Above its fine art, alluring nightlife, delightful cuisine and charming shopping, Old San Juan is history. As the second oldest European settlement in the Americas, the city has no shortage of historical sites. An interesting and unique way to trace San Juan’s origin is by visiting its many churches, a living testament of colonial times and a direct window to the soul of Puerto Rican culture.
The grand dame of Old San Juan Catholic temples is the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). Built in 1521, the cathedral is the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest church on U.S. soil. It holds the remains of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, first governor of Puerto Rico and the first European to explore Florida. The cathedral’s historic significance is matched by its ecclesiastic importance: San Juan Bautista is the seat of the Archdiocese of Puerto Rico. San Juan Bautista is also one of the few examples of medieval architecture in the Americas. The cathedral’s location is also strategic: situated up the hill from Puerta de San Juan (The San Juan Gate), the main seaside gate to the city, transatlantic travelers were expected to visit San Juan Bautista as soon as they got off the boat so as to thank God for a safe voyage.
If the cathedral is Old San Juan’s poster church, then Iglesia San José comes in at a close second. Built in 1532, the main chapel is a fine example of Spanish Gothic architecture. Ponce de León was buried here for 300 years before his remains were transferred to San Juan Bautista and San José is also the final resting place of Puerto Rican painter José Campeche. The church’s appeal is enhanced by the charming Plaza San José, which is flanked by numerous historical buildings and boasts a bronze statue of Ponce de León.
Straddling the line between history and legend, Capilla de Cristo is another landmark. Legend has it that, in 1753, a young man on horseback took a terrible tumble down the cliffs at the end of Calle del Cristo. The rider survived the lethal fall (whether the horse enjoyed the same fate is still a subject of debate) and in recognition of the miraculous event, the chapel was built in honor of Santo Cristo de la Salud (Holy Christ of Health). The simple yet irresistibly photogenic brick chapel is one of the most iconic sites in Old San Juan.
Located a few blocks from Capilla del Cristo on 203 Tetuán Street, Santa Ana Church almost catches you by surprise. Though lacking the sense of grandeur of San José Church and San Juan Cathedral due to its close proximity to the neighboring buildings, Santa Ana is nonetheless a unique sight thanks to its pink and white façade that peers toward the cobblestone streets. Heading east on the aptly named San Francisco Street, San Francisco de Asís Church’s time-worn brick steps lead you into colorful altar presided by an image of the animal-friendly saint.
All of the aforementioned churches are part of a time-honored tradition during Holy Week, when the local faithful and anyone interested in a historical loop of Old San Juan partake on a pilgrimage to each temple.
Though not a church (but still considered hallowed ground), the Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery) also merits mention. Located between the massive walls of Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro, as we like to call it) and the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, this burial ground offers a unique perspective of the old city, and is noteworthy for its elaborate tombstones and neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene.