Looking for the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta Mexico? Look no further!
This article has been written by a local and contains a selection of the best renowned and off-the-beaten-path attractions that you can do in the area. The Mexican seaside town of Puerto Vallarta is just a short flight away from Mexico City and a quick drive from the city of Guadalajara, making it the perfect vacation spot to get the most out of your trip to Mexico.
Puerto Vallarta sits in the central state of Jalisco. It is something of a hidden gem among the popular seaside destinations in Mexico. In Vallarta, you’re more likely to avoid the almost certain crowds of Cancún or Tulum while still enjoying the many benefits of a tourist-friendly destination where it’s easy to get around.
Puerto Vallarta provides the ideal Mexican town experience combined with an array of adventure possibilities and a paradise feel. The Mexican Riviera is famous for its white sand beaches and year-round warm weather. No matter the time of year you’re planning on visiting, you’re guaranteed a good time and blue skies.
The city is divided into four major areas: Marina Vallarta, Downtown, The Romantic Zone, and The South Zone. Once a quaint and quiet fishing town, Vallarta has quickly grown and integrated certain areas to the north.
All of these spots offer a variety of things to see and do and it can be tricky to narrow it down. But don’t worry – that’s why we have crafted this expert insider guide to help you!
Best Things to do in Puerto Vallarta
A selection of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta is detailed below. There is something for everyone here. Whether you are looking for a relaxing beach getaway, you want to venture out to secluded beaches and coves, or you want to immerse yourself in the local culture, you will find something here that you enjoy.
Visit the historic town center
The first must-see stop on your trip has to be downtown Vallarta. The town center of Puerto Vallarta is known for its lively cobblestone streets and its colorful atmosphere. In the downtown area, you’ll find a wide array of local businesses, artisans and craftsmen, souvenir shops, and local restaurants.
While you’re exploring downtown Vallarta, pop by the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Hidalgo 370, Proyecto escola, Centro). This is one of countless stunning Catholic churches in the city.
Here, you can admire the neoclassical-style structure and its baroque elements. Access to the church is free and you will not want to miss the beautiful interior and vibrant frescoes inside. If you are interested in attending a service, the Church leads services in English on Saturdays and mass in both English and Spanish on Sundays.
The city center is also home to quite a few jewelry stores that sell beautiful and unique sterling silver pieces at great prices, as well as authentic talavera and traditional pottery shops. From local street food markets to luxury five-star restaurants and fancy shops, Puerto Vallarta is known for its gastronomy, and you’ll find all of this and more downtown.
Take a walk along the Malecon
While you’re around the downtown area, head for a sunset walk along the famous Malecon de Puerto Vallarta. This 12-mile-long boardwalk is mostly closed off to vehicle traffic and is the perfect path for a sunset stroll.
Walking along the boardwalk is a must when visiting Vallarta. All of the things that you can anticipate finding along your path – and those you can’t – are guaranteed to make this a memorable experience.
While you make your way along the boardwalk and enjoy a beautiful ocean view, stop to have a bite at one of the many restaurants by the sea, grab some souvenirs and take lovely scenic shots or artsy pictures of the bronze sculptures that garnish the walkway. Many of these art pieces were created by renowned Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante.
The Malecon is a lively spot 24/7 and it is known for its amazing nightlife. The streets here really come to life after sunset.
Many of the charming restaurants and quaint coffee bars transform into live music venues and host local and international musicians after dark. If you are looking to party until the sun comes up, check out the nightclubs ‘La Santa’ and ‘Strana’.
Watch the ritual ceremony of the Papantla Flying Men
If you’re lucky, you may be able to witness the ritual dance of the Papantla flying men while you walk along the Malecon. This dance is a cultural and artistic representation that dates back to pre-Colombian times.
The people of Papantla in old Mesoamerica used to carry out this ritual dance, showing gratitude to the Gods in appreciation of Earth, bounty, and fertility. Today, watching the Papantla flying men is a little glimpse into the rich cultural and historical memory of Mexico.
The ceremony starts with the dancers climbing a 98 ft tall pole. Four of the five dancers, tied to ropes, launch themselves from the top of the pole while the fifth dancer stays at the top and plays the flute and a drum.
This ritual dance is one of the oldest surviving traditions in Mexico. It is a crucial piece of cultural heritage, and it is not every day that one gets the chance to see it. You may be able to catch a glimpse of this dance in various parts of Mexico – from Chapultapec park in Mexico City to the Puerto Vallarta boardwalk.
Experience the Puerto Vallarta dining scene
There are a plethora of excellent restaurants in Puerto Vallarta. The eateries here serve up all types of cuisine from across Mexico and the globe. Whatever your preferences and budget, you will find something here that suits you.
If you want to sample authentic Jaliscan food, El Palomar De Los Gonzalez (Aguacate 425, Alta Vista, 48380) is a great place to have dinner. This beautiful restaurant is nestled on the top of the mountains right in the heart of Puerto Vallarta’s downtown.
The menu is made up of family recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Everything is lovingly-prepared with locally-sourced ingredients.
Start with Tere’s Salad. Then, follow it up with some Minionetta shrimp, yelapa tostadas, or a mariscada if you are in the mood for sharing. The Flambéed bananas are the perfect dish to end up an amazing meal.
If you are into fine dining, reservations at Tintoque (Aquiles Serdán 445, Zona Romántica, Emiliano Zapata) are a must. This restaurant is the brainchild of Chef Joel Ornelas, born and bred in Puerto Vallarta.
After traveling the world, Ornelas opened up his restaurant so that he could serve traditional Jaliscan recipes with an international twist. The eatery offers fusion cuisine at its finest, and the setting is every bit as wonderful as the food.
Eat your way around town with a Puerto Vallarta food tour
If you consider yourself a foodie traveler, a Puerto Vallarta food tour is a great way to immerse yourself in the local gastronomy. Various local companies offer food tours that give you the opportunity to sample Jaliscan treats and street food favorites.
Enjoy sinking your teeth into carnitas tacos, tamales, atole, local seafood, birria, fresh churros, and much more. Many local food tours take you on a journey through offbeat residential neighborhoods such as Pitillal which are untouched by tourism.
Your tour guide will take you to street food markets and stalls that you would not find independently. Better still?
They will be able to help you communicate with the local vendors so that you can learn about their backgrounds and life stories. This is something that would otherwise be tricky to do unless you are fluent in Spanish.
Taking a Puerto Vallarta tour also means that you have a local expert on hand to offer recommendations. You can ask them for their suggestions on the best places to hang out, go for drinks, go shopping, etc.
Visit the Romantic Zone and Playa de los Muertos
Puerto Vallarta’s Romantic Zone is part of the old town of Vallarta and is known as “La Zona Romántica”. This neighborhood sits just south of the town center and is known for its highly rated cafes, shops, and restaurants.
It is generally a pretty busy and lively area of the city. This neighborhood is found in the heart of Old Vallarta and is one of the most visited areas of the city. The Romantic Zone is also a great area to look for accommodation options.
The hotels and resorts found here are usually budget-friendly. Not to mention, opting to base yourself in a central location allows you the opportunity to experience the city to its fullest.
If you’re looking for a traditional place to have lunch or dinner by the beach, the seafood restaurant ‘La Palapa’ in Playa de Los Muertos serves some of the best lobster tacos and ceviche in town. Enjoy an amazing meal accompanied by traditional live music and breathtaking ocean views.
For a quintessentially Mexican drink, wash it all down with a michelada. Micheladas are beer cocktails that Mexicans go crazy for, even if they may seem like obscure concoctions to outsiders!
To make a michelada, beer is poured into a mixture of tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Maggi sauce, lime juice, and spices. It’s an acquired taste for sure but it is something that you must try while in Mexico.
Take a day trip out to Mascota
Mascota is a charming colonial-style Pueblo Magico that is situated halfway between Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara. Pueblo Magicos are quaint towns and settlements that have been recognized by the Mexican tourism board for offering a particularly special culture, architecture, or gastronomy.
When you see that somewhere has been identified as being a Pueblo Magico, you can generally feel assured that it is a worthwhile place to visit. This definitely rings true of Mascota.
This little town is home to just 8,215 people. It is frequently overlooked by most visitors to Jalisco and sits beside El Circuito Rural.
This is a 35km route that connects Mascota with various small towns in the region. This includes Lake Juanacatlan, Yerbabuena, Cimarrón Chico de la Raicilla, Santa Rosa, and Navidad.
Consider basing yourself in Mascota for a day or two and using it as a jump-off point to explore these lesser-known spots. The town itself, with its picturesque central square and cobblestone streets, is deserved a day’s attention.
Spend a day in San Sebastián del Oeste
San Sebastián del Oeste is one of the most popular day trips that you can take from Puerto Vallarta. However, if your schedule permits, it is well worth spending a night here.
This beautiful Pueblo Magico is nestled high in the Sierra Madre mountains. Its highest point is a mountain known as “La Bufa”.
One of the most exhilarating things to do here is to rent an ATV and drive to its peak, passing traditional villages as you go, to admire the view at the top. Once upon a time, Sen Sebastian was a prosperous silver mining town and it thrived during the colonial era.
Today, it is home to some of the friendliest people in Jalisco, and its winding cobbled streets and passageways, and traditional architecture are a photographer’s dream. Many old haciendas have been converted into luxury hotels and offer a truly unique place to stay.
Raicilla, a strong, distilled Mexican spirit, originates from the southwestern part of Jalisco close to San Sebastián del Oeste. Many distilleries are scattered around the region and it is possible to organize a tour and tasting. In particular, consider stopping by Tesoro del Oeste.
Fall in love with Talpe de Allende
Talpa de Allende is a Pueblo Magico in the Sierra Madre mountains, just two hours away from Puerto Vallarta. It is perhaps best known for being the final stopping point on “la Ruta del Peregrino”.
This is a 72-mile pilgrimage through the state of Jalisco. The pilgrimage takes place every year and thousands of people from across Mexico trek to the church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario.
They come to pay their respects to a tiny Virgen del Rosario statue known as “La Chaparrita” which they believe can perform miracles. But religion aside, there is plenty to see and do in the area.
Look out for the Murales Magico – a colorful alleyway that is painted from top to bottom with vibrant murals. The paintings here display everything from aspects of Mexican traditions, to animated movie characters.
Since the town is situated at a relatively high altitude, the climate up here is much cooler than elsewhere in Jalisco. Go for an afternoon stroll through el Bosque de Maple (the maple forest).
This is a gorgeous wooded park filled with lakes and numerous walking trails. It provides you with a wonderful opportunity to get back to nature.
Venture off the beaten path at Real del Alto
If you have access to a vehicle, you can stop by the rural community in Real del Alto when you take a trip to San Sebastián del Oeste. This is a centuries-old settlement that today is only home to around 40 people.
The village is located at a very high altitude, atop a steep mountaintop. Access to the village requires driving up a treacherous mountain pass.
For this reason, over the decades, the villagers are starting to slowly relocate elsewhere and Real del Alto’s future looks uncertain. Many of the buildings here are falling into abandonment.
There is not an awful lot to see here. An hour or so is a sufficient amount of time to spend here.
However, Real del Alto provides a wonderful glimpse into rural life in Mexico, and in some ways, traveling here feels like venturing back in time. There are just a couple of stores and many residents live off the land.
The views across Jalisco state from up here are unparalleled. The little church at the village peak (Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Rosario del Real Alto) is charming. There is an ancient rose bush (Rosa de Castilla) growing outside of the church that is from Spain.
Get lost in a downtown oasis at the Cuale River Island
The Cuale River Island is a paradise oasis hidden right in the heart of urban Vallarta. It is named after the river that flows from the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains into Banderas Bay.
The river essentially divides the city in two. You will find the downtown area to the north of the river and the Romantic Zone to the south.
There’s a lot to explore on the island. Pop by the Mercado Municipal Rio Cuale, a traditional indoor market that sells everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, to souvenirs and nick-nacks.
You’ll likely find talented artisans and lovely traditional crafts in every corner of the city and within the Mercado Municipal. However, you may prefer to look for these along the Malecon and around the Cuale River Island.
These are generally better quality, original and traditional artesanías made by talented craftsmen and local indigenous women. Venturing here, away from the swarms of tourists looking for cheaper trinkets, can help you secure a better price on your souvenir purchases.
Immersing yourself in the rich history and culture of the country is an essential part of visiting Mexico. While you’re at Rio Cuale Island, pay a visit to the Archaeological Museum.
Here, you will get the chance to see an amazing collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, pottery, and even tombs! This is a great place to learn a bit about Mexico’s history.
See the Rhythms of the Night show
Not sure how to spend an evening in Puerto Vallarta but not big on partying? One of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta is to see the Rhythms of the Night show
This is an immersive, cultural experience that was founded by the creators of Cirque du Soleil. The experience takes you to a steamy tropical rainforest at Las Caletas, close to the sun-bleached remnants of an old pyramid.
Your evening starts with a sunset cruise across Banderas Bay. Your boat takes you to the secluded cove of Las Caletas where tiki torches light your way through the jungle to your dining table.
As you meander through the jungle paths, you are greeted by dancers, acrobats, and fire jugglers. Here, you can enjoy a traditional Mexican meal overlooking the sea, as incredible performances take place from every angle around you.
Snorkel or scuba dive at Los Arcos de Mismaloya
If you’re up for an underwater adventure, head over to the Mismaloya beach and out to Los Arcos. This natural attraction is the perfect site for nature lovers visiting Vallarta.
Both swimmers and non-swimmers alike can enjoy the beach. This is one of the best spots in Jalisco where you can admire the unique blue-green color of the warm, tropical waters off the coast of Puerto Vallarta.
There are many tour options that you can look into, catering to whatever mood you’re in for your visit. Whether you’re an experienced diver, a keen snorkeler, or simply looking to spend a nice day by the sea, Los Arcos de Mismaloya offers wildlife spotting and the chance to experience a uniquely mysterious natural wonder!
Head north to Nuevo Vallarta and witness a baby sea turtle release
If you’re looking to explore more of the Mexican Riviera, head north from Puerto Vallarta to the newer part of town known as Nuevo Vallarta. This area is located north of the Ameca River and just across the border into the state of Nayarit.
The area of Nuevo Vallarta differs from South Zone in its organic nature. The North Zone is more of a purpose-built tourist destination that grew in response to the quickly developing town of Vallarta.
It is filled with luxury beach resorts and upscale international restaurants. The vibe here is very different from the local, authentic feel of the old town.
However, that is not to say that a visit to Nuevo Vallarta is not worth your time. This area is famous for its white sand beaches with calm, translucent waters that are safe to swim in year-round and perfect for families.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Nuevo Vallarta during hatching season (July to December), you are in for a treat. You could have the chance to watch baby sea turtles being released and making their way into the ocean for the first time.
Conservation programs in Vallarta work extremely hard to protect and preserve sea turtles. There are local sanctuaries located all over Banderas Bay.
During the hatching season, sea turtles hatch and are released almost daily at the different sanctuaries across the bay. You could be part of the conservation efforts that ensure baby turtles make it safely into the ocean!
Take a day trip to Punta de Mita
Punta de Mita is the place to visit if you’re looking for a luxury beach escape away from the hordes in Puerto Vallarta. This area is located just under an hour away from Puerto Vallarta and is home to many luxurious, upscale hotels.
The Four Seasons, St. Regis Punta Mita, and other luxe hospitality brands have properties here. If your budget allows and you are looking to treat yourself, this area makes a wonderful place to stay for a week or two.
Punta de Mita provides a stark contrast to other highly sought-after beach tourism destinations in Mexico. It is still known for being a relatively tranquil place to vacation. This rings true even during the peak season (January to March)!
This lovely little peninsula is surrounded by breath-taking aquamarine ocean waters on three sides and is home to a number of heavenly white sand beaches. Playa La Lancha is the ultimate surfing destination.
Accessing the beach requires following a mile-long dirt trail through the woodland. This helps this paradisical secluded beach avoid the eyes of most tourists. Unless you specifically knew where Playa La Lancha was, you would never stumble across it accidentally.
Meanwhile, Playa Anclote is the best option for a day of family fun and beautiful views. Whatever type of beach experience you’re after, you’ll find it at Punta de Mita.
Sample some of the best street tacos in town
If you are renting a car in Mexico and plan on driving to Punta de Mita, make a strategic pit stop at ‘Tacos On The Street’ for authentic Mexican tacos! This is a real local place that is as popular among Mexicans as it is among international tourists. Expect a short wait to be served but know that it is well worth it.
Indulge in exquisite artisanal chocolate
When visiting Mexico, you can’t miss out on the opportunity to try artisanal Mexican chocolate. One of the most interesting facts about Mexico that a lot of people do not realize? Chocolate was invented here!
You can find a variety of stores that sell artisanal chocolate. It can be a fun experience to head to the various stores independently and try a few different chocolate varieties.
Alternatively, you can take your experience further and go on a chocolate tour at a beautiful cacao garden. At ‘Planeta Cacao’, you can learn everything about the production process. Your guide will walk you through the stages that chocolate goes through: from the cacao pod to the store.
The space was created with the purpose of educating people on the history of cacao, from pre-Columbian times to the present. It gives a detailed look into the process of production and discusses the importance of chocolate within Mexican culture and gastronomy.
Puerto Vallarta chocolate tours
You can take part in one of their chocolate workshops or simply take a guided tour of the garden and take it all in. A number of Puerto Vallarta chocolate tours are detailed below for your consideration. Some even teach you how to make truffles!
- Puerto Vallarta: Bean to bar chocolate workshop
- Two-hour chocolate truffles workshop in Puerto Vallarta
- Mole Poblano workshop in Puerto Vallarta
Go whale watching at Las Islas Marietas
The Islas Marietas is a beautiful natural sanctuary that is home to a plethora of endangered wildlife, flora, and fauna. Hawksbill sea turtles, Mexican spiny-tailed iguana, and Prairie Falcon are just a few of the endangered species that call the island home.
The area was designated as a protected biosphere reserve in 2008. It is one of 40 such places in Mexico, several of which are recognized by UNESCO.
Las Islas Marietas are located on the northern end of Bahía de Banderas. You can reach them in just over an hour from Puerto Vallarta’s main pier and in only fifteen minutes from Punta Mita.
The Marietas Islands are a paradise for nature lovers. Birdwatching, snorkeling, and whale watching are all popular activities on the islands.
Dolphin sightings are common around the islands year-round. It is not unusual to see them in large groups or in pairs, swimming alongside boats that are out on the water. However, during the winter months (approximately December through March), humpback whales arrive at the centuries-old breeding ground that is Banderas Bay.
They are certainly the guests of honor at the islands! This is one of the best places for whale-watching in Mexico.
The humpbacks stay for a short while in the waters of Mexico’s Pacific Coast before continuing their journey in their annual migration route. There are several tour options available to go whale watching.
Best whale-watching tours in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta whale-watching tours offer you the opportunity to experience the once-in-a-lifetime chance to share a part of these gentle giants’ migration journey. Although a sighting cannot be guaranteed, it is very uncommon to go out on a whale-watching tour here and not see a whale or two.
Some tour companies will give you a refund or offer you the chance to participate free of charge in their next scheduled tour should you be unfortunate enough not to see a whale or two. Several reputable tours are detailed below for your consideration.
Book your place in advance! These tours are popular and do sell out.
- Puerto Vallarta: responsible whale-watching experience
- Whale-watching cruise in Puerto Vallarta
- Puerto Vallarta: Whale-watching photo safari
- Dolphin-watching cruise with a biologist
- Puerto Vallarta: Dolphins in the wild tour
If you’re still weighing the pros and cons and debating on where your next trip to Mexico will take you, Puerto Vallarta is a perfect choice. At Vallarta, you can explore a bustling and lively town without missing out on the beach resort experience.
Many people are concerned about safety when traveling to Mexico for the first time. However, Puerto Vallarta is a very safe place.
Whether you’re after the nightlife, the food, the water sports, or the family fun, Vallarta is guaranteed to give you a memorable trip. The town is guaranteed to make you fall in love with the Mexican Riviera.
Have you been to Puerto Vallarta? What did you think?
Are there any other things to do in Puerto Vallarta that you have enjoyed and feel are missing from this list? Have a wonderful time in Mexico! Buen Viaje! xo