Old San Juan (World Heritage)

Old San Juan dates back to the 16th century and has numerous Spanish colonial buildings. The fortress, built between 1533 and 1540 and reinforced in the 19th century, is one of the most impressive military complexes in the Caribbean. In 1898 the island was handed over to the United States by the Spanish without a fight.

Old San Juan: Facts

Official title: La Fortaleza Fortress and Old San Juan in Puerto Rico
Cultural monument: Fortifications La Fortaleza, El Morro, El Cauelo and San Cristóbal as well as Old San Juan
Continent: America
Country: USA, Puerto Rico
Location: San Juan
Appointment: 1983
Meaning: unique example of European military architecture in the Caribbean

Old San Juan: History

1511 Foundation of a Spanish military base
1519 Founding of San Juan
1532 Construction of the Iglesia de San José
1533-40 Construction of La Fortaleza
1539 Construction of the El Morro fortifications and construction of San Cristóbal
1540 Construction of the cathedral
1589 Reconstruction of El Morro under the governor Diego Menéndez de Valdes
1595 Attack by privateers under Sir Francis Drake
1598 Attack by George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland’s associations; Taking of El Morro
1625 Attack by the Dutch; San Juan is burned down
1630-60 Reconstruction of San Juan
1630-78 Construction of the city wall
1756-63 in the Seven Years War
1765 further improve the defense system of San Juan
1898 during the Spanish-American War, the US Navy attacked El Morro; with treaty of Paris takeover of Puerto Rico by the USA
1942 Construction of an underground bunker and a reinforced artillery observation post in El Morro
1949 Establishment of the San Juan National Historic Site
1992 Restoration of El Morro to its 18th century state

Far more than Caribbean fortress glory

Imagine Paris in the Caribbean, a city of orange-red, pastel green, pink and white. The capital of Puerto Rico breathes history, culture and atmosphere with the seven streets of its old town. Voilà, San Juan: The bridge between the new and the old San Juan is crossed and the Plaza Colón is reached – Colón, more than just a footnote to the history of the discoveries.

Towards the plaza, the wide avenues narrow into narrow, rarely used streets. Here, paving stones shimmering in blue metallic replace the otherwise usual smooth tar surface. Art galleries compete with the bank palaces glistening in the light. In the Calle Fortaleza, your gaze wanders, wanders upwards and is captured by the renovated architectural beauty. Wall to wall, the three- and four-story houses form a chessboard-like quarter. In cool, tiled courtyards, palm trees soar to heaven. Wrought iron balcony parapets protrude from the house facades. The rumbling of the Spanish carriage in the Paseo de la Princesa has stopped. One or the other of them drove to the whitewashed palace La Fortaleza, where the governor resides to this day.

This palace is an architectural gem, even if, as a former fort, it is strategically placed against attacks from the sea. For this reason the stronghold of San Felipe del Morro was built at the tip of the island. This massive underground vaulted fort was used to defend the port entrance, while the San Cristóbal fort at the other end was intended to thwart an invasion from the mainland. With a wide network of casemates and walkways, it represents the military architecture of the 17th century.

But not only fortress structures determine the image of the city, but also sacred buildings such as the cathedral, in which the grave of the Spanish conqueror and founder of San Juan, Juan Ponce de León, is located. Across from the cathedral is El Gran Convento, originally a nunnery that was transformed into a luxury hostel as part of the extensive restoration of the old town.

Another monastery, the Convento Dominicano, dominates Plaza San Juan and is now home to the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute. A number of museums have also been established, such as the Pablo Casals Museum, which keeps the legacies of the legendary cellist, to whom the city pays posthumously with an annual festival.

Not to be forgotten is the impressive San José Church, next to the cathedral one of the oldest in the Caribbean. The house of the Contrafuertes is very old. Not far away you come across La Casa Blanca. The descendants of the city’s founder, Ponce de León, lived in the so-called “White House” for decades before it was set up as a historical museum.

The melancholy magic of bygone times still whispers through the alleys of the old town, when Spain sent its ships laden with gold to Cádiz and Seville from there. But in 1898 the 400 years of Spanish rule came to an end. Tourists on sophisticated cruise ships have long since replaced the former conquerors and their frigates.

Old San Juan (World Heritage)