Located on the southern coast, Ponce—La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South)—is Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. Founded in 1692 by Juan Ponce de León y Loayza, the legendary Spanish explorer’s great-grandson, Ponce’s museums and colonial buildings date to when it was Spain’s capital for the island’s southern region.
1. Stroll through Plaza las Delicias. Constructed in 1670, the Plaza of Delights is the heart of Ponce’s historic zone. Visit the city’s oldest colonial building, the Casa Alcaldía (City Hall), cool off at the Fuente de los Leones (Fountain of the Lions), or hop on a trolley to other city attractions.
2. Get lost in the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Ponce’s art museum boasts a 4,500- piece permanent collection from Europe, Africa and the Americas, including works spanning 30 centuries. ($6)
3. Mingle with Ponceños at La Guancha. Ponce’s boardwalk overlooking the Caribbean is a great place to sample local cuisine at the kiosks. Try a cold malta (a nonalcoholic carbonated malt beverage) and cuchifritos (fritters), including bacalaitos (fried codfish) and pastelillos (meat or cheese turnovers).
4. Visit the house that rum built. Constructed in 1926 during the height of sugarcane production in Ponce, El Castillo de Serrallés (Serrallés Castle) was once home to the powerful rum-producing family of the same name. When the tour ends, buy a bottle of Don Q, Serrallés’ most popular rum. (Tour fee: $7)
5. See Ponce’s most iconic symbol. Constructed in 1882, the wood-framed, red-and-black-striped Parque de Bombas was the first fire station on the island. Today, it is a museum honoring Ponce’s firefighters. (Free)
6. Step back in time. The Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center site, about three miles from Ponce, pays tribute to the pre-Columbian Igneri and Taíno who originally inhabited the archipelago. It includes the largest known Indigenous burial ground in the Antilles, a reconstructed village and a museum. ($3)
7. Learn about Puerto Rico’s Independentistas. Once a shoemaker’s shop that served as a clandestine meeting place for the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, the Casa de la Masacre de Ponce (House of the Ponce Massacre) commemorates the 1937 police killing of 19 peaceful protesters and chronicles Puerto Rico’s pro-independence activism. (Free)
8. Experience a hydro-powered coffee plantation. At its height, the nineteenth-century Hacienda Buena Vista produced 10,000 pounds of coffee per year. The restored plantation, about seven miles from Ponce, features the only existing model of the Barker hydraulic turbine. Reservations required. ($10.70)
9. Leave civilization behind. Take a ferry ride to the Isla Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island), where you can hike, visit the lighthouse constructed in 1887, snorkel, kayak, or just enjoy a day on the beach. Bring your own food and water. Reservations required. ($25)
10. Feel the island rhythm. The Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña (Museum of Puerto Rican Music) celebrates the island’s musical heritage, with special emphasis on traditional danza, bomba and plena. (Free)
All photos courtesy of the author.