A beginners guide to visiting Puerto Rico: Everything you need to eat, see and do

3 April 2023

Puerto Rico is beloved by travelers around the world, and for good reason.

From bioluminescent bays, pristine Caribbean beaches and lush forests to historic streetscapes, a vibrant local food scene and fascinating cultural attractions, each region of Puerto Rico offers visitors a distinct experience.

And there’s simply never a bad time to visit. Better yet, you can often find cheap nonstop flights to both San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) and Aguadilla’s Rafael Hernández Airport (BQN) on the stunning northwest coast. If you’re traveling from the U.S., you don’t even need a passport or have to change your money.

It’s a perfect tropical weekend getaway from the Eastern Seaboard; you can board an early morning flight and enjoy lunch and a pina colada with your toes in the sand. 

In short: Paradise awaits.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. LIZ HUND/THE POINTS GUY

Where to eat and drink in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a wonderful destination for foodies. Along the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, you’ll find gourmet cuisine served in elegant, historic townhomes rubbing shoulders with atmospheric hole-in-the-walls that serve traditional fare.

Following Hurricane Maria, restaurants became ever keener to support local agriculture and celebrate food that is grown entirely on the island. The result is farm-fresh, hyper-seasonal cuisine infused with Creole, Taino and Spanish influences. 

The much-loved national dish is mofongo deep-fried mashed plantains served with a side of seafood or meat and chicken broth soup. Among the best places to try it are Santaella in San Juan and Mi Casita in Pinones.

Mofongo, made from plantains, garlic and chicharron, served with meat and broth. ALLEKO

Lechon — a whole pig roasted over a fire for at least four hours — is another hearty mainstay of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. Around an hour’s drive south of San Juan, dozens of lechoneras dot the famed Ruta de Lechon, or “Pork Highway,” where trays of succulent, tender pork are served at communal tables, usually accompanied by copious cold beer and live music.

If you want to graze on authentic local delicacies beachside, head for Luquillo (near El Yunque National Forest), where more than 60 kiosks ranging from rustic beach bars to full-service restaurants serve authentic Creole cooking as well as Latin American signature cuisine.

A colorful pit spot while exploring San Juan’s trendy Santurce district, Alcapurria Quema is a no-frills Santurce locale that’s one of the best places to try Puerto Rico’s ubiquitous local snack, alcapurrias: deep-fried fritters made from plantains (or grated yucca) stuffed with flavorful beef, pork or fish.

Fine dining in Puerto Rico

If you want to splurge, San Juan has plenty of upscale dining venues.

Located inside the elegant Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, 1919 is widely hailed as the best fine dining restaurant in Puerto Rico. Helmed by Juan José Cuevas, who worked at the Michelin-starred Blue Hill in New York, menu highlights include scallops with organic mushrooms, kale and sunchoke, as well as robalo (snook) with pistachio, local white beans and dill. For an unforgettable dining experience, opt for the chef’s menu ($199) accompanied by sommelier-selected wine pairings. Make a reservation, dress the part and enjoy every moment. It’s one of the island’s most expensive restaurants, but worth it.

Vianda‘s stylish midcentury modern-style bar and sleek, moody dining room draw well-dressed locals with its innovative mixology and farm-to-table cuisine. Vianda means “root vegetable,” and the small, seasonal menu riffs on Puerto Rico’s rich culinary heritage while showcasing the island’s incredible bounty of tropical fruits, vegetables and herbs. Start the evening with a Corazon de Melon ($15) cocktail, made with tequila, watermelon, cucumber, mint and rosemary, followed by a signature entree such as the Mar y Tierra, a rich medley of cod loin, crispy pork belly, mussels, sofrito butter and white beans ($44). 

Most epicureans will have heard of Marmalade, the internationally renowned restaurant credited with putting Puerto Rico on the foodie map. It remains one of the best gourmet dining experiences on the island. Iowa native chef Peter Schintler deftly blends indigenous and international ingredients to produce a truly memorable five-course prix fixe menu ($135 per person). It changes frequently, but menu classics include local organic rabbit with black olive garganelli and grilled ahi tuna with peanut-miso broth. 

Chef José Santaella’s namesake restaurant is a lively, fun place to dine on nouvelle Puerto Rican cuisine with family and friends. The edgy industrial decor (it used to be a hardware store) contrasts with the menu’s vibrant “tropical creole” gastronomy. Arrive early for cocktail hour and try a Lady Bullet (Woodford Reserve bourbon, fig marmalade, lavender syrup, orange bitters and lime juice; $16) and stay for the duration, grazing on delectable small plates, including wagyu sliders ($26), grilled Spanish octopus ($32) and escargot ($18). 

What to see and do in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a ton of sightseeing you’ll want to add to your itinerary, too.

El Yunque National Forest is just 45 minutes from San Juan and is the only tropical rainforest on U.S. soil. It’s famous for its incredible hiking, an abundance of waterfalls and endemic wildlife.

La Mina Falls in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico. ALISHA BUBE/GETTY IMAGES

There are just five bioluminescent bays in the world, and Puerto Rico is home to three: Bahia Mosquito, Laguna Grande and La Parguera. To access Puerto Rico’s bio bays via kayak or paddleboard, you’ll need to paddle through dark mangrove channels — signing up with a tour operator is definitely the way to go. Most companies operate two tours each night, at sunset and 9 p.m.

The protected wildlife reserve of Bahia Mosquito is located on Vieques, an island municipality a short flight from San Juan. Famed for its picture-perfect crescents of sand, boutique hotels and crystalline waters, Vieques is the quintessential Caribbean idyll. Boasting the highest concentration of phosphorescent dinoflagellates (plankton that make the water sparkle with just the touch of a hand), Mosquito Bay is the brightest of the world’s five bio bays.

For travelers with limited time, Laguna Grande is the most accessible bio bay in Puerto Rico, less than an hour’s drive from San Juan on the northeast coast. What sets Laguna Grande apart is that the bay is actually a lagoon nestled within an area of spectacular natural beauty.

Puerto Rico is replete with gorgeous, sandy beaches. Near Luquillo, La Pared is an often deserted stretch of almost golden sand. The beach town of Naguabo, in the southeast corner of the island, is also incredibly quiet, and palm trees frame the soft, sandy beach and turquoise water. 

Parque de Bombas, a historic fire station, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. MULLENNIX/GETTY IMAGES

Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. Located on the island’s southern coast, it’s chock-full of history. Be sure to check out Plaza Las Delicias, which has a cathedral as well as an old firehouse (Parque de Bombas) that’s now a museum.

Museo de la Musica Puertoriquena has a rich history dating back to the 19th century. Here, you’ll find traces of Taino, Spanish and African influences. You’ll also learn about Puerto Rico’s musical history, which you can now hear throughout other parts of the Caribbean, the mainland and around the world.

Where to stay in Puerto Rico

Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico

Fresh from a multimillion-dollar face-lift, this 579-key beach resort reopened in 2019 as the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve.

Rooms (starting at 520 square feet), suites and villas are contemporary and inviting, with simple wooden furnishings, marble floors, a white-on-white color palette and furnished terraces and patios. Bathrooms feature rainfall showers with separate tubs and Pharmacopia toiletries.

Beyond the hotel’s natural assets — a beautiful white-sand beach and 72 acres of flamboyant tropical vegetation — amenities include a lagoon-style pool, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a luxurious spa, two Tom Kite-designed 18-hole championship golf courses and several upscale restaurants serving everything from Pacific Rim cuisine and sushi at Nori Asian to prime cuts of beef and seafood at Prime 787, a contemporary American steakhouse.

The hotel can arrange a number of activities nearby, including horseback riding, an all-terrain-vehicle excursion at nearby Carabali Rainforest Adventure Park and hikes through El Yunque National Forest.

Rates at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve start at $300 or 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night.

Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort

The rambling 255-key Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort is the only Hilton hotel outside of the San Juan area.

While rooms are rather spartan and generic, they have an inviting beachy vibe with a green-and-white color palette, light wood furnishings, tiled floors and balconies with ocean views (in most rooms). Comfort-enhancing modern touches include coffee makers, minifridges and flat-screen televisions.

At this amenity-rich, family-friendly resort, there’s plenty to keep adults and children entertained, including two expansive pools, a 27-hole championship golf course, a miniature golf course, tennis courts, a playground and a splash park. It’s also home to one of the largest casinos in Puerto Rico and four restaurants: El Bohio, La Cava, La Terraza and Sancho’s Sushi Bar.

While it isn’t the splashiest Hilton property in Puerto Rico, it’s a great base for exploring Puerto Rico’s southwest coast.

Rates at the Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort start at $230 or 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night.

The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort

The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico. NICK ELLIS/THE POINTS GUY

Located between El Yunque National Forest and Espiritu Santo River State Preserve, The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort places guests within striking distance of two of Puerto Rico’s top attractions.

Designed by Puerto Rican fashion designer Nono Maldonado, the spacious (and completely refurbished) accommodations channel a breezy Caribbean aesthetic with a serene white-and-cream color palette, abstract artworks and sleek, modern furnishings.

However, it’s the luxe details and exquisite service that really set this property apart. There’s the cozy pillow-top bed dressed with a cashmere throw, the marble spa-style bathroom with a centerpiece deep soaking tub that’s stocked with luxe Frette bathrobes, and, of course, the St. Regis’ private butler service.

A surfeit of amenities include a beautifully landscaped swimming pool, a lavish spa, a Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course and three acclaimed restaurants.

Rates at The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort start at $695 or 70,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.

Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve

Puerto Rico’s most exclusive resort, Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, combines unbridled luxury and impeccable attention to detail with a sustainable ethos. Built by the Rockefeller family in the 1950s, it remains a magnet for tycoons, celebrities and, these days, cryptocurrency investors. 

Nestled on a glorious 2-mile beach amid a riot of mature tropical vegetation, beautifully appointed rooms and suites are equipped with every creature comfort imaginable and assigned their own private butler. Standard rooms are huge (they start at 1,000 square feet), while deluxe suites also feature private plunge pools.

The resort’s amenities are, as you’d expect, exceptional. There are two gorgeous pools fronted by swaying palms, three Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed golf courses and one of Puerto Rico’s finest restaurants: Coa, a culinary homage to the region’s Taino roots. A roster of family-friendly activities includes the signature Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program.

Rates at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve start at $1,995 or 170,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.

Related: Puerto Rican renaissance: A review of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve

The details

Getting there

If you’re interested in visiting Puerto Rico, flights are plentiful. There are more than 120 nonstop flights between the island and major mainland U.S. cities, according to Discover Puerto Rico. That means you can fly nonstop between the island and cities like New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Chicago. Most of the nonstop routes are to San Juan.

While the cheapest available flights to Puerto Rico typically range from $300 to $600, you can pick up deals with both legacy carriers as well as low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

Of course, a cheap deal isn’t the only way to get to the island.

You can easily use points and miles to get you from major cities to Puerto Rico. American Airlines, for example, offers off-peak MileSAAver awards from 17,000 miles one-way in economy or 59,000 in business class.

With United Airlines, expect to spend between 20,000 and 65,000 miles for a one-way ticket from cities like Newark and Chicago.

But perhaps the best way to use points to visit Puerto Rico is through JetBlue.

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

On JetBlue, you have several destinations beyond San Juan to consider. For instance, you could fly round-trip from New York to Aguadilla for just $274 or 23,000 TrueBlue points in August this year, or to Ponce for $386 or 31,000 TrueBlue points round-trip.

You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to JetBlue at a 1:1 ratio, but this might not be the best use of your Chase points.

JetBlue is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards as well, but TPG doesn’t recommend transferring Amex points to JetBlue because of the limited value you’ll get. Additionally, points transfer at a weak 250:200 transfer ratio.

You can also transfer Citi ThankYou Rewards to JetBlue, though the transfer ratio isn’t great — either 1:0.8 or 1:0.5, depending on which Citi card you have.

Do you need a passport to go to Puerto Rico?

Nope! Puerto Rico is an unincorporated U.S. territory, so you don’t need a passport or a visa to visit if you’re a U.S. citizen. Just bring your state ID and you’ll be good to go.

Getting around

Ride-hailing
Uber is the only ride-hailing app that made its way to Puerto Rico and survived the pandemic. The mobile app is equally as effective as it is on the mainland and is very popular with locals for its competitive rates (compared to local taxis), efficiency and reliability.

Taxis
Within San Juan, taxis are frequent, reliable and comfortable; look for white cabs labeled Taxi Turistico. Designated taxi stands are located at key tourist points in San Juan (including cruise ship piers, major hotels, Plaza de Armas and Plaza Colon). Taxis operate a fixed-rate system according to specified zones, but they can be pricey. Once you leave the metro area, it becomes increasingly expensive to travel between towns.

If you plan to stay in neighborhoods like Old San Juan, you probably won’t need a car, Uber or taxi since the area is pretty walkable.

If you’re a public transportation geek like me, make sure the Tren Urbano is on your radar. It’s an 11-mile rapid transit system that serves San Juan, Guaynabo and Bayamon. The trip between Bayamon and San Juan is just 30 minutes, and the one-line train system has 16 stops; it passes through the University of Puerto Rico as well as the Santa Rosa shopping mall. It’s very affordable, too: A regular fare is just $1.50 and if you’re between the ages of 60 and 74, just 75 cents. Better yet, if you’re 6 years of age or younger, or 75 or older, it’s free.

Renting a car in Puerto Rico is pretty straightforward with all the major rental companies to consider, including Avis, Enterprise and Hertz, each of which is located at the airport.

The best times to visit Puerto Rico

The majority of hurricanes in Puerto Rico typically occur between August and October, while hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. Notably, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017.

Many people I spoke with on the island said, “Summertime is all the time” in Puerto Rico, with temperatures hovering in the 80s daily. If you’re trying to avoid the infamous daily Caribbean rains, you’ll want to plan to visit between January and March, as precipitation is low.

NICK ELLIS/THE POINTS GUY

If you want to avoid the hordes of people traveling during spring break but still want to visit before hurricane season kicks in, the spring is the best time to score flight and hotel deals. As an added bonus, you’ll have the beach all to yourself.

Bottom line

Puerto Rico has come a long way since Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Fiona in 2022. Let it be known that the island is open for travelers — and eager for the business. From beach resorts to landmarks, excellent food and great hospitality, there’s something for everyone who makes the short flight down to visit.

Related reading:

The best hotels in Puerto Rico
8 reasons to visit Puerto Rico in 2023
Best points hotels in the Caribbean
Start booking your summer trips now — here’s why
The 26 best Marriott hotels in the world

Need Help?

Please use the contact form to get support or send an email to [email protected].