San Juan Historical Buildings, San Juan

San Juan Historical Buildings (Self Guided), San Juan

San Juan was founded by the Spanish in 1521, which makes it the third oldest European-established capital city on the American continent. Owning to its long history, the old town of San Juan is filled to the brim with heritage colonial buildings.

Chief among them, La Fortaleza is the longest-standing executive mansion in continuous use in America, whereas the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is the second oldest cathedral on the continent.

A stroll in the Old San Juan is bound to present you with a historical sight practically at every turn. Whether you are a history buff or in love with colonial architecture, you will find this self-guided walking tour equally rewarding, as it introduces you to the city's most famous historical buildings.
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San Juan Historical Buildings Map

Guide Name: San Juan Historical Buildings
Guide Location: Puerto Rico » San Juan (See other walking tours in San Juan)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles
Author: leticia
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • El Arsenal (The Arsenal)
  • Capilla del Cristo (Chapel of Christ)
  • La Fortaleza (The Fortress)
  • Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
  • Iglesia de San José (San José Church)
  • Cuartel de Ballajá (Ballaja Barracks)
  • Casa Blanca Museum (White House Museum)
  • Casa Rosa (The Pink House)
  • School of Plastic Arts and Design of Puerto Rico
El Arsenal (The Arsenal)

1) El Arsenal (The Arsenal)

Located on La Puntilla Street, El Arsenal was built in 1791 as a Spanish naval station. Later the building became a citadel, which contained a storage room, offices, living sectors, workshops, a coast guard, kitchens and its own chapel. It features a combination of architectural styles and is now home to three exposition galleries.

The Arsenal played an interesting role in the American-Spanish War in the latest 19th century. After the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and defected the Spanish army, the island was ceded to the US as part of the Treaty of Paris. The US military allowed the remaining Spanish troops to remain in the Arsenal until they could be transported out of the Island, so Arsenal was the last place where the Spanish Empire in the Americas.

There are still some old canons on display at the Arsenal. The place offers an awesome view of the harbor - it is a fantastic spot for taking Instagram photos!
Capilla del Cristo (Chapel of Christ)

2) Capilla del Cristo (Chapel of Christ) (must see)

Capilla del Cristo (Chapel of Christ), is a small chapel located in the Old San Juan Historic District of Puerto Rico. Built in the 18th century, the structure has become a cultural icon of Puerto Rico and was saved from demolition in the 20th century. Most of the articles located at its altar are from 1753.

The chapel with its belfry is located in the Old San Juan Historic District in the western section of San Juan Islet, at the end of Cristo Street, now a pedestrian walkway. It sits on top of the old city walk. The chapel is a major tourist attraction in San Juan. Inside the chapel there is a famous painting called El Milagro ("The Miracle").

According to the legend, during a horse race that was taking place on the street where the chapel is located, a young rider and his horse took a bad fall and the rider went over the city wall but was miraculously saved. In a famous book about Puerto Rican legends, it says that the horse was killed but the rider lived. Afterwards, permission was granted to build the Catholic chapel and many festivals have been held, over the years, at the location to celebrate the miracle.

The chapel is open to publish on Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 to 18:00.
La Fortaleza (The Fortress)

3) La Fortaleza (The Fortress) (must see)

La Fortaleza, or the Fortress, is the current official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. Built between 1533 and 1540 to defend the harbor of San Juan, it is the oldest executive mansion in the New World. During the 1640 reconstruction, the chapel of Santa Catalina, then located outside the walls, was demolished and integrated into the complex, which ensued a new name by which it is currently known, Palacio de Santa Catalina.

La Fortaleza was the first defensive fortification built in San Juan, and the first of a series of military installations, which included the Fort San Felipe del Morro and the Fort San Cristóbal, designed to protect the city. The construction was authorized by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, as a defensive measure against the attacks from Carib Indians and rivaling European powers of the time.

The fortress underwent a massive reconstruction in 1846 to change its military appearance into a palatial facade. Since then, La Fortaleza has been the residence of more than 170 governors of Puerto Rico and hosted various dignitaries, including President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy who stayed here in 1961. At present, the complex consists of a few attached buildings with formal living quarters in the second floor, and private quarters in the third. It overlooks the high city walls that front the bay, and within the north perimeter of the house are sheltered gardens and a swimming pool.

Why You Should Visit:
A UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site since 1983.
A definite must-see for history and architecture buffs with a taste for Spanish designs.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

4) Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (must see)

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is the Roman Catholic temple and the seat of the Archdiocese of San Juan de Puerto Rico. This cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan, and the second oldest cathedral in the Americas (the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, is the oldest). The original cathedral in the then city of Puerto Rico (renamed San Juan after the Spanish-American War) was constructed from wood in 1521. It was destroyed by a hurricane, upon which the current church was built in 1540 to be reshaped several times in the course of the later centuries, with the last remodeling taking place in 1917.

The first school in Puerto Rico (and the oldest school in the United States after Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States) was the Grammar School. The school was established by Bishop Alonso Manso in 1513, in the area where the cathedral would later appear. The school was free and the courses taught here included Latin language, literature, history, science, art, philosophy and theology.

The cathedral contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. It also houses a shrine to the Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago, the first Puerto Rican, the first Caribbean-born layperson and the first layperson in the history of the United States to be beatified.

Why You Should Visit:
Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is a rare New World example of medieval Spanish architecture. The restored frescoes and the fact that it is still an operational church make it absolutely exceptional. Traditionally, travelers entering San Juan Gate would make this cathedral their first stop in San Juan to thank God for their safe journey.

In this quiet and reverent atmosphere you can almost hear the angels singing. You can walk through it in less than 30 minutes, but you might as well want to take longer and savor the spirituality resonating from the structure.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Iglesia de San José (San José Church)

5) Iglesia de San José (San José Church)

San Jose Church (Iglesia de San Jose), located in Old San Juan, is one of the first significant works of architecture on the island. The church was first opened in 1532 and is one of the earliest surviving examples of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture in the Western hemisphere.

Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, was buried in the crypt of the church from 1559 to 1836, when his remains were exhumed and later transferred to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. However, his coat of arms is still located near the main altar. His grandson, Juan Ponce de Leon II is buried in the crypt beneath the Sanctuary's floor. Puerto Rican painter José Campeche is also buried in the church.

In 2002, a restoration project on the structure began and several painted murals were discovered including a mid-19th century depiction of the Battle of Lepanto. In 2004, the church was listed on the 2004 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund, which helped the conservation effort.

The Church of Saint Joseph is closed to visitors due to the restoration work that has been going on. It is expected to re-open in 2020.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Cuartel de Ballajá (Ballaja Barracks)

6) Cuartel de Ballajá (Ballaja Barracks)

Ballaja Barracks (or Cuartel de Ballajá in Spanish) is a military barracks located in San Juan. It was built from 1854 to 1864 for the Spanish troops established on the island and their families.

The three-story structure was completed in 1864, occupying an area of 7,700 square meters (83,000 sq ft). It could accommodate over 1,000 citizens, originally Spanish soldiers and their families. Its vast interior patio is one of the best examples of 19th-century Spanish architecture.

The barracks were heavily used during the Spanish–American War near the end of the 19th century. On May 12, 1898, during the American bombing of San Juan, the fleet led by Admiral William T. Sampson damaged the northeast side of the barracks. After the war ended, and with the change of sovereignty, the barracks became the quarters for the United States Army until 1939.

Today, the Ballaja Barracks houses several educational and cultural organizations including the Latin America Museum on its second floor. The museum offers three permanent collections: African Heritage, the Indian in America, and Popular Arts in America.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Casa Blanca Museum (White House Museum)

7) Casa Blanca Museum (White House Museum)

Casa Blanca is a house museum located in Old San Juan. This lovely white adobe building is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan. Built in 1521 it served as the first fortification of the San Juan islet and residence for Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico, and his family. Juan Ponce de Leon unfortunately died in an expedition to Florida without ever lived in the house. It was later used as the residence of his descendants, until the mid-18th century. As a fortification it served mostly as a refuge in times of attack from Taino rebels.

The house was built in wood but the original structure was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in stone and masonry. It subsequently was occupied by members of the Spanish army and later by American army commanders. The surrounding gardens were planted by the first American governor of the island in the 19th century. In 1967 the complex was transferred to the government of Puerto Rico and declared a historical monument. In 1981, it was recorded in the Historic American Buildings Survey. The house is a museum of 16th and 17th century artifacts managed by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.

The building, walls and gardens are in excellent condition. The plaques on the walls explain the history of each room. The museum charges a small fee ($5) to enter while one can visit the gardens for free.

Opening Hours: Tuesday: 8:30-16:00; Wednesday-Sunday: 8:00-16:00; Monday: closed.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Casa Rosa (The Pink House)

8) Casa Rosa (The Pink House)

Casa Rosa or Casa Rosada, also known as the Pink House, is a historic house located in Old San Juan. The house was built in 1812 as a barrack for the troops assigned to the San Agustin Bastion. It was converted to an officers quarters in 1881 by the Spanish Army. The building was later converted to a museum for Puerto Rican crafts. Today it operates as a day care center for the children of employees of the government of Puerto Rico.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
School of Plastic Arts and Design of Puerto Rico

9) School of Plastic Arts and Design of Puerto Rico

This beautiful Roman style architecture was built in 1859 and it was the hospital of Our Lady of the Conception. Quite spacious in size, even larger than that of La Fortaleza, it has been listed as a historical monument by the Institute of Culture of Puerto Rica and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Today the building houses the School of Plastic Arts and Design of Puerto Rico. The school was founded in 1965 as part of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. The well known Puerto Rican painter and artist José Torres Martino was one of the school's co-founders.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

Walking Tours in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Create Your Own Walk in San Juan

Create Your Own Walk in San Juan

Creating your own self-guided walk in San Juan is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Souvenir Shopping

Souvenir Shopping

Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Among the crafts that followed the Spanish to the island was mundillo, a kind of decorative lace made of wooden bobbins. Over the next few centuries, the mundillo craft flourished on the island and today is one of the most popular local products sought after by visitors.

Being Caribbean, the country also...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.9 Km or 0.6 Miles
Old San Juan Walking Tour

Old San Juan Walking Tour

Founded by Spanish colonists in 1509 at a site then known as "Puerto Rico" (Rich Port), San Juan is the third oldest European-established capital in the Americas. In 1521, the words "San Juan" were added to the official name, thus making it "San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico". This was in keeping with the usual custom of christening the town with both its formal name...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.1 Km or 1.9 Miles
Old San Juan Squares

Old San Juan Squares

A distinctive feature of Old San Juan is the number of quaint historic squares. Many of them are adorned with beautiful fountains, prominent monuments and intricate sculptures recounting rich history of this amazing city. Check out San Juan’s most popular squares on this self-guided walking tour!

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.8 Km or 1.1 Miles

Useful Travel Guides for Planning Your Trip

13 Distinctively Puerto Rican Goods to Bring Home from San Juan

13 Distinctively Puerto Rican Goods to Bring Home from San Juan

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