If you are planning a visit to Puerto Rico, consider adding the city of Ponce to your itinerary for the island. Located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, Ponce is both beautiful and historic. Continue reading to discover the best things to do in Ponce!
While Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan is at the top of every visitor’s itinerary, second city Ponce will surprise you with a variety of exciting attractions and experiences. We spent some time in Ponce on a recent 7-day Puerto Rico vacation, and came away captivated.
With beautiful views of the water, exotic flora and fauna, stunning architecture, and great food and drink, Ponce definitely deserves at least a day or two on your Puerto Rico visit!
History of Ponce
Founded in 1692, Ponce is named for Juan Ponce de León y Loayza, the great-grandson of the famous Spanish explorer and first governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León. Famous as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South), Ponce was inhabited by the Taino people before being settled by the Spanish.
Ponce grew in size and importance in the first part of the 19th century, with the arrival of immigrants from different parts of Latin America and Europe. Initially a center of sugarcane production, Ponce later also started producing coffee and rum.
When the United States of America attacked in 1898, Ponce was the largest city on the island and a thriving industrial and financial center. The taking of Ponce marked a vital advance for the US military campaign.
After the Spanish-American War ended, the US made San Juan the administrative capital, starting Ponce on the path to economic stagnation and eventually decline. Today it has regained its economic status, and is both an agricultural and an industrial powerhouse.
The Best Things to Do in Ponce
With a vibrant historical district and many landmarks and points of interest, Ponce is an attractive destination for visitors that want to venture beyond San Juan when they visit Puerto Rico.
Here are the best things to do in Ponce, Puerto Rico!
#1 Explore the Museo Castillo Serrallés
Undoubtedly one of the top Ponce attractions, the Museo Castillo Serrallés sits high on a hill overlooking the city of Ponce. The former estate of a rum baron, the museum is a fascinating place to tour.
The elegant hilltop mansion was built in 1930, in the Spanish Revival style, for the Serrallés family. Owners of the famous Don Q rum distillery, the Serrallés family hired local architect Pedro Adolfo de Castro y Besosa to build this exclusive residence, with its lovely terraces and gardens.
After viewing a film that describes the history of the home and the family, you can do a guided tour several rooms in the interior of the mansion. Our guide was very informative. The rooms are largely kept exactly the way they were when the family lived in the house.
You’ll see lots of photos of the family, beautiful old pieces of furniture, personal effects, and collectibles. Photography is not permitted in the interior, except in the large hall.
The terraces, outdoor pool, and gardens are gorgeous, so spend time wandering the paths behind the house. With fabulous views over the city and a variety of manicured plants, trees, and bushes, the back gardens invite you to linger and take in the beauty at leisure.
At the end of your visit, be sure to stop by the bar for a rum tasting, included in the price of admission. We tasted several different flavors of sweet rum, including pineapple, coconut, and passion fruit. Delicious!
You can buy a combination admission ticket for the Museo Castillo Serrallés, La Cruceta del Vigía, and the Japanese Garden at the ticket booth along the road going up the hill to the mansion. If you drive up, note that you have to park on the side of the road outside the estate.
#2 Admire the Parque de Bombas
The Parque de Bombas, located in the Plaza las Delicias in the heart of the historic center, was formerly a firehouse. Painted a bold red, the attractive museum is probably the most photographed building in Ponce.
Built in 1882, the Parque de Bombas is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The interior is colorful as well, with a firefighting-themed frieze.
Walk around and view the old fire truck, the multicolored lions on the upper floor, and the photos of firemen that worked out of the station. There is no admission fee.
#3 Visit the Ponce Cathedral
Located just behind the Parque de Bombas is the graceful Ponce Cathedral, officially La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The cathedral is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Ponce Cathedral has a long and checkered history. A small chapel was built at the site in 1670. A new church was constructed in its place in the early part of the 19th century. The design included two octagonal towers on each side.
The church suffered repeated damage from fires and earthquakes over the next several decades. It was designated a cathedral in 1924, and in 1937, a new structure was completed. The current facade is neoclassical and the design includes the twin towers.
Inside, admire the colonial architecture, pretty blue ceiling, stained glass art, statues, and gorgeous pipe organ. The beautiful main altar was made in Spain.
#4 Take in the views from La Cruceta del Vigía
The Cross of Vigia is located at the top of the Vigia Hill, near the Japanese Garden and the Museo Castillo Serrallés. At 100 feet tall, the giant cross is visible from the city below, and is one of the most visited Ponce tourist attractions.
The original wooden cross, built at the start of the 19th century, was used as a lookout point in colonial times. The watchman would alert the city to the arrival of ships, raising a flag if he could identify the ship’s port of origin. Today’s structure is built of concrete and glass.
The horizontal skybridge, accessed via an elevator (or stairs), offers panoramic views of the city of Ponce, the Caribbean Sea, and the surrounding countryside, albeit through glass. From the skybridge, you can take beautiful aerial-view photos of the Museo Castillo Serrallés just down the road.
While you can walk from the city center to La Cruceta del Vigía, note that it is a leg-busting uphill climb to get there. We drove up: much more comfortable, especially on a warm day, and there is parking at the Cross.
#5 Get your art on the Museo de Arte de Ponce
If you enjoy art, you have a treat in store at the Museum of Art in Ponce. With more than 5,000 works of art from cultures around the world, the quality of the collections here will catch you by surprise.
Ponce’s Museum of Art is widely regarded as the best in the Caribbean. Among the works you’ll see here is Flaming June, Sir Frederic Leighton’s iconic masterpiece.
European masterpieces and art from the New World share the museum with a collection of colorful masks and works by local artists. While there is signage in both English and Spanish explaining the works on display, join a docent-led tour for a delightful experience.
The mid-century modern building looks elegant, and there is a little garden where you can relax for a bit after you complete your tour the exhibits. Browse the little gift shop: we bought some nice prints here to bring home.
#6 Enjoy the serenity at the Japanese Garden
Just across the road from the Cross of Vigia is a little Japanese Garden. With little red bridges, koi ponds featuring colorful fish and a couple of turtles, and a few bonsai, the garden is a serene place to stroll or sit and enjoy the breeze at the top of the hill.
Take photos of the reflecting ponds, let the therapeutic sound of the water soothe you, take in the quiet beauty of the plantings, and just relax for a bit in this peaceful oasis.
#7 Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes
The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center, featuring evidence of pre-Taíno civilizations, such as the Igneris, is a fascinating place to learn about the peoples that once lived on the island.
The ruins were discovered by accident when floods caused by tropical storm Eloise in 1975 retreated from the area. The site has only been partially excavated so far, but significant artifacts and remains of structures have been uncovered.
Burial grounds, plazas, tools and pottery, skeletons, and weapons are some of the finds at the site. A small museum houses the artifacts. You’ll also see replicas of huts from pre-Taíno times, and a botanical garden.
The center is just 3 miles from Ponce. Plan to join a tour in English for an exponentially enhanced experience: call ahead to reserve spots on a tour for the date you want to visit.
#8 Walk the historic center of Ponce
Walking the historic center of Ponce, with its beautiful colonial architecture, is one of the most fun things to do in Ponce! Start by strolling through the Plaza de las Delicias, with its fountains and tree-lined paths.
Then walk the surrounding streets, to admire the colorful facades, often with pretty balconies and other lovely detail. Apart from the Ponce Cathedral and the Parque de Bombas, you’ll find landmarks like the Ponce City Hall and Teatro Fox Delicias in the historic center.
A walking tour is a great way to explore the historical core of Ponce. This highly-rated 2-hour small group tour takes you past many of downtown Ponce’s major landmarks, and you can learn about the city and its history as you walk.
#9 Visit a coffee plantation
Coffee is very much a part of Puerto Rican culture, and if you love coffee and want to learn more, visit a coffee plantation while you are in Ponce.
Hacienda Buena Vista, in the nearby mountains, is a historical site that was once a coffee plantation. Here you can see the fully restored unique hydraulic turbine, and tour the beautiful property. Walk the trail to Salto Vives, the gorgeous waterfall created by Río Canas.
The drive from Ponce to Hacienda Buena Vista is just a little over nine miles, and very scenic. To avoid disappointment, call ahead and reserve a spot on a tour ahead of time: spaces get filled early during high season.
Alternatively, you can visit a working coffee plantation in the mountains, to see the coffee plants and tour the processing center, where coffee beans are sorted and roasted to be ground. This 7.5-hour small group guided tour from Ponce features beautiful views on the journey to and fro and a cup of fresh-brewed local coffee!
#10 Taste the local ice cream
When the concierge at our hotel told us that the ice cream at King’s Cream in downtown Ponce was a must-not-miss local experience, we weren’t sure if she was serious. But we stopped in anyway and were so glad we did!
With a store located conveniently off the Plaza de las Delicias, King’s Cream is also known as Los Chinos de Ponce (the founders are of Chinese origin), and has been serving up ice cream here since 1964.
Try the local flavors: pineapple, tamarind, coconut, passion fruit, or soursop. We tried all of these flavors during our time in Ponce and every single one was delicious!
#11 Enjoy an excursion to Isla de Caja de Muertos
The coffin-shaped island that lies just a few miles off the coast of Ponce makes for great photos. But you can also hop on a boat and go explore the Isla de Caja de Muertos.
The cute island is really tiny: just about 1.5 miles long and about 0.5 mile wide at its widest point. Because it has an endangered turtle population, it is designated a nature reserve. It boasts four beautiful beaches and hiking trails.
To get to Isla de Caja de Muertos, join a catamaran excursion from Salinas, about 30 miles from Ponce. Excursions also depart from the boardwalk at Ponce. The tour includes the opportunity to snorkel in the beautiful clear waters around the island.
Excursions to the island take several hours, so plan on an extra day in Ponce if you wish to experience this magical little island. And take a picnic lunch and drinks with you!
#12 Stroll La Guancha Boardwalk
La Guancha, Ponce’s boardwalk by the Caribbean Sea, is a pleasant place for a daytime stroll but it really comes alive in the evenings, especially on weekends.
Visit during the day to watch the boats and to photograph the pelicans that hang out at the pier. At the time of writing, the boardwalk is still being repaired after Hurricane Maria and you can’t actually walk by the water, but the food marketplace is still thriving.
Visit in the evening to watch the sun set and to have a drink or a bite to eat. On weekends, expect live music performances and lots of crowds.
#13 Look for wildlife
The natural areas around Ponce are home to a variety of wildlife, so pack your binoculars and your camera with zoom lens when you visit! From pelicans and sea turtles to iguanas and green parrots, you’ll find lots of wildlife to photograph here.
We stayed at the Hilton Resort just outside the city, and saw lots of wildlife on the grounds. We spotted the colorful Venezuelan troupial, which can be found on the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, and Puerto Rico, apart from Colombia and Venezuela.
We also saw iguanas with really long tails catching the rays on the trunks of coconut palms. As we watched, one climbed up to the very top of the palm trunk and disappeared into the fronds at the top.
We spotted lots of green parrots in the coconut palms, and a couple of water birds in the pond on the grounds. And from the beach on the property, we observed pelicans in flight. And at dawn, we came across one lone sea turtle resting on the beach.
#14 Tour more museums in Ponce
While the Museum of Art and the Museo Castille Serralles are no-brainers if you enjoy art, history, and local culture, Ponce is home to many other museums that you can visit if you have the time and you enjoy museums.
The Museo de la Arquitectura Ponceña documents the history of architectural styles in Ponce and Puerto Rico. The beautiful house, Casa Wiechers-Villaronga, in which the museum is contained was built in 1912, and is itself an example of a style of 20th century Ponce architecture.
The Museum of History of Ponce is housed in a stunning building with graceful arched windows and a brightly colored facade. It’s a compact museum with exhibits that detail the rich and fascinating history of the city. Docents are super knowledgeable and helpful.
The Museum of Puerto Rico Music is housed in another gorgeous building. It features musical instruments from Spain, Africa, and India, as well as photos of famous local musicians. It’s free to enter.
#15 Admire the street art in Ponce
There’s quite a bit of street art in Ponce, and you’ll see some evocative examples as you walk around in the historic center and in other parts of the city. A lot of the art describes political, social, and economic events that have caused pain and problems for the people of Puerto Rico.
But we also saw a few cute pieces of art without any serious undertones. I took lots of photos of the artwork on the outside walls at the restrooms at the Japanese Garden, showing the landmarks in the area.
#16 Do a day trip to Guánica
Guánica is a beautiful coastal wilderness area a few miles west of Ponce, and is worth visiting on a day trip if you enjoy the outdoors. Pack a picnic lunch and drinks and carry sunscreen and a sun hat, and enjoy an active day in this beautiful part of the island.
Founded by Juan Ponce de León in 1508, the area is famous for the Guánica Dry Forest Reserve, with its numerous hiking trails, beaches, and caves.
The dry tropical forest features several hundred species of plants and numerous species of birds, some of them unique to the region. Be sure to take your binoculars and a camera with zoom lens along! The water views all along the coastal road are beautiful.
You can also take the ferry to Gilligan’s Island and spend a couple of hours swimming, snorkeling (rent gear in Guanica), or birdwatching. The island is famous for its mangrove trees. There are no amenities on the island.
#17 Do a half-day trip to San German
If you enjoy history and culture, do a part-day trip to the nearby historic town of San Germán, founded in the early part of the 16th century. San Germán is the oldest Spanish settlement in Puerto Rico after San Juan.
The Porta Coéli Convent-Church in the historical center is a must-visit. Perched on a hill, the church presides over a pretty plaza in the historic part of the town. It is now a museum, featuring religious art, wooden statues, and beautiful tile displays of scenes from the Bible.
Also visit the San Germán de Auxerre Church, with its beautiful yellow facade accented with white. Wander the streets of the historic core to admire the beautiful colonial architecture, and linger in the peaceful plazas.
Getting to Ponce
Ponce does have an international airport, but most visitors will arrive here from San Juan. Renting a car and driving yourself is the most convenient and most flexible way to visit Ponce from San Juan.
Discover Cars offers you the ability to compare availability and prices across many major car-hire companies. Pick the car that best meets your needs!
Ponce is about 73 miles from San Juan, and you can do the drive in about 1.5 hours in normal traffic. The route goes over the mountains and is extremely scenic.
Getting around in Ponce
The historic center of Ponce is walkable, and taxis are available as well. There is also a trolley, operated by the city tourism department, that stops at major sights, but schedules are not carved in stone and you might have long waits.
If you stay outside the historic center, as we did, you will need a car to get around. Vacant parking spots in the historic center can be hard to find during the day, so get there early. There is a charge for parking close to the historic core.
Where to stay in Ponce
We stayed at the Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort, a few miles outside the historic center of Ponce. It has a private beach and the grounds are gorgeous.
Our room was large and very comfortable. We had a balcony with a view of the water. A great place to have your coffee in the morning and watch the sun rise. The pool area is lovely, and there are multiple in-house dining options, including a buffet.
Book a stay here
The best time to visit Ponce
From a weather perspective, any time between December and May is a great time to visit Ponce. Daytime highs are in the 80s, with plenty of blue skies and sunshine. If you can, time your travel for late spring to early summer for great weather and fewer crowds.
Hurricane season in Puerto Rico runs from June until November, so travel disruptions might occur during this period. But Puerto Rico is beautiful all year round, so if you are willing to take a little risk, you’ll find the beaches less crowded.
The Ponce Carnival occurs in February or March, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. With daily parades and pageantry, live music and dance, and lots of great food and drink, Carnival is a great time to visit Ponce. But be prepared for crowds and higher accommodation prices!
How long should you spend in Ponce?
If you are on a tight Puerto Rico itinerary, one day in Ponce will enable you to take in the major sights in the city, especially if you have a car.
But if you have more time, spend two or three days in Ponce to soak up the atmosphere of the charming colonial city and to explore the southern coast of Puerto Rico with Ponce as your base.
So there you have it: my suggestions for the best things to do in Ponce, Puerto Rico! Have you been? I would love to read your thoughts, if you have: comment below to respond!
If you have not yet visited, I hope you will add it to your itinerary for Puerto Rico! And if you are planning a trip to this idyllic Caribbean island, discover the perfect Puerto Rico itinerary for your first visit, and the best things to do in Old San Juan, the colorful historic district in the capital of Puerto Rico, including a visit to El Morro, the iconic fort that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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