1. Where to Stay
Have a spiritual experience at Hacienda San Angel (from $225), made up of four interconnected private homes (one of which formerly belonged to Richard Burton) that contain twenty suites adorned with religious art and antiques. The stunning compound has the serenity of a monastery, complete with burbling fountains, cascading bougainvillea, and the scent of fresh lilies.
Sleep close to the centro’s restaurants, bars, and galleries at the Landmark Hotel (from $175), a month-old boutique that overlooks the waterfront malecón. All eight suites are spacious, but book the Presidential Suite (from $475) if you need two bedrooms and want an outdoor Jacuzzi on a private balcony.
Find refuge in quieter Old Town at Hacienda Alemana (from $81), a popular German restaurant whose owner recently opened a ten-room hotel, accessible through an inconspicuous wooden door at the back of the restaurant. The simple studios and suites, situated around a serene courtyard and small swimming pool, are plainly yet elegantly outfitted with white linens, marble counters, and modern bathroom fixtures.
2. Where to Eat
Experience contemporary Mexican gastronomy at La Leche, featuring the avant-garde cuisine of fourth-generation chef Alfonso Cadena. The dramatic all-white interior evokes a surrealist pantry, while the French-fusion menu features an ever-changing parade of seafood and local ingredients in dishes like “Cream of Nothing” soup ($7.50), the signature duck ($25), and chocolate pudding with popcorn ice cream.
Sip an Horchata Rusa ($5), a Mexican twist on a white Russian, at La Luna, opened in October by chef Miriam Flores, who moved back to her hometown after stints in Portland, Spain, and Ireland. The menu is short but eclectic, offering both a burger with chipotle mayo ($7.50) and a pork shank with jalapeno-tomatillo sauce and mashed potatoes ($13.50). Flores also gives cooking classes weekly, complete with lunch, wine, and recipes to take home ($62 per person).
Find updated preparations of regional Mexican specialties at No Way Jose in the quaint Zona Romantica. Ask for a table on the roof and order the sweet-and-savory chiles en nogada ($11), poblano peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and dried fruit then doused with a creamy almond sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
3. What to Do
Explore the newly pedestrianized malecón, the downtown seaside promenade recently made car-free by a $3.8 million renovation. Rent tandem bikes and sea kayaks for free from the tourism office’s table (daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) near the sculpture-studded boardwalk’s north end. Stick around in the evening, when buskers, clowns, dancers, and food vendors hawking tres leches cake, skewered shrimp, and spicy corn draw locals and visitors alike.
Gallery-hop at the Romantic Zone’s South Side Shuffle, held every other Friday along Basilio Badillo Street. Check out the huge Galleria Dante, packed to the rafters with expressionist and surrealist canvases by locals like Guillermo Brockman, and the new Pulpo Rojo, a sociopolitical-focused workshop and gallery popular with Vallarta’s hipster cognoscenti. Across the river, visit a cluster of seventeen downtown art spaces at the Wednesday-night Art Walk, where notable spots like Galeria Corsica and Galeria Pacifico stay open until 10 p.m, plying would-be collectors with wine, cheese, and contemporary Mexican art.
Escape the cheesy oceanfront tourist bars and venture inland a few blocks to El Patio de Mi Casa, a laid-back outdoor lounge and wood-fired pizza place that feels like a friend’s backyard garden. Sip a Danzantes mezcal from Oaxaca ($6) or a blended tea from Mexico City’s Caravanserai ($2) to a soundtrack of live jazz on Friday nights and D.J.’s on Saturdays.
4. Insider’s Tip
When it comes to local liquors, the Mexican city of Tequila has its eponymous elixir, but the state of Jalisco has raicilla. Made in Vallarta’s outlying villages of El Tuito and San Sebastian del Oeste, it used to be the case that you had to know someone with a bathtub operation to get a taste; recently, however, it’s become legal. Pick up a bottle of El Real raicilla oro ($43) or the longer-aged añeja ($55) at Cork + Bottle in the Romantic Zone.
5. Oddball Day
Pack a bathing suit, mosquito repellent, and comfortable walking shoes: You’re heading to the jungle. First, grab a spicy breakfast at Birriería Robles (Constitución between Carranza and Cardenas, Zona Romantica), where the goat tacos—topped with fresh cilantro, shredded cabbage, pickled onions, and green chile salsa—are a tasty bargain at about 75 cents each. Walk inland two blocks, to Aguacate and Carranza, and look for a bus with “El Tuito” scrawled on the windshield (buses run regularly), pay the driver $1.50, and climb aboard. Heading south on bumpy Highway 200, you’ll pass five-star resorts, luxury villas, and little pueblitos before arriving, about 40 minutes later, at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens ($5, closed Mondays April-December). Hike on trails that wind through the lush grounds, past vanilla orchids and coffee plants and jungle-size tropical spiders, before ending up at a swimming hole in the mountain river. A glass of iced jamaica tea (included in admission) awaits you post-hike at the river-view Hacienda de Oro restaurant, where you can lunch on steak-and-gouda quesadillas ($9) or shrimp pizza ($17) from the brick oven. In the afternoon, grab a northbound bus to the mellow enclave of Boca de Tomatlan, where the river meets the bay. It’s little more than a sandbar with a few restaurants, bird-watching, and clear water, good for swimming and kayaking. When you’ve had your fill of sleepy beach life, board a bus back toward the city and ask the driver to let you off near Conchas Chinas, an exclusive neighborhood that’s Vallarta’s answer to Beverly Hills. Hail a taxi up the hill to the Mondavi Resort, where the Breathtaking Restaurant has panoramic bay-and-villa views that almost make up for the cheesy name. Sip a cucumber margarita and dine on artfully plated fusion dishes while trying to spot the whales that winter in the Bay of Banderas before the sun sets over the water below.
Get all the official tourism materials from the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s site, Visit Puerto Vallarta.
Find info on sightseeing tours, restaurants, art galleries, and more at Virtual Vallarta, the online home of the bilingual glossy Vallarta Lifestyles.
Covering Puerto Vallarta and the nearby Riviera Nayarit, Bay magazine publishes dining reviews and listings for events, workshops, classes, and more in English and Spanish; a digital version is posted online weekly.
For a younger perspective on the notoriously retiree-filled city, check out the Simply Vallarta blog, run by a Philly transplant.
Written in English, PV Pulse is a resource for local news stories and useful guides to anything from PV’s best surf breaks to how to ride public transport.