Look no further than the vibrant capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico for your next Caribbean vacation! We were enchanted by the city’s history, stunning beaches, lively atmosphere and of course, the crazy delicious food! If you’re on a budget but still want to make the most of your time in this Caribbean paradise, we’ve got you covered. In this budget-friendly guide, we’ll take you on a journey through the must-visit attractions and affordable activities that San Juan has to offer.
How to Get to Puerto Rico on a Budget
A lot of people visit San Juan while cruising the Caribbean, but we traveled to the island by plane. If on a cruise, you probably don’t have a ton of time to spend so we recommend visiting the island and staying a while. If you’re like us, you’re always on the lookout for flight deals to anywhere on Earth. A great tool we use for flight deals is Going! This service is actually how we snagged our two tickets to San Juan at a cheaper than average price. We were notified of a deal that was ongoing for 24-48 hours and jumped on the opportunity! There is a free version and a paid version; we’ve used both but if you’re just starting out, the free version is a great way to save money on your next trip because let’s be honest, flights can be ridiculously expensive! And we’ve heard this question a lot so we’ll try to help out.
Do you need a passport to visit Puerto Rico?
We’ve seen this question a lot and have even had friends skip out on a trip to Puerto Rico because they were misinformed. Since Puerto Rico is a United States territory, if you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you do not need a passport to visit Puerto Rico. For foreigners traveling to the island, like entering the mainland United States, a visa and passport are required to enter Puerto Rico.
Dive Into San Juan’s History
San Juan is brimming with fascinating historical sites that offer a glimpse into its storied past. Start your journey at the iconic Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century fortress perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Explore its walls and tunnels, taking in breathtaking views and imagining the battles fought here long ago. Admission to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is $10 per adult and kids aged 15 and under are free. Check out National Park Service for current information. We feel this is a great price for the amount of time you can spend inside. Bring plenty of water!
Our favorite pastime in San Juan was wandering through the charming streets of the old town. The colorful colonial buildings and cobblestone streets remind us a lot of Europe. Walking through San Juan, it’s hard to miss the iconic La Fortaleza, a very old executive mansion. However, when we visited, it was currently blocked off from visitors due to protests but you’re still able to get a view from a distance. Another architectural gem, don’t miss the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, the second oldest cathedral in the Americas. It’s free to enter.
The best way to experience San Juan’s history? A free walking tour! Like every city we visit, if there’s a free walking tour, we’ll be on it! These tours are flexible, fun and always informative. You’ll be introduced to a local guide who will have tips on getting around, what to do and where to eat. We used Old San Juan Free Walking Tour and had a wonderful time. Don’t forget to tip your guide and use them while you can for any questions you might have!
Soak up the Sun on San Juan’s Beaches
San Juan boasts stunning beaches that are perfect for relaxation and water activities. Head to the popular Isla Verde Beach, known for its crystal-clear waters and soft golden sand. Bring your own towel and sunscreen, and spend the day lounging, swimming, or even trying your hand at water sports like kayaking, paddleboarding or kitesurfing.
If you’re like us, you prefer a quieter beach experience. We spent our sunny afternoons just steps away from our affordable Airbnb at Ocean Park Beach (Playa Ocean Park). This local favorite offers a more laid-back atmosphere with fewer crowds. There was plenty of room to spread out and enjoy a picnic. People-watching was also enjoyable as there were lots of friendly locals with their pups. There are still several water activities to choose from at this beach.
Sample the Local Cuisine
No visit to San Juan is complete without savoring its local dishes. No visit to anywhere is complete without that (see blog name). The best part about eating in San Juan? You can enjoy the local flavors without breaking the bank. Begin your day with a classic Puerto Rican breakfast of tostada (toasted bread) with butter and café con leche (coffee with milk) from a local bakery. It’s a delicious and affordable way to kickstart your adventures.
When hunger strikes, head to a local eatery known as a “chinchorro” for a taste of traditional Puerto Rican food. Try mofongo, a dish made of mashed plantains and savory filling like shrimp or chicken. You’ll find these hidden gems in neighborhoods like Santurce or La Placita, where the locals dine.
For meat lovers, you will find no shortage of steak and chicken on the menu at many restaurants. We tried grilled skirt steak (churrasco a la parrilla) at El Jibarito. While nowhere near pricey compared to mainland America, this was probably the most expensive place we dined. Granted, for a special night out to try local cuisine with some sangria in the mix, we still think this makes the budget-friendly list.
Cafe Manolin Old San Juan is another great restaurant to escape the heat and eat mofongo with a local beer. It’s a breakfast/lunch joint so they’ll be closed starting late afternoon. Make sure and bring an appetite as many of the menu options revolve around meat, whether breaded or grilled. They have tons of seafood options too! We thought the empanada a la milanesa de lomillo was to die for!
Of course, there’s no better place in the world than San Juan to try a pina colada. It’s up for debate for which hotel created this popular beach cocktail but regardless of who it was, all we know is that it’s a must-try while on the island!
One more special mention we have is Deshistoria, a small bar and restaurant that specializes in empanadas. While this food isn’t unique to Puerto Rico, we highly recommend trying it here! You cannot beat the prices and you will leave extremely satisfied! Their operating hours are flexible so their opening time will depend on the day. To avoid going and it being closed, just plan on going in the evening! It’s a cool spot to snack before a later dinner or you can make this a dinner of its own!
If there’s gelato around, we’re going to try it. Anita La Mamma del Gelato is your gelato go-to for those hot afternoons or a great night cap while exploring San Juan’s enchanting streets after a long day. Hopefully, you saved some room at dinner!
Dishes to Try and Where
Mofongo – Almost anywhere serves Mofongo but we loved it at Cafe Manolin and El Jibarito!
Empanadas – Dehistoria serves a variety of empanadas paired with the perfect dipping sauce.
Pina Colada – El Jibarito had great a Pina Colada but Caribe Hilton Hotel and Barrachina both claim to be the originators of the Pina Colada.
Churrasco a la Parrilla – it’s a must at El Jibarito but you can find this dish almost anywhere.
Empanada a la Milanesa de Lomillo – served at Cafe Manolin!
Where to Stay in San Juan
Visiting on a budget, we think homestays like Airbnb are the way to go. With just the two of us, we snagged a small Airbnb that was just steps from the beach. We gave up some space/convenience for the location but would do it again! There are a lot of resorts in San Juan, like in Isla Verde, but these tend to be pretty pricey. However, keep your eyes peeled for deals because you never know!
Old San Juan
Staying in Old San Juan is great for those who don’t plan on spending a lot of the time at the beach. The old town is beautiful, easy to get around, and full of great shops and restaurants. It’s a bit of a trek to many of the beaches on the island but Balneario del Escambrón is a clean, small and popular beach that’s not too far away.
This is where we opted to stay and would do so again in a heartbeat. Our AirBnB was in a gated community and steps from the beach, which was perfect for us since we intended to spend most of our time swimming and relaxing in the sun. The area had a lot of great restaurants, some night life, and a grocery store that was a 15 minute walk from us.
Known for being family friendly and having a lot to offer in terms of activities, Condado is great for those who want the beach and Old San Juan. Its closer proximity to the old town means rideshares will cost a lot less. This is a much more touristy area and you might see steeper prices for lodging, food and activities.
How to Get Around San Juan
If you plan on staying in Old San Juan, the most budget-friendly way of getting around is on foot! It’s a 20 minute walk from one end of the old town to the other so everything in between should be a quick, scenic walk. You can opt for a ride-share service but the time spent waiting and sitting in the car as the driver is navigating the narrow streets would be the same, if not more than just walking to your destination.
For those who choose to stay outside of Old San Juan, Uber and Lyft are the way to go. Plan your days so that you’re not having to travel back and forth between Old San Juan and your accommodation too much. We used Uber a ton during our stay and it was very affordable. With some better planning around going in and out of old town, we could have saved more money. But we were very pleased with how cheap rides were.
A Couple of Extras for San Juan
San Juan is not only about historic sites and beaches but also offers stunning natural beauty waiting to be discovered. Visit the El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest just a short drive from the city. Hike through lush trails, swim in waterfalls, and breathe in the fresh air of this unique ecosystem. Entrance to the forest is free, making it an excellent option for budget-conscious travelers. There are tons of tours offered so be sure and research those; you can also rent a car and visit on your own.
For a different natural experience, head to the bioluminescent bay of Laguna Grande in Fajardo, about an hour’s drive from San Juan. Take a guided kayak tour and witness the magical glow created by microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates. It’s a truly mesmerizing and budget-friendly adventure.
Additionally, be sure and check out Airbnb experiences for some unique things to do while in San Juan. You can also just google “San Juan experiences” and you’ll find more than what’s offered on Airbnb. There are plenty of tour companies operating in the area so be sure to check them out!
Summary of Budget-Friendly Guide to San Juan
San Juan, Puerto Rico, offers an array of budget-friendly activities and attractions that will make your visit unforgettable. Accounting for everything we’ve mentioned above (especially the food), there’s something for every traveler’s taste. By following this budget-friendly guide, you’ll create lasting memories without straining your wallet. So, pack your bags, prepare your camera, and get ready to immerse yourself in the vibrant culture and charm of San Juan while keeping your budget intact.