Brunette in a floral yellow dress looking out into the Old San Juan Harbor in Puerto Rico

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Things to do in Puerto Rico – an Epic Guide for First Time Visitors

If you’re headed to the Island of Enchantment, first of all, I want to say, “congratulations, you’re making a great choice!” You’re likely reading this because you want to know, what ARE the best things to do in Puerto Rico?

The island of Puerto Rico, located in the heart of the Caribbean Sea is a traveler’s favorite – and with good reason. While there is something special and unique to be found in most islands, Puerto Rico stands out for appealing to so many diverse interests.

It has so much to offer the history buff, the nature enthusiast, the intrepid adventurer, the foodie, the beach bum and the reveler alike. Also, I have a REALLY important tip I need to share with you before you head to the island. Stick around, this one is important.

Note: Puerto Rico is US territory, so no passport is required for United States citizens and permanent residents.

Experience the Magic of Old San Juan

Perhaps you’ve seen photos of Old San Juan’s colorful, historic architecture. Your surroundings tell a story, one that spans over several centuries. The building I stayed in was 450 years old! These are the instances where the dwellings tell stories too…

Brunette woman in  a bright yellow dress with flowers on it sitting on a balcony ledge overlooking the architecture in Old San Juan
Taking in the early morning calm and enjoying the view

If you’re a history lover, you will love Old San Juan. Between the buildings and the historical landmarks, there is a lot to take in and learn. But even if you aren’t a history buff, there is lots to love about Old San Juan.

a bright orange gateway housing the brown wooden door that leads to Old San Juan
Puerta de San Juan or ‘San Juan Gate’ – standing 16 feet tall!

The energy is palpable. The atmosphere is lively. Live music, the arts, stories and delicious food and drinks abound. I suggest basing yourself in this area, at least for a bit so you can explore your surroundings on foot.

You can read about where I chose to stay: here.

Brunette woman in a bright yellow dress standing on a cobblestone street surrounded by colorful buildings
Just look at these cobblestone streets and colorful buildings!

Visit Barrachina Restaurant – Birthplace of the Piña Colada

There are some things that you just have to do while you’re in a destination. For example, if you’re in Paris, you’re going to go take a look at the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, one of the top things to do in Puerto Rico is check out Barrachina Restaurant. The establishment located in Old San Juan has historical significance, as it bills itself with being the birthplace of the world famous Piña Colada.

A wicker woven purse sits behind a large blended Piña Colada drink topped with a cherry at Barrachina Restaurant - top things to do in Puerto Rico

Further, since it was walking distance from the hotel I stayed in, we visited a multiple times. The first time, we sat down in the open air courtyard for food and drinks. Let’s just address the fact that this is a clear tourist attraction. It was about an hour wait for a table. You’ll likely see swarms of people waiting in a hall. The second time, it was quick swing by the “to go” counter for a takeaway Piña Coladas. Despite that, it’s a fun place to grab a yummy drink!

Tip: If you can’t or don’t want to wait, you can always opt for seats at the Piña Colada bar. If bar seating is full, you can always take your drinks to go!

Chocobar – Where Chocolate is in Everything

That’s correct. At Chocobar, located in Old San Juan, chocolate is in everything on the menu. Yes, you didn’t misread that. Whether you order their delicious french toast or a burger (a chocoburger, to be precise) there is chocolate in every dish, sauce, dressing and drink on the menu!

Naturally, as a devout foodie and chocolate lover, I had to check this place out.

The place was packed. There seemed to be a mix of domestic tourists (from Puerto Rico), travelers from all over and lots of cruise ship goers. Now, by a lot of people’s estimation, this place might be written off as gimmicky. However, it would be a mistake to do that! While it’s true that the place is filled with travelers, it is 100% worth the visit if you love chocolate, unique restaurants and experiences.

I mean, where else in the world can you find a chocolate grilled cheese?!

Exactly.

Oh, and yes it’s really good. I was so curious I had to order it. Try it!

silver chocolate molds cover the walls as a women with medium tone skin holds a chocolate martini up in front of it
The chocolate martini at Chocobar – it is SO GOOD!

Tip: You must try the chocolate martini! I was enjoying mine so much I inadvertently convinced the entire section of the restaurant I was sitting in to get one.

See Live Music at the Cannon Club

If you’re a Guest at The Gallery Inn, visiting The Cannon Club is as simple as walking through the hotel and heading on inside. The bar seating is first come first serve and there are tables for dining available in the bar area. Weather permitting, you can also sit in the open air patio. You can hear the live music and performances indoors and outdoors.

A white iced drink (a piña colada) sitting on a white marble table in front of a giant black piano and opulent chandelier hanging from the ceiling

But if you’d like to visually see the concerts (and I recommend it, because it’s such a lovely experience), you should really make a reservation. There is limited seating in the main room where the musicians perform. It’s a small, intimate venue and such a delight to have drinks and tapas while enjoying the show.

Tip: If you want to read more about what my stay at The Gallery Inn was like, you can do that: here.

Seeking a Thrill? Go Ziplining

A favorite island pastime is going ziplining! While many islands and tropical destinations offer this, Puerto Rico seems to be a favorite place in the Caribbean to take part in the activity.

If you’re looking for a place to go ziplining that is not too far from San Juan, this is an excellent option. Embark on a highly rated Ecoadventure at Campo Rico. This activity runs about two hours, includes five ziplines and does involve a light hike to get to the first zipline.

Perhaps, you wish to zipline in El Yunque National Forest? To that I say, bravo adventurer, this just may be the perfect activity for you. This excursion includes 11 ziplines and a rappel (gasp?)! Take in the rainforest views from the clouds!

Book: Puerto Rico Ziplining Ecoadventure

Book: JungleQui Zipline Park at El Yunque National Forest

Taste Puerto Rican Cuisine

If you’re a foodie, like me, then you’re likely going to prioritize trying the local delicacies.

a white plate with Mofongo on it with a wicker purse near it on a restaurant table
Mofongo from Barrachina Restaurant

Here’s a quick list of things to try while you’re on the island:

Mofongo: deep fried plantains mashed together and topped with your protein of choice

Piña Colada: the famed fruity beverage was born in Old San Juan!

Tostones: fried plantains (warning, they are absurdly delicious)

Pasteles: masa with meat stuffed inside, wrapped in a banana leaf

Empanadillas: similar to an empanada (and as yummy) but the exterior is a thinner dough

Tembleque: a rich coconut pudding topped with cinnamon!

Sorullitos: cigar shaped fritters made of cornmeal, stuffed with cheese

Mamposteao: a delicious rice dish with olive oil, tomato sauce, onions, green peppers, beans, cilantro and lots of seasonings

There are certainly more, but these are some highlights to definitely try while you’re there!

Explore El Yunque Rainforest

Did you know that Puerto Rico is home to the only rainforest in North America? I’ve actually visited the rainforest in South America and similar to that one, I recommend only exploring a rainforest with a guide!

If you’re seeking an adventurous expedition through the El Yunque, this is likely the perfect experience for you, where you’ll hike to waterfalls, swing on a rope swing, cliff jump into the water and then free dive and even slide down a natural rock slide.

Make a Trip to Isla de Culebra

Have you heard of Culebra Island?

This beautiful, tiny remote island is about 40-45 minutes off shore of the main island of Puerto Rico by ferry. This island is raved about by locals and has been deemed one of the most beautiful beaches in the world by many distinguished travel publications.

So I am sure the question you have top of mind is: does it live up to the hype?

Brunette woman in a blue dress walking barefoot through the sand in a gorgeous beach setting
This is how beautiful Flamenco beach is… even on a bad day

And the short answer is: yes. Yes it does.

First, what is the draw of Isla de Culebra? For one, it is a tiny remote island that gives off a very relaxing and untouched feel. There is one main street on the island where you can find seafood restaurants, tiny eateries and local watering holes. Similar to Belize, you can rent a golf cart to cruise around the island.

Bright blue building with a table and chairs outside and a large delicious pizza on the table
The ridiculously DELICIOUS ‘Oasis’ pizza at Heather’s Pizza

In terms of dining, there’s a handful of dining options available on the island, but their operating hours and availability will vary. If you want a sure thing, stop by Heather’s Pizza. It’s near the ferry dock and makes a great stop on your way there. We sat outside on the sidewalk and enjoyed this delicious pizza pie (seriously, it’s so good… I dream of it). Aside from that, there are options ranging from food trucks to fine dining, depending on what you’re in the mood for.

What About Flamenco Beach?

Flamenco Beach is the star of the show on Culebra Island. It’s a beautiful stretch of beach about a mile and a half long with stunning clear turquoise waters. It truly is gorgeous.

BUT.

The caveat here is that you have to visit with reasonable expectations. There is something that none of us can control while traveling and that is: the weather. Perhaps, on the day you arrive to Flamenco Beach, you encounter this:

a giant red flag in the sand on Flamenco Beach
The dreaded red flag means it’s not safe to swim in the water

That’s right… after going to lengths to get to Culebra Island, you may not be able to swim or snorkel in that warm turquoise water you’ve been wanderlusting over. If this happens to you, you can still enjoy this beautiful beach.

Many beach goers went in shin deep (some a bit deeper than that). But, be careful ‘testing the waters’ in Puerto Rico. Many beaches are notoriously known for rip currents! A blogger friend of mine who is also a fellow diver snorkeled at Flamenco Beach and said the current was strong on a good weather day.

Tip: If you’re not pressed for time, I’d suggest spending a night on Culebra Island. But if you only want to do a day trip, make sure you buy a round trip ferry ticket. One of our taxi drivers told us that travelers have made the mistake of buying one way tickets and the return ferry sold out and then all the lodging on the tiny island was full and they had to spend the night on the beach!

 

Marvel at the Bioluminescent Bays

Did you know there’s only a few places in the world that you can see bioluminescent bays? First of all, what is a bio bay, you ask?

Without getting getting too ‘science-y,’ essentially bioluminescent waters have microorganisms in it that makes the water “glow in the dark.” So when you swim in it or boat through it, you’ll see the water around you glow. How cool, right?!

You can see this glowing water wonder in three places in Puerto Rico:

Laguna Grande in Fajardo – this is on the main island and is a kayak only experience. If you want to swim in the bio bay, you can’t do it here.

Book the Laguna Grande Kayak experience: here

“Mosquito Bay” – is located on the island of Vieques. Now, if you’re planning to work a day or two in Vieques into your itinerary, you should definitely plan to kayak in Mosquito Bay!

Book the Mosquito Bay 1 hour boat tour: here

La Parguera – located in Lajas (which is on the main island, on the complete opposite side of San Juan, Cieba and neighboring islands of Vieques and Culebra). This is where you can swim in the bioluminescent waters!

Book the La Parguera experience: here

Tip: Mosquito Bay in Vieques holds the Guinness World Record for being the ‘brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.’ So if you’re content with kayaking only, Vieques might be the place to see the waters glow bright blue.

There’s also a Black Sand Beach in Vieques

There are a few black sand beaches in Puerto Rico. Perhaps the most striking and photographed is ‘Playa Negra,’ which is known for having the darkest sand of the lot. This beach is not known for its calm waters… those who flock to the beach want to see the black sand and sweeping cliffs for themselves. Just another reason to visit Vieques!

I didn’t get to visit to make it to Vieques on my first trip to Puerto Rico, but, when I return I will absolutely be prioritizing spending at least a couple days in Vieques. If you want to see the bio bays, the black sand beach, enjoy beaches that aren’t super crowded with stunning water, make sure you make room for Vieques in your itinerary.

Find your stay in Vieques here:

 

Know Before You Go

For US citizens, this is a fairly ‘easy’ destination to get a complete change of scenery. The currency is USD, you can use the same chargers you use at home and no passport is required. For global travelers, you can use the charger adapter you would use in the mainland USA and the currency needed is United States Dollar.

Brunette woman in a hat with a floral yellow dress
It gets windy in Old San Juan!

Here is my biggest tip for visiting Puerto Rico: if you know you want to go to Vieques or Culebra, buy your ferry tickets as soon as possible. It appears that tickets can only be purchased six weeks out, so this is something you’ll have to stay on top of.

Many travelers make the mistake of thinking you can buy ferry tickets on the spot (understandable… it’s a large boat, government run public transportation). But this is why so many travelers miss out on visiting the other islands! Ferry tickets sell out far in advance online.

If this happens to you, you can always show up at the ferry station Ceiba. We were able to score same day tickets, but like the rest of the travelers that showed up the day of as we did, they were for the afternoon boat which gave us very limited time on the island. You used to be able to charter private boats to the outer islands easily, but many of those businesses folded during the pandemic. Besides, that would be quite costly and the ferry tickets are only $2.00!

Headed to Puerto Rico Soon? Have any questions? Drop them in the comments!

Travel Tips & Resources to Help You Plan an Epic Trip!

Going – I’ve subscribed to Going (formerly, beloved, Scott’s Cheap Flights) for awhile now and it’s an amazing resource for finding… did you guess cheap flights? Yes, you can set your preferences from airports to flight class and get destination deals right to your inbox. It’s fab! I use the Premium paid version, but they have a FREE version too. So what are you waiting for?! Let’s get Going!

Booking.com – the majority, if not almost all of my stays are booked on Booking.com. It’s a reliable site to book and manage your reservations. It’s a great way to find boutique stays and unique accommodations at the best rates! You can also easily communicate with your accommodation through the app.

Expedia – If I am looking for a flight to a specific destination for specific dates, I find myself booking many flights on Expedia. It’s user friendly and straight forward. I often find the most cost effective rates, while earning points for every flight I book (in tandem with the points I receive from the credit cards I pay with).

Viator – most of the activities, tours and excursions I book for my trips are booked through Viator. Whether you’re seeking a guide for the day, a group tour, a cooking class, Viator has you covered!

Get Your Guide – this is another great marketplace to find tours, excursions and activities to book for your upcoming trip.

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