My first trip to San Juan was this past summer, and although I knew there were plenty of options to explore in the main tourist areas of Condado, Old San Juan and Isla Verde - I knew I wanted to really get into the local scene as well. It all started when friends recommended I stay with ‘Sylvia’ at the Dreamcatcher Guesthouse. It was over house made breakfasts and hibiscus tea she gave me a hand drawn map of her favorite spots in the neighborhood and beyond.
I went off exploring and found hole in the wall taco spots with killer margaritas, healthy lunches and juices, local nightspots with live music and cheap beers, speakeasy bars and of course, the best of the pristine beaches, poolside cocktails and island lifestyle that PR has to offer. If you are heading to San Juan for a couple of days and want to see some more of the city’s local flavor, check out some of my favorite finds!
Hotels are amazing, but some of you may be after something a little more unique and lower on the budget — without sacrificing style. This incredible multi-room guest house is located in a gated community only 10 minutes drive from the airport, and about a 1 min walk to the beach. Created by ex-movie set designer Sylvia De Marco, its eclectic touches will have you feeling like you really escaped from the city. Group kitchens, vegetarian meals cooked by the in-house chef and even yoga classes twice a week -- this is a retreat for those who want to add R&R into their world.
If you are lucky enough to stay at the Dreamcatcher, a minute from the front gate is the gorgeous Ocean Park Beach. More of a locals spot since there aren't any big hotels in this area you'll find theres plenty of places to lay your towel and really soak up the sun. Locals will be exercising and walking their dogs and you'll see ice pop and fruit carts being strolled across the sand selling people their wares. Definitely a nice change from the crowded tourist beaches.
Within walking distance of the Dreamcatcher you can try some local flavor at the Kamoli Kafe which offers health conscious fare for those who want to keep things light in the am. Fresh squeezed juices, salads and a variety of sandwiches await you at this cafe and boutique mix. The staff is friendly and ready to arm you with a list of other local recommendations, complete with hand drawn maps and service with a smile. A favorite here are the banana-honey-milk pancakes and green juices!
Did someone say Fish Tacos and cold Margaritas? Yes, please. This is another local spot close to Ocean Park with good flavors and a friendly staff that will give you some local tips if you care to ask. I loved the fish tacos, classic margaritas and also their house hot sauce, spiked with a serious amount of chilies. Definitely add this to everything you eat here, including straight up on their whole fried tortillas. Check out this spot too for happy hour in the afternoon. Who doesn’t love a cheap Marg after a day in the sun?
In the Ocean Park area, on the side of one of the main roads, you’ll catch a sign for Mangoes. While on the outside it may look like nothing too special, inside it has a super chill vibe, with cheap local beers, food and on the weekends, live latino music. It’s a great place if you want to avoid tourists and really see where the fun crowd hangs out. The night I was here, we were hanging out with local legend Bernie Williams aka, All-Star Yankees baseball star!
Another great spot to visit, especially for food and drinks is La Placita, the site of many day time markets and night time party. Head here during the weekend nights and you’ll find hundreds of locals and some in the know tourists here drinking on the streets, dancing and generally having an amazing time. A couple of awesome restaurants are right here for your enjoyment including the local seafood fav, Tasca El Pescador, which serves amazing seafood, grilled specialties and my favorite, the squid ink risotto.
Around the corner and probably with a long line out the door is Chef Jose Enrique’s self named restaurant Jose Enrique on Duffaut St. He was named one of Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef’s in 2013 and was the first Puerto Rican to get that accolade. His daily menu changes and features the bounty of Puerto Rican produce and fresh seafood and meats. It’s a must stop if you want a high-end yet comfortably casual eating experience in San Juan -- be sure you are ready for a wait though, this place is so good, people line up out the door and down the street.
Luxury lovers unite. The Ritz Carlton, located in the Isla Verde area is super close to the airport, so within 15 mins of landing you can have your feet in the sand and a Piña colada in hand. Complete with a beautiful pool and bar area where the staff are always ready to shield you from an afternoon shower or bring you ice cold drinks until the sun sets — the Ritz Carlton sure plays on its superior service in lush settings. The beach is gorgeous too, with plenty of chairs and umbrellas for exclusive use by hotel guests. There’s also pretty amazing sushi in the lobby bar, which is a nice change from the more traditional island fare!
One thing you should definitely do while you are in Old Town is hit the speakeasy cocktail bar, hidden in the winding streets of Old Town. This cocktail bar/ restaurant/ club is like a labyrinth of new cool in an otherwise tourist heavy section of town. Enter on the street through a unmarked door, enjoy what looks like the only space in the joint, yet walk through the wooden doors to the side of the bartender and you are in a whole other room with another bar. The same goes for when you continue through the back, you’ll find more spaces offering food and finally the back room which turns into a dance club with DJ’s as the night moves into the later hours. Be sure to order the Lavender Mule or hit up one of the bartenders to shake up a favorite of their choice.