NYT: 36 Hours in San Juan


 

Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, stories of hope and progress are emerging in Puerto Rico, just as the island’s tropical vegetation is flourishing once again.

While there is still much work to be done, and some rural areas might not fully recover for years, the capital of San Juan has been humming along for months.

With a few exceptions, shops, hotels and restaurants are operating as usual, and there are some noteworthy additions to the city’s lively dining scene.

The cultural landscape is energetic as well: Lin-Manuel Miranda made headlines with his reprisal of the lead role in the musical “Hamilton,” which played at San Juan’s main performing arts center last month, and galleries in Santurce and Old San Juan are showcasing thought-provoking works by local artists.

As always, you’ll find picturesque beaches, heady cocktails, contagious music and gregarious locals, more eager than ever to welcome visitors to their sunny corner of the Caribbean.

Start your visit with a literal taste of the city. Bakeries throughout San Juan sell a beloved pastry called mallorca, a doughy sweet bun shaped like a spiral. It derives from a Spanish specialty called ensaimada, originally from the Balearic Islands. The Puerto Rican version is a testament to Spain’s strong influence on the local cuisine (Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from the early 1500s until the late 1800s), but mostly it’s an ode to indulgence. At Kasalta, a popular cafe and restaurant in the residential Ocean Park neighborhood, regulars order their mallorcas stuffed with ham and cheese. The line cook slices the bread, assembles the sandwich, presses it on a griddle until the cheese is melted and then showers the whole thing with copious amounts of confectioners’ sugar. It’s a snack to end all snacks ($7.95).


At Kasalta, a popular cafe and restaurant in the residential Ocean Park neighborhood, regulars order their mallorcas stuffed with ham and cheese.Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times
East Island Excursions offers sunset tours of San Juan Bay aboard a classic sailboat.Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

Bask in the soft evening sun and warm Caribbean breeze while getting both a visual and historical overview of San Juan Bay aboard a classic sailboat. The bay’s massive, centuries-old stone fortifications convey the zeal of the conquistadors, who leveraged Puerto Rico’s strategic location to protect their vast interests in the New World (British and Dutch armadas, as well as a miscellany of pirates, were frequent threats). Led by East Island Excursions, the 90-minute maritime jaunt includes informative talks, snacks and cocktails ($79).

Every Friday, the Dreamcatcher, a cozy bed-and-breakfast in Ocean Park, hosts vegetarian dinners prepared by a rotating group of local chefs. These events, which are open to the public, have a relaxing, convivial atmosphere, with patrons seated at candlelit communal tables under a leafy canopy. During a recent meal, the chef Verónica Quiles paid tribute to the Taínos, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, with a tasting menu that included dishes like tobacco-smoked pumpkin with creamed taro root. Every ingredient was locally sourced with the help of the sustainable agriculture advocate Tara Rodríguez Besosa, who researched the types of crops that existed in pre-Columbian times (from $45 for four courses, reservations required).

Water enthusiasts can book a surf lesson or rent a jet ski from Wow Surfing School & Jet Ski, a water sports outfit in San Juan.Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

Puerto Rican coffee farmers, who had been doing a brisk business as a result of the global obsession with flat whites and cold brews, lost about 80 percent of their crops in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But thanks to a group of agricultural entrepreneurs and activists, the industry is poised to get back on its feet. Head to up-and-coming Loiza Street to sample a blend from selected local farms at Café con Cé, a tiny cafe with interiors featuring deliberately tattered walls and Scandinavian furniture. On weekends, they have brunch items like French toast and omelets. Hacienda San Pedro Coffee Shop, on nearby Avenida de Diego, sells espressos and lattes made with beans from an award-winning farm in the mountains of central Puerto Rico. Sandwiches are also on the menu.

San Juan has miles of lovely beaches washed by turquoise waves. Isla Verde’s wide, uninterrupted swath of sand fringed by palm trees is a favorite among both locals and visitors. If swimming and strolling isn’t enough, you can book a surf lesson or rent a Jet Ski from Wow Surfing School & Jet Ski, a water sports outfit with a permanent kiosk right behind the El San Juan Hotel ($70 for a 30-minute Jet Ski rental).

 

Sabrina Brunch and Bistro Bar, a cheerful restaurant on Loiza Street, takes its name from the classic Audrey Hepburn movie.Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

Wander into the ample courtyard of the former Museo de San Juan, a 19th-century building that houses the Mercado Agrícola Natural Viejo San Juan. This volunteer-run green market, held every Saturday, is where Puerto Rican farmers sell their produce: avocados, mangos, papayas and much more. There are ready-to-eat snacks and drinks too, including empanadas, soups and freshly squeezed fruit juices.

Old San Juan is one of the most charming and culturally significant colonial districts in the New World, filled with colorful old houses and cobblestone streets. After taking in the views from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century fortress perched on a seaside bluff ($7 for adults), take the short walk to the frequently overlooked Museo de las Américas, a small museum on the second floor of a military barracks from 1854. It offers an overview of the region’s history, as well as temporary exhibitions by noteworthy Puerto Rican artists such as José R. Alicea, a printmaker and painter ($6 for adults). Just steps away is the Liga de Arte, an art school with shows by emerging and established artists. Its interior garden, shaded by various tropical trees, is a lovely spot to take a break (free).