Beach getaways are pretty much a guaranteed win when it comes to planning a family vacay. You get some sun and R&R, the kids have a blast in the sand and water. But not every beach comes with a culinary and cultural experience all in one. Puerto Vallarta, located in the Jalisco state on the West coast of Mexico, offers all three. Your family can get an ocean-side resort experience while exploring local sites and cuisine that offer an authentic taste of this bustling city.
Beyond the rich history, stunning beaches and diverse mountain landscape, here are our top five reasons why Puerto Vallarta makes for a great family vacation destination:
It Feels Like Mexico.
Venture off the resort and you’ll find cobblestone roads, quaint shops, local art and traditional street performances. The downtown walkways are brimming with music, independent eateries and tiny shops, all frequented by locals—many of who are happy to help or converse with visitors. You’re also never far from green mountains or the ocean, so even if you’re at a popular tourist destination, you’re surrounded by a stunning landscape unique to Puerto Vallarta.
There’s Tons to Do with the Kids.
Family activities and water fun run the gamut from whale watching and dolphin swims to kayaking and jet skiing to scuba diving and snorkeling. Beaches are also prime hangouts for experienced surfers and newbie paddleboarders alike. In Puerto Vallarta, there are eight Blue Flag-certified beaches, meaning they’re clean, safe and comfortable. They are Palmares, Camarones, Playa de Oro, Amapas, Conchas Chinas I, Conchas Chinas II, Garza Blanca and Sheraton. Playa Los Muertos on the Malecón is also an idyllic spot to take in the ocean breeze, a Mexican lager and the sunset. Hit Marina Vallarta, where you can explore shops, a golf course, cafes and Huichol handicrafts on the water.
Puerto Vallarta boasts charming streets surrounded by lush green mountains opposite the sea. Tour historic monuments and churches downtown, take in the natural beauty of the nearby Botanical Garden or Los Arcos National Marine Park or experience the majesty of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains on horseback, (ride the trail on an ATV if the kids are old and brave enough).
For a taste of local history, make a stop at El Museo del Cuale, where you’ll get a chance to see archaeological discoveries from excavations around Mexico. You can also visit the Naval History Museum downtown to see paintings, maps, uniforms and exhibits. If you have a budding Picasso on your hands, sign up for the annual ArtWalk with the Historic Center (currently, it’s on every Wednesday from 6-10 pm through May 29) to see various galleries and works around the city.
So. Much. Street Food.
Tacos are the king of street food in Puerto Vallarta, and can be found at stands and open air sit-downs peppering each and every block. As all other Mexican states, Jalisco has its own signature taco: birria, a braised meat stew made with either goat or beef cooked with chiles and served with raw onions and lime. The best part about birria tacos? Drinking the consomé, aka the savory juice at the bottom of the stew pot, often served in a plastic cup with raw onions.
For the best birria, head to Tacos Cabrera, and don’t forget to ask for your consomé. You can also get your fix at Tacos de Birria Chanfay, here on a dorado (aka a crispy shell; most places only serve soft corn tortillas). You can find a chile relleno (a shrimp-stuffed and fried chile pepper) taco, plus stingray and smoked marlin, at Mariscos Cisneros. If you’re all about carnitas when you go to Chipotle, get the real deal at Carnitas Lalo, where the pork is made as is tradition, in lard (wash it down with Mexican Coke in a glass bottle).
The best Baja-style fried fish taco in town is at Marisma, where the batter recipe is top secret and only known by the owners. Or, save yourself the work and choose an experience with Vallarta Eats Food Tours before you get there (request Manny as your guide, and ask about seeing the local tortilla factory where you can taste one piping hot right off the line). Most taco stands also boast agua fresca, refreshing drinks made with equal parts water and fruit juice. Popular flavors include hibiscus, guava, tamarind and guanábana (soursop).
Protip: Only eat from food stands that put their plates in sleeves of plastic wrap. Street food vendors don’t have running water to wash dishes, so instead of using disposable plates, reputable ones typically use reusable ones and simply toss the sleeves between customers.
For dessert, stop at La Michoacana for paletas, Mexican popsicles that come in every flavor from strawberry to sweet corn to mango chile, or Dulcería con Orgullo Azteca, a traditional Mexican candy shop.
El Malecón Is a Local Treasure the Whole Family Will Appreciate.
Your family loves a Jersey boardwalk, but El Malecón, meaning pier, takes that idea up a notch. Walk along the ocean, snap pics in front of iconic statues (first-timers should visit the giant Puerto Vallarta letters), sip beer from a new local brewery, have dinner at a nearby eatery (we were blown away by Café Des Artistes, an open-air restaurant tucked away between twinkle lights, artwork and trees) and shop everything from indigenous handicrafts to Frida Kahlo paintings. Many shops have traditional skeleton dioramas (think two skeletons getting married, a skeleton bar scene or even the skeleton Rolling Stones) and figurines of La Catrina (Mexico’s most famous calavera), both of which show Mexico’s tradition of laughing at death rather than fearing it.
Check out the nearby Romantic Zone, known for its old school red tile buildings, boutique hotels and LGBTQ population, and the famous Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, a brick church topped with an ornate crown. In the main square, you’ll spot a gazebo where the municipal band plays live music every Sunday while locals and tourists alike dance the danzón. Go before dusk for breathtaking views of the sun setting over the Pacific. It’s even prettier with an horchata agua fresca in hand.
It’s All About Family-Friendly Resorts—and We Love This One!
Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, located just 10 minutes from the airport, boasts an infinity pool with a swim-up bar (and fresh coconut water on the pool deck!), a near-private beach, al fresco and indoor dining, the Marina Vallarta Golf Course, a primo fitness center and the Ohtli Spa that combines modern amenities with ancient healing traditions. There’s also an over-the-top kids club with both a mini water park and an indoor play area open to kids ages 4-12 from 7 am-6 pm. It costs 200 pesos (that’s about $11 USD) for the first hour, and 100 pesos more for every hour after that up to five.
If you’re going to eat at the resort, try Las Casitas for lobster tacos, chile and Mexican chocolate-encrusted ribeye or the catch of the day. For a quick cocktail and bite, hit the Ceviche & Tequila Bar that offers more than 180 tequilas, mezcals and raicillas (a distilled spirit native to Jalisco). The most special culinary experience, though, is Jalisco at Your Table. Book this experience in advance to try a seven-course tasting menu consisting exclusively of dishes from Jalisco state. Highlights include La Crema del Rancho, a roasted corn cream topped with panela cheese, dehydrated chorizo and a mini elote (aka Mexican street corn); Zarandeado Fish Style, fresh fish cooked over a wood-fired oven served on a tiny skewer in honor of one-off beach vendors who sell fish on a stick, and of course, more birria tacos made with slow-cooked short rib and guajillo chiles. Your family can savor every bite at a special outdoor table in the herb garden.
A Few More Things to Know Before You Go
Direct flights from Newark are about 5 ½ hours long. It’s warm there year-round (from the 60s to the 90s), though the cooler season (highs in the low 80s) is mid-December to early April. If you want to avoid rain and too-high temperatures, go between April and June. As for currency, locals use the Mexican peso. One US dollar is equivalent to a little more than 18 pesos, so you’ll find your money goes a long way in PV. While Spanish is spoken everywhere, you can get by on English both at most resorts and hotels and in local shops and restaurants.