Dance, explore, eat, repeat—the Puerto Rico trip your soul craves
If snapshots of energetic dancing, vibrant cuisine, historic architecture and screensaver-worthy beaches grace your (real or imagined) vacation vision board, wish-list fulfillment is closer than you might think. Without so much as a passport, travelers can hop on any one of 120+ daily flights from major U.S. cities to Puerto Rico’s three main airports (San Juan, Ponce and Aguadilla) and start living “Boricua”—that is, fully embracing life in the true spirit of Puerto Rico.
Despite its proximity, the island is full of intrigue—layered history, a rich tapestry of cultures, danceable rhythms and a food scene that puts fresh takes on abuelita-approved recipes. And considering its impressive list of superlatives—the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, America’s longest zipline, the world’s longest bike cable, and three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays, for starters—there’s much that sets this place apart from anywhere else on earth.
Here are 5 ideas for soaking it all in.
Absorb architecture and art
Puerto Rico boasts beauty in spades, and that goes for its manmade marvels just as much as it does for its postcard-ready coastline. Whether via a casual stroll through the streets or a tour of the numerous art galleries and museums, there's an island-wide feast for the eyes.
Start with iconic Castillo San Felipe del Morro (or "El Morro" as its more commonly called) in Old San Juan, an imposing Spanish fort whose 18- to 25-foot thick walls date back nearly half a millennium. Visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site can explore its six levels via tunnels, staircases, cannon-lined ramparts and sentry boxes that look out on sweeping views of San Juan Bay. The $10 entrance fee to the San Juan National Historic Site covers entry to nearby Fort San Cristóbal, too, where you can score more dreamy bay views.
In Ponce, Parque de Bombas—a late 19th-century firehouse-turned-museum—stands out for its ornate Gothic- and Moorish-influenced architectural style, not to mention its eye-popping checkerboard hues.
While you're in Plaza Las Delicias (the park that houses the instagrammable museum), take time to admire the 350-year-old cathedral next door, too. Truly, the entire city of Ponce is known for its eclectic architecture (check out the Museum of Ponce Architecture, housed in a neoclassical building resembling a pastel-pink wedding cake), so bring your walking shoes and a good camera to make the most of it.
If time allows, a day trip to San Germán (a.k.a. Puerto oldest town) west of Ponce is another great spot for viewing shining examples of Puerto Rico's native "criollo" architecture, especially in the town's dedicated historic district. Once there, seek out Porta Coeli Convent church, one of the oldest church structures in the western hemisphere.
For gallery hounds, a visit to Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan is a must.
Among the hundreds of talented artists represented in the contemporary art museum—most of whom are either Puerto Rican or have ties to the island—San Juan-born Antonio Martorell is a living legend. View his bold and intricate prints and paintings, as well as works by Francisco Oller, one of the most celebrated Impressionists in all of Latin America, on the walls of the 130,000 square-foot space.
Beyond its famous waves, surfer-favorite Rincón on the island's northwest side is also a top choice for art lovers, thanks in no small part to its festive Thursday night art walks.
As the sun dips in the sky (thanks to its western location, sunsets, too, are something of an art form here), booths pop up in the town square, proferring paintings, sculptures, jewelry and crafts made by local artisans. But even if your visit doesn't include a Thursday, you can browse locally made pieces in the art galleries and boutique stores in town any day.
Dance your heart out
No matter what corner of the island you explore, the music of Puerto Rico will be a part of your journey—because Puerto Rico and its songs are inseparable. Indigenous Taíno, Spanish and African influences combine here and have gone on to mingle with other world sounds to inspire variation upon variation of Puerto Rican music.
There's a new tune and a new move to try at every turn—from iconic Bomba, with its driving Afro-Caribbean rhythms and expressive skirt-swinging dance; to uber-danceable salsa, with an eight-count beat that can be keyed up or down to suit the occasion; to party-ready reggaetón with its gritty hip-hop edge; to the folksy décima music, often accompanied by a style of line dancing.
Across the island, town squares become dance floors and open-air stages, and everyone is invited to take part. In San Juan, the first Saturdays of the month at Plaza de Armas are a prime place to witness Bomba music and dance. Thursday through Sunday nights, La Placita de Santurce (also in San Juan) lights up with live music and salsa dancing and street food carts selling local specialties like empanadas and codfish fritters. Local restaurants and bars offer refreshments so partygoers can fuel up between dances.
And on the northwest side of the island, Isabela becomes a giant dance party each Friday night when salsa music and dance takes over the town square.
Back in San Juan, snap your fingers to live Latin jazz at classic piano bar Cafe Carli Concierto, where the owner is also the gifted house musician (and former Beach Boys keyboardist). In the northeast region's Luquillo, tap your toes to the whisper of the cymbals at C-Note Jazz Club, a cozy, blue-lit jazz hideaway. In either, you'll feel like you've stumbled on a local hot spot (because you have).
Or for a nightlife spot that has a little bit of everything—speakeasy-style mystery, danceable live music, craft cocktails and that indefinable "it-factor" that makes a place cool—La Factoría in San Juan is a go-to. As evidence, it's made made several recent appearances on the The World's 50 Best Bars list.
Live it up—or wind down—on the beach
To state the obvious, Puerto Rico easily aces the sun vacation category with nearly 300 beaches to its name.
San Juan's Condado District offers the ease of city access and plentiful beachfront hotel options, but it's worth branching out to less-traveled sands like those in Fajardo, just a short drive away, a playground for water sports enthusiasts and snorkelers. Here you can find amenity-rich spots like popular Seven Seas Beach, as well as secluded options like Icacos Beach, set on a cay by the same name and reachable only by boat.
Speaking of more remote sands, beach lovers will want to consider an escape to Vieques, an island six miles off Puerto Rico's eastern coast, where they'll find not only quiet stretches of powdery coastline, but also wild horses like something out of a romance novel. Reaching the island is easily done via a ferry ride from Ceiba or a brief flight from San Juan, and there are ample affordable stay options once there, contrary to the exclusive feel of location.
Smaller Culebra, just northeast of Vieques, is also easily reached by ferry or plane. The island is ringed by white-sand beaches and surrounded by over 20 cays that teem with vibrant marine life—in other words, it's a diver's waking dream.
Rincón on the western portion of the island is a pilgrimage site for surfing and for sunset savoring. And Aguadilla's popular Crash Boat Beach is a choice place to hang out, stroll the colorful former U.S. Air Force pier take a shore dive around its pilings to spot a rainbow of tropical marine species.
Eat and drink in authentic Puerto Rican style
Like so much in Puerto Rican culture, the island's culinary traditions are infused with influences that reflect the island's history, from the earliest inhabitants, to the arrival of the Spanish, to the practices brought by African slaves. Iconic dishes like mofongo—a savory cake of mashed plantains and garlic, often topped with protein and veggies—are a reflection of this, as are bacalaítos (fried salted cod) and pasteles (plantain-, yucca- and meat-filled dough steamed inside a banana leaf), among other typical foods.
Try dishes like these at La Casita Blanca in San Juan, a homey, casual restaurant and a fixture of the historical Villa Palmeras neighborhood for the last 30 years. Or try the more refined Casita Miramar, housed inside an elegant and colorful building with a cheerful outdoor patio. (Tip: The entire menu gets high marks, but the plantain soup, mahi mahi and tres leches cake earn consistent raves).
Or for some of the best street food—or perhaps better said, "beach food"—on the island, hop from food stand (called chinchorros locally), to beach, back to food stand in the Piñones region between Isla Verde Beach and downtown Loíza, a short drive east of San Juan.
If the evening calls for white tablecloths and inventive tasting menus, Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar in Old San Juan is not to be missed. The restaurant's colorful, meticulously plated cuisine is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate, and portions are larger than you might expect for such artful fare. Or, for a fine-dining experience that fuses traditional Puerto Rican cuisine with world flavors (wagyu beef and escargot mingle on the menu with arroz con pollo and gourmet empanadillas, for example), try Santaella in the Santurce neighborhood.
As essential as mofongo is to Puerto Rican cuisine, rum is just as important a player when it comes to libations. By many accounts, the island holds the title as the Rum Capital of the World, producing a large portion of all the light-bodied rum consumed across the planet.
While visiting, guests can experience this important spirit with a tour of a distillery—for example, the picturesque and historic Castillo Serallés estate (of Don Q fame) in Ponce, or the prolific Casa Bacardí facility in Cataño on San Juan Bay (which produces over 100,000 liters of rum every day—more than any other distillery on earth).
True rum nuts can tailor their entire Puerto Rico journey around the hallowed beverage, if they wish—and easily—with the help of an app that puts eight rum destinations and many more experiences in a central hub for ease of browsing and planning.
Of course, you can also experience Puerto Rico's rums in a more casual way: by ordering a mojito, piña colada or a rum-forward craft cocktail at just about any bar, club or lounge across the island.
See a spectrum of natural beauty
The words puerto rico are Spanish for "rich port," and when it comes to breath-stopping natural wonders, there's no doubt the island has more than its fair share.
Among its claims to fame are three of the world's five bioluminescent bays (waters where luminescent microorganisms are concentrated enough as to light up the water when it's stirred), including the brightest in the world at Mosquito Bay in Vieques, plus Laguna Grande in Fajardo and La Parguera in Lajas. These can all be experienced via a nighttime boat or kayak tour, where each stroke of your paddle will have a truly illuminating effect on the water.
Puerto Rico is also home to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest System. This lush green oasis is also easy to access (it's just 30 miles from San Juan), and adventurers can explore its waterfalls, streams, and biodiversity through a number of hikes, ranging from easy to challenging.
Adrenaline seekers can clip into one of the longest ziplines in the world to get a bird's-eye view of Puerto Rico's verdant countryside. At 7,234 feet long (about 1.4 miles) and up to 1,200 feet high, "El Monstruo" (the monster) at Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park in Orocovis will make the phrase "sweeping views" seem like the understatement of the year.
And the park is also home to another high-flying attraction: the longest cable bike circuit in the world. Those daring enough to pedal the 1,057-foot-long cable will get to experience the unusual sensation of biking through the air above mountainous terrain.
Or go the opposite route, with a look underground via Puerto Rico's impressive cave sites. There are a number of options, but Río Camuy Cave Park—home of one of the world's largest underground rivers and one of its most complex cave systems—gives explorers an exceptional amount to see.
Sinkholes, numerous bat species, stalactites and stalagmites all await intrepid travelers, but be sure to call ahead to make reservations with the Department of Natural Resources.
From whichever angle you soak in the riches of the island, Puerto Rico's alluring culture, cuisine, rhythms and nature will fill your cup. And when your spirit's in need of a refill, your next dose of vibrant Boricua life is thankfully just a quick flight away.