Plaza de Armas, JCD
Every holiday season, lights and decorations transform Old San Juan from a tropical historical district to a magical wonderland of snow-laden trees, ice-dipped stars and wintry garlands. What visitors find decidedly strange is that the decorations stand amid warm breezes instead of biting winds. What’s more, they share the spotlight with Middle Eastern kings riding atop camels and nativity scenes sheltered by palm fronds. But Puerto Ricans don’t mind the incongruities: the lights are festive, and “festive” is the key word for describing Puerto Rico’s holiday season. The decorations are most elaborate where people congregate, and in Old San Juan this means the plazas.
All cities in Puerto Rico retain the Spanish architectural heritage of plazas de recreo, central squares or plazas. Old San Juan’s main plaza is Plaza de Armas (Military Square) in front of City Hall. Soldiers once paraded here and now it is the site of municipal activities. Plaza de Colón (Columbus Square), commemorating the famous explorer, stands at the entrance to the city. Although not a plaza strictly speaking, Paseo de la Princesa (La Princesa Promenade) has become a favorite gathering place for families and evening strollers. During the holidays, these sites are outfitted in lights and dazzling displays, both religious and secular, which serve as a backdrop for holiday entertainment.
You might prefer the more subdued holiday displays and greater intimacy of the smaller parks, of which there are more than a dozen. Visit Plaza San José on the top of the hill, Plaza de la Catedral facing the San Juan Cathedral, Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park) overlooking the city walls, or Plaza Salvador Brau, where you often see men, and the occasional woman, playing checkers.