It’s easy to forget that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States. With its unique blend of tropical landscapes, cobblestone streets, and lush green jungles, a trip here can quickly make you feel like you’ve been whisked off to another country. But despite what the Spanish architecture and tropical drinks might have you believe, you don’t need a passport to visit this slice of Caribbean paradise.
Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan is the best place to experience all of the amazing things that this island has to offer. You can wander through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan in the morning, sunbathe on the white sand beaches of Condado in the afternoon, and feel the island’s vibrant energy on the dancefloors of Santurce at night. Outside the city, you’re just a short drive away from the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System and one of the world’s few remaining bioluminescent bays (Puerto Rico has 3 of them).
Despite all the incredible experiences that Puerto Rico has to offer, a trip to San Juan doesn’t have to break the bank. Several budget-friendly airlines offer nonstop flights to San Juan from major hub cities like Miami and New York City every day. And due to the fluctuation of tourist seasons, you can score incredible deals on hotel rooms if you go at the right time. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why Puerto Rico made our list of the best places to visit in October.
Read our budget travel guide below for the rest of our top tips for saving money while living it up on the Island of Enchantment.
Free and cheap things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Explore historic Spanish fortresses
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (known locally as El Morro) and Castillo San Cristóbal are 2 of the most iconic images of San Juan, and possibly all of Puerto Rico. These historic fortresses were built by the Spanish centuries ago as a way to protect San Juan from oncoming attackers from both the land and sea.
Complete with underground tunnels, old artillery, sentry boxes, and soldier barracks, both forts offer an incredible look at the Spanish – and eventual US – military history of San Juan. At almost 500 years old, El Morro is the oldest Spanish fort in the new world. Just a 15-20 minute walk up the road lies Castillo San Cristóbal, considered to be the largest fortress built in the Americas.
For a budget-friendly $10, a single pass gets you into both El Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal and is good for 24 hours in case you want to split your visits into separate days.
Visit the historic Cathedral where Juan Ponce De Leon is buried
The oldest cathedral on American soil can’t actually be found in the 50 states. Instead, that distinguished title belongs to the stunning Catedral de San Juan Bautista, or San Juan Bautista Cathedral. Located in Old San Juan, it’s one of the most important religious sites in Puerto Rico.
The cathedral was originally built at what was once San Juan’s main city gate so that new visitors could visit once they arrived in America. In addition to the beautiful vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows that have stood the test of time, visitors today come to see the burial site and tomb of Juan Ponce De Leon, Spanish conquistador and former governor of Puerto Rico. The cathedral also houses a lesser-known, somewhat eerie relic – the waxed mummified remains of San Pio, a Roman martyr, which are on display in a glass cabinet within the church.
The San Juan Cathedral is free to visit. There is also a small gift shop on site.
Hike and swim in America’s only tropical rainforest
Located about 35 minutes from San Juan, El Yunque is one of the most popular places to visit in Puerto Rico. As the only tropical rainforest located in the United States, it provides visitors with lush tropical beauty and ample places to cool off after a hot hike through the trails.
Most visitors to El Yunque take the main trail down to La Mina Falls, a highly popular spot for taking a refreshing dip underneath a cascading waterfall. But if you want to get away from the crowds and find some wide-open swimming holes to cool off, take the Angelito Trail to Las Damas pool.
At Las Damas pool, you’ll find much more room to swim and far more locals than tourists, especially on the weekends. The walk along the Angelito Trail is about 15 minutes each way. The trailhead is located on road 988, a left turn shortly after El Portal Visitors Center on Road 191. If you’re unsure where to go, you can stop at El Portal and have a ranger point it out to you on a map. Best of all, El Yunque is completely free to visit.
Soak up the sun on a tourist-free beach
For most people, a visit to San Juan means a chance to relax on a beautiful white sand beach. But sometimes fighting for a spot between the rented beach chairs and massive umbrellas of the resorts can ruin any chance of relaxation. Fortunately, there’s not a resort to be found at Balneario El Escambrón.
This public beach between Old San Juan and Condado is a local favorite. At Balneario El Escambrón, you'll find a less crowded, more laid back public beach. But laid back doesn’t have to mean boring. This is also an excellent place to snorkel, with ample fish and coral to be found right off the beach. When you’re finally ready to just kick back and take it all in, Balneario El Escambrón also offers a great view of one of the old forts in the distance.
Imbibe at the birthplaces of the Piña Colada
It’s almost impossible to visit Puerto Rico without having at least one piña colada. As the official cocktail of Puerto Rico, the piña colada is served everywhere from elegant beach resorts to local bars and eateries. Though the origins of this famous cocktail can be traced back to San Juan, its specific birthplace is actually a highly contested topic in the city.
Two different establishments, the Caribe Hilton near Condado and Barrachina in Old San Juan, have argued for decades over which place truly invented the piña colada. And while you can’t necessarily help them decide who thought of it first, you can at least try both and decide who you think does it best.
Neither bar is particularly cheap. But if you’ve got some room in your budget and want to try the original for yourself, a piña colada will run you around $8 at Barrachina and $11 at the Caribe Hilton.
Where to stay on a budget in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Mango Mansion is a popular hostel located in the Condado area of San Juan. More than anything, guests of Mango Mansion hostel love the location. It’s conveniently located smack in between the beach (2 blocks away) and La Placita Santurce (1 block away), the nightlife center of San Juan.
The rooms at Mango Mansion are coed dorm-style rooms. Each room is filled with ‘luxury bunks’ consisting of memory foam mattresses and microfiber sheets.
To help you save on your food budget, the hostel provides guests with a free tropical breakfast buffet of toast, eggs, fresh fruit, coffee, and tea.
This chic boutique accommodation is an excellent choice for the free-spirited traveler.
With the smell of incense filling the air, the outdoor showers, and the meditation and morning yoga classes, a stay at The Dreamcatcher might just make you think you’re in Bali. Not to mention that The Dreamcatcher is San Juan’s only vegetarian hotel if that’s your thing.
The Dreamcatcher is conveniently located in the Ocean Park neighborhood and is just a short walk away from the nearest beach, as well as several cafes, surf shops, boutiques, and a farmer’s market. Upon arrival, all guests receive a hand-drawn map of the hotel’s neighborhood recommendations.
Fortaleza Guest House
This charming guest house combines a genuine local feel with a location that, despite being further from the beach, simply cannot be beaten.
Fortaleza Guest House is located amongst the colorful buildings and cobblestone streets of historic Old San Juan. It’s within a short walking distance to several of San Juan’s top attractions, as well as some of the city’s most incredible bars and restaurants.
Guests at Fortaleza Guest House have the option of either shared dorms or private rooms. After a long day of sightseeing, kick back on the balcony with a locally made cigar and watch people pass by on the cobblestone streets below.
How to find cheap flights to San Juan
In the last few months, Dollar Flight Club members have saved between 70-90% on cheap flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico. On average, our members spent $106 on their tickets to San Juan and saved $184 per ticket.
Here are a few samples of cheap flight deals that Dollar Flight Club members have received recently.
- Miami (MIA) to San Juan (SJU)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $77
- Average Price: $270
- Newark (EWR) to San Juan (SJU)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $76
- Average Price: $200
- Boston (BOS) to San Juan (SJU)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $117
- Average Price: $223
- Chicago (ORD) to San Juan (SJU)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $122
- Average Price: $341
- Atlant (ATL) to San Juan (SJU)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $138
- Average Price: $297
Best cheap eats in San Juan, Puerto Rico
La Casita Blanca
If you’re looking for truly authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, it helps to get a little off the main strip. This little white house, as its name translates, is located away from the resorts in the middle of a neighborhood. If you drive by too fast, you just might miss it.
At La Casita Blanca, the simple decor, intimate space, and friendly waiters all combine to make it feel like you’re dining in someone’s home. Their daily menu, written in Spanish on a chalkboard, offers nothing but the most delicious, authentic food you can find in San Juan.
While it will be tempting to fill up on everything that looks and smells delicious, be absolutely sure to save room for dessert. La Casita Blanca serves a sweet and moist coquito tres leches cake that will make you forget any desserts you’ve had before. And their flan, a signature Puerto Rican dessert, rivals any that you’ll find on the entire island.
Meals here end as warmly as they begin. In a true showing of Puerto Rican hospitality, guests receive their check along with a complimentary shot of chichaito, a Puerto Rican sambuca-esque liquor. ¡Salud!
Cafeteria La Mallorca
Cafeteria Mallorca is a cozy diner-style spot that serves traditional Pan de Mallorca, simply known as a mallorca. A mallorca (pronounced my-your-cuh) is a coiled, flaky sweet bread dusted with a generous amount of powdered sugar.
While they’re a popular dish all over, you won’t find a better place in San Juan to experience a proper mallorca than right here. The cafeteria serves them either on their own or as delectable sandwiches filled with ham and swiss, sweet butter, or cheese and bacon, among others.
Some of the staff may only speak limited English here, but they’ll know exactly what you’ve come for. For a complete Puerto Rican breakfast, be sure to wash your mallorca down with a delicious cafe con leche – all for under $10.
Lote 23 Gastronomic Park
For a modern take on the food truck scene, visit Lote 23 in the trendy neighborhood of Santurce. This is an al fresco lot of food truck-style stands serving both local and international options. From wooden stalls and repurposed Airstream trailers, vendors here serve decadent pernil, ice cream, pizza, croquetas, ceviche, and empanadas, just to name a few.
There is ample outdoor seating here and plenty of beer and cocktail options. With the added bonus of live music on the weekends, Lote 23 is a great place to hang out, have a drink, and try a lot of small bites from different spots.
In Puerto Rico, pork is king. So be sure to stop by Pernileria Los Próceres where pernil, a tender Puerto Rican roasted pork, is the star of every dish.
Old San Juan Food Trucks
Whether you’re traveling with an indecisive group or you’re just someone who likes to have all the best options, why not hit up some of San Juan’s delicious food trucks?
In Old San Juan, an eclectic mix of food trucks and carts line the waterfront near Plaza Dársenas (around the cruise ship dock). Along this strip, vendors serve everything from pizza and hot dogs to budget-friendly local fares like alcapurrias (Puerto Rican plantain fritters), empanadas, pinchos (marinated meat skewers), and bacalaítos (cod fritters).
Though there are several trucks here that serve up delicious local fare, there’s one dish that stands out above the rest: the tripleta. The name tripleta comes from the fact that this monster sandwich is filled with 3 different types of meat – chicken, beef, and pork – and topped with mayonnaise and ketchup. There may be more than one truck slinging savory tripletas here, but you’ll probably find the longest line at the famed Tico Tripleta, where you can grab your own monster sandwich for less than $8.
Start planning your trip to San Juan
San Juan is more than Puerto Rico’s capital city. It’s the island’s cultural epicenter. It’s a gateway to tropical rainforests, bioluminescent bays, and pink sand beaches. It’s a place where you can experience complete relaxation and pure exhilaration in the same day.
So whether you want to see one of the world’s 5 remaining bioluminescent bays or you’ve just always wanted to learn to dance salsa, be sure to save this budget guide, sign up for cheap flight alerts, and start planning your San Juan vacation.
BY: ZACH ANDERSON, CONTENT MARKETING & FLIGHT EXPERT
Zach is a digital marketer, copywriter, and flight deal expert at Dollar Flight Club where he helps 1 million people travel more. As a digital nomad, he is deeply passionate about location independence, Thai food, and helping others see the world affordably.