The capital city of Puerto Rico, San Juan was among the first American cities founded by the Europeans. Locally called ‘La Ciudad Amurallada’ (Walled city) owing to the fortifications, built by the native Spanish- that partially surround the city. An architectural hub in itself, the city’s history is revealed in the Colonial, Gothic, Neoclassical and Baroque styled structures that define its urban landscape. Divided into two zones- the Old San Juan that boasts a variety of historical attractions (forts and plazas), and the New San Juan which reflects modernization with latest built structures, San Juan is rightly called San Juan is ‘A City of Contrasts’.
A visit to San Juan’s would seem like experiencing two distinct destinations, five centuries apart, yet existing cohesively.
1. EL MORRO CASTLE
This 16thCentury citadel acted as the guarded entrance to the Spanish Colonial port from the enemies. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a stone fortress with tunnel-mazes barracks and outposts that all created a formidable defence during its use. Even after numerous repairs and restorations, the fort stands strong and offers magnificent views of the Atlantic Sea.
2. SAN CRISTOBAL FORT
This defensive fort for the city was inspired by the designs of 17th century Vauban-style fortresses of France. Built over a period of 150 years, the structure contains dungeons, moat, secret tunnels, observation towers and an elaborate system for rainwater collections, far ahead of its time.
3. LA FORTALEZA
Characterised by its Classical-Revivalist architectural style and originally serving as a fortress and a prison, La Fortaleza is currently the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. The initial constructions and preservations are still evident in parts of the complex, that also houses some living quarters and private gardens within itself.
4. ALCALDIA CITY HALL
The present day building is a result of a series of renovations and repairs to match the façade and its twin turrets to the exact replica at Madrid, Spain. The structure now houses the office of the Mayor of the city and hosts periodic art and tourism exhibitions. Clearly, the City Hall building adds a colourful touch to the Plaza space surrounding it.
5. SAN JOSE CHURCH
Also called the Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Aquino, this cathedral is one of the primitive examples of Gothic-influenced religious architecture built in Old San Juan, by the Spanish. Sustaining numerous transformations from neoclassical to colonial and finally to gothic architectural style, the Church stands out for it’s rich historical background as well as unprecedented monumental work.
6. CASA BLANCA MUSEUM
The original wooden building, though now destroyed and rebuilt in stone, was the Governor’s residence which was later converted into the current museum, wherein each room has been designed to look and feel exactly like it would have during the 17thCentury. Literally a place to ‘Experience Architecture’, this museum is a must visit by architecture lovers!
7. BALLAJA BARRACKS
An example of Spanish Military architecture, the Barracks Quarters are a three-storeyed structure, built around a central courtyard that was initially meant to house the Puerto Rican soldiers and their families. Distinctively recognised by it’s rows of horizontal arches, the building currently houses museums and similar organisations.
8. SAN JUAN BAUTISTA CATHEDRAL
Ravaged and remoulded several times, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista that stands today is a confluence of various architectural styles including Renaissance and Neoclassical styles. Considered as one of the oldest churches in the sub-continent, the cathedral might not be too visually appealing, but holds a far greater historical importance.
9. SAN GERÓNIMO FORT
The Fort, though small in size, is situated perfectly between land and the sea. The stone structure enjoys the benefits of its location and offers scenic views all around. Originally constructed in the early 16thCentury as a defensive settlement, the conditions of the structure have deteriorated in the present times.
10. EL CAPITOLIO
Designed by a local Architect Rafael Carmoega, the Capitol Building is located in the Old part of San Juan and is in stark contrast to the other coloured-block buildings. Portraying Neoclassical-Revivalist style, the marble building is topped by a rotunda, and supported by circular columns, raised over a series of marble steps.
11. JOSE V. TOLEDO FEDERAL BUILDING
This three-storeyed Courthouse building showcases a sophisticated and harmonious blend of the Spanish Colonial Revival style with Classical details that are an ode to the traditional architecture of the country and the prevalent style used in federal government buildings of the era. The current structure is a result of a meticulous restoration done by the government in the late 1990s.
12. CASA DE LOS CONTRAFUERTES
The ‘House of Buttress’ as it is called, is a traditionally built Spanish-styled residence from the 1700s. Converted into a museum and an art gallery now, the house still bears its original colonial architectural features and furnishings that take the visitor back in time, upon entering the property.
13. DOMINICAN CONVENT CHURCH
The ancient building, established in the 1500s is a small chapel and a museum that displays various historical and religious artifacts. In addition to the artifacts, the building itself holds a magnificent grandeur for it’s authentic 16th Century Spanish Architectural style.
14. PASEO DE LA PRINCESA
Named as ‘One of the Most Scenic Walkways in the World’, it is a beautiful example of how San Juan’s architecture can also be found in pathways and landscapes. Lined with antique street lamps, sculptures, fountains, exotic trees and historic buildings on the sides, this avenue is literally a walk down the city’s memory lane.
15. MSEO DE ARTE DE PUERTO RICO
The Museum of Art of Puerto Rico (MAPR) is one of the most prestigious art museums in Puerto Rico. The Georgian-Neoclassical building houses an elaborate collection of art pieces from the 16th and 17th Century. A popular tourist attraction, the building also contains a display gallery with floor-to-floor windows, beautiful garden filled with a variety of native flora, 400-seat theatre, an atrium and a restaurant.