San Juan is an amazing city that everyone should visit at least once, but once you visit it the first time, you’ll want to go back time and time again. This historic city was founded by Spanish colonists in 1521 and has been continuously inhabited ever since.
Today, it’s the largest city in Puerto Rico. With a population of just over 352,000 within the city limits, it is the forty-sixth largest city under the jurisdiction of the United States. The metropolitan statistical area, which includes the suburbs surrounding San Juan, is home to 2.4 million.
This tropical destination, Spanish-speaking and influenced yet also very American city, is a popular vacation destination for travelers from the United States. Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, no passport is required for United States citizens to visit it.
Flights to San Juan from the United States are quite affordable, and many cruise ships also stop in the Port of San Juan. It’s a busy seaport for passengers and cargo, and San Juan is Puerto Rico’s financial and cultural center, too. Read on to learn more about the best things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
This small-group tour takes you to some of the best local eateries, where you’ll sample delicious Puerto Rican staples like plantains and sofrito. You’ll also enjoy an alcoholic beverage or non-alcoholic substitute, all while taking in the sights and sounds of the city’s oldest neighborhood. So come hungry and ready to explore – the Flavors of Old San Juan Food Tour is an experience you won’t want to miss!
After a long day of exploring Puerto Rico, what could be better than a nighttime kayak excursion on the Condado Lagoon? You’ll be in a clear bottom kayak, so you can see the city lights shining up from below. And you’ll be equipped with LED lights, so you can light up the lagoon when the sun goes down. It’s a whole new way to see Puerto Rico. And if that’s not enough, you can also paint your face and body with glow in the dark paint.
You’ll get to hike to two different waterfalls – one with a rope swing and free diving, and the second with a natural rock waterslide and cliff jump. Plus, your knowledgeable guide will share fascinating facts about the park’s history, wildlife and trees along the way. So come prepared for a fun-filled day of exploration and discovery in El Yunque National Park!
Show Table of Contents
- Historical Places to Visit in San Juan
- 1. Old San Juan
- 2. Castillo San Felipe del Morro
- 3. Castillo San Cristobal
- 4. La Fortaleza
- 5. Caparra Archaeological Site
- Famous Landmarks in San Juan
- 6. Paseo de la Princesa
- 7. Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista
- 8. The Capitol of Puerto Rico
- 9. La Puerta de San Juan
- 10. La Muralla
- 11. Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery
- 12. La Rogativa
- 13. Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud
- 14. La Casa Estrecha
- Cultural Attractions in San Juan
- 15. Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
- 16. Museo de Las Americas
- 17. Casa Blanca Museum
- Indoor Things to Do in San Juan
- 18. Plaza Las Americas
- 19. The Mall of San Juan
- 20. Ashford Avenue
- 21. Calle del Cristo
- Fun Things to Do in San Juan
- 22. Condado Beach/Laguna del Condado
- 23. Playa Ocean Park/Ocean Park Beach
- 24. Balneario El Escambron
- 25. Casino del Mar at La Concha Resort
- 26. Parque de las Palomas
- Unique Things to Do in San Juan
- 27. Save-A-Gato Cat Sanctuary
- 28. San Juan Sound
- 29. El Batey
- Is San Juan, Puerto Rico, worth visiting?
- What’s the best time of year to visit San Juan?
- Is San Juan, Puerto Rico safe?
- Best Area to Focus Your Time: Old San Juan
- Best Historical Fort: Castillo San Filipe del Morro
- Best Busy Beach: Condado Beach
- Best Quiet Beach: Balneario El Escambron
- Best Place for Upscale Shopping: Ashford Avenue
- Best Place for General Shopping: Calle del Cristo
- Best Museum: Museo de Las Americas
- Best Park: Parque de las Palomas
Historical Places to Visit in San Juan
1. Old San Juan
Visiting Old San Juan during your visit to Puerto Rico is a must. Because of its vast size and the fact it’s the tourist center of the city, it’s pretty unavoidable even if you don’t intentionally plan to go there. This historic district is located in the northwestern part of the city, where all of the island’s oldest buildings can be found.
It’s designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s on the United States National Register of Historic Places, and it’s a United States National Historic Landmark, as well. In this area, you’ll find a mix of commercial and residential buildings. Although everything has been modernized inside over the years, a walk around Old San Juan is truly a walk through history, allowing visitors to truly step back in time.
Most of the historical buildings and landmarks described below are within the confines of Old San Juan. They are all worth visiting, but it’s also nice to stroll through the neighborhood without a final destination in mind.
Alternatively, you can find a table to relax in one of Old San Juan’s many open-air plazas to eat a meal, sip a cocktail, and watch the world go by. Relaxing in Old San Juan is a great way to spend a morning, an afternoon, an evening, or your whole time in town.
A great way to get a real “taste” of Old San Juan, literally and figuratively, is via this Flavors of Old San Juan Food Tour from Viator. Over three hours, you’ll learn about this historical area and will get the opportunity to try local food and drink, too.
If you’re not so keen on the eating and drinking part of that tour, maybe you’ll prefer this Old San Juan Walking Tour from Viator, which includes the sights and information without the cuisine aspect. Either way, you’re sure to learn a lot.
Since most of the attractions and landmarks you’ll want to visit are in Old San Juan, you’ll probably want to stay in that area. After all, it’s the most charming part of San Juan, too. Although some people choose to stay near Condado Beach (see our suggestions in that listing below), most visitors to San Juan prefer to stay in this historic neighborhood instead.
There are numerous excellent hotels to consider in this area, including the boutique CasaBlanca Hotel, the classy, adults-only El Colonial, and the Casa Sol Bed & Breakfast. There are countless great options in this area, and you’ll truly be in the heart of it all.
If you’re the type of traveler who prefers private vacation rental accommodations, then there are plenty of great properties to rent in this realm as well in Old San Juan. If it’s just you and a few companions, then you might like this One Bedroom Spacious Apartment that sleeps four.
If you have a larger group, you may like this Charming Historic Spanish Colonial Home On Exclusive Street that sleeps eight in four bedrooms instead. No matter what you choose, there’s nothing like stepping out into a historic neighborhood with your morning coffee while watching the city wake up. Old San Juan is a treat!
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2. Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Castillo San Filipe del Morro is one of Puerto Rico’s most highly-visited attractions and historical sites; over two million people explore it yearly. This citadel was built between the 16th and 18th centuries to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and the city of San Juan from intruders. It was named in honor of King Philip II of Spain.
Today, this fort is operated and maintained by the United States National Parks Service. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1983. People of all ages will find a visit to Castillo San Filipe del Morro quite interesting, as much of it is open to independent exploration. Still, there are also regular tours daily if you’d like to learn more.
You’ll be amazed at how well this structure has held up over the last several hundred years – it’s quite a strong and powerful fort. If you’d like to learn more about El Morro and surrounding areas, enjoy this San Juan: El Morro Fort and Old Town Walking Tour from Get Your Guide. You’ll learn a lot about this historic fort and stop at several different sites described elsewhere in this post.
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3. Castillo San Cristobal
Castille San Felipe del Morro was built to protect San Juan from attacks coming from the sea, but Castillo San Cristobal was constructed to prevent invasion by land. Like the former, it too is part of the San Juan National Historic Site and was also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation granted in 1983 by the United Nations.
This fortress was completed two hundred years earlier, in 1783, and at that time, it covered nearly twenty-seven acres of land in and around San Juan. Although some of it was demolished to accommodate the growing city in the late 1800s, it is still a very impressive fort that is well worth a visit.
One particularly interesting part of Castillo San Cristobal’s history is the Garito del Diablo, one of many isolated sentry boxes on the outskirts of the fort, in a part of the fort that was completed in 1634. Local legend states that numerous soldiers disappeared without a trace from this particular sentry post over the years, and no one knows what happened to them. If you like creepy stories and mysteries, you’ll want to check it out, but be careful that you don’t get whisked away too.
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4. La Fortaleza
La Fortaleza is the home of the governor of Puerto Rico, and it’s the most palatial of all the governors’ mansions in our nation. That’s because it was built between 1533 and 1540 as a fort to defend San Juan harbor; it’s the oldest continuously used executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere.
Like the structures described above, it’s part of the La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a fort, but it also includes formal living quarters. Visitors can tour it on guided walking tours offered on weekdays. It’s quite beautiful, is worth checking out, and is one of the best things to see in San Juan, even if you don’t have time to venture inside.
5. Caparra Archaeological Site
Everything in Old San Juan is old (it’s in the name if you were ever wondering), but if you want to go back in history even further, you should check out the Caparra Archaeological Site. These ruins are the site of Juan Ponce de León’s first settlement in the early 1500s.
This was the first place European settlers tried to call home in Puerto Rico. At its peak, about three hundred people lived in Caparra. Still, by the 1520s, they relocated to where Old San Juan is today due to challenges such as attacks by the indigenous people and the impracticalities of being too far from the ocean.
Today, the Museum of the Conquest and Colonization of Puerto Rico is at the Caparra Archaeological Site, and visitors can view the remnants of what is believed to be the original Puerto Rican home of Juan Ponce de León, Taino artifacts, pieces of Spanish tile, and more. However, before you go, remember that all museum labels are in Spanish, so if you don’t speak the language, you may not learn as much as you’d like about this early settlement and its exhibits.
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Famous Landmarks in San Juan
6. Paseo de la Princesa
If you take a cruise ship into San Juan, one of the first places you’ll wander is along the Paseo de la Princesa. This quarter-mile promenade runs along the waterfront and the southern city walls of Old San Juan.
Along the way, you’ll experience great views of the city and San Juan Bay. There are many street vendors and restaurants in this area, and it’s a lovely way to experience this historic city without having to climb any hills.
7. Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista
This historic cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan and is the oldest cathedral in the United States and its territories. The first school in Puerto Rico was founded by Bishop Alonso Manso on the site in 1513; a wooden cathedral followed in 1521 but was destroyed by a hurricane not long after. This neoclassical structure has stood in its place since 1540 and is still going strong.
Recent structural improvements ensure that it will remain the center of Catholicism in Puerto Rico for centuries to come. The cathedral also contains the tomb of Juan Ponce de León, the explorer credited with the founding of San Juan, which is worth checking out as well. It’s beautiful inside and out and is open to the public for visitation year-round.
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8. The Capitol of Puerto Rico
The Puerto Rico capitol building is the home to the Puerto Rico legislative assembly, which is composed of the House of Representatives and Senate. It was built in 1929, which makes it one of the newer old buildings in San Juan.
The capitol building was designed in Classical Revival and Beaux Arts style by Puerto Rican architect Rafael Carmoega. It’s an impressive building from the outside, but the inside is striking too. Guided tours are available but must be reserved ahead of time.
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9. La Puerta de San Juan
Back when San Juan was an entirely walled city, visitors had to enter through heavily guarded gates. La Puerta de San Juan was built in 1635 and was the main entrance to the city, and it still stands today.
It’s sixteen feet tall, twenty feet thick, and painted bright red; the inscription above it translates to “Welcome those who come in the name of God,” which is a reminder of the city’s deep Catholic roots. This gate leads to Paseo de la Princesa and is a very recognizable and worthwhile photo opportunity for all who visit Puerto Rico.
10. La Muralla
La Muralla is a four-hundred-year-old city wall that wraps around Old San Juan. Spanish colonists began this wall to protect the city in the 1600s and has served that purpose ever since. It’s withstood attacks by the English, the Dutch, and Americans, and today it is a part of Puerto Rico.
It’s as high as forty feet in some places, and although it has begun to crumble in recent years, the National Parks Service continues to maintain it using the same mixture of sand, water, and limestone by which it was first constructed. It is visited by 1.2 million people each year.
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11. Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery
If you like visiting cemeteries in your travels, then you’re going to love this one, also known as Old San Juan Cemetery. This cemetery is located outside of Castillo de San Felipe del Morro and is the final resting place of many of the most prominent Puerto Ricans in history. It was established in 1863, and you’ll find over 1,000 graves there, and it was placed to overlook the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over into the afterlife.
Entry to the cemetery is through a tunnel. Once you enter, be aware that the gravestones in this cemetery are very close together, so be careful as you traverse through it.
The white gravestones and tombs with the backdrop of the blue sky and deep blue ocean are a sight that you won’t soon forget. The chapel is a great spot to relax and contemplate the realities of life and death that are true everywhere, even in a place as beautiful as San Juan.
12. La Rogativa
La Rogativa is a famous bronze sculpture to the right of La Fortaleza that celebrates the role of women in the history of Puerto Rico. Legend has it that in 1797, the British Armada entered San Juan Bay in hopes of conquering San Juan.
However, the women of San Juan formed a massive torch-lit religious procession to pray for their homeland in its time of need. The story goes that British forces saw the lights on the shore as they approached and were scared away, thinking they were facing larger numbers.
They believed that the lights they saw were reinforcements, and they feared they were outnumbered. This moving sculpture is a reminder that a small concerted force can make a huge difference in history. It was completed in 1971 and is twelve feet tall; it’s a photogenic masterpiece that is quite moving to view when silhouetted against the sky.
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13. Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud
On the southwest corner of the walled city of Old San Juan stands a small chapel that was built in 1753. People come from all over Puerto Rico and the world to pray for health at this small chapel – known as Capilla del Cristo for short – because it is believed to be the site of a divine intervention. During the San Juan Bautista celebrations that year, a rider lost control of his horse in this spot and plunged over the edge of the cliff.
At the time, the Spanish Secretary of Government cried out, “Christ of Good Health, save him!” The horse perished, but the rider was saved, supposedly thanks to this prayer. The chapel was built soon after and has been a religious landmark ever since. People pray for their health at it, and many believe it truly has healing powers. It’s worth a visit, whether you need to save or not.
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14. La Casa Estrecha
La Casa Estrecha is a quick photo stop and is one of those quick and easy San Juan, Puerto Rico, tourist attractions that should not be missed. All it is is a very narrow home built in a space that used to be an alley. It’s only five feet, three inches wide, but inside is a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom in its two stories.
Architect Antonio Alvarez designed it, and is easy to spot since its painted bright yellow. Today, no one lives there – although they could – Alvarez uses it as a space to showcase his other artwork. Tours are available on weekdays, but you must book in advance.
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Cultural Attractions in San Juan
15. Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
This art museum, located in the former San Juan Municipal Hospital, showcases art by Puerto Rican and world artists in twenty-four exhibition halls. The building was constructed in 1920 and is beautiful on its own, but enjoying the art inside is a great way to spend an afternoon. Entry is very affordable, and there are numerous guided tours from which to choose, so if you’re looking for cheap things to do in San Juan, this museum is a great option.
16. Museo de Las Americas
Museo de Las Americas is another art museum that’s worth checking out. It’s housed inside an old army barracks and has three permanent collections supported by various temporary exhibitions. All art inside is from the Americas with, as you might imagine, a special focus on art from Puerto Rico.
The three permanent exhibits are Folk Arts in the Americas, Our African Heritage, and Conquest and Colonization, but you never know what you’ll find among the ever-changing temporary exhibits. Even if you’ve been to this museum before, it’s worth returning to see what’s new inside.
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17. Casa Blanca Museum
The Casa Blanca – or White House – Museum is a house museum in Old San Juan. This home was originally built in 1521 for Juan Ponce de León and his family, but he died while exploring Florida while it was being constructed and never lived there.
After his death, it was the first governor’s residence in Puerto Rico and continued to serve that purpose until the 1700s. Today, it’s a museum that houses 16th and 17th-century artifacts and gives visitors a good picture of what the homes of the rich and famous in Puerto Rico might have been like during that period.
Indoor Things to Do in San Juan
18. Plaza Las Americas
If you’re looking to do some shopping during your time in Puerto Rico, then Plaza Las Americas is a great option. It’s the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean and the second largest in Latin America, and it was the first indoor shopping mall built in Puerto Rico when it was constructed in 1967. Today it is 1,900,000 square feet in size and is home to many of the same stores that you’d find in your hometown, including Macy’s, Old Navy, Forever, 21, Marshalls, and more.
19. The Mall of San Juan
The Mall of San Juan is another popular shopping mall in San Juan. It’s smaller and newer than Plaza Las Americas at 650,000 square feet, built in 2015. It’s a bit more high-end than Plaza Las Americas, but it has struggled since Hurricane Maria hit in 2017 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, if you want to shop but think that Plaza Las Americas will be too large and overwhelming, it’s a great place to check out.
20. Ashford Avenue
If you’d rather do your shopping outdoors, you should head over to Ashford Avenue in the Condado neighborhood. Ashford Avenue is known as the Fifth Avenue of San Juan, and you’ll find many upscale shops to explore, including offerings from Gucci, Cartier, Salvatore Ferragamo, and more. At night, this area is rich with nightlife; there are many bars, clubs, and restaurants to try, and the Casino del Mar is just some steps away if you’d like to try your gambling luck.
21. Calle del Cristo
Calle del Cristo is the shopping area in Old San Juan. This street and surrounding areas have restaurants, art galleries, artisan shops, and boutiques. The street is cobbled and steep, so you’ll want to wear appropriate footwear.
El Morro is at the north end of the street, but along the way, you’ll also pass the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, Pigeons Park, and Capilla de Cristo, so if not everyone in your party is into shopping, there are still plenty of other things around this area to keep them occupied while you browse.
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Fun Things to Do in San Juan
22. Condado Beach/Laguna del Condado
Of course, you’ll want to hit up some of Puerto Rico’s famous beaches while you visit San Juan – it’s one of those San Juan, Puerto Rico activities that you absolutely should not skip. The most popular and busiest beach in town is Condado Beach; it’s a large, public-access beach and is wonderful for sunbathing and people-watching.
e careful if you head out into the water – this beach is also considered a dangerous one due to its strong undercurrents. There are numerous beachfront hotels here, including La Concha Resort, the San Juan Marriott, and the historic Vanderbilt Hotel, and there’s easy access from here to upscale Ashford Avenue, described above, for shopping and nightlife.
23. Playa Ocean Park/Ocean Park Beach
Playa Ocean Park is another public-access beach in San Juan that draws visitors and locals. It’s almost two miles long and far less crowded than Condado Beach; it’s also much safer for swimming. You’ll find amateur surfers and windsurfers playing in the water here, along with small children putting their hearts and souls into constructing elaborate sand castles. It’s not as busy as Condado Beach, but that’s the draw of this beach for many.
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24. Balneario El Escambron
Many people feel that Balneario El Escambron is the best beach in San Juan and that it is preferable over both Playa Ocean Park and Condado Beach. It’s quiet and relaxing, and you’ll feel like you are miles from the hustle and bustle of the city.
If you’re looking for places to visit in San Juan where you’ll feel like you’re getting away from it all, this is it. It’s safe for swimming, snorkeling, and even scuba diving, and there’s a lovely and serene scenic oceanside trail that’s an excellent place to spend quiet time with your companions. Many people don’t even know that this beach exists, and that’s exactly what makes it great.
25. Casino del Mar at La Concha Resort
There are several casinos in San Juan if you’d like to try your luck on slot machines or table games, but many people like the Casino del Mar at La Concha Resort the best. It’s open every day of the week, all day and all night, and offers opportunities to play blackjack, poker, baccarat, craps, roulette, and more. If you’re looking for fun things to do in San Juan at night, you’ll love an evening out at this casino – and good luck!
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26. Parque de las Palomas
There are a lot of parks and open-air spaces to enjoy in San Juan, but one of the most popular and memorable is Parque de las Palomas or Pigeon Park. This quiet park is full of shaded benches and, as you might imagine, lots and lots of pigeons.
It’s next to the Capilla del Cristo and offers scenic views of the surrounding areas. Street vendors sell dried corn to feed to the birds, and it’s a lovely place to stop and relax during your Old San Juan wanderings. If you’re looking for free things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with kids, a visit to this park is a pleasant way to pass the time.
Unique Things to Do in San Juan
27. Save-A-Gato Cat Sanctuary
Do you like cats? As you might imagine, countless stray cats are wandering around in a place like Old San Juan. There are plenty of mice and birds to eat, along with treats from locals and visitors, but a stray cat life is no way to live.
That’s where Save-A-Gato Cat Sanctuary comes in. This non-profit organization cares for these cats, spays, and neuters and vaccinates the cats they can catch, and finds happy homes for many of these adorable and loving cats and kittens. It’s a no-kill shelter that survives entirely on donations, and it would love your support.
Since 2004, this organization has managed to reduce the stray cat population in Old San Juan by an incredible fifty percent. If you sign up in advance, you can volunteer for a single day with this fantastic organization during your visit.
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28. San Juan Sound
WKAQ was the first radio station in Puerto Rico, the second radio station in Latin America, and the fifth radio station in the world when it began broadcasting in 1922.
Today, the building in which this radio station began is a multipurpose recording studio that hosts live performances and private recording sessions, and it helps gives underprivileged Puerto Rican children the opportunity to learn about sound engineering through its charity Gift of Sound. Tours of this historical place are free daily, but you’ll need to make an appointment in advance.
29. El Batey
If you like dive bars, don’t miss El Batey. This iconic bar has been serving patrons for decades and was a favorite spot of The Rolling Stones, Allen Ginsberg, and likely also Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s. The jukebox still only plays 45s from that time, and the place can get a bit rowdy at times, which is all part of its charm.
This is a very special place to knock back a cocktail, and you’ll be glad you made time to sip a drink in this unique and historic establishment. This is one of the best things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico, if you like trying down-and-dirty and unique bars in your travels.
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Is San Juan, Puerto Rico, worth visiting?
Absolutely. If you’re planning a trip to this Caribbean island, you’re in for a treat. There are dozens of fun and interesting things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico. If you are staying for just a day or a week, you’ll never run out of worthwhile adventures and places to explore in this welcoming, historical, and colorful city.
What’s the best time of year to visit San Juan?
Any time of year is great to visit Puerto Rico! Although you should be aware of hurricane season from summer to early fall, you’ll get great deals during those months if you’re willing to risk it.
The busiest months in San Juan are December to March, and the weather is great then, but you may have to deal with crowds.
October to December can be a great time to go; the crowds subside a bit then, and you’ll be able to find great deals on hotels. If heat is what you seek, the hottest month in Puerto Rico is June.
Is San Juan, Puerto Rico safe?
San Juan is one of the safest cities in Puerto Rico for tourists. However, as with any large city, it’s wise to stay alert, be careful, and use your street smarts while traveling, especially at night.
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Christy is was born and raised in upstate New York but she has lived in Denver, Colorado for the past decade with her partner, Billy, and their cat, Lucy. Traveling is her favorite thing to do in the whole world, but she also loves writing, reading, being outdoors, seeing live music, cooking, creating art in many mediums, napping, spending time with friends and family, and laughing heartily as often as possible.