When you visit Puerto Rico, you only need to follow one rule. Gadiel Amilec, a cook who has a pop-up series called El Taller, explains: “Don’t act surprised when the server responds to you in English, and never ask where they learned to do so.”
It’s good advice, since—maybe because of the whole beautiful island beaches thing—a surprising number of people apparently don’t know that the country is a U.S. Territory. Time for a geography lesson, boys.
If you’re American, your money and your phone will work just like they do back home. When you take a perfect shot of an icy cold can of Medalla in the sand, you don’t have to return to your hotel’s wifi to post it to Instagram.
Where you should spend that money is a whole other matter. There’s no shortage of lists telling you about the best restaurants in the capital city of San Juan, so if you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention, you won’t miss José Enrique.
Looking for cocktails? The go-to is Old San Juan’s La Factoria, listed among the World’s 50 Best. But if you want to try something off the well-beaten, James Beard–nominated path, Puerto Ricans will provide you the best direction.
The first bit of advice, from the co-owner of La Factoria Leslie Cofresi: “Rent a car and leave San Juan,” he says. “It's cheap and there's so much to see outside of the metropolitan area.”
Driving is the best way to see the small island, where the longest trip you can take will be about two hours to the west coast.
Once you get your loaner and cue up local acts Los Wálters or Buscabulla on Spotify, heed this advice from some locals on ways to avoid the piña colada-slurping, tchotchke-buying crowd:
26 PR-149, Ciales, 00638
Take that car to the center of the island for a taste of what everyone will tell you is the essence of Puerto Rican cuisine. “Casa Vieja is the classic chinchorro small bar,” says Rafael N. Ruiz of La Mafia, the island’s popular Spanish-language food blog and podcast. “It’s about going out there, escaping your reality, eating frituritas (fritters) and asopao’ (traditional soup) all day, enjoying cold national beers or drinks while listening classic salsa. No heat. No sand. No piña colada. No traditional tourist experience. It’s simple. It’s the heart of Puerto Rico.”
CLMDO and La Central
If you have the time, drive out to the west coast where New Jersey–bred, ex-photographer Wilson Davalos has opened CLMDO—a take on colmado, the island’s word for bodegas—as a small-plates destination offering things like lamb with pea purée and feta-sprinkled pumpkin.
La Central serves up that side of the island’s best cocktails, like the Mal Caribe featuring rum, amaro, orangelo juice, and ginger-turmeric beer.
Cafeteria El Cerezal
1590 Cll Guadiana, San Juan, 00926
For a taste of tradition without leaving the capital city, chef Sebastian Ramírez of Condado gastropub Parcela recommends Cafeteria El Cerezal. “They do the best empanada and chicken or beef schnitzel kind of deal,” he says, “served with the classic staples: rice, plantain, mofongo.”
Pernilería Los Proceres
If you want pork—the island’s specialty—but would prefer a more modern expression, visit Mario Juan, who made his name throwing pop-up dinners by the name of ARETE. “His dinners were a dream,” says Spoon Food Tours owner Paulina Salach. “A few months ago, he opened PLP in Lote 23.
His pork sandwiches are killer, but he also does specials like tartare—almost as good as the one from Estela in New York—cured local fish, and more.”
If you want one of the best wine lists in town and to eat where chefs are most excited to splurge on octopus carpaccio and jamón ibérico, head to this Spanish restaurant that’s been open since 1982.
The opening year is present in the design, which feels a bit retro (or tropical American Psycho)—but that’s not to the detriment of the food. This is the spot to hit when you’ve had enough rum.
When you’ve finished up dinner at José Enrique or Santaella, head over to this dive, located a ten-minute walk away from La Placita de Santurce. You just might wander into punk rock karaoke. “The drinks are mad cheap,” says Gallo Negro chef María Mercedes Grubb. “They have a karaoke night where you can belt it out to Queen, New Order, The Smiths, or Bowie. Or you can hang outside smoking cigarettes.”
When you’re wandering Old San Juan, stop into this sleek, minimalist little shop for souvenirs actually made on the island. “They have a very well-curated selection of beautiful local jewelry, objects, and clothing,” says Kali Jean Solack, owner of Lote 23’s excellent coffee kiosk Café Regina.
Here you can pick up a tostone-masher made with locally sourced wood—the perfect gift to bring back home for yourself so you can have the crispy, salty, twice-fried plantain dish whenever you like.
Santurce Es Ley
This (almost) yearly art and music event leaves much of the Santurce neighborhood covered in giant murals, but for the majority of it, walk up and down Calle Cerra for art both political and non—from anything as specific as a building-size flag to a chrome rabbit.