Looking for a spring getaway that fuses your love of swimming in infinity pools, drinking cocktails, and getting to know the local community? San Juan – with its 15th-century forts, colorful streets, white-sand beaches, and vibrant nightlife – is just a three-hour (and passport-free) flight away. After the devastation of Hurricane Maria last year, the city is rebuilding at an impressive rate and ready to welcome visitors with open arms (and piña coladas). Here’s how to spend a weekend eating, exploring, and giving back in paradise.
Credit: Serafina Beach Hotel
For the best of both the beach and the city, book a room in the Condado neighborhood just outside the walled old city. The brand-new Serafina Beach Hotel – yes, that Serafina – brings its New York culinary mind-set to Puerto Rico. Practically sitting on the sand, the property boasts a stellar seafood restaurant, a seaside infinity pool, modern furnishings, and endless ocean views (from $299). For an old-world experience, check into Hotel El Convento in the heart of Old San Juan. The renovated 16th-century former convent (hence the name) boasts Spanish Colonial architecture, gleaming tile floors, and a rooftop pool terrace (from $199).
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Make like a travel blogger and Instagram-pose amid the rainbow-hued streets of Old San Juan before touring the historic castillos of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. These military forts have seen battles since the 1500s as the entrance to the New World – Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port,” was the first stop on the trade route to the West Indies. For an alternative view of the capital city, charter a morning topsail or opt for water sports: Playa la Ocho offers great waves for mid-level surfers, and kite-surfers can launch just off Ocean Beach near Condado. Is a lounge chair the only action you need? Post up at Serafina Beach Hotel’s weekend pool parties for rosé in a cabana against a backdrop of DJ beats.
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Coffee and seafood reign supreme in San Juan. The local arabica beans are strong yet smooth and can be found at a number of local cafés sporting the red “Specialty Coffee” insignia. One such spot is Caficultura, situated off a massive plaza in Old San Juan. Lobster, red snapper, shrimp, and more fill the seafood lists at many eateries in town, but for a truly local feel, drive out of the city to La Parrilla. This rustic, open-air restaurant on Luquillo Beach serves epic feasts where you can pick your own three-pound lobster from a tank and chow on paella-stuffed fresh catch with plenty of tostones (deep-fried plantains). And for breakfast, make a beeline for La Bombonera, an Old Town institution, and order a ham and cheese mallorca (a pillowy, powdered sugar–dusted bread and your new favorite sandwich vehicle).
Drink (& Dance)
No weekend in Puerto Rico would complete without exploring the city’s eclectic nightlife. Start with sunset Patrón concoctions at Tacos & Tequila, a terrace bar at the historic Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. Post-twilight, head to La Placita, a fruit market by day–turned–bar pop-up by night. In Old Town, the unmarked La Factoría is a full-blown experience: an old terra-cotta building filled with multiple bars, including a mixology lounge that experiments with homemade bitters, a hidden wine bar, a packed salsa dance floor, and an EDM club with resident DJs. Round out your boozy itinerary with a dive bar, like the graffiti-covered El Batey. While you can play billiards in the back, the real entertainment is people watching from a table by the window.
Credit: Courtesy of Para la Naturaleza
Puerto Rico may be back in business, but it’s far from running at full speed. While visiting (and spending money) is beneficial in itself, there are plenty more opportunities to support one of the many organizations working on the island. Chef José Andrés earned a James Beard Humanitarian Award for his work at World Central Kitchen, which has served more than 3.4 million meals to those in need. Spend a day restoring the rain forest with Para la Naturaleza, the largest environmental organization on the ground in Puerto Rico. Its goal is to plant 775,000 endemic and native trees in the next five years. See the countryside as you drive inland to the small mountain town of Barranquitas, where you can repair homes, hospitals, and schools with All Hands Volunteers. (Apply online at each of the organizations’ websites before visiting the island.)