I recently got married and my new hubby and I decided to just wing it when it came to our honeymoon. Some thought it was a bad idea, but for us it fit our personalities and love for adventure. So, after the wedding in Big Sur, all our family and friends made their way back home and we drove off as the sun set not knowing where we would end up.
Our trip started off in Yosemite where we were deprived of wifi and any sort of cell service, surrounded by towering slabs of granite and waterfalls, and hiked to our heart's content. We loved every minute of it. But it was time to move on so we made our way through California for a few days, eventually landing in Santa Barbara at one of our favorite hotels, The Goodland, in Goleta. It was there that we made the most spontaneous decision of all… “hey babe, where’s a place we have both never been to, that has culture, tropical beaches, but somehow also makes you feel like you were in Europe without having to spend the money to get there. Oh and complete with mouthwatering cuisine. Puerto Rico? [Silence] Okay!”
So the U.S. commonwealth probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when dreaming of culinary, tropic and old world destinations all mixed in one. It's only the size of Connecticut, but Puerto Rico pulsates with more life than any other island in the Caribbean. Whether it's the beat of bomba y plena, salsa, or reggaeton, there's a party going on here 24/7. And the food is diverse and mouth-watering wherever you go.
From the tropical beaches and islands, to the blue cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan, or the graffiti-splashed back alleys of Tras Talleres, I discovered no shortage of delicious things to eat and do. Here, a look at my tastiest finds.
Condado:Stay in Condado at one of the resorts for a few days to get that out of your system. You’ll have the pampered tourist, sitting by the infinity pool holding a pina colada experience. But then get ready to move to the more cultured part of Puerto Rico, Old San Juan, where you can feel like you're in another country, which you are (Spanish language, gas by the liter, roads by the kilometer), while still being in the United States.
Culebra island, Puerto Rico:
If you are looking for an unpretentious, crystal clear turquoise water white sand beaches type of feel, there are few places better than Culebra. The charming island is 18 miles east of Puerto Rico’s mainland and has no major hotel chains or stores — and likes it that way! It prefers to own one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Flamenco Beach.
You’ll pretty much find nothing but nature and old rundown, wroughting army tanks (it used to be an army bunker in WW II). But grab a fresh coconut provided by a local for a few bucks, sit back and enjoy paradise.
Old San Juan:
From the blue cobblestone streets to the vibrant colorful buildings, in Old San Juan you are transported to an old-world European town that instantly makes you forget you didn’t even need a passport to get there.
We stayed at the Gallery Inn, which is housed in a 19th-century colonial mansion. Those interested in unique accommodations should definitely stay here. Its name is apropos, as the inn's owners are artists and their works can be found throughout the property, and in its 22 guest rooms. All are ornately dressed, equipped with air-conditioning and quality mattresses. You will be greeted by talking parrots yelling “hola” and whistling at any girl who walks by reception. Indulge in an inviting plunge in the unique pool, venture through the hotel to check out the unoccupied rooms (which they leave open for you to snoop through), or head up to the rooftop deck that features the best ocean and 360 views of San Juan.
Fun fact: the Obama’s stayed at the Gallery Inn for a romantic getaway.
Eats and Drinks:
While on your stroll through the Old San Juan, stop by for breakfast at Caficultura. This fun, casual diner is a great spot to pick up brunch and coffee. My top picks (I went a few days in a row cuz I couldn’t get enough): veggie scramble, crepes with goat cheese, coconut French toast with pineapple marmalade—and don’t get me started on the banana rum pancakes!
Tucked away in the southern section of Old San Juan, this tiny mom-and-pop shop would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line of eager folks, happily waiting their turn to indulge in some of the tastiest and coldest treats this little islet has to offer: handcrafted paletas
There are many places to stop for a snack and most restaurants in Old San Juan offer tapas style dishes keeping with their Spanish traditions. For us, on the famous Calle San Sebastián, you’ll find Palmas Rest. Indulge in pretty much anything they have on their menu and you will be satisfied with feeling of their local Puerto Rican fare.
L’ Osteria Decanter
Who knew I would eat some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had in Puerto Rico?! Well after making a decision to stroll the streets of Old San Juan and eat dinner tapas style as whatever restaurant looked good, we stumbled upon L’ Osteria Decanter. The owner, Vito, an Italian immigrant who ended up in Old San Juan due to falling in love with his Puerto Rican native wife, was the only one working the restaurant that night, besides the chef who spoke nothing by Italian. Vito was running between the bar, pouring wine and mixing cocktails, to grabbing a menu and taking your order at the tables. He told us he didn’t expect it to be busy that night.
Everything on the menu is “farm to table” italian style. Homemade sausages and cured porchetta from a pig farm on the island, fresh handmade pastas made daily by the chef and fish caught that morning. It was sensational. After some antipasti, I opted to try the Gnocchetti; potato gnocchi with salmon, caviar and bacon. It was heavy but the saltiness of the caviar cut it perfectly and it was completely delicious.
After dinner and learning Vito’s entire life story, he gave us some suggestions of bars to hit up. Starting with the oldest dive bar in Old San Juan.
Chandeliers made of old business cards, walls filled with graffiti and cryptic messages (some from the 1970s and 80s) and a vintage record player featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Draco Rosa albums – these are all part of the delicious mashup that is El Batey, a dive bar found on Cristo Street. The place is tattered, scribbled on, and bewitchingly dark in the best possible way; as soon as you cross the dilapidated door of El Batey, you get into their groove, and everyone else here seems to be under the same spell.
After getting our dive bar fix we moved on to La Factoria which is the only place I’ve ever been where you can bar hop all in one building.
The suspender-wearing bartenders and the decaying glamour of the decor will help you identify this bar on San Sebastian street. An intriguing red bulb by the bar table goes on after 6pm, signaling the opening of three additional bars hidden behind a crooked door next to the restroom. Layers upon layers of peeling paint from decades past help set the mood, as well as the penciled name of the previous bar – Hijos de Borinquen – that peeks through the plasterwork. La Factoria took us on a wild ride as we made our way through each of the bars. We ended our evening in the very back bar where Vito maet up with us and we attempted our best at salsa dancing. Worth every minute.
Last but not least be sure to visit El Morro
The Castillo San Felipe del Morro, aka El Morro, is a 400-year-old fort in the old San Juan. Built from 1539 to 1787, this impressive piece of Spanish colonial defense served as Spain’s control point over most of the Caribbean.
Over the centuries, it’s suffered attacks from the English, Dutch and America—but still stands as a symbol of pride for Puerto Rico.
Take a few hours to truly explore this fortress— the lighthouse, the many garitas (wall-mounted turrets or sentry boxes), the Cannon Water Battery, and the Old Tower— all perfect settings for a fun photoshoot.
Puerto Rico, you won our hearts. We will be back.
- Megan Murray Tomarin, our Special Projects +PR