Puerto Rico’s capital isn’t a cheap city, particularly when compared to neighboring islands, like the Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with an abundance of all-inclusive resorts and a generous exchange rate. There are free activities to be found, however, for those who know where to look.
Here are some of the best free things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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1. Tour the capitol
Founded more than 500 years ago, San Juan is the oldest city in America, and its capitol – located in Old San Juan – is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, boasting impressive architecture and a lengthy history.
Planning tip: You can arrange a free tour of El Capitolio during the weekdays, in English or in Spanish. It is best to call in advance to ensure hours of operation and availability.
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Murals from renowned street artists can be found throughout Santurce © Getty Images
2. Admire street art in Santurce
Santurce is a residential neighborhood that has turned into an outdoor art gallery in recent years, with renowned street artists painting larger-than-life pieces on the sides of buildings. Murals are located throughout the neighborhood, but for a good starting point, head to El Patio de Sole, a local restaurant on Calle Cerra.
Local tip: You can do a self-guided tour of the murals, though be aware that there are many cats in the streets for those who are allergic.
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Parque las Palomas is filled with pigeons you can feed © Shutterstock / Mihai O Coman
3. Feed the birds at Parque de las Palomas
This public park is a well-known stop in Old San Juan, with benches overlooking the ocean for those who want to rest and feel the breeze. It’s filled with pigeons you can feed, a favorite for families and children. Bring your own bread or birdseed, or purchase food on-site from a small kiosk.
4. Enjoy live music at Distrito T-Mobile
Distrito T-Mobile is Puerto Rico’s newest entertainment complex, featuring one of the largest 4k horizontal screens in America. It projects over a central area called Popular Plaza, open to the public and adorned with artificial grass and patio furniture.
During the day, it’s a casual atmosphere to lounge. At night it turns into a party spot, with DJs taking the stage and free events and competitions. Check the calendar online to see what’s happening during your visit. Note: parking here is not free.
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5. Try street food in Piñones
Piñones is a popular area for street food, located right on the beach. There are kiosks throughout selling local classics like empanadas, alcapurrias and fresh coconuts. There are artisans and vendors as well, hawking everything from fresh honey to handmade souvenirs.
Local tip: There is also an 11km (6.8-mile) boardwalk on site, where you can bike or walk through a mangrove forest.
You can sunbathe, walk along the sand or swim in the water year-round in San Juan © Getty Images / iStockphoto
6. Sunbathe at the beach
All beaches in Puerto Rico are public land and free to enjoy. Some of the more popular options in San Juan include Condado, where you’ll find popular resorts like La Concha and the Condado Vanderbilt hotel, and Ocean Park, a hot spot for water sports like kitesurfing. You can sunbathe, walk along the sand or swim in the water year-round.
7. Fly a kite at El Morro
Old San Juan has two distinct forts, but El Morro is the more prominent one, on a hill overlooking the bay. The front lawn is a grassy expanse of land that lures in visitors on a sunny day and can be an even more popular attraction than the fort itself.
Because of its elevated position, it experiences high winds that are perfect for flying a kite. You can bring your own kite, purchase one from the curbside vendors or lay back and watch others fly.
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8. Become a flight angel and save a sato
One of the most unique and helpful things you can do in Puerto Rico is agree to transport a dog or cat back to the States with you when you depart. Non-profit organizations like Save a Sato pay for all the transport expenses – you just add a local shelter animal to your boarding pass and take them to meet their new family at your arrival airport.
Sign up through the Flight Angles website to be matched with a rescue animal and organization. You can also volunteer with these organizations to be a dog walker while on the island.
9. Take a scenic walk along Paseo de la Princesa
Paseo de la Princesa is a flat and accessible promenade that spans from the cruise port to El Morro fort. Along the way, you’ll spot the governor’s mansion and pass the Puerto Rico Tourism Company headquarters, where you can pick up free brochures and maps. There’s also a novelty passport available that tells you the best places to visit in all 78 municipalities.
10. Dance the night away at La Placita de Santurce
La Placita is a famous market square, best known for its bar- and club-hopping options on weekend nights. If you want to party at a local scene, this is it.
There are just as many people outside the venues as there are inside, and the market itself turns into a gathering point. There is salsa dancing in the streets and the rhythmic sounds of reggaeton music throughout.
11. Attend an annual festival
The most famous festival in Puerto Rico is the San Sebastian Street Festival. It takes place in mid-January throughout Old San Juan, signaling the end of the island’s extended holiday season.
There’s also the Piña Colada Festival, an ode to the well-known drink that originated in the city, which takes place in July. Beyond that, there are free events for various holidays, music festivals that vary year-to-year and a market every Saturday in Old San Juan.
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12. Stroll the San Juan Botanical Garden
Found on the University of Puerto Rico campus, the San Juan Botanical Garden is dedicated to the study and research of local plants and animals. Entrance is free, as is parking. There are designated trails, Japanese bridges and a trolley and tours, although their availability varies. Stop by to have a picnic, exercise or just enjoy a bit of green space in the big city.
13. Pay your respects at the San Juan Cathedral
The Catedral de San Juan Bautista, also known as the San Juan Cathedral, is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. It is the resting place of Juan Ponce de Leon and holds the mummified remains of St. Pio, a first century martyr. You can attend mass on weekends and a special midnight mass on December 24th, known as Noche Buena.
14. Visit the world’s first NFT Gallery
The Lighthouse NFT Gallery is the world’s first physical NFT art gallery, and there’s no charge to enter. The space hosts free artist exhibitions and bimonthly NFTuesdays, which feature educational talks about NFTs presented by different artists, with a suggested donation at the door. The gallery is available for private events, and an on-site cafe is in the works.