This historic San Juan walking tour is an architecture lover’s dream


By Israel Melendez Ayal

The city in a town in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, acts as a time capsule.

Since the Spaniards settled there in 1519, the buildings, plazas and fountains of the neighborhood have been constructed in a mixture of architectural styles – Gothic, Baroque, Art Deco, Modern and more – a snapshot of the Spanish and American aesthetics during colonial rule.

As you stroll through the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, at the western end of the northernmost islet of San Juan, one can vividly trace its evolutions, medieval and Renaissance sensibilities from its period of conquest to the present day. ‘hui. The neighborhood’s 74 blocks are packed with architecture and famous landmarks of Puerto Rican culture, including some of the oldest buildings in the United States.

Here’s how you can take your own walking tour of Old (or Viejo) San Juan and see 500 years of architectural history come to life.

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and Castillo San Felipe del Morro Lighthouse. Photo by Adriana Parrilla for the Washington Post

Antiguo Casino Puerto Rico

The 19th-century Plaza Colón, named after its marble statue of Christopher Columbus, marks the main entrance to Old San Juan, and you’ll find another gem just to the east: the Antiguo Casino de Puerto Rico.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, the casino was built in the 1910s in the Beaux-Arts style, popularized by 19th-century Paris. Among its distinctive features: a mansard bronze roof, Tiffany-style glass windows, white marble floors and walls.

Nowadays, it is an event space and a wedding venue.

The Forts

Going up Calle de Norzagaray (also known as Bulevar del Valle) from Plaza Colón, you’ll come across Castillo de San Cristóbal, named after Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers. The largest fortress built in the Americas, spanning 27 acres, it was built over more than 150 years to protect the city from ground attacks from the east.

As you descend Norzagaray, look towards the northwestern tip of the island to see the islet’s second fortress, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, topped with the oldest existing lighthouse in Puerto Rico. Six-storey triangular fort, “El Morro” has been welcoming ships entering the bay since its construction began in 1539.

Iglesia de San José

Taking a detour to Calle del Cristo you will find the recently renovated Iglesia de San José, originally built in 1532, making it the second oldest standing church in the Americas.

The garden of Casa Blanca. Photo by Adriana Parrilla for the Washington Post

San José is one of the few surviving examples of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture in the Western Hemisphere, and it is the oldest example in the United States, with gray marble floors, an altar in gold and frescoes in the vaults. A fresco depicts mermaids in armor, but the story behind them remains unknown.

Cuartel de Ballajá

This disturbing three-story structure was built by the Spanish army between 1854 and 1864 to serve as a residence for military officers. It cost so much money, it is said, that Queen Isabella II asked if it was built in silver. It wasn’t, but its classic exterior is indeed luxurious.

The building now houses cafes on its first floor, which opens onto an interior courtyard surrounded by an arcade known as the cortile, characteristic of an Italian Renaissance palace. Marble stairs lead to the Museum of the Americas on the second floor.

Casa Blanca

Built in 1521, the Casa Blanca served as the first fortification for Viejo San Juan and housed the conquistador Juan Ponce de León and his descendants until the middle of the 18th century.

The house was originally built in wood, but after a fire it was rebuilt in stone and masonry, in the medieval architectural style of the casa torre, or tower house – characterized by its castle-style towers, as well as small openings for observation and protection.

Furnished with 16th century Castilian pieces, the Casa Blanca and its serene gardens are now a museum open to the public.

Parade

Plaza de Armas is considered the heart of Old San Juan, seat of municipal and Puerto Rican government since the 17th century. But the square, a tribute to the main squares in Spain, could also be the unofficial seat of the architectural diversity of the district: on almost every side, you will find a wonder.

In the northwest wing of the square, visitors can admire the Casa Alcaldía, a replica of Madrid’s city hall, with a 19th-century neoclassical facade, Elizabethan-style lights and a clock tower from influence of the Enlightenment.

To the west is the Antiguo Palacio de la Real Intendencia, which now houses the Puerto Rico State Department office, modeled after a high Italian palace. And on the south side of the square, you will be transported to another era, with a distinct American influence. González Padín, for example, features large “Chicago windows” that mimic the culture of department stores in major US cities in the early 20th century.

Plaza de Armas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Adriana Parrilla for the Washington Post

Banque Populaire

Calle de Tetuán became known as a financial center in the 20th century, and the most important and still operating bank in the area is the Banco Popular art deco.

At the time of its completion, in 1939, the bank was the tallest building on the island, but it offers more than a ladder: there are bronze infusions, cubist eagles in the curved facade facing the bay and an imposing stained glass window that represents the shield of San Juan.

Reliefs of Greek and Roman gods frame either side of the glass – a fitting ode, perhaps, to both the architectural influences and the ambitions of the neighborhood.


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