The author Vanessa Ramos posing for a photo in front of La Fortaleza

La Fortaleza (A Local’s Guide to Visiting)

La Fortaleza is Puerto Rico’s executive mansion in Old San Juan and one of the island’s best kept secrets.

Of course people know where La Fortaleza is, but not everyone has been inside it — mostly because very few realize it’s possible to take a tour through this top site in Puerto Rico.

On your visit, you’ll get to see beautiful gardens, the original towers, and the breathtaking State Staircase. Guides offer tours Monday to Friday from 8:15 am to 4:30 pm with advance reservations. 

As a local that’s been there, I’ve put together this guide with everything you need to know before visiting La Fortaleza.

Disclosure: Travel Lemming is an independent reader-supported blog. You can support us by purchasing via the affiliate links on this page, which may earn us commissions. Thank you!

Why Visit La Fortaleza

La Fortaleza is almost as old as Puerto Rico itself. It has hosted more than a hundred Puerto Rican governors, and it’s the oldest executive mansion in use in the New World. 

The building is a mix of structures and styles that reflect the island’s history since Spanish colonization. Both a fortress and a palace, La Fortaleza will enchant you with its beauty. 

History of La Fortaleza

Building La Fortaleza

View of an entrance to La Fortaleza

The construction of La Fortaleza began in 1533. At first, it consisted of one main medieval-style tower, four 7-feet wide walls, and an interior courtyard. 

The first tower was known as the Tower of Homage. Besides serving as an observation tower, it was the place where the governor swore loyalty to the Spanish crown. 

The Attacks

View of the outside while inside La Fortaleza

Although La Fortaleza’s purpose was to protect San Juan bay, its location was not optimal to do so. 

In 1598 George Clifford took over the city and, later in 1625, the Dutch Commander Boudewyn Hendrick did. During this attack, the dutch burnt the city, destroying La Fortaleza.

The Remodeling 

La Fortaleza building from the outside
Exterior of La Fortaleza

In the 19th century, the La Fortaleza went through a process of remodeling and expansion that resulted in its current palace facade. Although La Fortaleza lost most of its fortress appearance, it still has the two original military towers.

The Spanish-American War

A staircase and the legendary clock at La Fortaleza
You can still find the legendary clock at La Fortaleza

In 1898, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. It is said Ricardo De Ortega, the last Spanish governor, slashed a clock with his sword to mark the time Spain lost Puerto Rico. The clock is still on the second floor of La Fortaleza.

Becoming a Historical Site

An area filled with books in La Fortaleza

In 1960, La Fortaleza became a United States National Historic Landmark. Later in 1983, UNESCO declared La Fortaleza a World Heritage Site, along with other historical structures in Old San Juan such as Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

How to Visit La Fortaleza

How to Get to La Fortaleza

View of a chandelier inside La Fortaleza

🚶‍♀️ Walk – If you’re staying at Old San Juan, you can walk to Fortaleza street.

🚗 Drive – If you’re outside Old San Juan, you can reach the historical district by driving. Use Discover Cars to rent a car in Puerto Rico for a low rate.

🚌 Public Transportation – The AMA bus system reaches Old San Juan from other cities. See the routes here.

🚕 Taxi – Taking a taxi from anywhere in the metropolitan area to reach Old San Juan is easy.  If you’re not in a tourist area where it’s frequent to see them, look for private taxis online.

Entrance Costs, Hours, Details

A water fountain outside La Fortaleza building

🎟️ Entrance – Free

🕖 Hours – Tours are from Monday to Friday from 8:00 to 4:30 pm. Call ahead to book a tour. Hours might change if there is an event in La Fortaleza.

🖥️ Website – La Fortaleza

📞 Phone – 787 721-7000, ext. 2323, 2358, 2211

📍 Map It –  63 C. de la Fortaleza, San Juan, 00901

What to Expect Inside La Fortaleza

The Entrance

The author going inside La Fortaleza

After you cross the gate through the east side of the building, you’ll come across La Fortaleza’s neoclassic facade. The main building consists of three floors. The second floor features a balcony with five doors, where the governor makes a public appearance on Inauguration day. 

Over the building, you’ll find a white flag with Puerto Rico’s crest, the United States, and the Puerto Rico flag. When the governor is out of the country, the white flag is down.

State Staircase

View when you look up from the staircase in La Fortaleza

You’ll find the State Staircase at your left in the entrance hall of the building. This staircase is one of the most impressive sights you’ll see inside La Fortaleza. 

Designed by the engineer Santiago Cortijo in 1846, the staircase boasts impressive ornamentations, carvings, gold leaf, and a cupola.

The Interior Courtyard

View of the interior patio from the inside of La Fortaleza

The interior patio provides a pleasant view of the first and second-floor galleries. The arched galleries on the first floor connect to different parts of the building. 

Sometimes the interior patio is used for exhibitions. Two old wells now serve as a jardiniere.

The Chapel

View from the chapel inside La Fortaleza

Inside the northern tower, you’ll find a small chapel. Its origin date is unknown, but it was restored in 1950. 

Artist Marcolino Maas created a 95,000 piece hand-cut mosaic that represented the trinity. Although most of the original mosaic was lost in 2004, the First Lady restored the chapel again.

The Dungeon

Spears and cannonballs in the dungeon of La Fortaleza

Underneath the chapel in the north tower, you’ll find a dungeon from the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s believed the space became a storehouse later. 

Nowadays, visitors can find a re-creation of how munitions and arms were stored in the space.

The Gardens

View from the garden of La Fortaleza

The gardens at La Fortaleza are worthy of a palace. With a view of the San Juan bay, these gardens boast terraces, lampposts, fountains, and green foliage over the city wall. 

You can also find canyons and one of the famous sentry boxes that identify Puerto Rico. Don’t miss a stop at the Sunken Garden, a recreational garden that is below the level of the rest of the patio.  

Tips for Visiting La Fortaleza

Tip #1 – Dress Appropriately

A chandelier hanging on the ceiling of La Fortaleza

La Fortaleza is an executive mansion in use. As an official government building, it requires visitors to dress appropriately. People wearing shorts, crop tops, flip-flops, and see-through or revealing clothes can’t enter the building.

Tip #2 – Bring an Official Photo ID

View on a area in La Fortaleza that has portraits on the wall

Visiting La Fortaleza doesn’t require many things, but you’ll need an official ID to enter the facilities. If you’re coming from the United States, and you didn’t bring a passport to Puerto Rico, use your driver’s license.

Tip #3 – Pack Wisely

A grand piano inside La Fortaleza

If you’re bringing a bag or a backpack, make sure it doesn’t have any sharp or blunt objects or firearms. Your backpack will undergo a safety inspection, and anything deemed suspicious could prevent you from visiting.

FAQs About La Fortaleza

Who built La Fortaleza?

La Fortaleza was built between 1532 and 1540 by the Spaniards in Puerto Rico to serve as a fort that protected the city of San Juan.  Carlos V, the king of Spain at the time, authorized the construction.

What is La Fortaleza used for?

La Fortaleza is currently the house of the governor of Puerto Rico, but it was originally a fortress that protected San Juan from attacks. La Fortaleza has also been an arsenal, a prison, and the Spanish Captain-General’s residence. This last one was the highest political and military position under Spanish rule.

Why is La Fortaleza important?

La Fortaleza is important historically, architecturally, and politically. La Fortaleza was the first fortification made by the Spaniards to protect the city from Indian attacks, after their arrival on the island in 1493. Its architecture reflects Italian Renaissance, Baroque, and French Enlightenment designs inherited from Europe. La Fortaleza is also the oldest executive mansion in use in America, 

Can you tour La Fortaleza?

Travelers can’t tour La Fortaleza freely, but the executive mansion features tours for tourists through reservations. Tourists that want to tour La Fortaleza can make a reservation by calling 787 721-7000, ext. 2323, 2358, 2211.

Images of La Fortaleza

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Now you know everything you need to know to visit La Fortaleza! Check out my guide to the best things to do in Puerto Rico, to fill your Puerto Rico itinerary with fun, history, culture, and food.

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