Heading to Puerto Rico? Don't go without adding the San Juan National Historic Site to your bucket list!
These Old San Juan Forts—which include Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal, the City Walls, the San Juan Gate, and Fortín San Juan de la Cruz—are considered a U.S. National Park and a World Heritage Site. They're one of the best things to see in Puerto Rico, and this guide covers everything you need to know before you go!
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Whether you're a history buff or simply a casual visitor, a visit to the San Juan National Historic Site is a must on any trip to Puerto Rico!
This unique National Park tells the story of the Old San Juan Forts, which Spanish colonizers began building in 1539. The forts helped Spain protect Puerto Rico, whose strategic location in the eastern Caribbean also secured its colonies in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Despite the centuries of history contained there, the forts are well-preserved, and there's no better place to learn about the island's colonial history. You'll feel like you're stepping back in time as you explore the massive fortifications, squeeze into narrow sentry boxes, walk along the city's thick walls, and pass through its imposing gate.
I've visited this fascinating Historic Site multiple times, and this guide covers everything you need to know before you go! You'll learn about the history and find things to see at each location, plus there's even a walking tour that covers all the sites.
Ready to find out more? Keep scrolling to read everything, or use the links below to jump between sections:
History | About the National Park | Castillo San Felipe del Morro | Castillo San Cristóbal | Fortín San Juan de la Cruz | City Walls | San Juan Gate | La Fortaleza | Self-Guided Walking Tour | Map | FAQs | Tips for Planning Your Trip | Where to Stay | Other Things to Do in Puerto Rico
What is now Puerto Rico was first settled by indigenous Taíno people over 1000 years before Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1493, during his second voyage to the New World. The Caribbean island provided everything the Spanish colonizers needed (including fresh food, water, shelter, and other supplies) after their long journey across the ocean.
After Juan Ponce de León arrived on the island in 1508, he founded the first European settlement there. It was eventually named Puerto Rico, which means "rich port" in Spanish.
To protect the prized island (and the rest of its New World colonies), Spain spent over 250 years fortifying Puerto Rico and building the historic forts which helped shield the island from invasions by the Dutch, French, and English. The island remained under Spanish control for nearly 400 years until the U.S captured it in 1898 during the brief Spanish-American War.
Today, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. Citizens (although they do not have the same rights as other Americans, cannot vote for the president, and do not have equal representation in Congress).
The San Juan National Historic Site was established in 1949 to preserve the historic fortifications built by the Spaniards so many years ago. These Old San Juan forts are Puerto Rico's only National Park. In 1983, UNESCO also recognized the Historic Site, along with La Fortaleza (the Spanish Governor's palace), as a World Heritage Site.
This fascinating Historic Site includes numerous fortifications:
- Castillo San Felipe del Morro
- Castillo San Cristóbal
- Fortín San Juan de la Cruz
- City Wall
- San Juan Gate
All of these fortifications are located in Old San Juan (the colonial part of the city), except for Fort San Juan de la Cruz, which is located on Isla de Cabras across the Bahía de San Juan (San Juan Bay) from El Morro.
No visit to San Juan is complete without a trip to its historic forts! Keep reading to learn more about each of the locations in this unique National Park, and to get lots of tips for planning your own visit.
The most well-known of the three forts in San Juan's National Park is Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Often called El Morro (which means "promontory" or "headland") for short, this iconic fort faces the Atlantic Ocean and helped the Spanish avoid an attack by sea for hundreds of years.
Construction on El Morro (which is located at the entrance to the San Juan Bay) began 1539 and continued well into the 1700's. It soars over 140 feet above sea level with walls between 18 to 25 feet thick.
El Morro has withstood numerous attacks through the years, including Sir Francis Drake in 1595, the Earl of Cumberland in 1598, the Dutch (who burned the city in 1625), and the English again in 1797. It finally fell to the U.S. during the Spanish-American War in 1898 due to its outdated defense systems (see a photo of the attack).
Despite its eventual capture by the U.S., when it was finally completed in 1790 El Morro was considered unconquerable. With its strategic location, it served as an Army base during both World Wars.
Did you know? Castillo translates to castle in English. When people mention castles in Puerto Rico, they are usually talking about El Morro Castle or one of the island's other historic forts ... not necessarily the opulent residences you may be picture when hearing the word castle.
Things to do at El Morro:
- As you walk over the stone bridge leading into the fort, check out the dry moat on either side.
- Explore all six levels of the fort, from the land defenses (the level you enter on) down to the water battery (the original promontory with canon).
- View the three flags flying over El Morro: the U.S. and Puerto Rican flags, and the Cross of Burgundy, a Spanish military flag that was used from the 16th to 18th centuries.
- Check out the reconstructed lighthouse on top of the fort. The original lighthouse was built here in 1846.
- Look for ships crossing into the San Juan Bay. Imagine if the cruises of today were the war ships of yesteryear!
- Walk outside the city walls along the Paseo del Morro trail.
- Bring your kite! With its breezy, oceanfront location, the esplanade is a popular place for flying kites.
After attacks by the English in 1598 and the Dutch in 1625, the Spaniards realized that they needed to strengthen the city's defenses. They expanded the city walls and added a sentry box along the ocean (La Garita del Diablo), along with an artillery platform atop the San Cristóbal hill.
Over the next 150 years, this site was developed into the largest fortress built in the Americas. The primary purpose of this fort was to protect San Juan from a land attack from the east.
Castillo San Cristóbal is the larger of the two forts in Old San Juan. During your visit you can view the historic fortifications, as well as the sprawling grounds, which gave the Castillo another layer of defense.
Make sure to check out the additions the U.S. Army made to the fort during World War II while you're there, too. These include two observation posts and a bunker, which is the current Visitors Center.
Things to do at Castillo San Cristóbal:
- Look out over the ocean through one of the distinctive sentry boxes.
- Spot La Garita del Diablo (the Devil's Sentry Box) at the base of the fort by the ocean. Because of the sentry's remote and lonely location, guarding from here was an unpopular job. Can you imagine being out there on a stormy night?
- Enjoy colorful bird's-eye views of Old San Juan through the fortress windows.
- Explore the main plaza. Soldiers trained here, you'll be able to check out their living quarters and a small chapel which surround the plaza.
- Step into the dungeon to view original late 18th century drawings made by an unknown prisoner.
- Climb the spiral staircase to the top of the fort for amazing panoramic views of the city, as well as El Morro in the distance. You will see three flags flying over the fort: an American flag, the Puerto Rican flag, and the Cross of Burgundy.
- Walk the vast grounds, which provided a strategic land defense for the city.
The third fort included in the Historic Site is Fortín San Juan de la Cruz, or El Cañuelo (which means "small channel" in Spanish) for short.
El Cañuelo is located across the San Juan Bay from El Morro, and it was intended to be extra line of defense against enemy ships. It also protected the entrance to the Bayamón River, which was used for transporting good to the island's interior.
When it was constructed the early 1600's, this small fort was built from wood. However, after the Dutch burned it down in 1625, it was rebuilt with sturdier materials.
Because of its island location, life at Fortín San Juan de la Cruz was lonely for the few soldiers stationed there. And by the early 1800s as El Morro's defenses strengthened, petite Fortín San Juan de la Cruz had become obsolete.
During World War II, the U.S. Corps of Engineers dredged the Bay to allow large ships. The excess material was used to create a road to the fort, making it much easier to visit today!
Tips for Visiting El Cañuelo
Because of its location, most visitors to the San Juan National Historic Site don't make it to El Cañuelo, but if you have the time, it's worth a trip! The inside of the Fortín isn't accessible, but you can walk around the small exterior and enjoy views of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Old San Juan across the bay.
There's also a pretty park here with a petite beach. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in one of the park's covered structures or take a dip in the bay. You could also stop in Toa Baja (the town located just before fort) for a meal or an ice cold Medalla. We also spotted some interesting murals here. And Casa BACARDÍ is nearby if you'd like to take a rum tasting or cocktail making tour
Tip: There is a small fee for parking at the park here.
About 50 years after construction began on El Morro, a few primitive walls were added above cliffs along the Bay. However, after the Dutch briefly held and then burned the city in 1625, the Spaniards realized that the island needed more protection.
They began building Castillo San Cristóbal and added walls along the south and east sides of Old San Juan. Eventually, the wall connected the two forts, and by 1793, these masonry walls, which featured numerous bastions and sentry boxes, completely surrounded the city.
After the City Wall (La Muralla in Spanish) successfully warded off another attack by the English in 1797, they were considered invincible. By 1897, the city had grown so much (and residents felt safe enough) that most of the east wall and part of the south wall were torn down.
Viewing the Wall Today
These impressive walls (which range from 20 to 100 feet tall and from 50 feet wide at the base to 24 feet at the top) still surround about three-quarters of Old San Juan, along its north, east, and south sides. The best places to see the wall is between Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and outside the walls as you walk along the Paseo del Morro or the Paseo de la Princesa.
Those impregnable City Walls stretched for three miles and included four main gates (or puertas): two on the north side, one on the east, and one on the west. The gates controlled access into and out of the city
Guards watched these entry points from sentry boxes, and the gates were closed each night. If you were outside the gates when they closed, then you weren't getting back in until morning!
Today, the imposing San Juan Gate (also known as the Puerta de San Juan or the Puerta de Aguas) is the most well known. This colorful gate was built in 1635 and measures 16 feet tall and 20 feet thick. It was considered the city's ceremonial gate and was used by important visitors.
What to You'll See at the Gate
As you approach the San Juan Gate from inside the city, look down to see the blue cobblestones the city is known for. Then as you walk though the Puerta, check out those massive walls. Keep an eye out an inscription above the gate reading "Benedictus Oui Venit In Nomine Domini", meaning "Welcome those who come in the name of God".
After you've passed through the colorful gate, check out the sentry box. If you'd like to explore the outside of the walls, turn right to walk along Paseo del Morro, or turn left to wander Paseo de la Princesa. As you walk along the trails, imagine yourself transported back a couple hundred years and locked outside the walls at night. Kind of a scary thought, right?
While not included in the National Park, La Fortaleza is part of the World Heritage Site.
La Fortaleza (which means "the fortress" in English) is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the western hemisphere. It was built between 1533 and 1540, and it was the first fortification constructed on the San Juan harbor. It wasn't very successful in protecting the island however, which led to the other forts being built.
Today, the beautiful building, which has two turreted towers and a distinctive blue paint job, contains the residence and office of Puerto Rico's governor. It's located near the San Juan Gate, above the City Wall, and free tours are available on weekdays.
Want to talk a self-guided tour of San Juan's Forts? Follow the route below, using the map I've included in the next section for locations:
1. Start at Castillo San Cristóbal. Make sure to save your admission fee receipt, so you can use it at El Morro, too.
2. Walk along Norzagaray Street / Bulevar del Valle toward Castillo San Felipe del Morro. As you walk, you will pass the City Walls, the La Perla neighborhood, and the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery (all on your right).
3. Enter Castillo San Felipe del Morro. When you come to the small roundabout, walk up the path to enter El Morro. Hungry? After checking out the fort, look for a piragua cart selling shaved ice across the street or stop by the nearby Cinema Bar 1950 for a refreshing mojito and some delicious Puerto Rican food.
4. Walk through the San Juan Gate. After leaving El Morro, you have a few options to get to the Gate:
- Paseo del Morro National Recreation Trail - This path is located outside the City Wall along the Bay. You can access it from the fort. Once you get to the Gate, the trail turns into Paseo de la Princesa. This route is very scenic, however there is very little shade ... bring a hat and water.
- Back Route - Walk down the path to the roundabout, then turn right. Walk past the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (a large yellow building with columned entrance), then continue following the road as it curves (to the left) around the building. Stay on this road until you get to Plazuela de la Rogativa (you can't miss the large sculpture here), then make a right onto Calle Clara Lair. The Gate is just down the street. This is my favorite route. While there's not a ton to see, it's quiet and shady, and you'll spot tons of the famous Old San Juan cats.
- City Streets - At the roundabout, go straight and continue on Calle del Morro. Follow the curve to the left as the road turns into Calle Beneficencia. Continue on Calle Beneficencia until you get to Calle del Santo Cristo, then make a right. Follow Calle del Santo Cristo, until you get to Caleta de San Juan (across from the Catedral de San Juan Bautista). Turn right, then walk along Caleta de San Juan for two blocks to the Gate. This route takes you by my favorite square, Plazuela Las Monjas, which is right across from the Catedral.
5. Check out the City Walls. After walking through the Gate, you will be outside the City Walls. At this point, you can either turn right to explore the Paseo del Morro, turn left to stroll the popular Paseo de la Princesa, or stop your walk and head back onto the city streets. La Fortaleza is also nearby.
6. Drive to Fort San Juan de la Cruz. If you would like to visit this fort, you'll need to drive (it takes about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic). Can't make the drive? You can also see this fort if you look across the bay from El Morro.
Tip: You can take this walk in the other direction, as well. The best way to do that, would be to walk to the Gate from anywhere in Old San Juan, or to follow the Paseo de la Princesa around the City Wall to the Gate.
I've created a Google map of the forts to help you explore the San Juan National Historic Site.
The maps has each fortification pinpointed, plus a few nearby sites of interest. There is so much more to see in this beautiful neighborhood though! Make sure to check out my guide with all the Best Things to Do in Old San Juan before your trip.
Open the map on your phone as you explore the city to help you find your way.
Note: I've only indicated one location of the City Wall on the map. However, you'll spot it in numerous places, including between the two forts, at the San Juan Gate, and outside the Gate along the Paseo del Morro and the Paseo de La Princesa.
Curious to learn more? Check out these frequently asked questions:
What are the forts in Puerto Rico?
Beginning in 1539, Spain build a series of forts in Puerto Rico, including La Fortaleza, El Moro, Castillo San Cristóbal, El Cañuelo, and others, to protect their colonies.
Why were the forts in Puerto Rico built?
The forts in Puerto Rico were built by Spaniards to protect the island, as well as their other New World colonies, from invasions by other colonizers, including the Dutch, French, and English.
What are the two forts in San Juan?
The two most well-known forts in San Juan are Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal. However, there are other forts in the city, including La Fortaleza (now the Puerto Rican governor's mansion), as well as Fortín San Jerónimo del Boquerón, Fortín del Escambrón, and the nearby Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo).
When were Puerto Rico's Forts built?
Spain began building Puerto Rico's forts 1539, starting with construction of the tower at El Morro and La Fortaleza. Construction continued into the late 1700's.
Why is San Juan National Historic Site important?
The San Juan National Historic Site is important because it preserves Spanish colonial forts and interprets the centuries of history that took place there. It's also Puerto Rico's only National Park, and it's one of the 24 World Heritage Sites located in the U.S.
How much does it cost to visit the Old San Juan forts?
It costs $10.00 to visit both Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal (hold onto your receipt). The other sites in the Historic Site are free.
Which fort is better in San Juan?
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (or El Morro) is the most well-known fort in San Juan, and most visitors stop here. It's the older of the two forts in Old San Juan and has an imposing location over the Bay. However, it's not necessarily the "better" one ... if you have time, you should visit the other forts and sites in the National Park, as well.
Does Puerto Rico have castles?
Puerto Rico does have castles (or castillos), however they are forts, not the fancy residences you may be picturing. The most famous one is El Morro.
I hope you enjoyed learning about these unique forts! Here's a little more info to help plan your trip:
Visit the National Park Service website to learn more about park history, things to do, accessibility info, tours, and educational opportunities. Looking for more National Parks? Check out my U.S. National Parks List ... it includes every park, in every state and comes with a free PDF Printable Checklist!
San Juan National Historic Site is open Monday through Sunday, from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM. It is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
A $10.00 fee covers your entrance to both Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal (hold onto your receipt to access both). The other sites are free, although there's a charge to park at El Cañuelo. Make sure to bring your National Parks Passport (or purchase one in either fort's gift shop) so you can get it stamped at both forts!
Driving in Old San Juan is slow and stressful, because the narrow streets are crowded with people and cars. We usually park at the Doña Fela Parking Garage, which is relatively stress free to get into and out of. Another option is the Ballaja Parking Garage, which is located close to El Morro. There's also a small parking lot at Castillo San Cristóbal (although you can't park there all day). If you don't want to deal with driving, consider taking an Uber (or city bus) instead.
What to Wear
San Juan has a tropical climate, and it's hot and humid year round (even more so during summer). You will be doing lots of walking, often over uneven surfaces, including up ramps, stairs, and hills. Dress in comfortable clothes and shoes ... I'd recommend shorts and loose, breezy top, plus flat sandals or sneakers. A lightweight dress is also a great option, just keep in mind that it's often quite windy. Wear sunblock and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. Make sure to drink plenty of water, too.
How Much Time to Allow
To see all of the fortifications in Old San Juan, plan on spending at least half a day. You could definitely fill a whole day, especially if you're planning to explore the rest of this beautiful neighborhood, too. To visit just one of the forts, give yourself a couple hours.
If you want to visit Fort de la Cruz, allow about 20 to 30 minutes to drive there (depending on traffic). You can't actually go into this fort, and it doesn't take long to explore the exterior. However, there's a nice park with covered picnic structures and a pleasant beach with excellent views of El Morro that's worth checking out.
There is so much to see at each of these sites! If you have the opportunity, consider taking a tour ... you'll learn so much more about the history of the forts. You can find a number of guided activities through the National Park Service. If you'd like to see more of the city, check out this tour of Old San Juan, which includes a stop at Castillo San Cristóbal.
To stay as close to the forts as possible, reserve a hotel in Old San Juan. You'll find numerous options in this charming area, ranging from the glamorous, upscale Hotel El Convento to the boutique CasaBlanca and even a Sheraton. Check TripAdvisor for deals and helpful reviews!
Condado is another neighborhood that's super convenient, and you'll find options ranging from upscale (like the adults only Condado Ocean Club) to budget-friendly. I've stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Condado multiple times, and it's a great affordable choice. The recently updated rooms are on the small side, but the lively location can't be beat with tons of restaurants and shops within walking distance and a popular beach that's located practically across the street.
If you plan to spend your vacation on the best beach, I'd recommend staying in Isla Verde, which has the longest and widest beach. While Isla Verde is technically in Carolina (just east of San Juan by the airport), it's a quick 15 minute ride to Old San Juan. I've stayed at the lovely Royal Sonesta multiple times (it used to be an Intercontinental). It's located right on the beach, has a resort feel, and excellent service.
For a homier experience, check out Airbnb. Look for apartments in the areas mentioned above, plus the more off-the-beaten track (but still convenient) Ocean Park and Santurce (on or around Calle Loiza) neighborhoods.
There is so much to see and do in Puerto Rico! These ideas will keep you busy for your whole trip:
- Explore other forts in the area. There are a few other forts in San Juan that are not part of the National Park. Fortín San Jerónimo del Boquerón is located Puerta de Tierra, an area between Old San Juan and Condado that was the first neighborhood built outside the city wall. This small fort is open for visits from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM (a donation is suggested). You'll also find Fortín del Escambrón nearby. You won't see much at this fort, but it's fun to check out if you're nearby (there are a couple popular beaches here, too). I've indicated both of these forts on the map.
- Visit all the must see sites in San Juan. Make sure to read my guide to the 20 best Things to Do in San Juan before your trip so you don't miss a thing.
- See more of colorful, historic Old San Juan. Before you leave the colonial part of the city, there are lots of other sights to see in Old San Juan that you won’t want to miss!
- Experience the artsy side of San Juan. Get off the beaten tourist path in one of my fave neighborhoods, Santurce! This guide covers the 10 awesome Things to Do in Santurce. Check out the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico while you're there!
- Hit the Beach. You can’t go to Puerto Rico without spending a day (or three) at the beach. Check out nearby Isla Verde Beach or head to Luquillo, Puerto Rico which has some of the best beaches on the island.
- Visit El Yunque Rainforest. A visit to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, is a must on any Puerto Rico bucket list!