It's still best known for busy beaches, Spanish forts, and post-cruise sightseers, but San Juan is breaking away from its provincial past. A sophisticated fusion of Latin and Yankee cultures is upping the hipness quotient, as is the buzz generated by the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Marc Anthony. The new art museum is an amalgam of Neoclassical and contemporary architecture, packed restaurants are offering ambitious multicultural menus, and fashion designers are supplying a dose of caliente chic. And while Old San Juan still draws crowds to its cobbled streets—and is enjoying its own mini-renaissance—the vida loca vibe is apparent all over town.
The New Neighborhood: SoFo
The district south of Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan is the latest urban enclave to get its own acronym. A former industrial zone near the area's galleries and boutiques, SoFo evolved into a restaurant hub after the 1997 debut of the Parrot Club (363 Calle Fortaleza; 787/725-7370; www.parrotclub.com; dinner for two $80), which serves chef Roberto Treviño's Latino fusion dishes, such as risotto con chicharrones del país (cracklings). Right across the street is Treviño's newest endeavor, the "Latinasian" Dragonfly (364 Calle Fortaleza; 787/977-3886; dinner for two $65), where the specialties include "Peking duck nachos con wasabi sour cream." A third Treviño outpost opens nearby later this year. Trois Cent Onze (311 Calle Fortaleza; 787/725-7959; dinner for two $85) is popular for its Provençal classics, smartly dressed staff, and crisp interiors. On weekend nights, a sleek and sexy crowd spills onto the Plaza Arturo Portella from Il Grottino (361 Calle Tetuán; 787/723-8653; dinner for two $35), an enoteca that pours more than 500 wines.
Vamos a la Playa While all P.R. beaches are public, each attracts its own social caste. Students, surfers, and see-and-be-seen types head for Ocean Park. Tourists congregate at resort-lined Isla Verde. Family-friendly Playa Carolina lies past the airport. Everyone goes to Playa Luquillo, 20 miles east of town, with coral reefs and endless comida criolla stalls along nearby Route 3.
Colonial Chic SoFo restaurants may be all about modern cuisine, but other chefs are bringing diners back to the island's Continental roots. At the Iberian-style La Querencia in Old San Juan (100 Calle Cruz; 787/725-1304; dinner for two $60), you can make a meal of the "Spanish cutting board" starter (serrano ham, olives, chorizo, and Manchego cheese) and the coconut-infused crème brûlée. French-trained local Jeremy Cruz prepares bistro classics—lobster bisque, goat cheese terrine, coq au vin—at La Belle Époque (1400 Avda. Magdalena, Condado; 787/648-4485; dinner for two $120), a dining room resplendent with Murano chandeliers and hand-painted murals.
Rhythm Section Salsa is treated like religion in Puerto Rico, and there are dozens of clubs—from dives to dance palaces—scattered throughout the capital. One of the most popular is Babylon, the classic disco in the Wyndham El San Juan Hotel (6063 Avda. Isla Verde; 787/791-2781), where gringos can shake their bon-bons with the city's old guard. The no-frills, dance-till-you-drop Rumba (152 Calle San Sebastián, Old San Juan; 787/725-4407) spins salsa and African-tinged bomba favorites for a younger crowd of tourists and residents.
San Juan Nights Nightlife here begins late—especially on weekends—so bask on the beach for as long as possible, dine after eight, and then hit the town. At Ñapa (1018 Avda. Ashford, Condado; 787/724-3686), slang for "a little something extra," the bonuses include a waterfront location, an inventive menu, and a minimalist look—owner Luis Moscoso has decorated the former movie house with Italian marble, Spanish stools, and slinky German lamps. Open for nearly three years, Neon (203 Calle Tanca, Old San Juan; 787/724-3426) still packs them in, thanks to semi-exclusive "private" parties lasting until dawn. Café Bohemio at the Hotel El Convento (100 Calle Cristo, Old San Juan; 787/723-9200) delivers live jazz, light meals, and fruity cocktails to stylish locals who've bid adiós to their clubbing days.
A New Home For Art San Juan had little hope for the historic, 1920 municipal hospital in the Santurce neighborhood, which stood empty for decades. But following a four-year, $53 million renovation, the Neoclassical structure has been reborn as the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Keeping the shell intact, local architects Otto Reyes and Luis Gutierrez bonded a soaring glass-and-steel structure onto the rear of the building, creating 130,000 square feet of display space. The premiere exhibition was mostly of island artists, as is the permanent collection; a show on baseball player Roberto Clemente opens in March. A 400-seat theater named for the late Puerto Rican actor Ral Juliá, a five-acre garden, and a new incarnation of the swanky nuevo latino restaurant Pikayo are luring the city's chic set, regardless of their taste in art. 299 Avda. de Diego; 787/977-6277; www.mapr.org.
Barrio to Watch Though it remains mostly residential and restrained, Miramar has the good fortune to lie between Santurce (home to the art museum) and Isla Grande (where a convention center is being built), rendering it ripe for metamorphosis. The movement has begun with such restaurants as the nuevo latino Chayote (Hotel Olimpo Court, 603 Avda. Miramar; 787/722-9385; dinner for two $90) and Augusto's Cuisine (Hotel Excelsior, 801 Avda. Ponce de León; 787/725-7700; dinner for two $90), which serves classic European dishes. Among Miramar's newest residents is New York—trained designer Luis Antonio, who outfits J. Lo in slinky silk-and-jersey dresses and recently opened a boutique here (857 Avda. Ponce de León; 787/977-7816). Two blocks away, Tepe a Tepe (762 Avda. Ponce de León; 787/977-8373; lunch for two $15) sells salads, sandwiches, and tropical juices in a century-old house.
Streamline Latino Deco is a homegrown, lower-key variation on Miami Beach's legendary Art Deco style—a colorful architectural response to Caribbean culture and climate. The Miami Building (868 Avda. Ashford), a 1939 apartment complex in Condado, has jalousied windows under rounded overhangs and a central courtyard. The nautical motifs of the 1942 Normandie Hotel (Avda. Muñoz Rivera and Calle Rosales) evoke its ocean liner namesake. The 1939 Banco Popular (209 Calle Tetuán) in Old San Juan has a stained-glass façade inlaid with Spanish coins and the Puerto Rican coat of arms; inside, there's a double-height lobby with gold-leaf ceiling.
Where to Stay Blue-lit rooms and waterfalls on every floor mark the Water Club (2 Calle Tartak, Isla Verde; 888/265-6699 or 787/728-3666, fax 787/728-3610; www.waterclubsanjuan.com; doubles from $169, $395 after Dec. 23) as the city's first high-style hotel. The oceanfront Caribe Hilton (Calle Los Rosales; 800/468-8585 or 787/721-0303, fax 787/724-6992; www.caribe.hilton.com; doubles from $300), a newly restored fifties landmark, has a spa, open-air lobby, and high-tech rooms. The 17th-century setting and chic colonial furniture of the Hotel El Convento (100 Calle Cristo; 800/468-2779 or 787/723-9020, fax 787/721-2877; www.elconvento.com; doubles from $150, $285 after Dec. 23) are the epitome of Old San Juan. In leafy Ocean Park, the Número Uno guesthouse (1 Calle Santa Ana; phone and fax 787/726-5010; doubles from $135) has tasty Puerto Rican food—and the beach is steps from your room.