Explore Puerto Rico’s history through its stunning architecture

Historical zones in Old San Juan, Ponce and San Germán offer 500 years of fascinating stories

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“If these buildings could talk, believe me, you’d learn a lot. They’d tell you tons of stories,” says guide Andy Rivera of Puerto Rico Historic Buildings Society as we tour Old San Juan Historic District on a sunny-bright weekday morning.

San Juan is the oldest colonial settlement in Puerto Rico, dating back more than 500 years to the arrival of Spanish explorers. Originally settled in a less accessible inland location, the town was soon after established on the north coast islet of San Juan in the early 1500s.

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“This was a better strategic position to defend the city. That’s why we have the biggest fort ever built in the New World. The longest, tallest, widest wall built by the Spanish government. The thickest is 45-feet long, and the tallest is 125-feet high,” Rivera explains.

Tucked within the fortified district of Old San Juan, today’s homes, hotels and businesses represent architectural styles spanning centuries — Spanish colonial, baroque and neoclassical, to name a few. Many are painted in vibrant candy-coloured pastels that create a storybook feel along the blue cobblestoned streets.

Colourful buildings line the blue cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan.
Colourful buildings line the blue cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Here’s how to travel on the enchanted island of Puerto Rico, exploring the architectural gems found in beautiful Old San Juan and the charming towns of Ponce and San Germán to the south.

Old San Juan

El Morro

Nowadays, the grassy areas surrounding El Morro offer a tranquil setting for picnics and kite-flying.
Nowadays, the grassy areas surrounding El Morro offer a tranquil setting for picnics and kite-flying. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Castillo San Felipe del Morro Fortress, or El Morro, as it’s known, is an iconic symbol of Puerto Rico’s military history. This massive fortification, with its imposing walls, moat, drawbridge, cannons, lighthouse and sweeping sightlines of the Atlantic Ocean, helped protect its occupants from invasions and pirate attacks. El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal Fort, the second UNESCO World Heritage military site in the historic zone, offer glimpses into 400 years of Spanish colonial rule and military strategy. These days, on the grassy rolling grounds surrounding El Morro — where many a bloody battle once played out — is a bucolic setting with colourful kites fluttering above families sharing picnics.

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San Juan Cathedral

The San Juan Cathedral was founded in 1521.
The San Juan Cathedral was founded in 1521. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

Founded in 1521, the majestic Gothic-style San Juan Cathedral on bustling Calle de Cristo Street is the second oldest cathedral in the U.S. This cathedral has waged battles of its own, as hurricanes and enemy looting did their damage. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours admiring the interior details, with intricate carvings, beautiful stained-glass windows, and ornate religious relics. It’s also where you’ll find the tomb of Juan Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer and Puerto Rico’s first governor.

Casa Blanca

Casa Blanca  is the oldest private residence in San Juan.
Casa Blanca is the oldest private residence in San Juan. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Casa Blanca, the city’s oldest private residence, was built for Ponce de León, who died from a poisoned arrow on an expedition in Florida before he had a chance to make this ocean-view mansion his home. But his family enjoyed it for a spell. It’s now a museum of the island’s colonial history. The rooms are well-preserved time capsules, and the courtyards and lush gardens perfect for a shade-filled break from the midday heat.

Lush gardens and courtyards at Casa Blanca in Old San Juan.
Lush gardens and courtyards at Casa Blanca in Old San Juan. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts
Casa Blanca museum offers a look at the history of Puerto Rico's colonial past.
Casa Blanca museum offers a look at the history of Puerto Rico’s colonial past. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

Capilla del Cristo

Old San Juan's Capilla del Cristo is a chapel built in 1753 to honour a supposed 'divine intervention' that occurred during a horse race.
Old San Juan’s Capilla del Cristo is a chapel built in 1753 to honour a supposed ‘divine intervention’ that occurred during a horse race. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Poised on the edge of the town’s historic wall is Capilla del Cristo, a charming little chapel built in 1753 in honour of a divine intervention and now known for its healing powers. Legend has it that during a horse race through the cobbled streets, a rider lost control, catapulting beast and man over the cliff’s edge. A local politician, watching the race from a nearby balcony, saw the event unfolding. His prayer of intervention, according to local lore, was miraculously answered when the rider’s life was spared. The local government had the chapel built on the sight to honour the outcome. However, says Rivera, it was a fanciful tale meant to speak to the power of prayer, as the city archives later revealed the rider died that day.

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Ponce

Wedding Cake Houses

Pink villas like architect Blas Silva's 'Cake House' line the streets of the Ponce Historic Zone.
Pink villas like architect Blas Silva’s ‘Cake House’ line the streets of the Ponce Historic Zone. It’s also known as Casa Salazar-Candal and today it houses the History Museum of Ponce. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

The city of Ponce, or the Pearl of the South, is on the island’s southern coast, facing the Caribbean Sea and a 90-minute drive from San Juan. Founded in 1692, it’s Puerto Rico’s second-largest city where the architecture takes a quirky turn.

“The architect Blas Silva was a weirdo — and I mean that in the cutest way. He would number everything, even his children,” says guide Melina Aguilar Colón, founder of Isla Caribe Tours. “When he had a daughter, he would name her Maria. When he had a son, he would name him Ernesto. The next daughter would be Maria 2, and the next son would be Ernesto 2.” Aguilar Colón says that Silva also counted every egg he’d eaten and place he’d visited, landing him in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! as the Numerical Man.

Despite Silva’s quirks, it’s the pink, frothy villas such as his Cake House — with its blend of neoclassical and Ponce Creole styles — that Silva designed in the early 1900s that place him in high regard. The quirk caught on; other ornate wedding cake homes, like the Museum of Puerto Rico Music designed by Juan Bertoli Calderoni, sweeten the chamfered-cornered streets of the Ponce Historic Zone.

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Museo de la Musica Puertorriquena in Ponce Historic Zone.
Museum of Puerto Rico Music in Ponce Historic Zone. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Ponce Cathedral

The Ponce Cathedral is located in Plaza Las Delicias and is the centrepiece of the town square.
The Ponce Cathedral is located in Plaza Las Delicias and is the centrepiece of the town square. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Stunning Ponce Cathedral takes centre stage in the beautiful town square of Plaza Las Delicias, where ficus trees, fountains and statues of historical figures provide a backdrop to busy daily life. This grand cathedral features a neoclassical facade and ornate interior combining Gothic and colonial styles. Although established in 1692, the architecture now reflects a rebuild after an 1818 earthquake. If you look up at the pretty, pale-blue domed ceiling inside the cathedral, you’ll see damage caused by a 2020 earthquake.

Parque de Bombas

Parque de Bombas is a Moorish Revival-style pavilion located behind the Ponce Cathedral that was built in 1882.
Parque de Bombas is a Moorish Revival-style pavilion located behind the Ponce Cathedral that was built in 1882. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Directly behind the cathedral is the iconic Moorish revival-style pavilion, Parque de Bombas, a historic firehouse that’s now a museum designed by Spanish military man-cum-designer Maximo Meana for a local exhibition in 1882.

“Parque de Bombas was built for a fair. The church gave permission, thinking it would only be there for 16 days, not for 141 years,” says Aguilar Colón. She adds that Meana chose the black and red striped colour combination because he wanted the pavilion to be eye-catching for the fair’s visitors. Afterward, when Meana was mayor of Ponce, he decided the structure should stay, making it the town firehouse. Talk about a fair to remember: Parque de Bombas’ outspoken red and black combo is mirrored on residences and businesses throughout the town — even on the Ponce flag.

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Museo Castillo Serrallés

Museo Castillo Serrallés is a museum located on a hillside overlooking the city of Ponce. It was originally the home of the Serrallés family, who founded Don Q rum.
Museo Castillo Serrallés is a museum located on a hillside overlooking the city of Ponce. It was originally the home of the Serrallés family, who founded Don Q rum. Photo by Discover Puerto Rico

Perched on the lush hillside overlooking the city’s downtown and valley is Museo Castillo Serrallés. This 1930s Spanish Revival-style mansion was once the home of the Serrallés family, the founders of Don Q rum. Now a museum that offers rum tastings, a guided tour through the rooms filled with lavish period decor reveals the opulent lifestyle — including a spectacular indoor patio lounge with fountains.

San Germán

Porta Coeli Convent

San Germán's Porta Coeli is a convent church that dates back to 1609. It now serves as a religious museum and is considered a significant landmark of Puerto Rico.
San Germán’s Porta Coeli is a convent church that dates back to 1609. It now serves as a religious museum and is considered a significant landmark of Puerto Rico. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

The quaint city of San Germán is about a 20-minute drive from Ponce. Founded in 1570, and according to Aguilar Colón, it’s possibly older than Old San Juan. The town was originally established closer to the Caribbean coastline in 1511, but lacking military fortifications, too many pirate attacks made it necessary to relocate to its current location in 1570.

In the town’s centre, and up many steep brick steps, stands Porta Coeli. A convent church that dates to 1609, it’s now a religious museum and a noteworthy icon of Puerto Rico, says Aguilar Colón.

“It’s considered one of the oldest and most preserved churches in Puerto Rico’s history still standing,” she says. Damage from earthquakes, fires and hurricanes has led to the rebuild and alteration of Puerto Rico’s original churches and cathedrals. Not so the old chapel of Porta Coeli, which remains much the same as it did in 1609.

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Plaza Francisco Mariano Quiñones

San Germán Cathedral is a beautiful neoclassical structure.
San Germán Cathedral is a beautiful neoclassical structure. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

The San Germán town plaza is surrounded by a smorgasbord of architectural styles and wonders. The local cathedral, San Germán de Auxerre, is a plain, yet beautiful, neoclassical structure with an impressive array of crystal chandeliers. Across the plaza, Casa Vivoni, a Victorian mansion with lacy exterior spindle work designed by local architect Pedro Vivoni, is a more recent addition, constructed in 1915. And the freshly restored town theatre, sleek and geometric Cine Sol, is an art deco delight completed in the 1940s.

Casa Vivoni is a Victorian mansion overlooking the San Germán town plaza.
Casa Vivoni is a Victorian mansion overlooking the San Germán town plaza. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts
Cine Sol, is an art deco theatre located in San Germán, Puerto Rico.
Cine Sol is an art deco theatre located in San Germán, Puerto Rico. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

Casona Galib Fas

Casona Galib in San German is a historial mansion featuring 20 columns surrounding the deep front porch.
Casona Galib in San German is a historial mansion featuring 20 columns surrounding the deep front porch. Photo by Mary Beth Roberts

Casona Galib Fas, also known as Casa Juan Ortiz Perichi, was designed by architect Luis Pardo in 1920. It’s considered one of the most beautiful houses in Puerto Rico, says Aguilar Colón. The family that has resided there for the past 60 years allows public access but only for scheduled tours and events. There’s a charitable foundation in place to help preserve and restore this magnificent mansion. Its stately facade stands tall, with 20 columns surrounding the deep front porch.

The writer was hosted by Discover Puerto Rico. No one from Discover Puerto Rico vetted this article before publication. 

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If You Go

Hotel El Convento, a luxury boutique hotel in the heart of Old San Juan, is a 350-year-old former Carmelite convent. Well positioned for touring the area, it’s across from San Juan Cathedral on Calle de Cristo Street. Dine at Patio Del Níspero for a refreshing Piña Colada and authentic Puerto Rican dishes, such as stuffed mofongo balls.

While exploring Old San Juan, try eclectic bistro Verda Mesa’s farm-to-table signature rice dish and a botanical elixir blend mocktail. For fine dining, head to Bóveda for Spanish-inspired cuisine, such as tuna croquettes and fresh local seafood.

If you travel to the south coast, the Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino is across from Plaza Las Delicias. Casual fare at Melao Coffee Shop includes delicious breakfast sandwiches — be prepared to wait, it gets busy — and fine-dining options at Lola Eclectic Cuisine Restaurant.

For more information, go to discoverpuertorico.com

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