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Soak up historic charm in Puerto Vallarta

Playa de los Muertos in Puerto Vallarta. Photo by Ferrantraite/Getty Images

As I strolled down the Puerto Vallarta waterfront, I admired sculptures by some of Mexico’s most famous artists and savored mariachi blending with the sounds of crashing waves and ringing church bells. When I reached the end of the pier, I gazed out at the expanse of Banderas Bay and the Sierra Madre behind it—one of Mexico’s most distinctive views.

Whereas resort areas such as Cancún and Cabo San Lucas were developed in the 1970s to draw tourists, Puerto Vallarta began as a fishing village and port in Spanish Colonial times. The town evolved in the late 1800s, but it really landed on the visitor map in the 1960s thanks to Hollywood royalty vacationing here and publicity from the 1964 film Night of the Iguana.

In the ensuing decades, regular appearances on The Love Boat added to the city’s celebrity. As a result of this history, Puerto Vallarta feels like the kind of older beach town you might find in Spain or Italy, and it has plenty of charm after the sun goes down.

These days, visitors stay in town or head to one of the beach resorts that fan out into Nayarit, from Nuevo Vallarta up to Bucerías, Punta de Mita, and Sayulita, and south to Costalegre.

You may also like: Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit has the best beach towns you’ve never heard of

What to do

Puerto Vallarta Skyline

View of Puerto Vallarta's inviting skyline. Photo by Diego Grandi/Envato Elements

Unlike many sprawling North American beach resort areas, Puerto Vallarta is a walking city. Stroll the Malecón, or seaside promenade, that extends from the southern pier past the Zona Romántica to the town’s center. The walk is punctuated with sculptures by some of Mexico’s best-known artists, including Rafael Zamarripa Castañeda.

Get out on the water with a boat trip. You can snorkel around Los Arcos National Marine Park, head to remote Yelapa, or simply enjoy a mellow sunset cruise.

Take a food tour. Explore taco stands or sample bites at ambitious restaurants. Or join a tequila tasting: Most bottles come from only a few hours away.

Hit the clubs. Beach clubs party by day and nightclubs run until the wee hours in Mexico’s most LGBTQ-friendly destination. For a more low-key evening, settle in at a bar with a view or just watch the sun set behind Banderas Bay.

Play the links. Two golf courses are open to the public—one in the marina area and the other in the foothills at Vista Vallarta.

Where to eat

A serving of chile en nogada

Chile en nogada served at Café des Artistes. Photo by Andrew Reiner

Café des Artistes launched the career of celebrity chef Thierry Blouet more than 3 decades ago. Blouet’s blending of Mexican ingredients with classic French cooking techniques have made the restaurant a favorite spot for celebrating special occasions.

Sushi and coastal Mexican food share some common ground. Sendo made a splash when it opened in 2021, capitalizing on fresh local seafood to create memorable omakase meals, where diners leave it to the sushi chef to decide what’s best that day.

Near the marina area, the big and brash gastropub La Madalena draws fun-seekers: Loud music, an army of waiters, and tableside mixology carts accompany steaks, seafood, and pasta.

Where to stay

The adults-only Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel & Romantic Getaway beach resort is walking distance to the promenade and has 2 pools and excellent dining. Rates start at about $225; higher for all-inclusive. 

Located about 4 miles south of downtown in a picturesque cove backed by the lush Sierra Madre, Hilton Vallarta Riviera All-Inclusive Resort has modern ocean-view rooms, infinity pools, and on-site restaurants. Rates start at about $520.

Tim Leffel is the author of A Better Life for Half the Price. He lives in Guanajuato, Mexico.

You may also like: 5 stunning all-inclusive Mexico resorts you’ll want to visit

If you go

For the latest Mexico safety information, visit the U.S. State Department's website or contact your travel advisor. At press time, the U.S. State Department urged Americans to “reconsider travel” to Jalisco state but noted no additional restrictions for its U.S. government employees in Puerto Vallarta’s tourist areas (including neighboring Riviera Nayarit). 

Ask your hotel’s concierge about local safety precautions. “We can tell you, ‘Yes, that place is okay, or no, that’s not good,’ ” says Arturo Sanchez, concierge at Andaz Mexico City Condesa. Avoid hailing taxis on the street. Instead, book all ground transportation through your hotel, Sanchez says. And exercise greater caution at night, especially outside tourist zones.

You may also like: Savor the laid-back life in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Find your own beach in Costalegre

The sparsely populated “Happy Coast” is about 150 miles south of Puerto Vallarta. A few forward-looking captains of industry bought huge tracts of land here decades ago, and those tracts eventually turned into villas you can rent in the private community of Careyes and luxury suites at Las Alamandas, a boutique resort with 4 beaches. Or check out the newly opened Four Seasons Tamarindo, México (rates start at $895).

For a more budget-friendly stay, rent a car and dodge potholes and iguanas on the hour-long drive from El Tuito on the main highway to Hotel Mayto (rates start at $100) on Mayto Beach.

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