Viejo San Juan, or Old San Juan, is a small neighborhood in the greater metropolitan area of Puerto Rico's capital San Juan. It serves as a time capsule for history and architecture, with more than 700 historic post-Columbian buildings. This cluster of 74 blocks is bookended by two and a half miles of formidable stone bastions, defensive curtain walls and castles built during Spanish rule. While it's the seat of local government and Puerto Rican history, it's also home to a thriving bohemian culture. Although tourism has changed some of its character in recent years, there are bars, restaurants, galleries, bookstores and museums that maintain the neighborhood's essence – one forged through more than 400 years of colonialism. Despite the gentrification, Viejo San Juan remains the urban center of San Juan.
Bars change; they come and go. But El Batey remains the same as it was in the sixties, with just a few minor updates. The building was constructed in the 18th century, and the bar has become an icon of the city and its popular history, with the walls covered in the graffitied names of those who visit and photos of those who've passed.
Although natural wines are pretty new to San Juan, El Vino Crudo in Calle de la Fortaleza imports and retails a wide and diverse selection. The bar is lined with pale-yellow tiles and enclosed with a glass ceiling, setting the perfect scene for trying wines by the glass with a selection of local bread and cheese.
On Calle de Tetuán, in front of the art deco building of banking company Banco Popular, is this small cafe with a fresh breakfast and lunch menu, where sourdough bread, pasta and locally famous chocolate-chip-walnut cookies are made daily. Sitting on the sidewalk tables is ideal, where guests can watch the city go by on this quiet street.
This tiny coffee shop on Calle de San Francisco, near Calle del Cristo, Viejo San Juan's main shopping area, brews Puerto Rican coffee within historic brick walls and above a bright 19th-century tiled floor. The backyard garden provides shade from the San Juan sunshine and its yellow-and-white sign in the shape of a Chemex coffeemaker is unmissable from the street. As well as its extensive coffee menu, Filtrado offers grain salads and cornflake cookies.
Pio Pio proves that the size of a restaurant space doesn't determine its quality. This tiny restaurant serves local ingredients in fine-dining style. Think pumpkin and goat cheese tart, cassava flatbread covered in truffle and parmesan, or lump crab and sturgeon caviar with toasted crumpets. Despite the refined food and extensive wine menu, the energy is electric and casual.
This timeless bistro-style restaurant on Calle de la Fortaleza has a casual, playful ambience and offers a taste of rustic French cuisine created by chef Brahim Haouchine. The black and white tiles, high Spanish ceilings and walls covered in retro illustrations provide a convivial atmosphere. The $19 Sunday brunch is a steal, serving the best omelet in the city, while weekly specials could include smoked trout with potatoes or venison tenderloin with truffle risotto.
MUNS is a fashion store in Calle de la Luna owned by two sisters, Bianca and Paola Muns. It offers jewelry and a clothing collection made locally with sustainable fabrics.
Buy a camera or drop off a used roll for digitization at this shop dedicated to analog photography. Its bold pop-art decoration brings a modern flair to 35mm cameras.
A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.