Beaches, rum and nature: the 9 best places to visit in Puerto Rico

Historical ruins of Castillo San Felipe del Morro on the coast of San Juan.
Don't let the 100 miles long by 35 miles wide fool you, Puerto Rico is a country brimming with history, food and natural wonders © Venturelli Luca / Shutterstock

Puerto Rico is an island that beckons visitors with world-class eats, buzzing night and arts scene and ultra-modern venues.

Over 300 miles of coastline offer a variety of beaches – from black sand to crystalline waters – while year-round warm weather provides the perfect backdrop for all sorts of outdoor activities like ziplining, hiking, canyoning and surfing, just to name a few. 

Spanning only 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, you can easily drive across the island in a day – all you need is your own set of wheels to experience the many wonders the Caribbean island has to offer. Here are Puerto Rico’s must-visit destinations. 

The peach-colored dome of cathedral with puffy clouds in a blue sky in San Juan Puerto Rico
San Juan is a popular destination for tourists from all over the world © Bryan Mullennix/Getty Images

Old San Juan 

The old city makes for a striking introduction to Puerto Rican culture and history. Founded a full two centuries before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, Old San Juan is one the best-preserved cities of the Americas with its blue cobblestone streets, pastel-colored buildings, and sweeping ocean views around every corner.

Best explored on foot, you can stroll through the city’s many tranquil plazas, historic churches or artisanal shops. Tour either of the commanding fortresses, El Morro or San Cristobal, a Unesco World Heritage Site, to feel like you’re on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. For some downtime away from the crowds, grab a refreshing piragua (Puerto Rican snow cone) and head to the gardens of Museo Casa Blanca, the city’s oldest residence built in 1521. 

Santurce

San Juan’s biggest and most populous neighborhood has emerged as one of the largest art districts in the Caribbean. Santurce is colorful and vibrant, especially around Calle Cerra where impressive murals canvas most buildings. Take it in on your own or sign up for a street art tour with the Art Walk PR for a more curated experience. 

Santurce has also become home to the island’s trendiest art galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Drink a café at Café Comunión or dine at Vianda, which was a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.

There’s no shortage of spots to choose from for a night out on the town, and the scene is a huge draw for locals and travelers alike. Check out La Esquina Watusi or La Placita, where partygoers spill out onto the streets with cold drinks in hand for impromptu open-air block parties, with lots of dancing often involved.

A small cascade pools into a small pond in El Yunque national forest, Puerto Rico
Always make time to visit El Yunque National Forest © Dennis van de Water / Shutterstock

Bathe under waterfalls at El Yunque National Rainforest 

Hike the 25 miles of trails, swim in natural pools or bathe under waterfalls at the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System. Located in the northeastern part of the island, El Yunque is 29,000 acres of lush mountainous terrain. 

See what the area has to offer on an easy and enjoyable day hike. Take the Angelito Trail down to the Las Damas pool. A winding trail with thick vegetation will lead you to a deep pool of clear, cold water with a rope swing. This popular swimming hole is perfect for families looking to relax in the pools.

Or, if you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge, try the more intense 2.6-mile El Yunque Trail. This trail takes you to the highest points in the forest, where from the trailhead you’ll ascend through sierra palms and the Cloud Forest, a unique zone under a nearly constant state of rain. At the top is a reward of towering views of the rainforest below.  

Another great spot for a bit of fun after a day of hiking is Las Pailas. While not part of the park proper, it’s located on private property at the park’s edge and certainly worth a detour. River waters rushing down from the rainforest have transformed rocks into natural playgrounds and smoothed them into natural water slides complete with refreshing pools. 

Note: As of December 2020, reservations are required to enter the park. Visit the El Yunque National Forest website for more information. 

Distrito T-Mobile 

Billed as the Caribbean Time’s Square, San Juan's new entertainment hub has over a dozen eateries, an urban adventure park, state-of-the-art technology and a multitude of entertainment venues. Start your visit at the Popular Plaza, where bright lights lead the way to the other venues and play host to live entertainment.

The sports bar Arena Medalla showcases Puerto Rican athletes and the local beer with impressive works of art and neon lights. Catch a game on any of the many jumbo tv screens, book a private karaoke room or tuck into a foosball, pool or arcade-style table, all with a beer in hand. 

For some family fun, head over to Toro Verde Urban Park, with its two ziplines, a rope course, a rock-climbing wall and an arcade room with classic machines and VR games. 

The district also offers several other casual and fine dining experiences. Go for burgers at La Burguesía, try some tapas at Barullo or sip on rum cocktails at La Central, all of which overlook the district's Plaza Popular. 

A small boat is moored on the waters in Vieques at sundown
Vieques is less than an hour flight from San Juan © Stan Zhou / 500px

Vieques 

Just six miles off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, the small island municipality of Vieques is home to the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, an idyllic wildlife refuge and world class beaches like Chiva, Media Luna, or Caracas. A quick ferry from Ceiba or flight from San Juan will get you to and from this tropical paradise where the pace of life slows down dramatically and you can enjoy stretches of sand all to yourself. 

For a truly relaxing retreat, stay at Finca Victoria where you can experience modern-day tree houses or tiny homes with outdoor showers, and partake in massages, daily yoga and vegan meals. For some freshly caught Caribbean spiny lobster, the island’s specialty, head over to La Esperanza for beach front dining at Bili or El Quenepo.

Raise a glass on a rum tour 

Thanks in part to its many distilleries Puerto Rico is considered the rum capital of the world. The liquor has been distilled here since the mid-1600s and visiting any of its distilleries is a perfect vehicle to appreciate the fine craftsmanship and rich history of the local spirit. 

Casa Bacardí is home to the many flavors of Bacardi Rum – the world’s largest rum producer – and is the most popular choice with its three tour options (Historic Tour, Rum Tasting or Mixology Class), plus an informative visitor's center, waterfront cocktail bar and views of Old San Juan from across the bay.

For a craft distillery experience, head over to Ron del Barrilito's Hacienda Santa, the island’s oldest distillery where you’ll walk through the production process and feel like you’ve been whisked back to the 1800s. If you’re feeling more adventurous, make a day trip to the mountains of Jayuya for some pitorro (moonshine) at PitoRico’s Destilería Cruz. 

A person swims toward a waterfall at Rincón de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste Province
Rincón is located on the far west corner of Puerto Rico © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Rincón 

Tucked away in the far west corner of the island lies the surf town of Rincón. Literally meaning corner in Spanish, Rincón, is the perfect antidote to the more fast-paced, urban San Juan. Surfing is the main attraction here, with many spots to check the swell like Domes, Marias, and Tres Palmas, just to name a few.

But there are plenty of other activities to do as well, like horseback riding along the beach, snorkeling the horseshoe reef at Steps beach, paddle-boarding at the Balneario (public beach) or shopping at the Thursday Art Walk or Sunday Farmers Market at the town square.

Cabo Rojo 

Located in the extreme southwest of Puerto Rico, Cabo Rojo has 28 miles of coastline – more than any other municipality on the island – where you’ll discover seascapes overshadowed by towering limestones cliffs, pristine nature reserves and creative seafood restaurants like DownTown Boqueron by Jose Carles. 

Beautiful beaches like Buyé, Boqueron and Combate tend to get pretty packed on weekends and holidays. For a more remote experience head to Playuela beach, known by locals as Playa Sucia, or Dirty Beach in English, so named to deter visitors from spoiling its natural beauty.

On the way there, stop by the red-hued Salt Flats that give the town its namesake, as well as the Los Morrillos Lighthouse, one of 27 sites included in the National Register of Historic Places.

La Parguera 

This seaside fishing village lies within the La Parguera Nature Reserve, one of the island’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. Extensive coral reefs, mangrove forests, and wildlife make it the perfect eco-tourism destination for nature lovers, with ample opportunities to scuba dive, snorkel, hike, bike and bird watch. 

There are no fancy hotels or resorts here, but plenty of intimate inns or boats turned into Airbnb’s to enjoy the town’s coastal simplicity. With over 30 cays and islets, exploring La Parguera looks different every day. Go scuba diving at the La Pared (The Wall), kayak through the mangroves, visit the bioluminescent bay, or stroll over to the malecón (boardwalk) for dinner and drinks. 

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