PUERTO RICO with Kids: With so many things to do in San Juan with kids, only a week to explore the city and a need to hit the beach every day, we had to narrow down our excursions. We found these were the five best activities to do with kids under five in San Juan.
1. The Beaches in San Juan
The beach was on the “must do list” everyday in San Juan for my girls. Since the weather was amazing it was an easy compromise. It was winter in San Juan during our stay so the mornings were cooler (think 70’s) with the afternoon reaching highs in the mid to high 80’s. The mild morning temperatures made the mornings perfect for excursions, lunch at the beach (a nap under the umbrella for the kids) followed by sandcastle making and swimming.
All beaches in San Juan, even those fronting the top hotels are open to the public. (Caribe Hilton is the only hotel that has a small private beach.) Beach hours are typically 9-5pm. One thing parents need to note, many of the beaches have strong riptides so keep a good eye on your kids. There were a few times I had to grab both my girls and we were in a “calm, swimming area”. In hindsight, I would have outfitted them both with a life jacket.
While the beaches in San Juan are all open to the public, not all are created equal. There are only two beaches in San Juan that have lifeguards – El Escambron (right next to Caribe Hilton) and Isla Verde Public Beach. These two beaches also have changing rooms, bathrooms, showers, picnic areas and onsite restaurants or snack bars. Each are also protected from reefs and rocks, providing a bit calmer water for swimming – and little ones who want to sit and splash. Isla Verde Beach is another popular beachfront lined with resorts, which makes access to it a bit more difficult (Isla Verde Public Beach sits on the same stretch of land but access to it is much easier if you’re not a hotel guest). Isla Verde Beach is a great beach for families given its calm waters and the variety of amenities along the beachfront. There are a number of kiosks lining the beach where you can rent snorkeling gear or participate in a variety of water sports – snuba, parasailing, etc.
2. Explore San Juan’s largest two forts: San Felipe del Morro “El Morro” and Castillo de San Cristobal
El Morro and San Cristobal were built during the 1500-1600’s to protect San Juan from land-based invasions. Today they are both World Heritage Sites, and National Historic Sites that are administered by the US National Park Service. The forts offer kids a fun and interactive way to explore San Juan’s history, or just put their vivid imaginations into overdrive. Once my girls understood what the forts were and how people used them they could not stop pretending they were Pirate Princesses. Running down the underground tunnel systems and hiding in the towers were a thrill. Walking into a “real dungeon” and seeing the doodling that prisoners made on the walls made my five-year-old turn and ask me in her most serious and concerned voice, “Is this were Maleficent locked up Prince Eric”. (A Sleeping Beauty related question.) She was a bit disappointed to learn he was not in fact imprisoned in this dungeon.
If you are up for exploring both forts, do it. There is a 15-20 minute walking trail along the beach that connects them; it’s stroller friendly. If the walk is too much and you still want to do both jump on the trolley that ferries people back and forth.
If you just have time – or the attention span – for one fort, head to El Morro. It is much larger and has a labyrinth of tunnels, towers and dungeons to explore. The grounds outside of El Morro are also open and always breezy making it an ideal spot for a picnic and some kite flying. You can buy a kite in the gift shop at El Morro or San Cristobal but you may pay less at the Walgreens or Puerto Rico Drug store located across the street from El Morro.
Both forts offer hourly guided tours, but you can take advantage of the information brochure you receive when you pay for admission and do your own guided tour. (You can purchase a $5 admission that allows access to both forts.) I found the self-guided tour was our best option given our little ones like to talk a lot, interrupt whomever else is speaking and have the attention span of a gnat. While we didn’t take our stroller on this outing there are ramps throughout the forts along with elevators. Given that even winter in San Juan is hot, you can escape the heat in the theatre which shows a short introduction of the forts, their history and impact they played in history. The movies are offered at both locations in Spanish (on the ½ hour) or English (on the hour) every hour throughout the day.
3. Explore Old San Juan
You can make a day of exploring Old San Juan with kids. There are so many different types of activities you can do, be it in doors, outdoors or a combination of the two. One of the first thing I’d suggest doing is taking the free trolley tour the city offers so you can see its rich architecture while also getting a feel for where you are and what you want to do. It’s a fairly short ride around the city and you can jump on and off at each stop. The trolley is also a great place to take a little rest when your kids get tired and need to cool off.
If you’re in San Juan on a Sunday, head down to Paso De La Princessa as there is an outdoor market during the day (9-5pm). It’s filled with locals dancing to the live bands, local vendors selling art, woodwork and everything you never knew you needed or wanted. There are countless food carts where you can grab lunch or a shaved ice (Piragua in Spanish) to cool off.
For more shopping head up to Fortaleza St and San Francisco St. where kids will love looking for Carnival Masks. The papier-mâché masks are worn at the big masquerade carnivals on the island in February, July and December. One of the best places to find authentic masks in San Juan is La Calle, located on Fortaleza St.
We happened upon Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park) during our day in Old San Juan and it immediately reminded me of the Feed the Birds scene from Mary Poppins. The park is covered with hundreds of pigeons all vying for the crumbs and birdseed visitor’s toss to them. A little café setup in the park makes Parque de las Palomas an ideal spot to grab a coffee or snack while letting the kids run around. (There is usually someone there selling birdseed.)
If you have a stroller and you’re walking around Old San Juan, note that the streets and sidewalks are very narrow. While you can maneuver a double stroller, it may be difficult and will require any passerby’s to step on to the road. For little ones who like to walk, again the streets are narrow and cars are not always looking out for little people.
4. El Museo del Nino (The Children’s Museum)
The Children’s Museum in San Juan is a great place to escape the heat or the rain. For one, it’s air-conditioned, even in the winter San Juan is hot! The museum has three floors filled with interactive exhibits and activities for kids – both little and big kids stop for kids. The information posted in the exhibits is in Spanish but there are employees there who can interpret. If you’re like me and have kids running from one to the other before things can be translated, you may want so download WordLens, which translates pictures of a sign or document written in Spanish into English.
5. El Yunque Rain Forest
The El Yunque Rain Forest is a great option for families visiting Puerto Rico with kids who are into nature, bugs and have a lot of energy to burn. It’s a 30-minute drive outside of San Juan making it ideal for little ones who need to take a nap and easily fall to sleep in the car.
Within the park there are dozens of trails that wind past waterfalls where families can walk along and listen to the Coqui frogs and watch parrots fly overhead. The trails are not paved and not stroller friendly (backpack carrier is recommended). Make sure to tell your kids they shouldn’t pick the flowers or plants. (It can very difficult for little Princesses not to pick flowers.) The trails are graded by difficulty so it’s easy to find the more kid friendly hikes. One kid-friendly hike worth checking out is the hike to La Mina Falls. It’s about 45 minutes and you end at a natural pool where you can swim and picnic with the kids. This is popular spot for families so expect company.
While these activities in San Juan were a hit for my girls, they may not fit for all kids so make sure to ask yourself a few questions before you venture out. Questions such as, what do your kids really like to do or not like Do they like to play in the water? Sand? Explore nature and bugs? Are they prone to motion sickness, if so skip the long car ride to the rainforest. San Juan is a great place to get kids outside of their comfort zone and explore new things but if you push too hard – disaster.
As your kids get older there are even more things to do in San Juan with kids – zip lining through the rain forest and rappelling through caves, snuba, snorkeling, diving and horseback riding on the beach, etc. – I can’t wait to go back! The city and Puerto Rico as a whole really have a lot to offer kids of all ages, even if those kids happen to be “adults”.
Today’s guest post comes from Elaine N. Schoch, an avid traveler who is busy exploring the world, usually with her two kids in tow (ages 3 and 5). She shares her adventures, travel advice and tips on CarpeTravel.com. Thanks so much, Elaine, for sharing your Puerto Rico with Kids travel tips with us!
You might also like: The 411 on Northeastern Puerto Rico with Kids
Previous Post: Shark Tunnel at Maui Ocean Center
More Tips for Vacation Destinations with Young Children: Destinations at TravelswithBaby.com