An often-overlooked tropical getaway but only a short four-hour flight from Boston, Puerto Rico has much to offer beach bums and adventurers alike. With its diverse geography and attractions—from glittering shorelines, to verdant rainforest, to fuego street parties—this island allows for multiple exciting vacation experiences rolled into one. An added bonus: after a day of hiking, exploring the historic city of Old San Juan, or simply sunbathing, you can fuel up on the freshest of seafood, perfectly fried plantains, or to-die-for tropical desserts at any of the island’s low-key, but near-gourmet restaurants. Jetsetters, don’t bother with the passport—as long as you’re a U.S. citizen, you have a carte blanche to come and go as you please.
Three things you have to see
La Mina Falls, El Yunque Forest
As the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system, El Yunque is not to be missed on any trip to Puerto Rico. With its scenic views and pathways winding through lush greenery, you’ll want to set aside at least half the day to explore. The best part? La Mina Falls, located just a short hike up the trail, where visitors can hop in and take a swim if the rapids are tame. Wear your bathing suit, and pack a rain jacket—you never know what to expect here weather-wise.
After exploring El Yunque, take a detour off highway 983 to visit Las Paylas, a set of natural rock waterslides popular with the locals. There will no doubt be a gaggle of Puerto Rican boys hanging out and doing back flips into the water, so take their sage advice on how to enter the slides and which are the best—but maybe save the tricks for your next go around. Not feeling like a daredevil? No worries—there are water pools and picnic spots galore.
Museo Casa Blanca
The former residence of explorer Ponce de Léon and his family, this house museum is a charming historical landmark. While not kept in stellar shape, the quaint whitewashed home offers jawdropping water views from the top floor terrace, and is certainly a hidden gem off the average tourist’s beaten path. For only $3 admission, you can’t go wrong grabbing your camera and wandering around inside.
Three great local places to eat
Seeking a delicious, affordable meal in a bustling area? Look no further than Asere Cubano, located in the heart of La Placita. This spot comes alive on weekend nights, and the Caribbean flair of the Cuban cuisine will have your tastebuds dancing, too. Try out the classic bistec with fried plantains—and of course, mango tart for dessert.
Check out this beachfront, open-air bar and grill for the best scallops and mojitos in Isla Verde. The coconut rice adds a pleasantly surprising tropical twist to each entree, so you really can’t go wrong.
Health nuts and traditionalists alike will appreciate this juice bar offering all-day breakfast, including bacon-infused pancakes and the classic brunch cocktail menu (who says you can’t have a piña colada before noon?). Be sure not to leave without browsing the chic bathing suits and frocks in the boutique located upstairs.
Cool day trip to visit
Tucked away in the northwest corner of the island, Rincon is a surfer’s paradise that everyone can enjoy. With most tourists choosing to stay in the more populated San Juan, the place is an oasis of quiet, save for the sound of the waves crashing on the beaches. Renting a car and trekking up and down the cliffs to the shore appears to be the best means of reaching the town, with main-street storefronts and boutique resorts to peek into along the way. Not sure where to set up camp? The lighthouse El Faro de Punta Higuero is a great place to start—pack a picnic and relax in the adjacent park to watch the sunset, or even the whales breaching during the winter months.
Hidden cultural gems
La Placita del Santurce
Colorful farmer’s market by day and street party by (weekend) night, La Placita is nestled within the Santurce neighborhood in the midst of hip bars, restaurants, and walk-up drink windows. Hundreds of locals and the more in-the-know visitors flock here for dining, drinking and dancing every Thursday-Sunday night, especially when the weather is at its best. Grab a margarita from the bar of your choosing—making sure to first compare prices at neighboring establishments—and celebrate life, San Juan style.
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
Visitors are often surprised to find a world-class art museum tucked away in the small city of San Juan, but the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico definitely does not disappoint. With its expansive permanent collection—including many stunning mural sized works—and rotating exhibits, it’s a perfect opportunity to take in some culture and learn about Puerto Rican art history during one of the island’s sparse rainy days.
Five hotels to stay at
Staying at the Marriott while in Puerto Rico would be a crime considering all the understatedly elegant boutique hotels the city of San Juan has to offer. The rooftop terrace boasting multiple stone bathtubs at the Hotel Casablanca is a good example, located in the heart of the historic downtown, within walking distance of all the restaurants and bars you could want. Looking for a little more luxury? The Terraza de San Juan is the place for you. If you prefer the quieter Ocean Park area, Numero Uno Guest House sits on the beach, with the award-winning Pamela’s Caribbean Cuisine adjoining on the oceanside patio. The El Canario Inn has similar prime real estate in Condado, as does the Olive Boutique Hotel, which Condé Nast Traveler has described as “a sweet transitional spot where it is still possible to feel in on a secret.”
Don’t leave this place without visiting three iconic cultural attractions that must be seen…
By far, the best cultural sights of Puerto Rico are located in the historic old city of San Juan, the colonial section of the bustling capital. Start out by visiting the Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the New World. Then, meander down the narrow, windy blue cobblestone streets to the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, the ornate-ceilinged Roman Catholic cathedral dating back to 1540—the second oldest in the Americas—that holds the tomb of Ponce de Léon. (For the more devout travelers, the Stations of the Cross are magnificent.) Your history tour should finish with a trip to the citadel of El Morro at the tip of the islet, the 16th-century citadel situated atop a cliff overlooking the bay. This UNESCO World Heritage site is complete with cannons pointing outwards, frozen in time as if getting ready to fend off invaders.
Q&A with Geraldine, AirBnb superhost
Q: What’s your favorite aspect of Puerto Rican culture?
A: The people. Everyone is so friendly, and they love to have fun. Since I’m from Argentina, the Latin flair of the city of San Juan really makes me feel at home.