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, to Old San Juan, where the ancient forts, cobblestone streets, and colonial houses hark back to a time when this was one of the busiest ports in the New World. Since 18 is the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico, there's lots of youthful energy in the nightclub scene.
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 a few of the local museums and galleries.
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.
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 50-75 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.
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.
Naked Island, a local website, has GLBT business listings, events and travel information.
For locations and websites of businesses listed below, and more, see our San Juan gay map & listings pages.
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.
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, in a 1595 British attack, was repulsed by El Morro's canons, in just one of many invasion attempts by British, 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.
Andalucia Guest House (2011 Calle McLeary; 787-309-3373), near Ocean Park Beach, rooms from $65, jr-suite, studio apartments, outdoor patio, hot tub, WiFi.
Atlantic Beach Hotel (1 Calle Vendig; 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 (2218 Calle Gen. del Valle; 787-602-1672) quirky guest house near Ocean Park Beach, full kitchen units, unobtrusive service, reasonable rates, in-room Mac computers.
Hosteria Del Mar (1 Calle Tapia; 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 (316 Calle Fortaleza, 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 (100 Calle Cristo; 800-468-2779) 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 (1 Calle Santa Ana; 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; Thepineappleinn.net) small, quiet guesthuse steps from beautiful beach in Rincon, PR, south of San Juan.
San Juan Water & Beach Club (2 Calle Tartak; 888 235-6699), Isla Verde beach front boutique resort hotel, rooftop swimming pool, fireplace, sundeck, massasage, bars, restaurant.
At Wind Chimes Inn (1750 Calle McLeary; 800-946-3244), a block from Condado Beach, boutique hotel in restored Spanish villa with bar and cafe.
Going Out, Condado / Santurce
Atlantic Beach Hotel Bar (1 Calle Vendig, Condado Beach), popular early evening patio for fruity drinks after a day at the gay beach.
Broadway (Calle Hippodromo, Santurce), between Feria & San Rafael, gay neighborhood dive bar, local crowd, open-mic comedy nights.
Cafe Berlin (407 Calle San Francisco/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 (650 Calle Condado), open nightly, big crowd, locals and tourists, mostly male; Monday, Wednesday and weekend dancing, comedy drag shows, contests, shower strippers, theme parties.
Krash (1257 Ponce de Leon, Santurce), Wednesday through Saturday dance and show club, theme parties; not as gay as it was before.
Levels (1420 Ponce de Leon, Santurce), mixed gay-friendly young crowd, cocktails and music lounge.
MetroSexx (1367 Ave Roosevelt, Santurce), music lounge, go-gos, male strippers.
Oceano (2 Calle Vedig, Condado Beach), two-level open-deck beach-side bar/lounge, piano, dancing; Sunday Jazz Brunch, followed by Throwback 70s-90s gay evenings.
Scandalo & VIP (613 Calle Condado, Santurce), mostly men, late night bar, dancing, drag shows, strippers from 1am; was Junior's.
Splash (6 Calle Condado), near gay beach, bar opens 5pm for the early evening crowd, then goes late until 3am; Tuesdays young crowd, Sunday T-dances.
SX (1204 Ponce de Leon, Santurce), Thursday - Sunday cruise bar, male strippers, walking distance to Condado Beach, video lounge, outdoor patio bar, open 10pm-5am.
Tia Maria Jose de Diego (326 Av Jose de Diego, Santurce) very local flavor, package store, cocktails; meet guys, play pool.
Going Out, Hato Rey and beyond
Babylon (65 Infantería, Rio Piedras), locals' gay dive bar in non-tourist neighborhood, huster scene.
Women's bars in Hato Rey, outside the tourist districts, include: Angelu's/Flavor's (239 Eleonor Roosevelt), and Esechys Bar (478 Ing José a V Canals).
Kenny's Country Club (find someone to show you), 12 miles out into the country, open all-night, has open bar for one cover charge, cruisy trails, Sunday T-Dance.
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.
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 are well endowed with dining choices.
See our map and listings tab at the top of this page for some San Juan restaurants and shops, with maps and website links to these, and for the hotels and nightclubs listed above.
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