Design Lovers Travel Guide – 24 Hours in San Juan: Pantone Mansions, Art Deco & Tropical Sunshine

April 4, 2019

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AD – Paid Partnership with Celebrity Cruises


Landing in San Juan at night, you are greeted with quite an unexpected sight, beneath the full moon San Juan will announce itself not as a small town with a scattering of twinkly lights as I was expecting, but as a town laid out in neon lights cascading jewel-like upon the landscape.

I reminded myself that though this is the Caribbean, it is still a part of America after all, and this razzmatazz preview was the perfect introduction to a city of intoxicating Pantone colour and a serously envious tapestry of gorgeous architecture.

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Calle Fortaleza

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San Juan is a popular cruise port on Celebrity Cruises location itineraries and I was here in order to sample one of their newly revamped ships in the port (you can read more of my experience onboard by popping back to the previous post). I had one day to explore the capital of Puerto Rico but even from this short glimpse it was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. The kaleidoscopic colours of three hundred year old Spanish mansions in the old town is a veritable Pantone reference chart. Alongside sorbet toned mansions, buildings that could easily be the dictionary definition of Accidentally Wes Anderson, are Art Deco masterpieces, ancient forts, modernism, acid tones and the faded patina of those building affected but not restored yet after Hurricane Maria, San Juan is a true smorgasbord of architectural gems.

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The stunning faded grandeur of Old Town buildings.

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But more than this, San Juan is also a town with a great vibe, a relaxed conviviality that draws you in and utterly seduces you. It is perfectly possible to explore San Juan in a day, though I would have loved to have stayed longer and really soaked up the ambience.

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The Pantone hues of San Juan side streets.
The beautiful worn patina of San Juan’s old mansions

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I started my day in the old town, arriving at 7.30am. I was determined that I wanted to be able to shoot and explore this location in relative solace. The old town can get very busy in peak season, a quick perusal of the towns locale on Instagram confirms this with the prettiest streets chocca with people at peak hours. There are a few benefits to exploring the old town at this time if day, not only do you have the colourful baroque joyfulness all to yourself. But also, if you avoid the hours when the heat can be quite sweltering, and as an added bonus if you are finished within a few hours (I was) it’s the perfect time to pick up a mid-morning brunch in the form of a Puerto Rican flan, I highly recommend Flan De Coco Puertorriqueño, a coconut confection with a calorie count you daren’t think about but which is divinely moor-ish.

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Beautiful hot pink umbrellas on Calle Fortaleza
Calle Fortaleza
Calle Fortaleza

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I Started exploring the old town in its popular apex the Calle Fortaleza with its umbrella lined villas which change colour every few months to mark the hurricane of 2017. When I visited they had just changed to hot pink and alert from looking completely beautiful and being utterly appropriate in the ambience of the street, I couldnt help think what a relief they must be when exploring in the midday sun. From Calle Fortaleza I walked wherever my nose led me. There are a few spots not to be missed, looking out to the ocean from one of the old wall fort towers is pretty special and a little uphill from Calle Fortaleza (only a little uphill, this town reminds me of Lisbon, but without quite such vertiginous undulations!) is the old army barracks which holds a museum. Standing in the central courtyard looking around you can hardly think of anything more Accidentally Wes Anderson. I’m a huge fan of Anderson’s cinematic aesthetic and this felt like being on set.

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The old army barracks in the old town
San Juan’s Carnegie Library
The most incredible marble on San Juan’s Capitol State building.
Home of our Lady of Providence

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But that’s not where the Anderson style tour ends! A little further out of the old town on Expresso 66 (a central street with the awesome and slightly overwhelming marble central capitol building of state) you will find the incredible meringue pink church-like structure of the Home of Our Lady of Providence. This neon kitsch structure, is in fact an old people’s home founded by a nun at the end of the nineteenth century and it was a total happenstance highlight for me. On this stretch you will also pass San Juan’s Carnegie Library which is very pretty from the outside painted in pink and green, it wasn’t open but if you do pass when it is I’m sure it would be well worth the visit.

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Balneario El Escambron

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The nicest beach in San Juan is also the one nearest to the old town. Balneario El Escambron is a very pretty spot to while away a few hours. This area also has one of the sadder sights of San Juan – the old Normandie hotel. If you look it up you will see that in its former glory days it was a perfect piece of curved Art Deco from the travel era. It was still possible to view a glimpse of its former glory a few years ago but it is now in a very ruinous state. Where some buildings in the old town have dilapidated into a faded beauty, this former gem stands as stark comparison with boarded up windows, graffiti and the iconic Art Deco lettering all but gone.

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The stunning pink Art Deco lines of Edificio Miami
Edificio Miami, easily the most beautiful building in Condado.

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But I do have one completely amazing Art Deco find still very much in tact. Final stop on my San Juan architour is located on the other side of the cities main bridge in Condado. Ashford Avenue is a long and busy thoroughfare in the most swish part of town. This side is far more modern, there are a few modernist gems but to the passing eye not much to keep you here. Other than Edificio Miami. A building of absolute Art Deco joyfulness, it wouldnt look out of place on Venice Beach in Miami and could comfortably hold its own as a magnificent structure within that locality. By the time I arrived at this building the sun was in full unbearable glare and it was really hard to even see what I was taking photographs of so the pictures here aren’t my finest but if you do go to San Juan please do not miss this building!

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Views from one of the fortress turrets that guard San Juan from the sea.

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As a colour lover I could not have fallen in love with San Juan harder. It is an exceptional dreamlike tableau of kaleidoscopic colour and outstanding architecture. The whole vibe of the place is fabulous, there were some streets that felt a little less safe than others, but keeping your wits about you you should have the most fantastic time.

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Rainbow hues on old town buildings like birthday cakes in every shade you can imagine.

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I travelled to San Juan courtesy of Celebrity Cruises who offer many itineraries from this port.

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Join Celebrity Cruises’ (www.celebritycruises.co.uk0800 441 4054) Celebrity Summit, for an 11-night Bermuda and New England fly/cruise departing Cape Liberty on 16 June 2019 from £2,789 per person in an Oceanview Stateroom (based on two people sharing).

The 12-night holiday includes flights from London Heathrow; one night’s pre-cruise accommodation; an 11-night cruise departing from Cape Liberty (New Jersey, USA) and calling at King’s Wharf (Bermuda) for an extended two-night stay, Boston (Massachusetts, USA), Bar Harbor (Maine, USA) and Portland (Maine, USA) before returning to Cape Liberty for the flights home; meals and entertainment on-board the ship and all relevant cruise taxes/fees.

For more information or to book, call 0800 441 4054, visit www.celebritycruises.co.uk or talk to your travel agent.

This post is a paid collaboration with Celebrity Cruises, I only work with carefully selected brands that interest me, and that I hope will interest you. Thank you for supporting the brands that support me.

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