Each city in Puerto Rico has its own story, one beginning with its indigenous groups, then its European settlers, and finally onward to its American legacy. With such rich histories, natural beauty, vibrant festivals, and exquisite architecture, you’ll never run out of things to do while visiting an urban center in Puerto Rico. But, for those looking to extract as much as possible from Puerto Rico’s biggest cities, we’ve compiled just the guide for you.

San Juan

Basics

  • Established: 1509
  • Population: 400,000
  • Language: Spanish and English
  • Currency: USD
  • Time Zone: ASR (UTC-4)
  • Major Airport: Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport
  • Drive on the: Left

History

The 16th and 17th centuries were busy times for Puerto Rico, and San Juan specifically. After the Spanish landed in 1509, the city became a stopping point for European merchant ships traveling to and from the Americas. To protect their commercial interests, the Spanish quickly fortified as much of the area as possible. This proved to be a smart decision when the English and Dutch began to attack. The Spanish managed to hold off multiple foreign sieges against the city until an American ship showed up in the San Juan Bay in 1898. Conflict between the two sides was short lived and followed by the French-brokered Treaty of Paris (1898), which saw Spain cede the island to the U.S.

What to know

Despite enduring two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, San Juan (and the rest of Puerto Rico) is up and running — a testament to the strength of the local and nearby communities which together make up nearly half the island’s population. Economically speaking, San Juan serves as a major seaport and receives business that is crucial to the prosperity of the smaller, rural areas. Culturally, San Juan is a city known for its colonial architecture, leafy green spaces, and bustling nightlife. As Puerto Rico’s largest urban center, it’s the perfect landing pad for travelers looking to dive into the island’s action. When arriving in San Juan, you can expect to find the streets bubbling with energy and cultural celebration, no matter the time of year.

Things to do

A trip to San Juan isn’t complete without spending time in the city’s old quarters. A number of San Juan’s main attractions are found here, most of which are fortifications from the Spanish colonial period. While exploring the cobbled streets, be sure to check out Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castle of San Cristóbal (both part of the San Juan National Historic Site), plus other historic structures like the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and La Fortaleza.

There’s also plenty of outdoor fun to be had here. If the weather permits (which it usually does), take a stroll along the many beaches found within walking distance of downtown. If you find yourself out late, San Juan has quite the nightlife reputation, so don’t hesitate to peek into a nighttime salsa gig!

Ponce

Basics

  • Established: 1692
  • Population: 170,000
  • Time Zone: ASR (UTC-4)
  • Major Airport: Mercedita Airport

History

Ponce is named after Loíza Ponce de León, and served as Puerto Rico’s capital up until the end of the Spanish-American war. Ponce’s population grew as French ships sought refuge in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). The French brought wealth with them and contributed significantly to the local economy in doing so. Sugarcane, coffee, and corn production all began to boom, and these industries only increased throughout the 19th century. As more and more Europeans immigrated to the island, the city temporarily became Puerto Rico’s largest. As a result , Ponce became the main headquarters for the US Army during their military campaign.

What to Know

Nicknamed “La Perla del Sur” (The Pearl of the South), Ponce lies on the sparkling shores of the Caribbean Sea and has an average annual temperature of 79 °F (26 °C). As the second largest urban area in Puerto Rico, Ponce is a cultural hub in its own right. The city hosts a number of major festivals throughout the year and is even home to its own distinct style of architecture called Ponce Creole, which started to dictate building styles in the late 19th century and continued into the early 20th. On top of its historic architecture, Ponce is also known as a museum city for the impressive amount of galleries and expositions that reside here.

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What to Do

Much like San Juan, Ponce’s quaint and cobbled historic district (Ponce Pueblo) is the jewel in the city’s crown and is best experienced by strolling through the district’s main square, Plaza Las Delicias. It is also home to some of Ponce’s finest museums, including the Museum of Puerto Rican Music and the Ponce Museum of Art. Finally, a nearby getaway you may want to consider is Caja de Muertos — a small and accessible island known for its pristine beaches and untouched wilderness.

Mayagüez

Basics

  • Established: 1760
  • Population: 90,000
  • Time Zone: ASR (UTC-4)
  • Major Airport: Eugenio María de Hostos Airport

History

The area now known as Mayagüez was first occupied by the Taíno people before four Spaniards — Faustino and Lorenzo Martínez de Matos, Juan de Silva and Juan de Aponte — stumbled upon the coastal hamlet. Under Spanish rule, agricultural endeavors drove development until the issuance of a city charter from the Royal Crown of Spain in 1877. Like the rest of Puerto Rico, though, the city has felt the stamp of North America in both its economy (with a focus on processing and textiles) and cultural practices.

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What to Know

Mayagüez is located on Puerto Rico’s west coast and is the island’s third largest city. Much of the city’s population can be attributed to the handful of colleges and universities, which make the area a young and fun place to be. In addition to the youthful crowds, Mayagüez offers plenty of shopping and eating options, most of which are American-inspired. It’s also good to note that the island’s west coast is home to a tropical monsoon climate, which means it has some of the most dramatic weather on the island (especially during summer). When heading to Mayagüez, make sure to pack appropriately!

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What to Do

Mayagüez’s biggest attraction is Plaza Colón, a Spanish-styled square tributing Christopher Columbus. In addition to Columbus’s statue (built on top of an elegantly carved fountain), there are 16 other bronze statues commemorating local legends. While visiting, check out the Yagüez Theater and Tropical Agricultural Research Station, enjoy the gorgeous beaches in Rincon, and explore the Maricao State Forest.

Puerto Rico offers a supreme cultural experience, and it all starts with their beautiful cities. While exploring this Caribbean paradise, make sure to enjoy what each urban center has to offer, and let us know if we’ve missed anything!

Header image by Robert V. Ruggiero
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Brad Donaldson is a writer and editor proudly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although his roots are in Canada, his desire to see more of the world frequently takes him away from home. His work, both as an editor and writer, has appeared in local newspapers and publications.