San Juan

The ocean is warm, the trade winds are cool, and life's pace is refreshingly slow. Gay travelers seeking these simple pleasures will love San Juan. Puerto Rico’s largest city is a surprisingly easy destination for North Americans and Europeans in search of a beach getaway, and the US dollar is the legal tender.

There's lots of gay life, too, from the relative quiet of Ocean Park, San Juan's upscale beach community, to the bustling Condado, famous for its casinos and nightlife. Gay nightlife has mostly moved away, leaving one bar and a couple of gay-friendly cafes, but the beach and Ashford Avenue still offer cruising opportunities. Now the center of gay nightlife, the more downscale Santurce neighborhood has five LGBT clubs along Calle Condado between Ponce de León and Carmen, and six more to the east, around Ponce de León between Diego and San Jorge. Since 18 is the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico, there's plenty of energy in the scene.

Old San Juan, with ancient forts, and cobblestone streets, has colonial buildings harking back to a time when this was one of the busiest ports in the New World. Boutique hotels occupy some of these historic buildings, along with a number of good restaurants, and a sprinkling of artsy-mixed-crowd bars.

Music has always been an important part of Puerto Rican culture, so opportunities abound for hearing salsa, bomba, plena, seis, and reggaeton. Renowned opera singer Justino Díaz hails from here, as does pop singer Ricky Martin. The Puerto Rico Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico, the Pablo Casals Museum, the Americas Museum and the National Gallery are some of the local museums and galleries.

 

Getting here

You’ll probably touch down at San Juan's busy Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Muñoz Marín, close to the neighborhood of Isla Verde. The small Aeropuerto Fernando L. Rivas Dominicci (close to Old San Juan and Condado) has charter flights and short hops to nearby islands. There are taxis waiting at both terminals.

There are also inexpensive mini-bus "públicos" (see below) serving both the airport and the cruise ships piers, with set destinations such as Plaza Colón, in Old San Juan.

 

Getting around

Do yourself a favor, don’t rent a car for trips around San Juan. Streets are crowded, signs are confusing, and local drivers have their own style.

Eight cities of Metro San Juan are served by the DTOP's Metropolitan Bus Authority. Bus stops are generally marked with "Parada" signs, and buses run until around 10pm. Fares are cheap at 75 cents (free for those over 75) - take the C53 between Old (Viejo) San Juan and Condado Beach, or the T5 out to the bars off Ponce de Leon.  Trolley services run a circular route around the old city.

Taxis, found everywhere, are also reasonable, figure on about $15 for most trips within the city. There are independent mini-bus "públicos" -- locally known as "guaguas" -- that carry 10 to 14 people along main thoroughfares, with set routes but no set schedule -- frequent enough so you won't wait long. When visiting bars outside the tourist zones of Old San Juan and the Condado always take a taxi there and back. Make sure the bar is open before your taxi leaves, as the clubs in Santurce and beyond tend to open and close without much warning.

The Tren Urbano mass-transit system links San Juan to suburbs such as Santurce, Bayamón, and Guaynabo, with trains every 8 to 12 minutes. Cost is 75 cents with free bus transfers. Any bus marked ATI goes to one of the stations. With a nice view along elevated sections this is a pleasant tourist ride even if you're not going anywhere in particular.

For routes, terminals and schedule information for all area transportation services above see the website of DTOP (in Spanish). For an English-language transportation overview see the Legends of Puerto Rico website.

 

Media & Resources

BabyonSanJuan is a  local LGBT website guide with business listings, events and travel information.

For general visitor information on the sights and activities in English, see PuertoRico.com. Also in English are two local newspapers, Carribbean Business and the San Juan Daily Star.

Other tourism information sites include: Discover Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Day Trips, and San Juan PR.

See the businesses listed below and more on our gay San Juan listings pages.

 

Neighborhoods

Old San Juan, the original walled city, has street after street of lovingly restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish buildings. More than 400 have been refurbished, making this one of the prettiest colonial capitals in the Caribbean. Part of the thick city walls remain, as do two impressive forts. Most people head to El Morro, but Fuerte San Cristóbal is just as grand as much less crowded. Old San Juan has no gay bars, but gays do patronize its many bars and clubs.

Once a bit dowdy, Condado has gotten a facelift courtesy of a couple of grand hotels and a strip of high-end retailers like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. This oceanfront neighborhood has several gay or gay-friendly bars and hotels and a noticeably gay beach scene. Nearby Santurce, a more workaday neighborhood, is where you’ll find most of the city’s gay bars and clubs. Several gay-popular clubs and restaurants sit outside the main tourist districts, but you'll probably need a local friend to find them.

Quiet Ocean Park is mostly a residential neighborhood, but it has a handful of gay-owned hotels. Its beach is one of the best, and it’s never crowded. Isla Verde is where the old-money crowd lives. It’s a snooze of a neighborhood, but there are some wonderful resorts and boutique hotels. For bars outside the Old San Juan and Condado tourist zones the locals advise taking a taxi to and from your hotel or guesthouse.

 

What to do

Old San Juan and its two hulking forts are the primary destination for most visitors. Also visit La Fortaleza, a not-so-successful fort that was transformed into the governor’s palace, and Casa Blanca, the homestead of explorer Ponce de Leon’s family.

Beyond San Juan, make sure to visit the rainforest of El Yunque. Nearby is Luquillo Beach, a lovely stretch of sand, and a long string of outdoor eateries selling fried seafood. If you have plenty of time, visit the off-islands of Vieques and Culebra, where you’ll find small gay enclaves lounging in the tropical sun.


A bit of history

The native Taíno people called this island Borikén, the reason people here sometimes call themselves boricuas. Following the 1508 Caparra settlement by Juan Ponce de León, San Juan, (founded 1521), soon became a major merchant and military naval base of the Spanish Empire. Sir Francis Drake was repulsed by El Morro's canons in a 1595 attack,  just one of many invasion attempts by English, Dutch and French forces over the span of two centuries. The US took over the island with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, ending the Spanish-American War. Spanish is the mother tongue of most people, but with so much US contact, (4 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland), English is widely used.

 

Accommodations

Andalucia Guest House (Calle McLeary 2011; 787-309-3373), near Ocean Park Beach, rooms from $65, jr-suite, studio apartments, outdoor patio, hot tub, WiFi.

At Wind Chimes Inn (Calle McLeary 1750; 787-727-4153), a block from Condado Beach, boutique hotel in restored Spanish villa with bar and cafe.

Atlantic Beach Hotel (Calle Vendig 1; 787-721-6900), five stories overlooking the Condado Beach, active terrace bar (with direct access to the beach), Sea View Restaurant, sun deck on the roof, complete with hot tub.

Coqui Del Mar (Calle Gen. del Valle 2218; 787-220-4204) quirky guest house near Ocean Park Beach, full kitchen units, unobtrusive service, reasonable rates, in-room Mac computers.

Da' House Hotel (Calle San Francisco 312; 787-977-1180), bohemian living in Old San Juan above legendary cafe teatro "The Nuyorican Cafe." Four floors, unique decor rooms with balconies, 

Dreamcatcher Guest House (Calle España 2009; 787-455-8259), gorgeous, intimate guesthouse on the beach in gated community of Ocean Park; 7 unique guest rooms, garden fruit trees, communal kitchen, massage, dance and yoga classes, dinner parties.

Hosteria Del Mar (Calle Tapia 1; 787-727-3302), long-time favorite of women and families; ocean front rooms, in-room breakfast, restaurant; rooms from $69 to deluxe Mini-Suite, and apartments.

Hotel CasaBlanca (Calle Fortaleza 316, 787-725-3436) Moroccan style boutique hotel with 32 rooms, 4 suites with a king size bed and two twins and 28 rooms with either king or queen size beds. Roof top terrace with stone bathtubs; lobby bar and restaurant perfect for events.

Hotel El Convento (Calle Cristo 100; 787-723-9020) small, elegant luxury hotel in the old city, mahogany beams, handcrafted furniture, Andalusian tiles, lush interior courtyard, marble bathrooms, city and bay vistas, three restaurants.

Numero Uno Guest House (Calle Santa Ana 1; 787-726-5010), on Ocean Park beach, reasonable rates. Popular Pamela's Restaurant has daytime tables set in the sand.

Pineapple Inn (2911 Calle 11; 787-823-1430) small, quiet guesthuse steps from beautiful beach in Rincon, PR, off our map, south of San Juan.

San Juan Water & Beach Club (Calle Tartak 2; 787-728-3666), Isla Verde beach front boutique resort hotel, rooftop swimming pool, fireplace, sundeck, massasage, bars, restaurant.

 

Going Out, Condado / Santurce

Atlantic Beach Hotel Bar (Calle Vendig 1, Condado Beach), popular early evening patio for fruity drinks after a day at the gay beach.

Cafe Berlin (Calle San Francisco 407/ Plaza Colon), European-style cafe, nice ambiance, good food; extensive menu includes healthy and creative vegetarian, fresh breads and pastries, espresso coffees; outdoor terrace in front.

Circo Bar (Calle Condado 650), open nightly, big crowd, locals and tourists, mostly male; Monday, Wednesday and weekend dancing, comedy drag shows, contests, shower strippers, theme parties.

El Chinchorro de W (Calle Carmen at Calle Condado), gay pub/bar and cafe next to Circo, happy hour specials, karaoke, shows, live music, late crowd.

Oasis (Calle Condado 6), small tapas bar and lounge near gay beach, bar opens for the post-beach and early evening crowd, then goes late until 3am; Tuesday young "twink" nights, locals/tourist mix, occasional shows, dancing. The former Splash.

Oceano (Calle Vedig 2, Condado Beach), beachside seafood restaurant, lunch and dinner, mainstream mixed gay-friendly crowd, two-level open-deck bar/cocktail lounge, piano, dancing; Sunday brunch.

Pandora (Av Jose de Diego 365, Santurce), appears to be CLOSED - had drag shows, live entertainment and afterhours dark room. Check their facebook page for updates.

Scandalo (Calle Condado 613, Santurce), mostly men, late night bar, dancing, drag shows; MetroSex VIP, their non-stop go-go boys and male strippers bar, has amateur nights and bears' events.

SX (Ponce de Leon 1204, Santurce), basement Thursday through Sunday cruise bar, go-go boys/male strippers every night, walking distance to Condado Beach, video lounge, outdoor patio bar, open 10pm-5am.

Temptation (Calle Bolivar 608, Santurce), gay nightclub, open nightly, dancing, Saturday male strippers after midnight; chicken wings, nuggets, empanadillas and other snacks.

Tia Maria Jose de Diego (Av Jose de Diego 326, Santurce) very local flavor, casual gay bar/package store, cocktails; meet guys, play pool, sing karaoke.

Xteamworks (Av Fernandez Juncos 1752, Santurce), upstairs men's bathhouse not far from Zal si Puedes bar, open nightly 6pm to 2am (until 6am Friday/Saturday); sauna, darkroom, private rooms, maze, playrooms, porn videos, live sex shows.

Zal Zi Puedes Mini Bar (Av Ponce de Leon, Santurce), hole in the wall older locals' gay bar; weekend drag and occasional stripper shows.

The Palace (Av Ponce de León), rooftop terrace bar, disco dance floor, drag shows, live music, theme events.

CLOSED: La Jirafa Verde (Av Jose de Diego 365, Santurce), gay bar/ dance club, roof deck; drag shows, go-go boys, theme events.

 

Going Out, beyond

Ely's (Kiosko 10, Route 3, Luquillo), favorite daytime restaurant for Luquillo Sunset Beach and El Yunque Rainforest day-trippers, along with Fajardo locals; nightclub drag shows.

 

Restaurants
The finest, most varied dining in the Caribbean may be found in San Juan. Besides an indigenous cuisine that blended Spanish traditions with those of original peoples, and Africans, the city is known for some of the world's best steakhouses. Strong Italian influences arrived by way of New York and Argentina, and there are seafood restaurants; plus a good selection of Indian, Asian, Lebanese and Arabian restaurants. Even the Germans and the Irish are represented.

The Old San Juan, Condado and Isla Verde areas have plenty of dining choices. Plaza Las Américas mall in Hato Rey, the largest shopping center in the Carribean, has 40 places to eat, plus over 300 stores and a large cinema complex.

See our map and listings tab for some San Juan restaurants and shops, with maps and website links.

- Staff - February 2016