This small provincial capital is the second-city of wine production in Argentina, but don’t expect it to be like Mendoza. San Juan is a low-key town that makes a great jumping-off point for scenic national and provincial parks like El Leoncito and Ischigualasto. Of course it also draws visitors to its many wine bodegas just outside the reaches of town.
Unlike many historic spots in Argentina, San Juan is rather modern for a colonial town because most of the original city was destroyed in a 1944 earthquake. Compared to Mendoza, it’s much less touristed and the pace of life here is a little slower. San Juan is a place to take it easy, explore local landscapes, and sip on a variety of wines.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Juan:
1. Plaza 25 de Mayo
The main plaza of the city and “Kilometer 0” of the San Juan Province, this square is great for relaxing, people watching, and meeting up with friends.
With tall palm trees and a fountain in the center, it’s a typical Argentine city square, though the main church is a modern-day affair rather than a century-old cathedral.
You’ll find statues of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the former president of Argentina who was born here, and Fray Justo Santa María, a bishop and statesman who fought for Argentina’s independence.
There are a few cafes, restaurants, and bars around the edges of the plaza for a coffee or beer, and at night the square and its trees are beautifully illuminated.
2. Casa Natal de Sarmiento
Birthplace of the 19th-century Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, this home is a National Historic Monument dedicated to the educator of the Americas.
Seemingly ahead of his time, Sarmiento is known for his intellectualism and work fighting for public education, including women’s right to an education.
This house is a testament to his life, background, and efforts to improve himself through writing and accepting positions as a civil servant.
Visitors can see the room where Sarmiento was born, his bedroom, one of his desks, and a dinner set used during his term as president from 1868 to 1874. You can view many of his writings and original manuscripts here, and opt for a guided tour to learn more.
3. Ruta del Olivo San Juan
Extra virgin olive oils from San Juan are starting to make a name for themselves on the international market, and there’s a bit of a tourist trail through the zone of olivícolas here.
Olive trees love the same rocky soils and harsh climates as grape vines, so even though they aren’t native to Argentina, olives really take to land – especially in the Valley of Tulum.
Visit family-run olive farms, an olive museum, and olive oil factories along the Ruta del Olivo (Ruta 40 mainly) and see how olive oil is made.
Outside the city, Campo de Olivos on Ruta 12 offers tours of the groves and its production line, and they show guests how their olive oil is still made by the old fashioned cold-press technique.
There’s no way you won’t walk away with at least a bottle or two.
4. Museo de la Memoria Urbana
To learn a little more about the city’s beginnings, check out this museum which details the history of San Juan and the earthquake that destroyed it in 1944. Entry is free, interesting tours are available, and there’s a lot of information packed into a small space located within a former railway station.
You can even check out an earthquake simulator to see what it might’ve felt like at the time.
There are photographs and old newspapers showing what the city looked like before the devastation of the earthquake, and how it was relocated and rebuilt in a new location.
5. Parque de Mayo
This is the perfect place to chill within the city, with lots of green space, a lake, a fountain, and a few monuments along some walking trails.
There’s also a children’s playground and the fine arts museum, convention center, and auditorium just nearby.
Occasionally you’ll see street performers or bands that set up shop in the park and locals having mate (the hot herbal Argentine drink of choice) in the grass.
On Sundays, there’s a lively artisanal fair in the park where you can find vendors selling handicrafts along with food carts and kiosks selling quick bites.
Feed the ducks or the many colorful fish in the lake, do a little exercise, or have a picnic here surrounded by a bit of nature.
6. Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Franklin Rawson
A beautifully modern, bright, and spotless building, this museum houses paintings by both European and Argentine artists.
With five exhibition rooms and ever-changing displays, you’ll find paintings, sculptures, sketches, and photography within its two floors.
The staff is friendly, the entry is cheap, and there’s a small museum shop downstairs where you can buy souvenirs.
Along with all the modern artwork, this museum also contains an auditorium, a library, and a confectionary.
7. Quebrada de Dique Ullum
On weekends in the summer, locals of San Juan flee the city to visit the closest thing to a beach nearby.
This hydroelectric dam creates a reservoir where you can fish, go boating, or just lounge in the sun.
You’ll have great views of the red Andean foothills contrasted against the blue-green water of the lake.
There’s hiking to be had, cycling routes to explore, sporting clubs to visit, and many folks pack picnics or meats to grill for the day.
Located only about 20 kilometers from the city, you can easily visit in a day or stay at one of the many campsites or hotels nearby.
8. El Leoncito National Park
If you’ve got the time to head out to Parque Nacional El Leoncito, don’t miss it.
There’s over 90,000 hectares of interesting geography – the pampas set right next to the Andes – and archaeology like ancient adobe constructions and rock carvings.
There are three scenic hikes around the park that’ll lead you past Cerro El Leoncito, herds of guanacos (llama-like animals), streams, and waterfalls.
See the home of the former estancia here, which was used as an outpost by the Army of the Andes.
Park rangers can provide you with lots of information, and you can camp in the park for free, making use of its showers, barbecues, firepits and toilets – just be prepared for it to get cold at night!
9. Stargaze at World-Renowned Astronomic Observatories
If you make your way out to El Leoncito, make sure to stay for the night so that you can visit the two world-renowned observatories located there.
Due to its remoteness, lack of atmospheric pollution, and the dry weather, the park is a perfect place for stargazing.
Visitors can enter both observatories, the El Leoncito Astronomic Complex (CASLEO) and the Carlos Ulrico Cesco Astronomic Observatory (CESCO), where they’ll find a 40-ton telescope and a small collection of photographs and historical information.
Much of the work done at these observatories has been a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of San Juan.
The professors here can give a guided tour during the day and they hold stargazing gatherings at night – you’ll be in awe of the shockingly clear Milky Way.
10. Visit Great Wineries
Together with Mendoza, San Juan is part of the Cuyo wine-producing region of Argentina, and the area surrounding the city is home to countless bodegas.
The dry Tulum Valley next to the Andes is fabulous for grape growing, with Syrah being the predominant varietal, but many other reds and whites (and even sparkling wines) are made around San Juan as well.
They produce a little over 20% of Argentina’s total wine, so you’ve got to bounce around to some vineyards while you’re here.
There are 14 bodegas on the Ruta del Vino and you can rent a car, jump on a tour, or hire a taxi to take you around for the day.
There are explanatory talks and tours at some, a wine museum at one, and tastings (sometimes free!) at all of them.
If you’re lucky enough to be in San Juan in February, you can celebrate the winegrowing process during the Fiesta Nacional del Sol with cultural shows, live music, and dancing.
11. Valle de la Luna
The strange rock formations set within the Ischigualasto Provincial Park are reminiscent of a lunar landscape and thus the name “Valley of the Moon” is pretty appropriate.
Learn all about the dinosaurs that used to roam here during the Triassic Period and see the fossils to prove it.
The admission price is low, and signing up for a tour in a 4×4 vehicle with a knowledgeable guide is worth it to learn even more.
You can also arrange to go trekking through the park or even mountain bike around the incredible scenery.
Bring your camera and visit the naturally sculpted formations like the “Painted Valley” and the “Bowling Field.” It’s about a 3 hour drive from San Juan, but the route is beautiful and it’s a totally underrated national park.
12. Eat Some Steak at a Local Parrilla
It’s no secret that Argentines eat a lot of beef and the country is known for having some of the best steak in the world.
So while you’re here, do as the locals do and eat at a traditional parrilla (steakhouse) to enjoy succulent grilled meats alongside what’s sure to be a great wine list.
Try Parrilla Los Toneles, with its spacious dining room and platters of steaks and sausages served on small, still-hot grills that are brought to your table.
Be sure to order some plates of cured ham and other picadas beforehand, along with a bottle of Malbec or Syrah of course! Parrillada la Nueva Estancia and Posta del Campo are a couple other local favorites where you can get your fill of steak too.
13. Mountain Sports
Just outside of San Juan the rugged mountain landscapes are perfect for outdoor adventures, from mountain biking and hang gliding to rock climbing and horseback riding.
There’s also great fishing to be had in the rivers and streams here which are loaded with trout.
Or you could take an excursion through the rocky trails in a 4×4 vehicle with a guide.
There’s tons of hiking options, with trails of different lengths and levels of difficulty, if you want to head up into the mountains.
San Juan has many tour companies – Inca Posta gets great reviews – and they can arrange for guided treks, ziplining, and whatever other sport you might want to take on.
14. La Celda Histórica de San Martín
Soak in some Argentine history at the Santo Domingo Convent where the great liberator General Jose de San Martin is said to have spent the night.
He’s the important figure from the revolutions of Argentina, Chile, and Peru that you see commemorated on horseback in statues all over the country.
There are photos, furniture, and even clothing that’s been preserved from his time period and earlier.
This convent and National Historic Monument is the oldest building in the city – having survived the great earthquake – and it has adobe walls and three large bells from the 1700s.
It’s a great place for lovers of colonial architecture and those who wish to see where the famous general laid his head while prepping for his campaigns to liberate Chile and Peru.
15. Difunta Correa
One of the more peculiar attractions in the area, this shrine receives so many pilgrims each year that stalls have popped up next to it selling souvenirs and freshly cooked food.
Located in the village of Vallecita, this sanctuary is dedicated to the mythical figure of Deolinda Correa, an Argentine woman who is said to have lived in the 1800s.
After her husband was forcibly recruited by the army, she followed their path through the desert and perished on a hill with her baby still suckling at her chest.
Some shepherds found her body, rescued her baby, and buried her there.
Her spirit is said to have kept the shepherds from losing their flocks and saved a famous gaucho from losing his cattle.
Now many local people ask for protection from Correa and bring offerings to the site of her grave as thanks.
Along with a statue of her dying body, you can visit the shrine to see the numerous offerings deposited there at makeshift chapels, like license plates (of the car’s she’s protected), models of houses, and baby carriages.