Okay I hate when people do that… what I just did in the title. Like when they call Buenos Aires “The Paris of South America” – it’s just not. The city might have some of that architectural, European feeling, but it ain’t Paris. Nor is Santurce, an up-and-coming, formerly sketchy neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico really like Brooklyn. It’s not that trendy and camera-ready. But it is a great place to stay if you want to feel like a local in a friendly Puerto Rican neighborhood that isn’t yet overrun by tourists.
So then, what is it really like?
Due to the dearth of information I found on the interwebs when deciding to stay there, I decided I’d write a post about the area of Santurce, the pros and cons of staying there, its colorful, dirty buildings, and its plaza. Plus what blog post is complete without photos of all the cool street art you saw during your travels? (Just kidding, I typically dislike those and scroll on through, but I guess that’s because I never had my own graffiti photos. Oh how things change…)
When I told one of my coworkers we were staying in Santurce, she relayed it to her Puerto Rican nanny for any advice that she might have for us. You know, insider tips. Her only response? “Ooohhh why is she staying there? No noooo.” (The nanny hasn’t been to Puerto Rico in 15 years.)
So yeah, Santurce used to be really unsafe. Drug dealers, hookers, crime. And restaurant owners in the neighborhood who feared for their customers safety as they walked back to their cars in the evening – true story. But a few years later one of those same Santurce restaurants attracted the likes of Benicio del Toro. Because the area is getting cool.
Now it’s considered a place for the hip, trendy, young people of San Juan to live and start new business ventures. And truly, there were way more hipsters in San Juan than I could have imagined. (But hey, I also said the same thing about Raleigh when I moved here). It’s cool – way cooler than me.
Mustaches… a sure sign of a hipster neighborhood anywhere in the world.
There are lots of businesses and restaurants popping up in Santurce. There was a yoga studio and a popular health food store within walking distance of our apartment, and even a Zumba class that took place just beneath it. We ate lunch in a place that was serving food from a repurposed, neon yellow shipping container. And food trucks… obviously there were food trucks. Hip, I tell ya!
Not to worry, a post exclusively about food in San Juan will soon follow.
So we really had no idea about things to do in Santurce aside from what was suggested from the airbnb reviews of the place we chose. After arriving at our apartment with its rooftop terrace located along Calle Loiza, we were met with an introduction from our host who explained that Calle Loiza was safe at night because it was a properly lit, very long, busy street.
One street up towards the beach, Calle McLeary, was also safe, he commented, but less well-lit at night, though his tone sounded as if late night strolls were discouraged. Our hosts also recommended taking cabs home from longer distances after dark.
The views from the place were pretty solid, as were its outdoor spaces.
The Pros & Cons of Staying in Santurce
It’s cheaper. Staying in Santurce is cheaper than staying in the resort area of Condado or in the beautiful, colonial city of Old San Juan where the cruise ships dock. But let me make this clear: while Santurce is cheaper, Puerto Rico itself is definitely not cheap. It’s still sorta kinda part of the States and you’re still paying with the dollar, so don’t get excited.
There’s a large, expansive, pretty nice beach nearby. Ocean Park Beach is a wide and long, long public beach with ice cream vendors and guys selling beer and water that walk along the sand all day. The ocean was a pretty clear blue aside from the occasional floating seaweed that diva Charlie complained about. There were kitesurfers everywhere and you could take surfing lessons… or just rent chairs and umbrellas from the guy a few blocks west. All viable options.
^Fun fact: The narrow opening off of Calle Atlantic through which you can pass to get to this beach is bordered by concrete walls which protect the gigantic home of the Goya family. There’s also an armed guard patrolling the streets out front. Check it out behind the huge palms.
Aside from Old San Juan’s high accommodation costs, there’s also no beach there. And I just couldn’t imagine taking a relatively expensive cab ride every time we wanted to go to the beach on our vacay (as opposed to Huatulco, Mexico where cabs were actually super cheap and available). And in Condado, you’re pretty much restricted to the beach that your resort owns or lays claim to (since you can’t technically “own” the beaches there)… oh wait, your resort isn’t on the beach? Hmmm…
It was definitely nice to have a big public beach that we could walk to.
Ladies, that guy on the left is single – don’t miss your chance!
La Placita. I really loved this place. La Plaza del Mercado de Santurce, affectionately known as “La Placita,” is the local neighborhood spot to see and be seen… and booze it. It also had the cheapest beers, and one of the best restaurants on the island (more on that later).
Charlie and my brother found a happy hour deal of three Medalla Lights for $5 at one of the bars here before we headed to dinner one night.
During the day La Placita is a fruit and vegetable market on the inside, then at night (Wednesday through Saturday) the bars and restaurants surrounding the plaza open and things liven up. There are outdoor tables, live salsa bands, and tons of locals hanging out.
While I don’t think it was in full swing on some of the nights we went to check it out (one of the favorite seafood spots was closed for vacation, and really Charlie and I were dead tired when we arrived early on Saturday), you can easily see how it kicks into gear when the sun goes down. There’s a mix of cheap and high end restaurants, so check the menu prices before you sit down… and don’t expect fast service.
To get there: Follow Calle Loiza west until it turns into Wilson and then take a left on Primavera, heading through the underpass and tunnel covered with colorful graffiti. When you see the multitude of bars spring up, you’re almost at the entrance.
Less Tourists. While visiting a lot of the restaurants in Santurce, La Placita, and the beach two blocks away from our apartment, the majority of people surrounding us were locals. That can be a reassuring feeling that you’re in the right spot.
It’s gritty. Dirty. Rough. Still a little sketchy. Smells of sewage occasionally. You know what I mean. Just be aware that it’s a neighborhood still in flux and use caution at night. We never had any issues, but better safe than sorry.
(Well, Charlie and I had a guy weirdly follow us for a few seconds asking if we had any beer left in our cooler, but that was just a minor irritation… and I almost considered giving it to him when I realized what he was requesting. Can’t blame a guy for trying!)
^Doesn’t this guy kind of look like these guys? I love him.
You’ll also notice every home is guarded by an intimidating fence, sometimes with spikes on top, sometimes with razor blade-esque trimmings. But their occupants sure don’t hate color!
Old San Juan is a ride away. You’ll either have to cab it (about $17) or take the sporadic local buses which don’t appear to be on any sort of schedule (75 cents, and bring your change). There are lots of bus stops (paradas) along Calle Loiza to Old San Juan (take the T-5).
Metro Taxi is a good option if you’re trying to take a cab – they are one of the few companies that reliably answered their phone. And there aren’t too many cabs hanging around Santurce either since it’s not a touristy area, so you’ll likely have to call one.
Unfortunately there’s no Uber in San Juan. I tried. A reader has informed me that San Juan does have Uber now! Game-changer!
There’s not too terribly much to do or important sites to see in Santurce itself. It’s much more local here than other areas, so aside from restaurants, the beach, and La Placita, I couldn’t tell you anything else we really did in our neighborhood. But I only came to relax, swim, eat, and drink beers, soooo is that really a con?
The Verdict. Would I recommend staying there?
If you’re looking for food, booze, slightly cheaper prices, a decent beach, and you’re not huge on having all the cushy comforts and amenities of home, go for it. And definitely check out La Placita while you’re there. It’s the bomb.
But if you’re looking to do the touristy stuff and see all the historic sites, then maybe not – the transportation to Old San Juan, its cobblestone streets and fort will get old and expensive fast. And if you’re looking to relax in the splendor and serenity of natural beauty and unspoiled beaches, then nope – I’d maybe even get out of San Juan and on to Fajardo or maybe even head east for the smaller islands of Vieques or Culebra. But for living like a local near the beach, Santurce is where it’s out.