ViaHero · Updated November 4, 2019
Traveling to San Juan is incredible, and no disrespect to Puerto Rico’s biggest city—but locals tell us that Ponce is something else entirely. As Puerto Rico’s second-biggest city (called the “Jewel of the South”) locals rave about Ponce's gorgeous architecture, striking nature, and vibrant culture. Check out these 11 incredible things to do in Ponce, which locals say are a must while you're in town.
#1: Take a ferry to Caja de Muertos
Though it literally translates to “box of the dead"—and more accurately as coffin or dead man's chest—there's nothing dark about Caja de Muertos. In fact, locals tell us that this uninhabited island just off the coast of Ponce is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a prime spot to indulge in some of Puerto Rico's best outdoor activities. They suggest enjoying the turquoise water, lounging on some of Puerto Rico's most lovely beaches, hiking up to the island's abandoned lighthouse, or spending your day birdwatching.
Fun fact: A group of turtles is referred to as a “bale.” And with its heavy sea turtle traffic, you might just come across a “bale of turtles” on Caja de Muertos.
#2: Stroll along La Guancha boardwalk
Strolling along the vibrant La Guancha boardwalk is a thrilling thing to do in Puerto Rico. This local treasure is a great spot to enjoy local food, drinks, music, and culture. Locals suggest:
- Grabbing a snack from a kiosk selling criolla (Puerto Rico's beloved snack food—think empanadas and fritters). Discover local recommendations about what to try first.
- Checking out live music. Locals tell us you'll usually find music bursting from the kiosks at La Guancha, and you can also make a beeline to the open-air stage to see if you can catch a salsa band. At night, musicians line the boardwalk, jamming away.
- Feeding wildlife. Massive pelicans have been known to cluster near the boardwalk (like, feet away). And, tarpon, enormous local fish, hang out by the docks hoping for a snack. You can buy fish to feed them!
- Getting a birds-eye view. Locals suggest making your way to the observation tower near the boardwalk—you’ll be rewarded by a stunning view of the boardwalk and the adjacent sea.
#3: Wander through the stunning Old Town (aka The Historic Zone)
Founded in 1692, Ponce’s rich history is reflected in the stunning architecture of its historic zone. Full of wide plazas, fountains, and old, gorgeous houses, this area alone puts Ponce among the most beautiful places to visit in Puerto Rico (seriously, Ponce is ranked in the European Union register of Art Nouveau destinations). Some Old Town highlights include:
- Ponce Cathedral: Dating back to the 17th century, this gorgeous church has survived numerous earthquakes and fires. Locals recommend checking out the enormous pipe organ inside the cathedral and admiring the neoclassical design from the plaza outside.
- Plaza de las Delicias: Like the cathedral, this incredible public square is centuries old. Translating literally to Plaza of Delights, locals say there's plenty to delight you here—during the day the plaza is packed with vendors selling food and crafts, and at night it’s full of live music.
- Parque de Bombas: You couldn’t miss this colorful building if you tried. Striped in red and black (the colors of Ponce), this historic site sits in the Plaza de la Delicias. Originally a fire station, the building is now a museum commemorating the service of Ponce’s firefighters.
Local tip: There is SO much to see in the Ponce historic zone. Check out Ponce's other great museums in the area, like the Museo de la Arquitectura and the Museo de la Historia.
#4: Check out Ponce’s famous castle
If your Puerto Rico itinerary includes a trip to Ponce, locals say you need to visit the Seralles Castle. Ok, so technically speaking, it’s not really a castle—more of an enormous mansion. Either way, Seralles Castle was built by the famous Seralles family—who made their fortune in sugarcane and eventually created the largest rum distillery in Ponce (more on that soon). You can spend hours upon hours exploring their old stomping grounds, though the castle was actually just their *summer home*.
#5: Bask in the city’s unbelievable views
Looking for a unique Puerto Rican vacation spot to spice up your Instagram? Our local Puerto Rico trip planners suggest climbing Cruceta del Vigia (a ten-story concrete cross overlooking the city) and taking in the panoramic view of the Caribbean. The cross was built in homage to the watchmen who used to scan the sea for ships (and pirates!).
Local tip: Catch your breath in the Japanese garden adjacent to the Cruceta del Vigia. Relax to the sound of zen music, and take a short walk across bridges and koi ponds to enjoy the bonsai trees.
#6: Explore the incredible nature just outside of town
One reason why Ponce is one of the best places to stay in Puerto Rico? It’s super easy to get to other parts of the island. And while there are tons of things to do in San Juan, you'll also find lots of stuff to do in Puerto Rico outside the northern end of the island. Ponce is an ideal jumping-off point! Locals in Puerto Rico recommend:
- Guanica State Forest: Just a forty-minute drive from the city, this dry forest (basically the opposite of a rainforest) is packed with unique foliage. Go on a hike and keep your eyes peeled for the endangered birds that live here. Locals note that you should make sure you have plenty of sunscreen and water!
- La Parguera Nature Reserve: This reserve has everything—colorful coral reefs, monkeys in the trees, and tons of wild birds. You can go snorkeling, but the water is so clear that you can also enjoy the underwater sights from a boat.
- Cayo Aurora: Nicknamed Gilligan’s Island, this secluded spot is a great place to go swimming or snorkeling (just be sure to bring your own gear).
- Soak in a secret swimming hole: It’s a bit of a trek, but locals tell us the El Charco Azul swimming hole is one of the best hidden-gem places to go in Puerto Rico.
#7: Dive into the coffee culture
Sure, Puerto Rico is known for rum. But it’s also a great place for those of us who need a cup of coffee before interacting with other humans. Once you’ve had your first cup, head to Hacienda Buena Vista, Ponce’s coffee museum (it’s a functioning coffee plantation!). Locals recommend taking the tour to learn about the history of Puerto Rico’s coffee production. You’ll get to see how coffee is grown and processed.
Local tip: Puerto Rico’s coffee zone (we’re sold) is a region that includes nine other historic coffee plantations. For the caffeine-curious, this is a great thing to include in your tour of Puerto Rico. Plus, exploring Puerto Rico's coffee culture is a great way to support the island's economy.
#8: Choose a beach, any beach
If you came to Puerto Rico for the beaches, then Ponce is an excellent choice. There are 28 beaches to visit in Ponce proper, and 12 more to explore if you take the ferry to Caja de Muertos. We asked our local trip planners about their favorites—these were some of their top picks.
- Pelican Beach: One of the beaches on Caja de Muertos, this beach is aptly named. Watch the pelicans as they dive for fish, admire the coast of Puerto Rico in the distance, or take a nap on the sandy shore.
- El Tuque Beach: This beach offers tons of different activities for all different tastes. Locals say you can enjoy the water in a kayak, go on rides in the waterpark, or even check out the nearby Ponce International Speedway to watch a race.
- La Guancha: Alongside other activities on the boardwalk, you can also rent a kayak or paddleboat to enjoy the calm waters nearby.
#9: Immerse yourself in Ponce’s art scene
If you’re wondering what to do in Puerto Rico that doesn’t involve chilling the beach (no judgment either way) check out all the wonderful art activities that Ponce has to offer. The Museo de Arte de Ponce escaped the worst effects of Hurricane Maria—and as one of the Caribbean’s best and largest museums, it definitely merits a visit.
Or, spend an afternoon in the Plaza de la Delicias exploring the colorfully painted lions. Lions are a strong motif in Ponce, which is also known by the name La Ciudad de los Leones (City of Lions) for its founder, conquistador Ponce de Leon.
Local tip: Seeking out art in Puerto Rico is a fun and colorful way to liven up your trip AND it really helps the Puerto Rican art scene in its ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria. Check out more info on hurricane recovery with our updates on Puerto Rico tourism and Puerto Rico safety.
#10: Enjoy Ponce’s rum-soaked heritage
Remember the Seralles family and their castle? They made their fortune through sugarcane—which they used to produce their iconic Don Q rum. While the Don Q distillery doesn’t offer tours, locals say that Ponce is really proud of Don Q—understandably so! You can taste it at Seralles Castle (samples are usually offered after the tour) or by ordering Ponce’s signature drink—the Don Q rum punch—at any bar in the city.
#11: Indulge in Ponce's fantastic local cuisine
If you’re looking for a Puerto Rico attraction that combines food with adventure, visit La Ruta de Lechon—literally “The Pork Highway”. If this evokes images of petting zoos you may want to skip to the next recommendation. This highway close to Ponce is packed with outdoor restaurants specializing in
Local tip: Make a special stop at King’s Cream. This famous ice cream store offers a variety of local fruit flavors that will delight adults and kids alike.