This small provincial capital is Argentina’s second-largest city for wine production, but don’t expect it to be anything like Mendoza. San Juan is a low-key town and a great starting point for scenic national and provincial parks like El Leoncito and Ischigualasto. Of course, it also attracts tourists to the numerous wine cellars outside the town.
Unlike many historic sites in Argentina, San Juan is fairly modern for a colonial town, as much of the original city was destroyed in the 1944 earthquake. Compared to Mendoza, there are far fewer tourists and the pace of life here is a bit slower. San Juan is a great place to relax, explore the local landscape and taste a wide variety of wines.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Juan:
1. Plaza May 25
The city’s main square and “Kilometer 0” in the province of San Juan, this square is perfect for relaxing, watching and meeting friends.
With its tall palm trees and central fountain, it is a typical Argentine city square, although the main church is a modern building rather than a century-old cathedral.
You’ll see statues of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the former president of Argentina who was born here, and Frei Justo Santa Maria, the bishop and statesman who fought for Argentina’s independence.
There are several cafes, restaurants and bars on the edge of the square, serving coffee or beer, and the square and trees are beautifully illuminated at night.
2. Casa Natal de Sarmiento
The home, the birthplace of 19th-century Argentine President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, is a National Historic Monument dedicated to educators of the Americas.
Seemingly ahead of his time, Sarmiento was known for his intellectual and work fighting for public education, including women’s rights to education.
The house is testament to his life, background, and efforts to improve himself by writing and accepting civil service positions.
Visitors can see the room where Sarmiento was born, his bedroom, one of his desks, and a set of cutlery he used during his presidency from 1868 to 1874. You can view many of his writings and original manuscripts here, and choose a guided tour to learn more.
3. Ruta del Olivo San Juan
Extra virgin olive oil from San Juan is starting to gain fame on the international market, where there is a tourist route through the olive district.
Olive trees prefer the same rocky soil and harsh climate as vines, so even if they’re not native to Argentina, olives do land—especially in the Tulum Valley.
Visit family-run olive farms, olive museums, and olive oil factories along Ruta del Olivo (mainly Ruta 40) to learn how olive oil is made.
Outside the city, Campo de Olivos at Ruta 12 offers tours of the grove and its production line, where they show guests how their olive oil is still made using old-fashioned cold-pressing techniques.
You can’t leave without at least a bottle or two.
4. Museo de la Memoria Urbana
To learn more about the city’s origins, check out this museum, which details the history of San Juan and the earthquake that destroyed it in 1944. Admission is free, interesting tours are offered, and a lot of information in a small space is located inside the former train station.
You can even check out an earthquake simulator to see what it was like at the time.
There are photos and old newspapers showing what the city looked like before the earthquake and how it was relocated and rebuilt in new locations.
5. May Park
This is the perfect place to relax in the city, with lots of green spaces, lakes, fountains and some monuments along some walking paths.
There is also a children’s playground and art gallery, conference centre and auditorium nearby.
Occasionally you’ll see street performers or bands set up shop in the park, and locals drink yerba mate (a hot Argentine herbal drink) on the grass.
On Sundays, the park has a lively arts and crafts market where you can find vendors selling arts and crafts as well as food carts and kiosks selling food trucks.
Feed the ducks or the many colorful fish in the lake, do some sports, or have a picnic here surrounded by nature.
6. Franklin Rosen, Provincial Museum of Fine Arts
This beautiful modern, bright and spotless building houses paintings by European and Argentine artists.
With five exhibition rooms and ever-changing displays, you’ll find paintings, sculptures, drawings and photography on two floors.
The staff are friendly, admission is cheap, and there is a small museum shop downstairs for souvenirs.
In addition to all modern art, the museum also includes an auditorium, a library, and a candy store.
7. Quebrada de Dique Ullum
On summer weekends, San Juan locals flee the city to visit the closest places to nearby beaches.
This hydroelectric dam creates a reservoir where you can fish, boat or rest in the sun.
You’ll enjoy great views of the red Andean foothills, contrasting with the turquoise waters of the lake.
There are hikes, exploring bike routes, visiting sports clubs, and many packing picnics or meat barbecues.
With the city only about 20 kilometers away, you can easily visit or stay in one of the many campsites or hotels nearby in one day.
8. El Leoncito National Park
If you have time to visit Parque Nacional El Leoncito, don’t miss it.
There are over 90,000 hectares of interesting geography – the Pampas next to the Andes – and archaeology such as ancient adobe buildings and rock carvings.
There are 3 scenic hiking routes around the park that take you past Cerro El Leoncito, herds of guanacos (camel-like animals), streams and waterfalls.
See here the home of the former estancia, which was used as an outpost by the Andean army.
The park rangers can give you tons of information, you can camp in the park for free and use the park’s showers, barbecues, fire pits and toilets – just be prepared for a cold night!
9. Stargazing at the world-famous observatory
If you’re heading to El Leoncito, be sure to stay overnight to visit the two world-famous observatories located there.
Due to its remote location, lack of atmospheric pollution and dry weather, the park is an ideal place for stargazing.
Visitors have access to two observatories, the El Leoncito Astronomical Complex (CASLEO) and the Carlos Ulrico Cesco Observatory (CESCO), where they can find a 40-ton telescope and a handful of photographs and historical information.
Much of the work done by these observatories is a collaboration between Yale University and San Juan National University.
The professors here offer guided tours during the day and stargazing parties at night – you’ll be amazed by the crystal clear Milky Way.
10. Visit the Grand Winery
Along with Mendoza, San Juan is part of Argentina’s Cuyo wine region, and the area around the city is home to countless wine cellars.
The dry Tulum Valley next to the Andes is ideal for grape growing, with Syrah being the main grape variety, but many other red and white wines (even sparkling wines) are produced around San Juan.
They make a little over 20% of Argentina’s total wine, so while you’re here, you’ll have to wander around some vineyards.
There are 14 wine cellars on Ruta del Vino, and you can rent a car, join a tour, or rent a taxi to take you around for the day.
Some have interpretive lectures and tours, some have a wine museum, and some wine tasting sessions (sometimes free!).
If you’re lucky enough to be in San Juan in February, you can celebrate the viticulture process with cultural performances, live music and dancing during the Fiesta Nacional del Sol.
11. Luna Valley
The peculiar rock formations in Isquigualasto Provincial Park are reminiscent of lunar landscapes, so the name “Valley of the Moon” is fitting.
Learn all about the dinosaurs that roamed here during the Triassic period, and check out the fossils to prove it.
Admission is low, and it’s worth learning more on a 4×4 vehicle tour with a knowledgeable guide.
You can also arrange for a hike through the park or even a mountain bike tour through the incredible scenery.
Bring your camera and visit naturally carved landforms such as the Painted Valley and Bowling Alley. It’s about a 3 hour drive from San Juan, but the route is beautiful and a completely underrated national park.
12. Eat some steak at your local Parrilla
It’s no secret that Argentines eat a lot of beef, and the country is known for having some of the best steaks in the world.
So while you’re here, dine like a local at a traditional parrilla (steakhouse) with succulent grilled meats and what’s sure to be a great wine list.
Try Parrilla Los Toneles, a spacious dining room where steak and sausage platters are delivered to your table on a still-hot little grill.
Be sure to order a few plates of cured ham and other picadas beforehand, and of course a bottle of Malbec or Syrah! Parrillada la Nueva Estancia and Posta del Campo are two other local favorites where you can also enjoy steak.
13. Mountain sports
Just outside of San Juan, the rugged mountain landscape is perfect for outdoor adventures, from mountain biking and hang gliding to rock climbing and horseback riding.
There is also great fishing in the rivers and streams here, which are full of trout.
Alternatively, you can explore the rocky trails in a guided 4×4 vehicle.
If you want to go up the mountain, there are plenty of hiking options, with trails of varying lengths and difficulty.
There are a number of tour companies in San Juan – Inca Posta gets great reviews – and they can arrange guided hikes, zip lines, and any other sports you might want to do.
14. La Celda Histórica de San Martín
Immerse yourself in Argentine history at the Santo Domingo Monastery, where the great liberator, General José de San Martín, is said to have spent the night.
He was an important figure in the Argentine, Chilean and Peruvian revolutions, and you can see statues commemorating him on horseback across the country.
There are photographs, furniture, and even clothing preserved from his era or earlier.
The monastery and National Historic Monument is the oldest building in the city—surviving a major earthquake—and it has adobe walls from the 1700s and three large bells.
This is a great place for lovers of colonial architecture and those who want to know where the famous general buried his head as he prepared for the campaign to liberate Chile and Peru.
15. Difonta Correa
One of the most peculiar spots in the area, this shrine welcomes so many pilgrims every year that stalls pop up next to it selling souvenirs and freshly prepared food.
Located in the village of Vallecita, this sanctuary is dedicated to the mythical figure of Deolinda Correa, a legendary Argentine woman who lived in the 1800s.
After her husband was forcibly drafted into the army, she followed them across the desert and died on a hill with her baby still breastfeeding on her chest.
Some shepherds found her body, rescued her children, and buried her there.
Her spirit is said to have saved shepherds from losing their flocks and saved the famous Gaucho from losing their herds.
Many locals now petition for Correa’s protection and bring offerings to her cemetery to show their gratitude.
In addition to a statue of her dying body, you can visit the shrine and see the many offerings stored in the makeshift church, such as license plates (her protected car), a model of a house, and a stroller.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in San Juan, Argentina
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