Puerto Rico is one of those places that just keeps on giving – visit popular spots and well-known historical monuments the first time, and then come back for the hidden gems that require a little bit of research, a rental car and getting to know the residents of this beautiful archipelago.
There are at least 300 miles of coastline, and going from one end of the island to the other will let you see different microclimates, from tropical rainforest to desert heat.
If you’re into urban exploring, San Juan has a vibrant museum and arts scene, and nights in the capital can take you from the beach to the speakeasies in Santurce. Rent a car and take a trip through these must-see spots on the island of Puerto Rico.
1. Listen to bomba in Loíza
There are plenty of amazing places to visit in this municipality, and if you start your trip in Piñones, you can cruise the kiosk strip and buy delectable fritters, like our famous empanadillas de jueyes (crab empanadas) and the plantain-and-ground-beef delicacy pionono. El Boricua is a favorite, but head there early as lines can snake around the establishment.
Local tip: Bomba gatherings are informal and sometimes impromptu. To get a sense of the times and days for activities available in the area, it’s best to check out Corporación Piñones Se Integra, a nonprofit community-based organization in Loíza tasked with preserving the town’s traditional history.
2. Visit the island’s craft breweries
The ubiquity of Medalla advertisements in Puerto Rico may make you think it’s the only beer on the island worth trying. Don’t get me wrong: it’s truly the best local light beer, and at USD$2 to $5, the price point is unbeatable.
However, in the last 15 years the island has slowly become a Caribbean haven for craft-beer lovers. Local breweries use old European and new American techniques to create beers with flavors unique to the island, like passion fruit, quenépa and mango.
In Isla Verde, you can visit Ocean Lab Brewing Co and drink beers on tap, like the crisp Mayawest lager and the Mambo passion-fruit wheat beer. Boquerón Brewing Co, in the beach town of Cabo Rojo, has some excellent fruity experimental beers and ales. For a super-unique sip, take a trip South to Señorial Brewing Co in Ponce for their elusive quenépa fruit beer.
3. Check out refreshed public-art projects
The San Juan neighborhood of Santurce is undeniably a meeting place for artists, muralists and creatives, due to its central location and its historical ties to music and culture. It’s also the place where the Santurce es Ley festival is celebrated – a street party where top muralists from Puerto Rico and around the world are invited to spruce up old and new buildings with their art.
This has made the Trastalleres and El Gandul areas of Santurce some of the most colorful strolls in San Juan. Similar projects in Yauco, like Yaucromatic, and art installations in Ponce offer an excellent and chill way to spend the afternoon – and if you’re a photography enthusiast, you can snap away at the large-scale murals.
4. Enjoy Old San Juan’s rooftop bars
It’s not a secret that Old San Juan is a beautiful coastal city where you can basically taste the salty ocean air on every corner. Every place is picture-worthy, but hidden on the rooftops are some of the trendiest bars and terraces to get premium views of the islet’s famous sunsets.
Scryer Rum & Barrelhouse and Rooftop, on Calle Fortaleza, is a tasting house that offers rum-based cocktails and a look at the distilling process. If you’re up for a party vibe, La Vergüenza, overlooking the La Perla neighborhood, is your spot for salsa and live music, food and drinks.
5. Stroll Arecibo’s town center
Arecibo is one of Puerto Rico’s oldest towns and most overlooked by tourists and the Puerto Rican government. Officially established in 1616, the town has reinvented itself throughout history, from a pirate cove to the site of important breakthroughs in astronomy via the now-defunct Arecibo Observatory.
While the town center has seen better days, young business owners are slowly turning its storied streets and buildings into high-concept restaurants and bars. During the weekend, head over to La Buena Vida, on Calle Gonzalo Marín, for craft beers and creative pastas made to order.
W Bar on Avenida de Diego is a hidden whiskey bar with a trendy tropical decor and delicious drinks. If you’re hungry, Ocean View Food Park has fusion cuisines, like Mr Don’s famous ramen and fried chicken from Tori House.
6. Bathe in El Yunque’s many rivers
El Yunque is not only remarkable for its year-round rain, its myriad species of plants and its life-giving rivers, it's also the only rainforest in the US National Parks system.
The hiking trails can range from difficult to challenging, but if you want to take a splash in the cold waters and waterfalls, take the Angelito Trail – a 20-minute walk down a muddy pathway leads to the Río Mameyes, where you can take a dip.
While not reachable from inside the forest reserve, Las Paylas River has a fun natural slide that drops you into a tranquil pool filled with fish. Other rivers, like Las Tinajas, are a great option as well, but it is highly recommended to book a tour with a guide as there is unstable terrain and moderate climbing.
Local tip: Check the news before heading to a river. If it’s raining, don’t go – flash floods claim many lives yearly and come without warning. A telltale sign of a flash flood is debris, like mud and sticks, starting to appear in otherwise clear waters.
7. Take the panoramic route from Cayey to Aibonito
The central mountain range is full of lush green landscapes, creeping fog, rainy afternoons and fresh air that might make you reach for a hoodie.
The panoramic route starts in Cayey, right off the Luis A Ferré Expressway, where you can take a detour into Guavate to eat at one of the many restaurants featuring one of the most iconic dishes: lechón, or whole-hog roast.
Trek up the mountain on Road #1 and take in the rolling hills and rocky mountain peaks of the sierra. There are plenty of chinchorros (food stalls) along the way to Aibonito, where you can stop for mojitos, tacos and artisanal drinks.
Local tip: Head out early in the morning to give yourself ample time to stop along the route. The town centers of Aibonito, Coamo and Orocovis are picturesque and offer great eats and local history.
8. Party at El Poblado de Boquerón
A sleepy seaside town during the week, El Poblado (which means town square) in the Boquerón sector of Cabo Rojo turns into a massive street party during the weekends with live music, karaoke and delicious street food.
Fill yourself up at Pelican’s Boquerón restaurant, where you can find a variety of local dishes like fried fish and mofongo. Then barhop your way through the square and dance the night away. Don’t forget to try the world-famous giant bacalaíto codfish fritter at the cart. You won’t be sorry.
9. Visit world-class museums
San Juan is home to some of the most interesting museums on the island, featuring art from classic and contemporary Puerto Rican painters, sculptors and mixed-media visual artists as well as works of international importance.
In San Juan, you can visit the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico – the building is an architectural and artistic wonder in the middle of Santurce. For more experimental art, visit Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, housed in the only brick building you’ll find in the metropolitan area.
Local tip: There are tons of small museums around the island, dedicated to preserving hyper-local history and events. These are usually found within town centers, so be sure to check them out. A favorite is the Museo de Artes Populares de Caguas, focused on traditional Puerto Rican folk art and woodwork.