The oldest Post-Columbian settlements in the United States are not those in Jamestown or Plymouth but are in the USA's Caribbean territories like Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a historic district that is fabulously old by colonial America's standards. The oldest buildings in Old San Juan predate the oldest standing building in the mainland United States by the better part of 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 forgotten part of the United States, but one that everyone should visit. Those who do visit Puerto Rico should plan their trip around certain things to have the best time.


Historic Old San Juan

The Old San Juan district is listed as a National Historic Landmark District. Additionally, some of its most noteworthy buildings have been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. This is where one finds the oldest European-age structures in the United States.

Some of the most remarkable structures include La Fortaleza, the city walls, El Morro, and the San Cristobal castles.

  • Oldest: San Juan Is The Oldest Continuously Inhabited Post-European Contact City On US Territory
  • Second Oldest: The Second Oldest Post-Europen Contact City In The Western Hemisphere
  • Founded: In 1519 By The Spanish Explorer Juan Ponce de Leon

Ever since San Juan was founded in 1519 by the Spanish, it has served as the capital of Puerto Rico. It was Spanish for the better part of 4 centuries until the United States annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.

  • Architecture: Boast Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque Architecture

Related: San Juan Vs Rincon: Check Out These Photos To Help You Decide Where In Puerto Rico To Vacation

La Fortaleza and Old San Juan's Defenses

Many of the structures surviving in Old San Juan are defensive in nature - including three forts and a large portion of the city wall that was constructed between the 16th and 19th centuries.

San Cristobal Castle:

This is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the Americas. It was designed to provide defense from both the land and the sea during the colonial period

  • Largest: The Largest Spanish Fortification In The Americas

San Felipe del Morro Castle:

Also known as just "El Morro", this is a 16th-century citadel that was built to protect against private and foreign attacks in the colonial period. It is also the location of a historic lighthouse.

San Juan City Walls:

The San Juan City Walls were built to surround Old San Juan - today around three-quarters of the old city walls remain intact. It was a city ringed with stone that saw its walls gradually expand over the course of 250 years. Eventually, these walls were united to connect to the city's two largest forts - 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 preserves its colonial defensive wall system is Quebec City in Canada (it even managed to repulse an invasion attempt by the Continental Army in the War of Independence).

Santa Catalina Palace: 

Santa Catalina Palace is otherwise known as La Fortaleza (i.e. The Fortress). It is a fortification and is still the current residence of the governor of the territory of Puerto Rico.

  • Oldest: It Is The Oldest Executive Residence Anywhere In The Americas

Related: Puerto Rico Vs Costa Rica: 20 Photos To Help You Decide Between These Two Vacation Destinations

Old San Juan's Churches

Besides forts, one of the first things the catholic Spanish went about doing was constructing churches.

San Juan Cathedral:

This is one of the oldest buildings in Old San Juan and is thought of as the oldest cathedral in the United States. In the Western Hemisphere, it is second only to the Santo Domingo Cathedral in the Dominican Republic. It is even a cathedral containing relics.

It is located on del Cristo Street and is still open for daily services. It is formally known as La Catedral de San Juan Bautista.

  • Started: In 1542
  • Style: Gothic and Renaissance Revival Architecture
  • Oldest: Oldest Cathedral In The USA (Second In The Americas)

San Jose Church:

This is regarded as one of the most important architectural landmarks of Old San Juan. After many years of restoration, it has finally reopened to the public in 2021. 2021 is exactly 500 years from when it first dates from - 1521.

It is a great example of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It was also the home of Dominican friars.

Other old churches include John the Baptist (Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de San Juan Bautista), Saint Francis of Assisi Church ( Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís), and Santa Ana Church (Iglesia de Santa Ana). Read more about Old San Juan on the National Park Serice.

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