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Home > Interests & Activities > Art & History > Historical Sites
From indigenous ceremonial centers to ancient fortifications to the plantations and haciendas of a 19th century aristocracy, Puerto Rico’s history is a fascinating legacy that can be revisited, relived and retold every day of your visit, if you desire!
Our earliest structures aren’t simply historic; some of them are the oldest of their kind in the New World.
Discover our story, and travel back to a time when an intrepid explorer named Christopher Columbus accidentally bumped into a foreign land and changed the course of history.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”)
El Morro (“The Promontory”) is perhaps the most famous historic structure in Puerto Rico. Begun in 1539, the mighty fortress was built on a narrow point overlooking the San Juan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It would prove a formidable stronghold, successfully repelling every naval attack on the city. In fact, El Morro fell only once, in 1598, to a land assault by British soldiers under the command of the Earl of Cumberland. Today, El Morro and its sister fort, Castillo San Cristóbal, are National Historic Sites and the oldest European constructions in the U.S. National Park Service. You can visit the venerable fort, walk among its ramparts, explore its dungeons, and imagine, for an instance, the rigors of colonial life in the 16th century.
At strategic points along the ramparts, you’ll notice a series of sentry stations jutting out from the wall. These are called garitas; step inside and pose for a lovely photo op.
El Morro is located at the eastern tip of Old San Juan; it’s a decent uphill climb from the piers; if you want to take it easy, hop on the free trolley for a ride up to the fort’s entrance from Norzagaray Street.
As you approach El Morro, you’ll often find a colorful aerial display taking center stage in the open field leading up the fort. Kite-flying is a popular pastime here, and you can purchase a kite, or chiringa, near the entrance to the site. In the strong ocean breeze, the kites will challenge and delight you.
Castillo San Cristóbal
The largest fort ever built by the Spanish in the New World, the imposing Castillo San Cristóbal was completed in 1785. Sister to El Morro, it was intended to guard against a land invasion. The fort was tested in 1797 when it repelled a British attack led by Sir Ralph Abercromby. San Cristóbal was ingeniously designed according to a “defense in depth” model, which created numerous successive barriers for advancing enemy forces. You can experience this multi-level effect as you tour the structure and visit the barracks, ramparts, dungeons and other installations.
Every April, a reenactment of the famous Battle of 1797 takes place at San Cristóbal. Watch as British soldiers attempt to wrest the fortress from the Spanish colonists!
World War II Bunkers
Look at the northern wall of San Cristóbal and you’ll see military bunkers that stand in stark architectural contrast to the rest of the structure. The U.S. made these modern additions in 1942.
The Legend of La Rogativa
The Battle of 1797 at San Cristóbal gave rise to one of Old San Juan’s most poetic legends: the attack prompted a religious procession on the streets of the city and the British, mistaking the citizens for reinforcements, abandoned the assault. An elegant statue called La Rogativa, located in La Caleta de Las Monjas in Old San Juan, stands as silent tribute to the story.
The secluded, white-walled estate at the beginning of San Sebastián Street in Old San Juan is actually one of the oldest structures in Puerto Rico. Built in 1521, it is the original home of the Ponce de León family.
Juan Never Lived Here
While this was indeed the home of Puerto Rico’s first ruling family, Juan Ponce de León never lived here. The first governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce de León soon left the island in search of the Fountain of Youth.
While La Casa Blanca was a residence, it was also designed to repel attacks by the native Indian population; as such, it is one of Puerto Rico’s first fortified structures.
A Walk in the Gardens
A tour of La Casa Blanca (the original “White House!”) introduces you to luxury living in the 16th and 17th centuries. After, visit the peaceful and verdant gardens.
Completed in 1540, La Fortaleza, which means “The Fortress,” was one of the city’s early defenses against attack. In 1846, it became the official governor’s residence, and has since housed 170 governors of Puerto Rico.
A Ruling Legacy
La Fortaleza is actually the oldest governor’s mansion in the Western Hemisphere.
While it continues to serve as the official residence of the governor, La Fortaleza welcomes tours daily and remains one of the most popular historic sites in the old city.
The Sword and the Clock
On your tour, keep an eye out for a mahogany clock along one of the corridors. The last Spanish governor of Puerto Rico paused in front of this clock and struck its face with his sword, freezing time at the very last second of Spanish rule in the New World.
La Catedral de San Juan
The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, the San Juan Cathedral dates back centuries. The original structure, built in 1521, no longer stands; the current building was begun in 1540 and gradually evolved into the graceful Gothic façade you see today.
The Tomb of Ponce de León
One of the highlights of visiting the cathedral is the chance to visit the white marble tomb of no less a personage than Juan Ponce de León.
The cathedral has survived hurricanes, fires and lootings to become the most important religious structure in Puerto Rico. It is frequent host to some of the island’s grandest wedding ceremonies.
The Resting Place of St. Pio
In addition to Ponce de León, you’ll find the tomb of St. Pio in the cathedral. A Roman martyr, St. Pio was moved to the cathedral in 1862, where he now lies in a glass enclosure.
Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center
One of the most important archaeological finds in the Caribbean islands, the Tibes Ceremonial Center traces the lives of indigenous tribes in Puerto Rico to approximately 25 A.D. To date, excavations at Tibes have uncovered ball courts, skeletons and ceremonial plazas.
Tibes is located north of Ponce, along Route 10. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday.
The most important findings at Tibes have been the nine ball courts excavated to date. The ball game played here had various meanings, from sport to religious ceremonies to simulated battles.
Taíno and pre-Taíno
Many of the structures at Tibes predate the Taíno, and it is believed Tibes was first inhabited by the Igneri tribe, roughly a thousand years before the Taíno settled in Puerto Rico.
Castillo Serrallés, in Ponce, was the one-time home of the Don Q rum family. A magnificent example of the opulence and lavish lifestyle of turn-of-the-century aristocracy in the south of Puerto Rico, Castillo Serrallés is today a lovingly restored museum and showcase.
The Vigía Cross
Across the street from the castle is a massive cross-shaped tower called the Vigía Cross. This structure commemorates a much older cross that once stood on this site in the 1800s. The original structure was a cross-tree (cruceta) from which numerous flags were hung. The flags signaled which ships were approaching Ponce harbor.
A highlight of a visit to the mansion is its landscaped gardens, which include a pool, nursery and butterfly garden.
The Castillo is quite a trek from the city center, and is best accessed by the Ponce Trolley, which makes frequent stops throughout the day at the site.
Porta Coeli Church
One of the oldest churches in the Americas, Porta Coeli (which means “Heaven’s Gate”) is located in the town of San Germán in the Porta del Sol region of Puerto Rico. The church was built by the Dominican order in 1609, out of masonry and stucco. The red façade is today the most distinct landmark in the city, and its most visited tourist site.
Today, the Porta Coeli Church houses a museum of religious art, most notably a collection of wooden santos dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
St. Nicholas de Bari
One of the distinct features of the church is the 17th century portrait of St. Nicholas de Bari. You might know him better as Santa Claus.
The Other Church
The small and humble Porta Coeli is dwarfed by the main church in San Germán, The Church of San Germán Auxerre. Quite unlike its sister, San Germán Auxerre is the largest building in the region and boasts an intricate and lavish interior.
Hacienda Buena Vista
A unique 19th century landmark, Hacienda Buena Vista is one of only five working coffee plantations in the world that functions using water power. Guided tours of the plantation will take you to the historic estate of the original owners and show you how coffee was harvested and roasted using the latest technology in the 1800s.
An engineering marvel
Hacienda Buena Vista houses the only remaining, operating model of a Barker hydraulic turbine, named a Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering in 1994.
Know when to go
Hacienda Buena Vista is located north of Ponce. Guided tours are conducted daily, but tours in English are held only at 1:30 from Wednesday to Sunday, or by appointment.
Life in the 1800s
Among the meticulously restored buildings at Hacienda Buena Vista are the 19th century manor house of the plantation owners, stables, slave quarters, and an extensive stone canal that channeled water to the mill.