Old San Jan is the cultural center of Puerto Rico. The 500-year old walled city is filled with beautiful pastel-colored colonial buildings, Spanish forts, art and history museums, plazas, restaurants, bars, shops and ship docks. Visitors could easily spend a couple of days wandering the cobblestone streets, exploring the city’s history and culture. Many of the island’s must-see sights are in Old San Juan; among them are two Spanish fortresses and these historic churches.
Catedral de San Juan Bautista
Catedral de San Juan Bautista (151-153 Calle del Cristo, Old San Juan, 787/722-0861, Mon.-Thurs. 9am-noon and 1:30pm-4pm, Fri. 9am-noon; Mass: Sat. 9am, 11am, and 7pm, Sun.-Fri. 12:15pm) holds the distinction of being the second-oldest church in the western hemisphere, the first being Catedral Basilica Menor de Santa in the Dominican Republic. The church was first built of wood and straw in 1521 but was destroyed by hurricanes and rebuilt multiple times. In 1917 the cathedral underwent major restoration and expansion. The large sanctuary features a marble altar and rows of arches with several side chapels appointed with elaborate statuary primarily depicting Mary and Jesus. In stark contrast is a chapel featuring an enormous contemporary oil painting of a man in a business suit. It was erected in honor of Carlos “Charlie” Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican layman who was beatified in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Catedral de San Juan Bautista is the final resting place of Juan Ponce de León, whose remains are encased in a marble tomb. It also holds a relic of San Pio, a Roman martyr.
Capilla del Cristo
Built in 1753, the tiny picturesque Capilla del Cristo (south end of Calle del Cristo, Old San Juan, 787/722-0861) is one of the most photographed sights in San Juan. Legend has it that horse races were held on Calle del Cristo, and one ill-fated rider was speeding down the hill so fast he couldn’t stop in time and tumbled over the city wall to his death, and the chapel was built to prevent a similar occurrence. An alternative end to the legend is that the rider survived and the church was built to show thanks to God. Either way, the result was the construction of a beloved landmark.
Unfortunately, Capilla del Cristo is rarely open, but it’s possible to peer through the windows and see the ornate gilded altarpiece. Beside it is Parque de Palomas, a gated park overlooking San Juan Harbor that is home to more pigeons than you might think imaginable. Birdseed is available for purchase if you want to get up close and personal with your fine feathered friends.
Iglesia de San José
Iglesia de San José (Calle San Sebastián at Plaza de San José, Old San Juan, 787/725-7501) is one of the oldest structures in Old San Juan. Built in the 1530s, it was originally a chapel for the Dominican monastery, but it was taken over in 1865 by the Jesuits. The main chapel is an excellent example of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture. Originally Iglesia de San José was Juan Ponce de León’s final resting place, but his body was later moved to Catedral de San Juan Bautista. Ponce de León himself is said to have donated the wooden 16th-century crucifix. Unfortunately, the church has been closed for many years.