History Throughout Old San Juan
Learn about history and the area’s original defense system at the El Morro Fort that wraps around Old San Juan.
Enter through the same gate travelers have been using for hundreds of years. This last original Gate of San Juan still standing today.
Enjoy handmade food, crafts, and cultural music while you prominade down the Paseo De La Princesa pathway.
El Morro Fort | History of Old San Juan Puerto Rico
In 1493 the island of Puerto Rico was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. During the time Spain claimed the island, Columbus referred to the entire island as San Juan. This was to commemorate Saint John the Baptist.
The small island of Old San Juan was originally named Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico = Port Rich) but was switched as time went on. The entire island began being referred to as “Puerto Rico” while their largest city was now noted as San Juan.
The original Puerto Rico area is now noted as either Viejo San Juan or Old San Juan. This historical area is surrounded by the El Morro Fort, which was designed to protect the city of San Juan from invaders.
According to discoverpuertorico.com, the nearly 500 year old fort, El Morro, began its construction in 1539 just 18 years after Spanish settlers founded Old San Juan in 1521. The Governor’s mansion is sometimes considered the first section of the fort that was built. This section began construction in 1533 and is labeled as La Fortaleza (or the fortress).
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, AKA El Morro, took nearly 250 years to build. The multi-level fortress (six levels to be exact) acted as a barricade, preventing unwanted attackers from entering San Juan through the Bay of San Juan.
Located on the opposing side of the bay was Fortin San Juan de la Cruz or El Canuelo. This smaller fort that worked in conjunction with El Morro. When attackers would try to enter the bay, both sides of the fort would create crossfire making it nearly impossible to enter into San Juan. The cannon’s crossfire essentially closed the doors at the heart of Puerto Rico’s largest city.
In addition to the two listed sections of the fort, there is a section located on the eastern end of Old San Juan. This section is named Castillo San Cristobal, and was used primarily for land based attacks directed toward the shores of the Condado Isla Verde area.
Anyone looking to tour Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Fortin San Juan de la Cruz, or Castillo San Cristobal will be able to pay one admission fee. With this, they will be able to enter each of the locations without paying again for the new locations they decide to visit.
During the Spanish reign over Puerto Rico, the Spaniards used the fort to defend against invasions from pirates, the Dutch, and also the British. The ownership of the Puerto Rico territory did not change hands until the Spanish-American war in 1898 (Discover Puerto Rico, n.d.).
This war was the final test of El Morro’s strength. The American’s technological advances with weaponry made it clear that the fort was out of date, and would no longer be used against invasions. The treaty of Paris was signed this same year and marked the transfer of ownership from Spain to the US of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam territories.
Ten years after the war, the US rebuilt the original light house that was destroyed during the Spanish American War. The fort has been a historical landmark ever since its final test in 1898.
The Gate of Old San Juan | Best historical spots Old San Juan
Puerta de Aguas, commonly known as The Gate of Old San Juan, stands tall at the base of the El Morro Fort. The gate was one of five original gates that were a part of the 3-mile wall that surrounds the city of Old San Juan. While most of the wall consists of 20 foot-thick sandstone, rock, and mortar blocks, some areas measure at 45 feet wide and over 40 foot high (Discover Puerto Rico, n.d.).
During the time the fort was being used for defense, each gate had a different purpose for its placement. The red gate, which still stands today was regarded as the “entrance” to Old San Juan.
There is an inscription carved into the section just above the gate that reads “Benedictus Oui Venit In Nomine Domini”. This Latin phrase welcomes all to Puerto Rico who come in the name of God.
Before the Gate was used as a historical landmark, ships arriving to San Juan would anchor just outside the Gate in the Bay of San Juan. From here they would send smaller vessels to take their passengers to shore. Just outside the gate was a pier where the travelers would unload and proceed through Puerta de Aguas.
Following the entrance through the gate, travelers would visit the San Juan Cathedral so they could give thanks to God for their safe voyage to Puerto Rico. Much of Puerto Rico’s history and culture is derived from that of the Catholic Church.
Nowadays you will find vendors just inside the gate selling the famous Puerto Rico Piragua. This is comparable to a shaved ice and will surely cool you off while in the sun discovering the new area! There are tons of flavor options but we recommend trying some of the fruits that are grown on the island (guava, passionfruit, pineapple, coconut).
Be sure to test out some of the food trucks and local snacks you find along the way! The local vendors are truly the best way to get a taste of the culture while still remaining on a budget.
Paseo De La Princesa | Must see historical tourist attraction
In 1853 Old San Juan constructed the “Walkway of the Princess”, more commonly known as Paseo De La Princesa. The boardwalk style passage sits just below the walls of the El Morro and extends along most of the south western side of the city island.
The walkway was ironically named after the prison built in 1837 that sits just behind the Raices fountain. Originally the building was used to house inmates, but has since then become the home of the Puerto Rico tourism company (A Walk Along Paseo De La Princesa, 2020).
The start of the walkway can be found at the Puerto De San Juan. Anyone exploring the area will discover unique historical statues, tons of vendors (selling handmade goods), and beautiful topography as they walk the pathway.
There’s tons of foot traffic but no room for cars, so you’ll be able to relax and truly enjoy the culture and scenery during your stop along the Paseo De La Princesa.
One of the local favorite’s also sits along the esplanade. Café La Princesa, an indoor/ outdoor café that offers some of the best Puerto Rican cuisine in town. This restaurant has an outdoor bar at the café that features some of Puerto Rico’s finest rums available.
This little cafe is a must go! Upon arriving you will be blown away by the atmosphere and “jungle vibe” it gives off from being located underneath of several large strangler fig trees.
Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in Old San Juan are when things get turned up a notch. You will find dozens of local vendors on the pathway as well as music, and plenty of dancing. Buy a cigar, some handmade arts/ crafts, or test out some delicious treats while you enjoy the tunes that fill the air.
The cobblestone streets, beautiful lamp posts, eye-opening ocean views, and historical landmarks all make the Paseo De La Princesa one of the top tourist attractions to visit while in Old San Juan Puerto Rico.