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Puerto Rican Nightlife in Old San Juan

A man stands in the open doorway of the brightly painted Red Monkey bar.
The Red Monkey in Old San Juan is as colorful as its name.
Photo by Paul Sableman licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

There are two sides to Old San Juan’s nightlife. On the southern end near the cruise ship docks are the more commercial and chain establishments like Señor Frog’s. But the farther north you go toward Calle San Sebastián, the more authentic the offerings get.

Moon Recommends: Nuyorican Café

By far the best nightclub for live contemporary Latin music—from rock and jazz to salsa and merengue—is Nuyorican Café (312 Calle San Francisco, 787/977-1276, full bar). Don’t bother looking for a sign; there isn’t one. Just look for a gaggle of club-goers clustered around a side door down Capilla alley, which connects Calle San Francisco and Calle Fortaleza. Locals and tourists alike pack in, especially on weekends when the tiny dance floor gets jammed. The kitchen serves a limited menu of Puerto Rican cuisine until midnight. The music usually starts around 11 p.m. There’s no direct link between this café and New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café, which was and still is the epicenter of the Nuyorican movement, although the name is a nod to the club in NYC.

Other Clubs

San Juan’s club scene revolves around techno and reggaetón, and there are any number of clubs devoted to the forms. Old San Juan’s veteran nightclub is Club Lazer (251 Calle de la Cruz, 787/725-7581). The three-level 1980s-era disco complete with a light show is popular with both gays and straights. The hottest DJs spin here, and Sunday is reggaetón night.

The Noise (203 Calle Tanca, 787/724-3739) is a white-hot club in a former house in Old San Juan, where reggaetón keeps the beat going until the wee hours. It’s popular with the 18–21 crowd.

Blend (309 Calle Fortaleza, 787/977-7777) is a chic restaurant and lounge centered around an indoor patio and dramatic wall fountain. Local and touring DJs spin all forms of techno.

Club Le Cirque (357 Calle San Francisco, 787/725-3246) is a gay bar and lounge serving lunch and dinner. Smoking is allowed on the patio.

Another popular late-night bar for the casual bohemian crowd is Galeria Candela (110 Calle San Sebastian, 787/594-5698 or 787/977-4305). The space is a hipster art gallery by day, but at night DJs spin into the wee hours.

Bars

If you need a place to rest your feet and just chill with a cool beverage, there is a wide variety of bars, both casual and upscale, where you can actually have a conversation, at least in the early part of the evening. The later it gets, though, the more crowded and louder it gets.

At El Farolito (277 Calle Sol, Old San Juan, no phone, daily noon–midnight or later) artwork by local artists hangs on the walls and a chess set sits on the tiny bar of this narrow drinking spot favored by locals. Not the place for fruity, frozen drinks. Your best option is to stick with beer and shots, such as the chichaito an anise- and coffee-flavored blast of booze.

If the painting outside of a monkey fallen into a martini glass doesn’t get your attention, the bright red hue of this place will do the trick. The Red Monkey (252 Calle Cruz, Old San Juan, 787/565-3181) is a great spot for drinks, to watch Monday night football, or to hear live music. The food, including salmon burgers and wings, isn’t bad either.

Although primarily an Indo-Latino fusion restaurant, Tantra (356 Calle Fortaleza, 787/977-8141, fax 787/977-4289) turns into a late-night party spot for the hip and trendy after-dinner crowd who flock here for the sophisticated ambiance, the creative martinis, and a toke or two on one of the many hookahs that line the bar. The kitchen serves a limited late-night menu.

For something completely different, frozen tropical drinks and old kitschy decor create the perfect place for a shopping break at María’s (204 Calle de la Cristo, no phone, daily 10:30 a.m.–3 a.m.). The tiny, pleasantly seedy bar primarily serves a variety of frozen drinks—piña colada, papaya frost, coconut blossom, and so on (with or without rum). Avoid the pedestrian tacos and nachos ($4–7) and check out the cheesy celebrity photos behind the bar. If the dark, narrow bar is full, there are a couple of tables in the back.

Looking for all the world like an old jail cell, El Batey (101 Calle Cristo, 787/725-1787) is a barren dive bar covered top to bottom with drunken-scrawled graffiti and illuminated by bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling. There’s one pool table and an interesting jukebox with lots of jazz mixed in with classic discs by the likes of Tom Waits, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone. If you order a martini, they’ll laugh at you. This is a beer and shots kind of place.

The barred windows and garish orange exterior don’t offer much of a welcome at Krugger (52 Calle San José, 787/723-2474), but the word is that this loud dive bar is the place to go for karaoke.

The Latin Roots (Galería Paseo Portuario, Calle Recinto Sur, 787/977-1877) offers salsa dance lessons and exhibitions during the day, and a smokin’ hot dance floor at night where you can strut your stuff. It also serves a full menu of Puerto Rican cuisine, including mofongo and roast pork.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.

Shopping in Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan

Blue painted cobblestones in the foreground with a row of colonial buildings.
Blue cobblestoned streets are common in Old San Juan. Photo © Steven Gaertner.

People love to shop in Old San Juan because it offers the widest variety of unique shopping options in one pedestrian-friendly place. This is the place to go for fine jewelry, imported clothing and furnishings, cigars, folk art, tourist trinkets, and American chain stores, such as Marshalls, Walgreens, and Radio Shack.

Arts and Crafts

For visitors seeking high-quality crafts by local artisans, Puerto Rican Arts and Crafts (204 Calle Fortaleza, 787/725-5596) is your one-stop shopping spot. This large two-level store has everything from original paintings and prints to ceramics, sculpture, jewelry, and more.

There is no end to cheap trinket shops in Old San Juan, so when you find a quality craft store selling unique, artisan-made items traditional to the island, it’s a reason to stand up and take notice. La Casa de las Casitas & Handcraft (250 Calle del Cristo, 787/721-5195, and 208 Calle Fortaleza, 787/723-2276) is the place to go for original oil paintings, one-of-a-kind vejigante masks, and beautiful wood carvings of saints, a traditional form of handicraft called santos.

Natural Home (101 Calle Fortaleza, 787/721-5731, naturalhomeus@gmail.com) is a gift shop selling hand-embroidered linens, unique crocheted jewelry, pottery, and unusual ceramic pieces.

For a small selection of authentic Caribbean crafts, stop by Tienda de Artesanías (Museo de Las Americas in Ballajá Barracks, on Calle Norzagaray beside Quincentennial Plaza, 787/722-6057). It has a nice but small mix of quality baskets, shawls, pottery, jewelry, Santos, art posters, and CDs.

Máscaras de Puerto Rico (La Calle, 105 Calle Fortaleza, 787/725-1306, Chilean@coqui.net) is a funky, narrow shop in a covered alleyway selling quality contemporary crafts, including masks and small reproductions of vintage cartel posters. In back is Café El Punto restaurant, serving traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.

There are two nearly identical shops on the same street called Haitian Gallery (367 Calle Fortaleza, 787/721-4362; and 206 Calle Fortaleza, 787/725-0986, haitiangallery@aol.com). They both sell a great selection of Haitian folk art, including brightly colored primitive-style paintings and tons of woodwork, from sublime bowls to ornately sculpted furniture. There’s a small selection of Indonesian imports, such as leaf-covered picture frames and photo albums, and tourist trinkets.

Puerto Rico Homemade Crafts Gallery (403 Calle San Francisco, 787/724-3840) is an excellent source for authentic local crafts and folk art—both traditional and contemporary. The shop carries a large selection of vejigante masks, plus native Taíno reproductions, cartel posters, coconut-shell tea sets, jewelry, and Santos.

The Poets Passage (203 Calle Cruz, 787/567-9275, daily 10 a.m.–6 p.m.) offers a funky collection of local arts, crafts, and books. The store is owned by local poet and publisher Lady Lee Andrews. Poetry nights are held every Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Tourist tchotchkes, shell jewelry, vejigante masks, gourds, beaded necklaces, and seed jewelry can be found at Ezense (353 Calle Fortaleza, 787/725-1782, ezense@yahoo.com).

Additional Information

Clothing and Accessories

The guayabera is the classic linen shirt, detailed with symmetrical rows of tiny pleats that run down the front, traditionally worn by distinguished Puerto Rican gentlemen of a certain age, but they’re making a comeback with younger men, too. Panabrisa (256 Calle San Francisco, 787/722-5151, panabrisapr@yahoo.com) sells all varieties, from inexpensive cotton blend versions for around $25 to exquisitely crafted ones in linen for around $80. You’ll also find trendy guayabera dresses and skirts for women and shirts for children.

For a large inventory of Panama hats, visit Vaughn’s Gifts & Crafts (262 Calle Fortaleza, 787/721-8221, vaughns@operamail.com). Other hat styles, as well as handbags and souvenirs, also can be found.

Costazul (264 Calle San Francisco, 787/722-0991 or 787/724-8085, fax 787/725-1097) sells a great selection of surf and skate wear for men and women, including Oakley sunglasses and clothes by Billabong and Quiksilver. During surf season, it also stocks boards and related gear.

All along Calle del Cristo are a dozen or so designer outlets and stores including Tommy Hilfiger, Couch, Guess, Crocs, Ralph Lauren, Dooney & Bourke, Polo Chopard, Harry Winston, and H. Stern.

Cigars

Like Cuba, Puerto Rico has a long history of hand-rolled cigar-making, and you can often find a street vendor rolling and selling his own in Plaza de Hostos’s Mercado de Artesanías, a plaza near the cruise-ship piers at Calle Recinto Sur. There are also several good cigar shops selling anything you could want—except Cubans, of course. The biggest selection has to be at The Cigar House (255 Calle Fortaleza, 787/723-5223; 258 Calle Fortaleza, 787/725-9604; and 253 Calle San Justo, 787/725-0652). Trinidad, Monte Cristo, Padron 1926 and 1964, Cohiba, Perdomo, Macanudo, Partagas, Romeo and Julieta, and Puerto Rican cigars aged in rum are among those sold. They also sell tons of tourist trinkets.

For a more intimate setting, visit El Galpón (154 Calle del Cristo, 787/725-3945 or 888/842-5766). This small selective shop sells a variety of quality cigars, Panama hats, masks, art prints, and superb vintage and contemporary Santos.

Imports

San Juan has several Indonesian import shops. Eclectika (204 Calle O’Donnell, Plaza de Colón, and 205 Calle de la Cruz, 787/721-7236 or 787/725-3163) has Indonesian imports specializing in home decor, purses, and jewelry.

Hecho a Mano (260 Calle San Francisco, 787/722-0203, and 250 Calle San José, 787/725-3992, fax 787/723-0880) sells Indonesian decorative imports, locally designed women’s wear, funky purses, and jewelry. There’s another location at 1126 Avenida Ashford in Condado.

Kamel International Bazaar and Art Gallery (154–156 Calle de la Cristo, 787/722- 1455 or 787/977-7659, kamelimports@yahoo.com) sells inexpensive Indian clothing, jewelry, rugs, beaded handbags, and reproduction paintings on canvas.

Fine Jewelry

There are dozens of high-end fine-jewelry stores in Old San Juan, especially along Calle Fortaleza, including N. Barquet Joyers (201 Calle Fortaleza, 787/721-3366 or 787/721-4051, fax 787/721-4051, nbarquet@spiderlink.net); Casa Diamante (252 Calle Fortaleza, 787/977-5555); and Emerald Isles (105 Calle Fortaleza, 787/977-3769).

Vogue Bazaar (364 Calle San Francisco, 787/722-1100) specializes in pre-Columbian reproductions, gemstones from South America, and purses from Thailand.

Antiques and Collectibles

Thrift-store shoppers and collectors of vinyl will love Frank’s Thrift Store (363 Calle San Francisco, 787/722-0691). Come here to peruse the enormous used-record collection, from ’80s kitsch to fresh electronica. There’s even a turntable available, so you can listen to the stock before you buy. But this cluttered labyrinth of rooms is also packed with the widest assortment of junk and collectibles you could ever imagine. Decorative items, old photographs, dishes, toys, clothes—you name it.

Galería Don Pedro (254 Calle San Justo, 787/721-3126 or 787/429-7936) has three floors of antiques, vintage collectibles, and original artwork by local artists.

Kitchen Goods

Spicy Caribbee (154 Calle de la Cristo, 888/725-7529) sells Caribbean sauces, spice mixes, coffees, soaps, fragrances, candles, cookbooks, and more.

Supermax is a modern, full-service grocery store with a bakery, deli, fresh meat counter, and produce section. It carries a large selection of spirits and a wide variety of local coffees, but you’ll have to get a clerk to unlock the case for you.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.

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