ocals get excited when talking about Ponce. The conversation usually starts with “you’ll love the architecture, “the Museum of Art is a must-see” and ends with “the nightlife is excellent”.
At first glance, the historic heart of Puerto Rico’s second-largest city feels quiet: far fewer tourists are mingling about in its squares, and the streets are mostly empty. The vibrant-coloured buildings designed in everything from Spanish Colonial to art deco and art nouveau to neoclassical are charming, and it is within these that Ponce’s real appeal lies. You could spends hours learning about its diverse history, traditions, art and culture.
From mountains to museums and plazas to plena, here’s our guide to spending the perfect few days in La Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South).
What to see and do
Start at Plaza Las Delicias, the main square where Parque de Bombas takes centre stage. The iconic red and black building was a fire station in 1882 before being turned into a museum and a tourist information office. Another landmark is Ponce Cathedral dating back to 1670. Over the years, the structure has been demolished, reconstructed and renovated several times due to earthquakes and hurricanes, most recently in 2020.
Between 7-11 January 2020, two strong earthquakes measuring 6.4 and 5.9 magnitudes hit southern Puerto Rico, destroying and damaging historic buildings like Casa Alcaldía (City Hall) and Residencia Armstrong-Poventud. Walking around Ponce today you will see intricately carved structures lying derelict and disused, a consequence of natural disasters. Museo de la Masacre de Ponce, a human rights museum that depicted the events surrounding the bloody massacre in 1937, was also damaged. Although it has permanently closed its doors, it is well worth a visit to reflect on the moment and honour the victims of the infamous event.
Ponce is a city for museum lovers, thanks to its deep-rooted connection to art and culture. Museo de Arte de Ponce is home to a collection of 4,500 European and Puerto Rican art depicted through paintings, sculptures, installations, photos and videos. On a much smaller scale, Centro Cultural de Ponce celebrates musical icons from the genres of bomba, salsa and plena, a music and dance form that originated here in the 1900s.
The city prides itself on its heritage, and there is no better time to see that than at Ponce Carnival or Carnaval Ponceño. The annual event, which takes place in February, sees thousands of people take to the streets in vejigante masks. To understand the origins of Ponce and its indigenous Taino people, visit Museo de la Historia de Ponce (temporarily closed) and Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center.
For sweeping views of the entire city, head to Museo Castillo Serrallés, a stately home belonging to the Sarralles family, owners of Don Q rum. For $15, visitors get a guided tour of the house, starting with a short film looking at how the family developed the area from a sugar cane farm into a rum distillery. The most striking feature of the estate is its perfectly manicured garden, the one surrounding the house and Jardín Japonés, a tranquil Japanese garden filled with bonsais and ponds. There is also Cruceta del Vigía, an imposing cross built in the 19th century to monitor and alert of possible pirate attacks.
When all that walking has left you tired, head to La Guancha for a chilled evening stroll or a lazy day on the beach. This picturesque seaside boardwalk is laden with restaurants and bars, a particular favourite with the locals looking to unwind.
You can replace the beach with a day on a coffee farm in the mountains. About an hour away from the city, Hacienda Pomarrosa is a family-run enterprise producing premium quality beans on a small patch of land since 1995. Visitors can book a two-hour tour around the plantation or stay at the five villas and apartments surrounded by lush green landscape and ocean views.
Where to eat and drink
Most places to eat in Ponce are within hotels surrounding Plaza Muñoz Rivera and Plaza Degetau, the two smaller squares in Plaza Las Delicias. La Potoroca inside Boutique Hotel Bélgica serves excellent breakfast with fresh Puerto Rican coffee. On the menu are fill-me-ups like waffles, pancakes, eggs and omelettes. For something on the go, grab delicious produce from a panadería or fresh fruit from Plaza del Mercado de Ponce, the art deco-style market constructed in 1863.
Opposite Ponce Cathedral, Tablas Steakhouse & Seafood is known for its fresh prawns and meat dishes. Their specialities include stuffed avocados placed on a bed of rice and beans topped with chunks of pork or shrimps. Two buildings away, Lola Eclectic Cuisine has an ambience that comes to life at night. As the name suggests, the cuisine and interiors are a fusion of different countries and flavours. Start with snails and mushrooms in herb butter, covered with phyllo, followed by grilled salmon in leek cream and finish with a house flan. They boast an impressive selection of wines stacked in a cellar on display as you enter. Non-wine drinkers can choose from a list of carefully put-together cocktails, whatever your beverage of choice.
Tucked away from the tourist route, El Rastro is a lounge-style restaurant started by entrepreneurs Maria Isabel Rivera and Lucesita Mendez. This quirky eatery celebrates local produce and gives it a global twist. The menu changes every two weeks, encouraging diners to go on a different culinary journey with each mouthful. The same diversity is incorporated in their music playlist comprising French, South American, African and jazz. The restaurant also doubles up as an art gallery with local artists’ work on sale. You’ll find everything from pad thai and dumplings to fish and garlic mushrooms. This thriving local enterprise is a must-visit. El Rastro is open from Thursday through to Sunday.
Ponce is known for its bustling nightlife with plenty of places to go dancing and enjoy a drink. La Bodeguita 63 and Vistas are open till the early hours of the morning.
Where to stay
Located in Ponce’s historic zone, Melia Century Hotel is the oldest operating hotel in Puerto Rico, constructed in 1895 by Bartolo Meliá. This landmark hotel also became the first to offer a telephone line and a private bathroom in each room. Much of its reception area has been redesigned, upgrading it to compete with its modern rivals. The rooms, however, still exude age-old character with pieces of original furnishings. Rooms begin from £140, excluding breakfast.
Ponce is just over an hour’s drive from San Juan. JetBlue operates direct flights from Orlando and New York to Mercedita International Airport.
For more information, visit Discover Puerto Rico