Discover the oldest history of the United States in Puerto Rico in the island’s capital and UNESCO site Old San Juan.
The oldest post-Columbian settlements in the United States are not Jamestown or Plymouth, but are found in United States Caribbean territories such as Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a historic neighborhood that is fabulously old by Colonial American standards. The oldest buildings in Old San Juan predate the oldest standing building in the continental United States by nearly a century.
It is located on the northwest triangle of the islet of San Juan and is the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an often overlooked part of the United States, but one that everyone should visit. Those visiting Puerto Rico should plan their trip around certain things to have the best time.
Historic Old San Juan
The Old San Juan neighborhood is listed as a National Historic District. Additionally, some of its most notable buildings have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1983. It is home to the oldest European-age structures in the United States.
Some of the most notable structures include La Fortaleza, the city walls, El Morro, and the castles of San Cristobal.
- Older : San Juan is the oldest continuously inhabited post-European contact city in the United States
- Second oldest: The second oldest post-European contact city in the Western Hemisphere
- Based: In 1519 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon
Since San Juan was founded in 1519 by the Spaniards, it has been the capital of Puerto Rico. It was Spanish for almost 4 centuries until the United States annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.
- Architecture: Benefit from Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture
La Fortaleza and the defenses of Old San Juan
Many of the surviving structures in Old San Juan are defensive in nature, including three forts and much of the city wall built between the 16th and 19th centuries.
San Cristobal Castle:
It is the largest fortification built by the Spaniards in the Americas. It was designed to provide defense of both land and sea during the colonial period
- The biggest: The largest Spanish fortification in the Americas
Castle of San Felipe del Morro:
Also known as “El Morro”, it is a 16th century citadel that was built to protect against private and foreign attacks during the colonial period. It is also the location of a historic lighthouse.
San Juan City Walls:
The city walls of San Juan were built to surround Old San Juan – today approximately three quarters of the walls of Old City remain intact. It was a city surrounded by stone that saw its walls gradually expand over the course of 250 years. Eventually these walls were united to connect to the two largest forts in the city – Castillo de San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal.
- Nickname: “La ciudad amurallada” (the walled city)
The only other city in the United States and Canada that still retains its system of colonial defensive walls is Quebec City in Canada (it even managed to repel a Continental Army invasion attempt during the Revolutionary War ).
Santa Catalina Palace:
Santa Catalina Palace is also known as La Fortaleza (meaning the Fortress). It is a fortification and it is still the current residence of the Governor of the Territory of Puerto Rico.
- Older : It is the oldest executive residence in the Americas
The Churches of Old San Juan
Besides forts, one of the first things the Spanish Catholics did was to build churches.
St. John’s Cathedral:
It is one of the oldest buildings in Old San Juan and is considered the oldest cathedral in the United States. In the Western Hemisphere, it is the second after the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It is even a cathedral containing relics.
It is located on Calle del Cristo and is always open for daily services. It is formally known as The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista.
- Started: In 1542
- Style: Gothic and neo-Renaissance architecture
- Older : The oldest cathedral in the United States (second in the Americas)
San Jose Church:
This is considered one of the most important architectural landmarks in Old San Juan. After many years of restoration, it finally reopened to the public in 2021. 2021 is exactly 500 years from its first date of – 1521.
It is a fine example of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It was also the home of the Dominican friars.
Other old churches include John the Baptist (Cathedral Basilica Metropolitana of San Juan Bautista), Church of Saint Francis of Assisi ( Church of San Francisco de Asís)and Santa Ana Church (Church of Santa Ana). Learn more about Old San Juan on the National Park Service.
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