What are the best things to see and do in Puerto Vallarta?

Derrik Chinn
  • Derrik Chinn

  • Correspondent

  • Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

With spectacular beaches and perennially warm weather, it would be easy to spend all your days in Puerto Vallarta by the ocean, soaking up the sun, If you want to explore the city’s vibrant local culture, however, endless options await. Here, we list some of the best things to see and do on the “Gold Coast”:

1. Stroll along the El Malecón (seaside promenade). The renovated, 12-block promenade, which stretches from the Hotel Rosita to the Los Arcos stone arches, is a lovely place for an afternoon stroll. As you meander leisurely along the well-manicured walkway, stop to take a photo with of one of the impressive sculptures. The most iconic is the first one that was installed. Entitled “Nostalgia,” it is the work of Mexican artist Ramiz Barquet and symbolizes the love story with his wife, Nelly, and depicts a couple sitting next to each other on a bench. Among the many small souvenir shops, cafés and boutiques, don’t miss Tierra Huichol, which sells the traditional folkloric art of the Huichol people, the indigenous group of Jalisco and Nayarit.

2. Explore Puerto Vallarta’s gastronomy. Food is a big deal here. In addition to the numerous sidewalk eateries, small delis and fondas serving typical Mexican food in the heart of the city’s Old Town (or Zona Romantica), Puerto Vallarta has a strong culture of fine dining thanks to the Festival Gourmet International, which has been taking place annually in November for more than 20 years. During the Festival Gourmet, an international roster of chefs descends upon the area to share cuisine, techniques, style and trends from around the region. As a result, the city enjoys some of the most progressive Mexican cuisine in the country, exemplified at restaurants such as La Leche or Thierry Blouet’s Café des Artistes, widely considered two of the top establishments in the city. Wine Fest in March and Restaurant Week in May are also ideal times to experience the food culture here.

3. Release a baby turtle. During the annual breeding season, which runs from about July to December, thousands of marine turtles are born. As part of the city’s sea turtle conservation program, staff members from many of the hotels that line the beach collect eggs from the shore at night and take them to an incubation center. Once hatched, these hotels invite guests to help release the newbies on the beach so they can find their way to the water.

4. Explore the local art galleries. The Zona Romantica (Old Town) is a quaint, lovely area of the city amenable to roaming about on foot. There are also dozens of art galleries there featuring a wide range of modalities from paintings to photography, sculpture, glasswork and jewelry. From October through May, nine participating galleries stay open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for Art Walk. Come Friday evenings at the same time,  the party expands to include live music, boutiques and sidewalk cafés for an open house of sorts called Southside Shuffle, which takes place in Colonia Emiliano Zapata.

5. Spend the afternoon on the Isla Rio Cuale. A small island just outside of the old city, Isla Rio Cuale acts as the divide between the northern and southern areas of Puerto Vallarta. Accessible via chain bridges not far off the Malecón, the island’s lush greenery provides excellent shade against the midday heat and humidity. Here, you can do some light shopping at the many arts stalls selling local goods such as pottery, jewelry and souvenirs flea-market style. Plan to sharpen your bargaining skills here, where the beginning price should be about one-quarter of the asking. Vivid reds and yellows everywhere are a boon for photogs, who can not only capture lively market scenes, but the local flora and fauna also. Iguanas and geckos are common sightings along the riverside. When you finish taking your snaps, visit the art galleries or grab a bite at one of the cafés.

  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    When is the best time of year to visit Puerto Vallarta?

    Puerto Vallarta is a straight shot across the Pacific from Hawaii, which makes for a subtropical climate with humidity that can prove too heavy during the summer months. Springtime draws a younger, more rambunctious crowd, as well as an influx of Mexican tourists who flood the city during Holy Week in April. Late fall brings an array of festivals, including the monthly Old Town Art Walk (monthly October-May), the International Sailfish and Marlin Festival, the Puerto Vallarta Gourmet Festival in November, and the Festival of Our Lady Guadalupe in December. If you’re hoping to beat both the crowds and the heat, shoot for mid-January after the dust from the holiday rush has settled and when daytime temperatures hover in the mid-70s.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What is the best thing to bring home from Puerto Vallarta?

    Even though the town of Tequila is just a few hours away, Puerto Vallarta is home to its own brand of agave hooch — raicilla (pronounced rie-sea-ya). And for most of its existence that's exactly what it was, Mexican moonshine, and it hails from the same family tree of tequila and mescal. Only recently did raicilla go from being brewed in bathtubs and backyards of southwestern Jalisco to a legit operation that's now legally sold in stores. Though this alcohol is very strong to the taste, it is a local specialty and a unique gift that you can only get in Puerto Vallarta.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What are the best Puerto Vallarta food experiences?

    In accordance with most Mexican coastal cuisine, the most memorable Vallarta food experiences spent last night in the ocean. Here is our take on the five best local food experiences:
    1. Huachinango sarandeado.
    Be sure to try this local, signature dish — it is grilled red snapper that has been marinated in a chili paste.
    2. Fresh tacos. Beat the midday heat with fresh mahi-mahi tacos and ceviche under a palm tree thatched roof — these casual spots line the shoreline and you won’t have to look hard to find one.
    3. Go to the Festival Gourmet International Vallarta. Nearly two decades in the making, the annual festival in November features 10 days of progressive wine and food tastings at more than two dozen restaurants and hotels.
    4. Sip on local coffee on Sunday. As you indulge in Sunday brunch (a ritual here, too), a live mariachi serenade will likely be close by. Order up Mexican-style coffee and relax the morning away.
    5. Go for late-night eats. Finish a night of bar hopping at Tacos La Cuñada, a Vallarta food cart famous for its tasty tacos.
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  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    Where is the best nightlife in Puerto Vallarta?

    Two distinct scenes equally dominate Vallarta after dark: one straight, the other gay. For a comprehensive taste of all that goes down in the evening (and early morning), it's best to mix and match locales from both realms when assembling your nocturnal itinerary. Start off uptown at any of the massive discos that line the main road between Marina Vallarta and Zona Hotelera. The party scene is surprisingly sophisticated for being a beach town. If you're still going strong after 1 a.m., grab a cab to Mañana in Viejo Vallarta, a maze of (mostly) gay bars where the party doesn’t often stop before dawn.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What’s the best way to see Puerto Vallarta in one day?

    Start the day off by doing your body and soul right with an early session of outdoor yoga; instructors abound in Vallarta but we're fans of Kazakh expat Anya Kroth's Iyengar classes held on the roof of Brisas Del Mar. Fuel up with a Mexican breakfast at Doña Cuca's restaurant in the market before heading on foot to the northern end of downtown. Stroll the boardwalk south toward Viejo Vallarta, stopping for lunch at any of the restaurants along the way. If it's too hot to eat or you're still stuffed from breakfast, opt for one of the vendors selling mangos on a skewer and coconut water out of the shell. Wander the entire length of the boardwalk, as far as Playa de Los Muertos at the southern end of Viejo Vallarta. Plop down on in the sand and order a round of palomas while you people watch and bask in the gorgeous ocean views.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    Where is the best shopping in Puerto Vallarta?

    Thanks to a saturated art scene that taps into the work of native Vallartans as well as its expat community, the independent galleries dotting the downtown area make Vallarta a collector's paradise. Head to the Mercado Municipal for the traditional roster of crafts as well as gaudy souvenirs, also available downtown on Avenida Independencia. Mundo de Azulejos, a small Talavera pottery factory on Emiliano Zapata, is where you'll find ceramic "mi casa es su casa" signs and loads of kitchen decor options. Keep an eye out for Huichol craftsmen who descend from the surrounding highlands to sell their bead work in the streets — the loud colors and intricate designs make the handcrafted goods nearly impossible to miss.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What are the best things to do with kids in Puerto Vallarta?

    Snorkeling, sand castle building and swimming are enough to keep the little ones smiling, but we’ve got a few more ideas to add to your kid-friendly itinerary. These five picks from Forbes Travel Guide editors are sure to keep kids entertained:
    1. Saddle up for an Eco Ride bike tour. You’ll start in downtown Puerto Vallarta and ride along the Vallejo River into the Sierra Madre rainforest. Any and all sweating becomes worth your while once you make it to the waterfall, so make sure everyone's donning a swimsuit.
    2. If the circus is in town, go. Even if you're sure you won't understand the Spanish banter between the tuxedoed ringmaster and numb-knuckled clowns in sequined serapes, it’s still worth a visit. The circus is a chintzy but incomparable cultural experience that takes place under a bright tent. Circo Rolex is one of Mexico's more popular traveling troupes, known for its teenage acrobats dressed in Superman outfits.
    3. Go play at Splash Water Park. Near Puerto Vallarta International Airport in Nuevo Vallarta are eight full-scale slides and a lazy river. You’ll also find something SeaWorld-like attractions including dolphin encounters and seal and sea lion shows. The place rents bungalows for overnighters, too.
    4. Meander the Vallarta Botanical Gardens. Jalisco is home to more orchid species than any other state in the country, and you’ll see plenty on display here. The botanical gardens is an ideal spot for families traveling with kids, as admission is free for those 10 and under. The jungle paradise is open daily until 6 p.m. except for Mondays April through December.
    5. Explore the Puerto Vallarta Zoological Gardens. About a half mile off the main road leading inland from Mismaloya sits this large zoo with some 700 or so critters waiting to be discovered by your little ones.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What are the best things to see and do in Puerto Vallarta?

    Puerto Vallarta may be known as a beach town, but there’s plenty to do besides lounging on the area’s spectacular golden sand. Here’s a look at the best things to see and do on the “Gold Coast”:
    1. Go surfing. Whether you decide to paddle board or catch waves in the traditional way, you’ll find plenty of surfers as company. Beaches throughout the region have decent conditions; more experienced surfers will enjoy the spots just north of Puerto Vallarta.
    2. Try snorkeling. Snorkeling is what usually baits iffy first-timers onto day cruises, which run $30-$70 per person and depart from Marina Vallarta by mid-morning. For those who are scared of jellyfish, hop in a kayak (usually onboard) and paddle the gorgeous blue waters instead.
    3. Hatch a turtle. Lend a hand in hatching a few of the 300,000 marine turtles that are born every summer in Puerto Vallarta. Staff members from many of the hotels that line the beach collect turtle from the shore at night and take them to an incubation center. Once hatched, hotels invite guests help release the newbies on the beach so they can find their way to the water.
    4. Roam the city center. Don some huaraches (traditional Mexican sandals) and set out at dusk to roam the city center on foot. Gallery-hop the 15 or so spaces at Art Walk if it happens to be Wednesday or the South Side Shuffle, which takes place every other Friday. Both showcase the best of Vallarta's local and expat creative class.
    5. Catch a bus to Mismaloya. A 30-minute ride from the Puerto Vallarta's south terminal at Constitución and Basillo Badillo, Mismaloya is known for beautiful beaches and the thick herds of sealife that make their home in the forest-lined cove. No need to grab your own lunch out of the Pacific here — plenty of mariscos palapas lining the beach serve up fresh fish tacos and ceviche tostadas. You may want to scout what's left of the set of The Night of the Iguana, the racy 1964 classic starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.