Where to experience Puerto Rico’s vibrant cultural scene in 2020

Thanks to budding local entrepreneurs, visionary chefs and artists uniting communities through collaborative spaces, Puerto Rico is evolving into one of the Caribbean’s most innovative destinations. The island’s growing cultural scene is proof: a culinary rebirth is taking place, as well as a revival of cultural heritage and a push for sustainable living.

From San Juan to Ponce, Loíza and Vieques, now is the time to experience the wave of new restaurants, venues and galleries showcasing the island’s pride in its roots and rhythms. 

Close-up of a buttercream-colored neoclassical building, on which are the letters spelling out 'El Convento'. Other pastel-colored buildings can be seen behind it, beneath a blue sky
Historic landmarks: the El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan © Education Images / Getty Images

San Juan: a new wave of sustainable cuisine 

Aside from Old San Juan and its architectural wonders, the city’s various neighborhoods are writing their own new chapters. Locally grown food is a necessary form of climate action, and so the farm-to-table scene is thriving. Puerto Ricans have been paving the way for an organic food scene that is fast becoming a model for other Caribbean islands. 

Start in Santurce at Lote 23, a deserted lot transformed into a hybrid arts and food park. Rotating kiosks feature a variety of cuisines from Puerto Rico’s finest chefs – sample mofongo (a fried plantain dish), noodles, pizza, Puerto Rican style pernil (slow-roasted pork), salads or pastries. Music and art events are hosted here as well, including a bi-monthly artisan market featuring made-in-Puerto Rico items. Several blocks away, sushi and sake cocktails await at Sur Barra Nikkei, with a menu weaving together Peruvian and Japanese cuisines.

A white plate loaded with mofongo, a fried plantain dish, accompanied by rice and relish
Signature plantain dish mofongo: Puerto Rican cuisine has temptations for every taste © Rachel Moon / Shutterstock

Over on Calle Loíza, the rise of independent restaurants and culinary talent has sent fast food chains packing. “All fast food chains such as Wendy’s, Burger King and Church’s Chicken shut down, and locally owned shops reopened instead,” says Stephan Watts, co-owner of The Dreamcatcher hotel. “A trend that is pretty impressive and contrary to what’s happening anywhere else in the world.”

Cafe Tresbé, housed inside a bright yellow shipping container, serves local seafood ceviches and poke bowls that diners can enjoy on a wooden deck. Or go for authentic Japanese at Round Eye Ramen PR, off Calle Loíza and near Ocean Park, serving fresh ramen featuring handmade noodles.

Back in Old San Juan, inside the renowned and restored Hotel El Convento, Chef Antonio Pérez serves up his whimsiest surf and turf creations at the new Santísimo restaurant and bar, set on a dimly lit covered terrace. With the founders of La Factoría behind this project, the cocktails promise to impress as much as the freshly sourced menu. 

Perhaps no other culinary experience is as groundbreaking as Oriundo, a six-course meal hosted in Cocina Abierta’s studio kitchen in Condado. Spearheaded by Chef Martin Louzao, in collaboration with a range of experts – including a food historian, beer brewer, marine conservation expert and an agricultural economist – the pop-up menu aims to revive Puerto Rico’s biodiversity by identifying and incorporating the island’s native ingredients in each meal. This sustainable approach to food means diners are contributing to preservation.

A cobbled street flanked by colorful buildings in Old San Juan town, Puerto Rico
Street scenes to inspire: a cobblestone road in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico © Ed Adams/ 500px

“They are bringing back forgotten ingredients, vegetables, and fruits to entice farmers to create more variety in production by also creating demand,” explains hotelier Sylvia De Marco, who runs a vegan dinner series at The Dreamcatcher. “What they are doing is very important and ethical. It's beyond culinary.

If you prefer to roll up your sleeves, sign up for Spoon’s new cooking classes. You’ll shop at the local farmers’ market before making a classic Puerto Rican dish in a private home kitchen. Afterwards, head to the new Casa de Montecristo cigar bar, near La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, for Bacardi tastings and mixology sessions.

Burn all those calories by dancing the night away to live plena and bomba drums on Mondays at La Terraza de Bonanza in Santurce. Or sign up for a salsa dancing workshop at Casa Museo Ismael Rivera, launching this summer and offered by women-led social enterprise Local Guest.

Beyond food and nightlife, make time for new attractions. A collaborative artists’ space, :Pública Espacio Cultural features an art and photography exhibition room, including shared spaces for weekly events ranging from yoga to kombucha-making classes. The Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar (MADMi) inspires from the moment you step into its pink-and-white French neoclassical building. The museum hosts rotating contemporary art and design exhibits ranging from paintings to furniture, and year-round art workshops.

The five-acre El Distrito San Juan is set to open in phases starting March 20, 2020. This major entertainment hub will offer a host of unique spaces for all ages and interests, including a music hall with seating for over 4000 people, a major sports viewing venue, a movie theater, zipline, bowling alley, virtual reality arcades and a Kidzone, among other “stay and play” features. You’ll also be able to dine, bar hop, and stay on site at the new Aloft Hotel by Marriott.

A man concentrates on an ornate mask in his hands
Local artist Wilcelino teaches the art of devil masks at Local Guest's Artisan Workshop in Loíza © Local Guest

Loíza: community workshops and coastal bike rides

It’s easier than ever to immerse yourself in Afro-Puerto Rican culture. Join a group bomba session at the COPI community center in Loíza, or sign up for Local Guest’s new Artisan Workshop, during which local artist Wilcelino will teach you how to make your own travel-sized vejigante or “devil mask,” a symbol at Afro-Puerto Rican festivals.

Rent a bike at COPI or walk down the boardwalk to the nature trail beginning behind the center, which will take you along a mangrove forest where iguanas roam, and onto Loíza’s rugged coastline and beach. Fill up on fritters, stuffed mofongo and fresh seafood at the open air restaurants lining Loíza’s main road.

Close-up of a red-and-navy striped building facade with fan-shaped ornamental windows in Ponce, Puerto Rico
Uncommon architecture: the colorful window frames of the Old Fire House in Ponce, Puerto Rico © Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images

Ponce: a cultural and culinary renaissance

Despite structural damage to some historical sights since the January earthquakes, Ponce has reopened to tourism. Isla Caribe has resumed its downtown walking tours, and businesses and restaurants are up and running. Speaking of restaurants, creative food spots have been popping up around this historic town.

Newcomer Cassava Pizza’s artisanal crust is made of cassava, and served out of a Taíno-themed food truck. Head there for lunch from Friday to Sunday and try the Ponceňa, topped with vegetables and pepperoni, or the Utuadeňa, a vegan cassava pizza.

Inside Plaza del Mercado is the newly launched Coffee Bar by RySmart, serving gourmet coffee and meals – options include salmon, salads, and avocado stuffed with beef strips on a bed of rice. There are locally-made, artisanal ice cream sticks to go (pick the piňa colada flavor), and live music on Saturday nights. Another popular hangout is Ponce Food Truck Spot, with a large menu of fried favorites as well as grilled steaks, tacos and cocktails served al fresco.

Walk it out at Museo de la Historia de Ponce, where you’ll learn about Ponce’s rich nature and cultural heritage. The reopened Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña, another worthwhile stop, showcases the history of Puerto Rico’s musical genres, from bomba to salsa. Shop for locally-made arts and crafts at Utopia, then end your day cooling off at the lively Plaza de las Delicias.

A performer wearing a red and blue cap, wearing a horned face mask and carrying a staff leans menacingly towards the viewer, part of Afro-Puerto Rican festival custom
A festival performer wearing a vejigante, the "devil mask" © Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images

Vieques: herbal remedies and homemade rum

Botanical farm and boutique hotel Finca Victoria boasts the island’s first Ayurvedic wellness-center, Casa Botánica Ayurveda. Products are made in house for its beauty and body treatments, and you’ll find an apothecary on site with herbal medicines made out of local plants. Ayurvedic treatments kick off on March 15, 2020.

Another exciting newcomer is Vieques’ first handcrafted rum distillery, Crab Island Rum, inspired by the first underground, creative rum artisans on the island centuries ago. Tour the distillery, and shop on site for bottles of made-in-Vieques orange- or coffee-infused Crab Island rum. Visit on Saturdays and you’ll enjoy live music, mixed rum cocktails and food, for one big outdoor showcase of boricua culture.

An aerial view of a candy-colored fort, with a backdrop of an oceanside town
El Fortín Conde de Mirasol on beautiful Vieques island, Puerto Rico © John and Tina Reid / Getty Images

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Produced by Lonely Planet for Discover Puerto Rico. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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