything from things to do at the park to history to educational opportunities during your visit.
- Location – The forts and other sites mentioned here surround the old, colonial part of the city. You’ll want to spend a day exploring both the forts and Old San Juan, or even better, a couple of days! Old San Juan is very hilly, so keep that in mind when planning your day.
- Consider Taking a Tour – I normally forgo tours and like to explore on my own, but I wish I’d had a chance to join one at the forts in San Juan. There is so much to see, and I would have liked to learn more of the history. You can find a number of guided activities through the National Park Service.
- Dress Comfortably – San Juan is warm year round and downright hot and humid in summer. You will be doing a lot of walking, often over uneven surfaces and up / down ramps, stairs, or hills. Dress in comfortable clothes and shoes (I wore a lightweight dress and comfy, flat sandals). Wear sunblock and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. Make sure to drink plenty of water, too.
- Accessibility – Parts of the historic site are accessible for people using wheelchairs and with other disabilities, however the forts are old, full of uneven surfaces, and weren’t built to today’s specifications. Visit the San Juan historic site’s website for detailed information.
Did you enjoy reading about the San Juan National Historic Site?
Please share this post, then make sure to check out all of the highlights from my trip to Puerto Rico!
- Part 1: 48 Hours in San Juan Puerto Rico … tips for visiting San Juan, plus the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, the Santurce neighborhood, and a fun foodie find!
- Part 2: Isla Verde Beach … all about beautiful Isla Verde Beach in Carolina, Puerto Rico + the best places to stay in San Juan.
- Part 3: San Juan National Historic Site … you’re here!
- Part 4: 10 Things to Do in Old San Juan … explore this historic, walled city!
Have you been to Puerto Rico? What was your favorite spot?