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What it’s like Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico – “The Brooklyn of San Juan”

August 6, 2015

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?

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

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…)

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico
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!

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Not to worry, a post exclusively about food in San Juan will soon follow.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Our Location

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.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2720292

The views from the place were pretty solid, as were its outdoor spaces.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2720292

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2720292

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2720292

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2720292

The Pros & Cons of Staying in Santurce

Pros

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

^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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan
Ladies, that guy on the left is single – don’t miss your chance!

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan - Trailing Rachel-16

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan - Trailing Rachel

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Cons

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!)

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan
^Doesn’t this guy kind of look like these guys? I love him.

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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!

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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!

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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?

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

Staying in Santurce Puerto Rico - San Juan

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.

Where do you guys like to stay on trips? Local spots or well-trodden areas?

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28 Comments

  • Reply Christine | A Keane Sense of Adventure August 7, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Love all the bright colors… totally what I pictured PR to look like! I’ve heard mixed reviews of the island, some loved it while others were eh. I guess based on your review, how you like the island totally depends on what type of traveler you are. I’m not a huge “beachy” person but maybe one day I’ll make it down there 🙂
    Christine | A Keane Sense of Adventure recently posted…The Pros and Cons of Neuschwanstein CastleMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel August 7, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      You summed it up EXACTLY right. For what it is, I like it. It was very colorful, the beach was great, and it was walkable and fun… but for me, maybe I’m just not into the whole “lie on the beach day after day” thing. I just can’t help it. And too, islands can sometimes be constricting. (And not cheap. Am I the worst for loving cheap destinations??)

  • Reply Jacqueline August 7, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Hahaha! That mustache. I live in Taiwan and people are obsessed with it. So weird. I love all the colors and interesting artwork. To me, it looks like the perfect place to stay in order to do some street photography!
    Jacqueline recently posted…i’ll take the window seatMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel August 7, 2015 at 10:11 pm

      Totally true. I feel kinda like my photos (and photo editing) makes it look way more glamorous and colorful than it actually was… which is why I tried to be honest – as in, it smelled of sewer a lot. God, obvi the mustache relays “hipster” lifestyle immediately. Gotta get to Taiwan – I NEED the food!

  • Reply Michelle August 13, 2015 at 1:18 am

    Wow so colorful! That is one thing I definitely remember about San Juan. Miss that!
    Michelle recently posted…How I Made $25,138 Online In July Plus My 4 Year BlogiversaryMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel August 13, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      Definitely pretty, that’s for sure. It made for some great pics. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply Hannah Dawson August 13, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Heels on a cobblestone street? Bless. I nearly died trying to get myself and my huge suitcase across the cobblestone streets in Rome.

    • Reply Rachel August 13, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Agreed. Thank God for not being a lawyer in Puerto Rico.

  • Reply Julie August 16, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve never been to P.R. and my limited knowledge of it are definitely the gorgeous images you see plastered on every website, guidebook etc. It was neat to see all of your pictures of a true local barrio, one devoid of mass numbers of tourists not to mention I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. And you can’t beat that beautiful ocean water! My goodness, that beautiful blue hue.

    I love getting more of an authentic experience but at the end of the day for me being close to stuff (i.e. being able to easily walk/not deal with taxis, buses etc) wins out. Too many bad hotels in the past where I stayed in “beyond left field.”

    P.S. Totally agree with you on the whole “labelings.” The cities are what they are…
    Julie recently posted…Nicky’s Thai Kitchen (Pittsburgh): Restaurant ReviewMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel August 17, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      Yeah, lately when picking places to stay, I’ve found out that location is key. We stayed too far away from the main stuff in Bangkok and ended up a sweaty mess almost every day from walking and taking so many forms of public transportation. Santurce was a good compromise though – cheaper prices, good food, and still near a beach.

  • Reply Erin Marie August 18, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Loved this area, but only spent a little time there. Would definitely head back next time I’m in PR though. La Placita really reminded me of Bella Vista in Santiago, Chile, and I loved the feeling I got there. I really must get back soon! 🙂
    Erin Marie recently posted…Exploring the Adirondack Coast Wine TrailMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel August 19, 2015 at 3:17 pm

      Ahh so cool that you’ve been to La Placita! It was easily one of my favorite places there! So many locals hanging out, so you know it’s cool. I’d love to get to Chile eventually!

  • Reply Amanda @ Adventures All Around August 21, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    Oh wow… the colours in these photos have me wanting to hop on a plane and head on over! I’ve not been to Puerto Rico yet but it’s definitely on that list. And I like staying somewhere with loads of character. I have no problem with a little gritty, as long as I feel safe and know which areas are okay to stay in and which places are best avoided. Nothing like a local’s “whatever you do, don’t go into that park alone” style tip!
    Amanda @ Adventures All Around recently posted…A Brilliant City Break in BelfastMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel August 22, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      Yeah, it was super pretty and we definitely checked with our hosts before booking to see if the neighborhood was safe. Haha, and fun fact, I read about the beach beforehand, “Don’t go after dark, it’s often used as a meeting place for homosexual male encounters and/or you will get robbed.”

  • Reply ciara February 4, 2016 at 12:07 am

    I’ll be visiting Puerto Rico in 3 weeks and I cannot wait! We’ll actually be staying in Old San Juan. Thankfully using Air Bnb made it

    • Reply Rachel February 13, 2016 at 11:16 pm

      Old San Juan is SO pretty. Have a great trip!

  • Reply Brooklyn born , native New Yorker June 14, 2016 at 4:12 am

    I would not have compared La Placita to Brooklyn, especially since you are from NC.
    Next time you are in New York, visit Fort Greene, Park Slope, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights..clusters of hipster areas with rooftops, patios, backyards and way more than the few blocks of dilapitated bars in La Placita.

    • Reply Rachel June 14, 2016 at 5:02 am

      Ha I totally agree! The title of this post is a little misleading – as you can see in the first paragraph I don’t agree with that comparison either. While I was trip-planning, I just kept reading about Santurce’s supposed likeness to Brooklyn because it was an up and coming, hip neighborhood filled with young people. Yeah… not quite. (La Placita was my favorite part though.)

  • Reply Kel August 14, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    I am Puerto Rican and find your review on San Juan to be very offensive. What you think is quirky / funny review, to a native feels like: this is coming from a privileged , arrogant , opinionated person. Puerto Rico has SO MUCH to see and do and it is not limited to what you have expressed. I hope that in future blog entries you are more professional and mindful about how you’re impacting a culture as a whole and who may be reading these postings. It is not a good look for you. The only people that can relate to you are ones that may potentially be ignorant , or privileged themselves.
    Of course it is a slower pace because yes, it is an island, but thankfully it has not been crazily gentrified as most places have been , in which I feel takes away from the deep rooted culture in a place (New Orleans being a prime example). People are friendly, and know how to have a good time. Lots of community oriented activities as well as music and dancing galore. So if you are having a hard time finding things to do in Puerto Rico, I’ve also added a link to demystify what the island is all about. Thank you.

    • Reply Rachel August 26, 2016 at 8:18 am

      I’m sorry my post came off as offensive as I really enjoyed my time in San Juan and tried to give a realistic portrayal of what it was like to stay in this particular neighborhood for a week. I didn’t say that there wasn’t much to do in the whole of Puerto Rico, just that Santurce itself didn’t have a ton of activities for tourists, which is kind of the beauty of it. Thanks for reading and for the link – I’ll check it out.

    • Reply tdickerson January 9, 2017 at 5:49 am

      Can u please post the link

  • Reply Michelle August 18, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    The thing about Puerto Rico is that you need a car. Otherwise, you’re stuck in a small neighborhood (Old San Juan and Calle Loiza/Ocean Park are some of the only walkable areas in San Juan). And yes, there’s Uber now. There’s also the only rain forest in the US territories, with great hikes and plenty of water falls; three (THREE!) bioluminescent bays, snorkeling like there’s no tomorrow (just need to find the right beach, Ocean Park included), surfing + other water sports, for example, you can kayak or paddle board in the Condado lagoon where a family of manatees live, which you might see if you get lucky. So rent a car, do some research and explore the island. Puerto Rico is not San Juan and it’s most definitely a 20 block neighborhood. Lying on any beach for a whole day get boring fast.

    • Reply Rachel August 26, 2016 at 8:23 am

      Ahhh thanks Michelle, Uber would have been incredibly useful during our stay actually! Good to know. We snorkeled and went to the beach plenty, and I especially liked visiting the islands off of Fajardo. I’d love to go back to Puerto Rico and do some hiking. Totally agree that just sitting on the beach all the time gets old.
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  • Reply JD November 23, 2016 at 7:55 am

    Thanks for writing this — we re planning to stay in this neighborhood and this was exactly what I was looking for….like you, we couldn’t find much on the neighborhood. Love the pictures, love the description, and you sealed our decision to stay there.

    • Reply Rachel November 25, 2016 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks for reading, JD! I hope you’re trip is awesome. Santurce feels like a real neighborhood in PR.

  • Reply Jim January 14, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    I didn’t find your blog until actually booking and inhabiting an AirBNB on Calle Atlantic Place. I think you hit it exactly right. Your blog is spot on. Just returned from La Placita tonight, and even in January, packed on Saturday night. Ocean Park Beach, while not pristine, is great fun as a “hanging out beach”, and the local food spectacular. If I may offer a recommendation to visitors, hit the Ocean Park Cafe, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan, and make sure to order a Don Q mojito. 🙂 Have been here 4 nights and my wife and I have never felt unsafe, even walking at night, notwithstanding the crime rate horror stories. We have found the locals nothing but welcoming and lovely people. And yes, Uber is in full swing here. Calle Atlantic Place to La Placita: $4.

    • Reply Rachel January 16, 2017 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks so much, Jim! Excellent additional tips too! Glad you loved it – I think it feels more authentic and local than other spots in the Caribbean. And yes, I heard Ocean Park Cafe was great. I’d kill to go back to La Placita for some live music and happy hour beers.

  • Reply 47 Cool Things to do in Puerto Rico - The Daily Adventures of Me March 20, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    […] Visit San Juan’s hipster area and street art in Santurce. […]

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