On a sultry May evening, I set off on a walking tour of this city’s La Calle Loiza neighborhood. Once a seedy area that few ventured into, it is rapidly blossoming into a Caribbean cousin of Miami’s Wynwood Art District, where colorful murals decorate the facades of once dingy industrial buildings.
Tucked in between the tourist meccas of Isla Verde and Condado, Calle Loiza is a gritty ghetto turned hipster hotspot, with colorful examples of colonial architecture now housing an array of shops, bars, galleries, restaurants and, more recently, lofts and apartments.
As is frequently the case in areas such as Wynwood and La Calle Loiza, it is the artists who come first — muralists, painters, sculptors — using sidewalks and street corners as their studios. The fruits of their labor are everywhere, from Andy Warhol-style pop art to rainbow-hued doors of the buildings themselves.
The new kids on the block, however, are artists of a different kind: culinary artists. Over an area of seven city blocks can be found some 30 different restaurants and food trucks, offering everything from hot dog stands to high end gastronomy, all helping to cement San Juan’s growing reputation as the Caribbean’s new capital of cuisine. As a result of this largesse, my walking tour quickly morphed into a tasting tour.
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I started at Café Pierre in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel. Appetizers, courtesy of rising chef Natalia Hernandez, were paired with the restaurant’s signature libation, a tamarind crush.
Then it was on to Silk, whose exotic décor, subdued lighting and Asian-inspired menu is more reminiscent of Bangkok or Beijing than San Juan. My spicy crab salad and tuna tataki were complemented by a selection of hot and cold sakes.
From Asia to Argentina was a five-minute walk to Agarrate Catalina, whose prime steaks and full-bodied red wines had me thinking I could have been in a Buenos Aires bodega.
It’s important to save enough energy to check out one (or more) of La Calle Loiza’s bustling bars. My favorite had to be Bar Bero, a combination barbershop and speakeasy (patrons get a free beer with a haircut).
Don’t settle for a beer. Have Luis, the personable mixologist, make a cocktail especially for you. Drawling out the syllables of my name, he presented me with the “Pa-trees-sia,” as he called the libation he concocted for me. Composed of Woodford Reserve bourbon, Barrilito rum, egg whites, lime juice, Frangelico, house made syrup, grapefruit bitters and a French liqueur similar to Chartreuse, it was definitely not for the novice.
I wish I could say I gamely finished my namesake drink, but one sip of it had me grabbing onto the bar for support, and deciding that maybe a beer wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Old San Juan
From the ramparts of Morro Castle to the Plaza de Armas to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, Old San Juan is a 35-square block area that could be described as a living museum. Some 400 restored 16th and 17th century buildings painted in rainbow shades and decorated with iron grillwork and lacy balconies are draped with purple and scarlet bougainvillea.
For an overview, take the free open-air trolley up the steep incline to Morro Castle, a 16th century citadel rising 140 feet above the sea on six levels. Grim and forbidding with its turrets, parapets and dungeon, it was built to protect the city from both European marauders and Caribbean corsairs.
El Morro’s companion fortress, San Cristobal, is the largest Spanish fort in the New World (27 acres), and along with the remains of the city’s original walls, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other attractions include the Plaza de Armas, with its fountain of the Four Seasons, Parque de las Palomas (Park of the Pigeons) and adjoining Cristo Chapel, where a silver altar dedicated to the Christ of Miracles tells the tale of a young horseman who, depending on the version, either plunged to his death over the steep cliff or miraculously survived the fall.
Another must-see is the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista which contains the tomb of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who may have failed in his quest to discover the Fountain of Youth, but did lay the groundwork for San Juan by starting a settlement here in 1508.
Just across a small plaza from the cathedral is Old San Juan’s most historic hotel, El Convento. Begun in the 17th century as a Carmelite convent, the 58-room boutique hotel retains the character of its colorful past with a central courtyard and authentic furnishings in each room, including hand-crafted tiles, intricately carved antique chests and mahogany beams supporting the ceilings.
The courtyard is home to the hotel restaurant, Patio Del Nispero, which shelters under a 300-year-old Nispero fruit tree imported from Spain.
If Old San Juan is a living memorial to the city’s colorful colonial past, the Condado area represents its exciting future. With its shimmering turquoise waters and powder white sand beaches, it has often been compared to Miami Beach. This scenic stretch of coastline has become the epicenter of the island’s swank restaurants, upscale shops, nightclubs, casinos and luxury hotels.
One of the most luxurious is the Condado Vanderbilt. It dates to 1919, when Frederick William Vanderbilt (yes, those Vanderbilts) began building the Beaux Arts-style property, complete with white walls and red tiles, French windows and towering ceilings, along a particularly desirable stretch of beach.
Despite a meticulous renovation with all the requisite upgrades, the hotel has retained its unique character, making it reminiscent of such historic properties as Miami’s Biltmore and Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian.
At the Condado Vanderbilt, butler service, a world-class spa and a buzzy lobby bar are just a few of the amenities, which also include two top-notch restaurants. There’s the more casual Ola (don’t miss the pumpkin pancakes stuffed with requezon, a local cheese, and topped with lemon curd) and for fine dining, 1919, where your best bet is to try one of the tasting menus paired with a selection of wines.
Too many travelers dismiss San Juan as just another cruise port — good for a few hours of shopping — and in truth, the port is crammed with ships on a daily basis. However, a few blocks away from the ubiquitous hawkers with their merchandise is one of the Western Hemisphere’s most vibrant and historic cities — a city with an illustrious past and one that promises a dynamic future.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.