Learn All About El Morro, Puerto Rico's Most Popular Historic Site

Panoramic landscape of historical castle El Morro along the coastline, San Juan, Puerto Rico

NAPA74 / Getty Images

Map card placeholder graphic

San Felipe del Morro Castle

Address
501 C. Norzagaray, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Phone +1 787-729-6960

First-time visitors to Old San Juan simply cannot leave without visiting Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Called El Morro (which means "promontory" in Spanish), the fortress encapsulates Puerto Rico’s role as a guardian of the New World. Perched on the northwestern-most point of Old San Juan, this daunting citadel must have been an intimidating sight to enemy ships. Within these walls, you can feel the awesome power this bastion of defense once commanded, and you can bear witness to nearly 500 years of military history that began with the Spanish conquistadores and ended with World War II.

History of El Morro

El Morro, part of the San Juan National Historic Site, is Puerto Rico's most picturesque military structure. The Spanish began construction in 1539, and it took more than 200 years to complete. In its entire history, the intimidating fortress has successfully blocked every naval attack, even when England's Sir Francis Drake tried to breach its walls in 1595. El Morro fell only once, when England's George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, took the fortress by land in 1598. Its usefulness continued into the 20th century when it was used by the United States during World War II to track the movements of German submarines in the Caribbean.

El Morro, Castillo (castle) San Felip

Maremagnum / Getty Images

Things to See and Do

You’ll follow in the Earl of Cumberland's footsteps as you cross a large green field to get to the fort. It is a bit of a walk to get to it, and you'll need to be able to climb steps and steep slopes.

Once you reach the citadel, take your time to explore its ingenious architecture. El Morro is made up of six staggered levels, incorporating dungeons, barracks, passageways, and storerooms. Walk along its ramparts, where cannons still face the ocean, and step inside one of the domed garitas (sentry boxes), which are themselves an iconic symbol of Puerto Rico. The garitas are the prime places to find breathtaking ocean views. Looking out across the bay, you'll see another, smaller fortification. Called El Canuelo, this was El Morro’s partner in the island’s defense: Ships hoping to attack Puerto Rico would be cut down in a barrage of crisscrossing cannon fire.

Two modern structures were added to El Morro after Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. A lighthouse, which was repaired by the U.S. from 1906 to 1908, stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the structure. During World War II, the U.S. Army added another entirely incongruous fortification, installing a military bunker on the top level.

During your visit, you'll also find exhibits and a theater—which plays a park film in both English and Spanish—that dive even further into the fort's history.

In addition to its historic importance, El Morro serves as a beacon for relaxation and photo ops: People come here to relax, picnic, and fly kites; the sky is full of them on a clear day. (You can buy one—they're called chiringas—at a nearby stall.)

For incredible views of the city, take to the Paseo del Morro boardwalk, a 1-mile trail that runs between El Morro's outer walls and the Bay of San Juan.

Accessibility

There is a sidewalk with an accessible grade leading up to El Morro; however, there is no parking at the entrance. From the main plaza, which is on the fifth level, the bookstore and theater are accessible. The sixth level can be reached by a steep ramp, but the lower levels are not accessible. The National Park Service warns visitors that the site features uneven surfaces, steep ramps and staircases, and dimly lit tunnels and passageways.

Visitors can pick up assisted listening devices at El Morro, while park brochures are available in English, Spanish, and Braille. For other requests, you can contact the Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at 787-729-6777.

Other Attractions Nearby

San Juan National Historic Site, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, is also home to Castillo de San Cristóbal (Saint Christopher's Castle), located 1.2 miles east of El Morro. The largest fortress constructed in the Americas, it took more than 150 years to complete its three levels and outer defenses, which include a series of tunnels and a dry moat. Placed underneath San Cristóbal's main plaza are five cisterns; built to catch about 800,000 gallons of rainwater, they are still in use today. Its display of innovative 18th-century military engineering is perhaps San Cristóbal's biggest draw, although you can also enjoy 18th-century drawings, two coastal observation posts, and the visitor center, housed in a 1942 bunker.

About a 15-minute walk southeast of El Morro is La Fortaleza (The Fortress). Originally built in 1540 to protect the city from attack, it was renovated in 1846 and has served as the official residence of the Puerto Rican governor ever since. Visitors can take a 30-minute guided walking tour of the gardens and building, from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Inside El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico

gregobagel / Getty Images

Tips for Your Visit

  • San Juan National Historic Site is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
  • General admission to SJNH is $10; your ticket includes entry to El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, use sunscreen, and bring bottled water no matter what time of year you visit.
  • Kids can become a Junior Ranger by completing a tour of SJNH; head to the NPS website to learn more.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What does El Morro mean?

    El Morro means "promontory" or "headland" in Spanish.

  • What is El Morro known for?

    El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, which Spanish conquistadores first began constructing in 1539, was built to protect the port city of San Juan from naval attack. In the 20th century, the U.S. military used it as a military base during World War II to track the movements of German submarines in the Caribbean.

  • What happened to El Morro?

    The U.S. Army gave El Morro to the National Park Service in 1961, to be used as a museum. It is now a part of the San Juan National Historic Site, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. National Park Service. "Castillo San Felipe del Morro." Accessed May 9, 2022.

  2. UNESCO. "La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico." Accessed May 10, 2022.

  3. National Park Service. "Castillo San Cristobal." Accessed May 10, 2022.

  4. Discover Puerto Rico. "La Fortaleza." Accessed May 10, 2022.

Was this page helpful?
Back to Article

Learn All About El Morro, Puerto Rico's Most Popular Historic Site