Along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta is a scenic and equally charming seaside town. Having grown to be such a popular beach vacation destination, you may not realize just how much there is to do here.
Puerto Vallarta has several distinct neighborhoods, none more bright and brilliant than Zona Romantica. The city’s old town is a veritable kaleidoscope. While downtown, you’ll find authentic cuisine, enchanting markets and historic buildings, all ready to be discovered on foot.
Beyond the bustling streets, Puerto Vallarta is spread along one of the largest bays on earth. Just off the beach are stunning islands and an underwater world teeming with vibrant sea life.
There’s no limit to how you’ll spend your time here. But for some fresh ideas, here are the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.
Explore the Zona Romantica District
Lit like a rainbow with a flurry of vibrant colors, Zona Romantica is one of the coolest neighborhoods in Puerto Vallarta. Aesthetically pleasing and equally historic, the neighborhood provides travelers with a glimpse into Puerto Vallarta as it was not too long ago.
Begin your experience by strolling into Zona Romantica along the Malecon walking path, or cross the bridge that runs over the Cuale River. Walk along the cobblestone streets that guide you by old pueblos bursting with fresh color. Flush with beautiful gardens, ornate balconies and red-tiled roofs, you’ll be stopping every block for photos.
Walking and admiring aren’t the only things to do here in Zona Romantica. If you’ve arrived on the weekend, head to the Old Farmers Market. Afterwards, make your way down the delightful Olas Altas to Playa Olas Altas beach or explore the Galeria Olinala.
Walk the Malecon
We mentioned the Malecon above, but what exactly is it? Spanning over a mile along the eye-popping Bay of Banderas, the Malecon offers one of the best free activities in Puerto Vallarta. The paved walkway guides you from downtown to Zona Romantica, passing many major attractions along the way.
The Malecon is an exciting place to be at any time of day. Vendors selling street meats and mementos line the stretch. Pass sand sculptures on the beach and see the amazing Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Stroll along with your significant other for a romantic evening. Better yet, time it with the sunset when live music rings through the air and the colorful horizon provides the perfect backdrop.
On most evenings through the week, the Los Arcos Amphitheater, along the path, throws free performances including live music and traditional dance.
Venture into Los Arcos National Marine Park
After journeying along the edge of Bay of Banderas, the second largest on earth, you’ll be itching to get out and explore the expansive harbor. In Puerto Vallarta, life is all about the sea, whether is lazing on the sand, swimming or fishing, so it’s easy to get out on the water.
Within the Bay of Banderas is the Los Arcos National Marine Park, where you’ll find a protected underwater world teeming with vibrant sea life. Dive beneath the surface to swim alongside hawksbill turtles, octopuses and dolphins while seeing whales from your boat! The best time to spot the latter is between December and March.
On this exclusive boat tour of Los Arcos National Marine Park, explore the Bay of Banderas, go snorkeling in paradise and witness the iconic Mismaloya Arches.
Visit the Church Our Lady of Guadalupe
One of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta is to visit the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Standing proudly in the center of town, the church harbors a striking presence, complete with stunning architecture. At any time of day, you’ll spot groups of admirers hovering around the church taking endless photos of its detailed facade and side walls. Not to mention the incredible crown placed at the top of the tower.
To get a thorough appreciation of the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, head inside to explore the adorned walls and altar. Before each service, the bell chimes can be heard around Puerto Vallarta and will become one of the more endearing memories of your time here.
The action around the famous building reaches its peak from the December 1st to the 12th every year during the Feast of Guadalupe. Puerto Vallarta comes to life with music, dancing, parades and festivities all centered on the church.
Get Your Bearings on a Walking Tour
Getting to slowly know a city on two feet is a great way to gain your sense of direction, and even stumble upon Puerto Vallarta’s next up-and-coming attraction. We’ve listed a highly rated walking tour below, but did you know that the city’s tourism office runs a series of free tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays?
Departing at 9am and noon (just 9am on Saturdays), these free walking tours leave from the Municipal Tourism Office. Alongside your knowledgeable guide, explore the streets of Puerto Vallarta, learning about local culture, the city’s astounding architecture and its history. The tours last for around two hours and don’t require a reservation ahead of time.
An alternative to this experience is a guided walking tour, taking you along the Malecon, to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and some unheralded destinations. End by tasting delicious local coffee and touring a tequila distillery.
In the Bay of Banderas, Islas Marietas is a mesmerizing and uninhabited mini archipelago. Within the Los Arcos National Marine Park, the Marietas Islands have been likened to Galapagos. The nature is well-preserved with several rare species calling the islands home.
The top destination here is Hidden Beach. Even in a place of incredible scenery, Hidden Beach stands out among the crowd. Tucked beneath the island’s surface, the beach, otherwise known as Playa del Amor, offers one of the most memorable experiences in Puerto Vallarta.
During low tide, visitors can swim through a small channel, emerging on the other side to find an open-air cave. Hidden from view, you can bask in the sunlight on the serene white sand, watching the cave’s water dance between your toes.
Go Whale Watching
If you want to spend your day on the Bay of Banderas searching for nothing but humpback whales, then you’re in luck. Puerto Vallarta is one of the best places to go whale watching. Between December and March, humpback whales migrate in significant numbers to the bay’s warm waters.
You can grab a set of binoculars and keep an eye out as you travel along the Malecon. But you can’t beat the closeup experience. There is an abundance of tour options to choose from, including half and full-day tours.
On this half-day tour, enjoy inclusive drinks and food with spectacular views of the whales as they roam the Bay of Banderas.
Sunbathe on Playa de los Muertos
On the sandy coastline in Zona Romantica, a day at Playa de Los Muertos can be as relaxing or action-packed as you like. Lay down your beach towel and bath under the Mexican sun as the soft sand provides the perfect backrest. Take in the views of the turquoise water and the far-off horizon with windsurfers meandering from left to right.
After a couple of hours of sun, swimming and light reading, you might feel up for some excitement. Playa de Los Muertos offers jet ski rentals and the opportunity to fly high above the coastline while parasailing. You can also team up with your friends for some beach volleyball.
With its proximity to Zona Romantica, the beach has many great restaurants and happening bars within walking distance and the area becomes party central after dark.
Museo del Cuale
As you crossed the bridge over the Rio Cuale on your way to Zona Romantica, you would have also walked over Cuale Island. The island is the location of our next attraction, a museum home to an extensive selection of ancient ceramics, tools and art.
The Museo del Cuale explores the history of indigenous culture in western Mexico with displays housing artifacts dating between 5000BC and 2000AD. The incredible collection was discovered by archaeologists, including a tomb that was excavated out of Sayula east of Puerto Vallarta. Other artifacts not to be missed include the ceramic artwork and hunting equipment.
The free museum is great for young and old, with thorough information panels explaining each item and its history.
Explore Isla Rio Cuale
With the Rio Cuale flowing by on either side, Isla Rio Cuale is a shady oasis with a pleasant temperature drop. With downtown to the north and Zona Romantica to the south, the island has its own distinct personality. Explore the bustling marketplace with local artisans selling their wares, including ceramics, mementos and sculptures.
Continue on to find little parks along the walkways with renowned white benches until you stumble upon the statue of John Houston. The monument of the Hollywood director was erected on the 25th anniversary of the film Night of the Iguana. The movie put Mismaloya Beach and thus Puerto Vallarta on the tourist map.
You’ll also find a series of unassuming restaurants offering great local eats, plus the Museo del Cuale.
Tick off the Magic Towns
Around Mexico, there are several towns that have been given an interesting title. The country’s Secretary of Tourism labeled such places as Magic Towns, as they had maintained their original charm and cultural heritage. This will be music to the ears of travelers who can cut through the plethora of random towns and only explore the “magical” ones.
You can find these towns all over Mexico, but for those visiting Puerto Vallarta, there are three within the surrounding regions. Hidden within the dense oak and pines tree forests, Mascota is one of these Magic Towns. In Sierra Madre, the mountain town is most famous for its unfinished church.
For a finished church, colorful buildings and cobblestone streets, head to Talpa de Allende. When the purple “paper flower” bougainvilleas bloom, the old town comes to life. But perhaps the most popular of the three is San Sebastian del Oeste, 90 minutes from Puerto Vallarta. The old mining town has changed little over the years. Explore exquisite churches and historic ranches backed by misty mountains.
Walk through the Vallarta Botanical Garden
There are other ways to depart to the bustle of downtown Puerto Vallarta without embarking on a journey to a Magic Town. The nearby Vallarta Botanical Garden provides a welcome escape, where you’ll find wildflowers, orchids and a sense of peace.
As you journey along the garden’s hiking trails, you’ll cross paths with native plants and towering trees complemented by desert plants. After admiring the cacti, explore the orchids of vanilla along with agave and cacao. To stave off some of the heat, you can also take a dip into the river that rolls through the botanical gardens.
Later, settle into the on-site restaurant for some mouthwatering eats. Afterwards, check out the artisan shop where you’ll find homemade chocolate and the local spirit of raicilla. On the way back to Puerto Vallarta, enjoy the scenic mountain road with the Bay of Banderas laid out before you.
Go on a Food Tour
If you’re like me and can’t go a week without some tacos or elote, then eating your way around Puerto Vallarta is already on your itinerary. As you walk around the town hitting up the things to do on this list, you’ll pass endless street vendors selling cheap treats. So much so that the aromas are as much a part of the city as the old pueblos.
While you can try everything, sometimes it pays to get a little help. A food tour of Puerto Vallarta will take you too all the top eateries so you only get the best while also knowing which restaurants to return to.
On this guided food tour, make your way between seven traditional eateries trying nothing but the most authentic local cuisine.
Day trip to Yelapa
With the popularity of Puerto Vallarta, and its astounding beaches, growing locals and travelers alike continue to search for underrated beaches to enjoy. Locals looking for a beach day away from town often head to the sugar sand shores of Yelapa.
Just 20 miles (32km) south of Puerto Vallarta, the crescent beach is surrounded by hills giving the sense of a nice, private hideaway. But the main reason the beach here is less crowded is because you can only arrive by boat. You can depart Los Muertos Pier on a water taxi or splash out on a private charter.
You won’t find much beyond the beach either, with traditional palapa restaurants on offer and some guesthouses providing local accommodation. But if you’re looking for a quiet paradise and time to switch off, then Yelapa is the place to be.
Go for a Hike
The seaside town of Puerto Vallarta is backed by towering mountains with an abundance of outdoor adventures on offer. One of the best hikes to do here connects Boca de Tomatlan with Playa Las Animas.
Most choose to reach the gorgeous Playa Las Animas via water taxi, but reaching the fishing village on foot brings a sense of satisfaction. The trail takes up to two hours to complete. As you caress the side of a coastal mountain, you’ll pass several remote beaches to cool off away from the world. Eventually you’ll reach Playa Las Animas, where you can hang out at cozy beach shacks before taxiing back.
For a hike a little closer to home, climb up the stairs at the end of Abasolo Street. The steep walk comes with a series of benches to rest on, with the views becoming increasingly spectacular the higher you get. Once you’ve made it to Mirador de la Cruz, you know you’ve reached the top. Catch your breath with all the city spread out beneath you.
See the Rhythms of the Night
One of the best things to do after dark in Puerto Vallarta is to see the Rhythms of the Night. The choreographed dinner show has insane aerial acrobatics, dazzling lights and dancing inspired by local traditions.
The creator of Rhythms of the Night is the co-founder of Cirque de Soleil. The show takes place in a remote area at the southern end of the Bay of Banderas. Great for couples and families, enjoy a buffet dinner by candlelight with an epic show for the main course.
The best way to reach the event is on this night cruise. Enjoy a sunset experience on the water before reaching Las Caletas, where a thrilling night awaits.
Watch the Sunset from El Barracuda
At anytime of day you can nosh on delectable tacos and sip margaritas on the beach by El Barracuda. The beach bar is one of the most popular in town but it goes to another level around golden hour.
Get in early to grab the best seats in the house, order your favorite eats and a tropical cocktail (or two) and wait for the show to begin. Above the white sands of Playa Camarones, face west and enjoy an uninhibited view of the evening’s sunset.
As the sun touches the horizon, it’s as if time stands still. With barely a noise from the crowd, the sky continues to light up in a blaze of warm colors and the lights along the coastline begin to sparkle. When the sky fades to black, enjoy another margarita before exploring the city’s famous nightlife.
Sign up for a Booze Tour
No time in Mexico would be complete without sampling a little bit of local tequila. Yes, we know Mexico created tequila, but you may be shocked to discover how much better the drink is within the country.
On this Mexology tour, get your hands on some tequila, mezcal and raicilla to try the full-breadth of local spirits on offer. Your expert guide will take you to all the best spots in Puerto Vallarta, with the chance to also try some craft beer and Kahlua. Learn about the origin of each drink and the role they’ve played in Mexican life.
Don’t worry, you’ll get to balance out this boozy evening with some tasty eats with tacos, enchiladas and even crickets on offer for those who are feeling adventurous.
Deep Sea Fishing
It may be best to wait a few days after your booze tour to venture out onto the open ocean, but nevertheless it’s something you should do on your Puerto Vallarta adventure. Away from the hotpots and happening beaches, find your own slice of paradise on the Pacific ocean. Cast your reel and try to land your next prized catch. Common types of fish found off the Pacific coast include dorado, wahoo, marlin and sailfish.
Tours depart regularly from the Bay of Banderas, with many choosing to stop within the marine park and by fishing villages along the coast.
Explore an Urban Estuary
Just north of downtown Puerto Vallarta is the Estero El Salado. The protected estuary is a world away from the city and an important local ecosystem. The urban oasis is home to a variety of wildlife, from fish to reptiles. There are over 100 types of bird species found within the estuary, providing bird watchers with an array of opportunities.
There are several raised boardwalks through the park, allowing visitors to venture as far as possible. The fragile environment is an important mating and birthing ground for fish who must navigate many nearby predators. On your walk, keep an eye out for iguanas and river crocodiles.
To get the best perspective of Estero El Salado, however, sign up for the guided boat tours which depart from within the park from Tuesday to Saturday.
Make your own Chocolate
A fun free activity in Puerto Vallarta is the Choco Museum. Covering the history of chocolate in Mexico you’ll learn the story behind cacao plants and the chocolate making process, from harvest to table.
The top attraction in the museum though, is the chocolate making classes. Now armed with a thorough understanding of chocolate, you’re ready to create your own. During the class, you’ll learn how to process the cacao beans before getting first hand experience making Mexican-style chocolate, cacao drinks and even bon-bons!
For a memorable individual experience, each guest can customize their chocolate with their favorite flavors. Later, find the perfect spot to try your tasty treats.
Visit the Municipal Market of Colonia Emiliano Zapata
There are some exciting markets to check out while in Puerto Vallarta, each matching the city’s colorful vibe. One market you must check out is Municipal Market of Colonia Emiliano Zapata. The local market, just out of the Zona Romantica, runs from 6am to 30pm all year long.
The busy market is where many locals go to do their weekly shop, so you know the produce is going to be great. If you’ve got a kitchen handy, pick up everything from veggies to meats and tortillas so you can recreate all your favorite local dishes. If not, wandering the market is a fun way to mingle with the community.
From the market, take some time to explore more of the South Side with a great walk along the Rio Cuale.
Ride the Marigalante
An exact replica of Christopher Columbus’ famous Santa Maria, the Marigalante, is the old-world pirate experience you’ve been searching for. Climb onboard the Spanish galleon, made from over 30 types of tropical wood.
The enormous ship can hold up to 240 swashbuckling sailors spread out over four decks. Unlike the ships helmed by the likes of Christopher Columbus, the Marigalante also comes with an air-conditioned dining room.
There are many different tours on offer that cater to families. Want to indulge in the pirate life on board the 700 ton ship and go on a treasure hunt? Then the Pirate Land Tour is for you. Other tour options include snorkeling, fireworks and sunsets.
Go Horse Riding
In Puerto Vallarta, the adventures don’t stop. Located 15 minutes away in Sierra Madre, Rancho el Charro, offers the opportunity to embark on an epic horse riding experience. Traversing through the tranquil rainforest, stop by rural villages untouched by tourism and cross raging rivers.
Eventually you’ll reach a nearby waterfall, where you can jump off your trusty stead and dive into the swimming hole. Take in the serenity with the tumbling falls like music to your ears. Jump back on the horse and continue onto a mountain lookout. Admire the panoramic views of the Pacific and Puerto Vallarta before venturing to a local restaurant right on the riverbank.
Beyond the standard half-day tour, Rancho El Charro offers overnight and multi-day expeditions. Explore historic gold mining towns from the 17th century to a crater lake deep in the mountains of Sierra Madre.
Surf at Sayulita
A cozy surf town an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, is the perfect escape for surfers looking to chase the stoke. The hip town of Sayulita has long been a sleepy surfer haven, but growing popularity has transformed it into something more.
Sayulita has several great surf spots on offer, ranging from beginner-friendly breaks to challenging reef breaks. The town’s main beach, Punta Sayulita, is fun for all skill levels, with sand and rock bottoms. Enjoy an exciting break great for long and short boarders. The beach is also a top spot to surf northern swells when there are storms off the coast.
Beyond the waves, Sayulita has developed a well-rounded culture to become more than just a surfer’s paradise. Enjoy adventures on horseback and hike to through jungle canopies or enjoy one of the many local galleries and cute cafes.
The Naval Museum
Dedicated to the history of the Mexican Navy, the Naval Museum comprises over a dozen halls with a flurry of interactive exhibits. The museum opened in 2006 and quickly become a popular local attraction thanks to the extensive collection of artifacts.
Some of the main highlights in the Naval Museum include scale models of historic ships along with the enthralling navigation simulator that allows visitors to take the helm. Around the museum you’ll also uncover a range of navy uniforms to see how some of the nation’s most important figures dressed through the eras.
Perhaps the best time to visit the Naval Museum is on every other Saturday. If you’ve timed your visit well, you can experience the “Night of Museums”. Come at night to experience workshops, sailing races and guided tours led by period actors.
Find the Best Street Art
Puerto Vallarta has some wonderful murals dotted along the streets. Without even trying, you’ll stumble upon street art, which adds even more color to an already vibrant city. A lot of the murals you’ll come across were born from the #RESTORCORAL art project that aims to raise awareness about the damage occurring to local and international reefs.
While you will find plenty on your way to the activities on this list, if you want to search specifically for local murals, then head to the narrow streets found in Centro. Another popular option is within Zona Romantica.
The Southside Shuffle
Between November and March, the Southside Shuffle occurs every other Friday. Along Basilio Badillo in Zona Romantica, more than 20 different art galleries and shops keep their doors open into the evening.
Serving wine and plenty of appetizers, a festive atmosphere envelopes the street with live music floating through the air. Under the night sky, wander from store to store checking out art, handmade jewelry, fashion and intimate restaurants.
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