Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupa in Downtown Puerto Vallarta

Downtown Puerto Vallarta: What To Do & Where To Stay in 2023

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You are in the right place because this article covers all the must-see things to do and what to eat in Downtown Puerto Vallarta, one of Mexico’s favorite beach destinations.

Downtown Puerto Vallarta is the heart of this community. There may be better beaches in secluded regions of the bay but the culture of Puerto Vallarta is rooted in downtown. From the malecón (beach boardwalk) to the church, restaurants, lookout points, and cobblestone streets, Downtown Puerto Vallarta is an absolute must-see for everyone visiting the area.

I have lived in Jalisco since 2009 and my mom has been traveling to Puerto Vallarta since the 1960s. We love and treasure this part of Mexico.

I invite you to check out my vision of what makes Downtown Puerto Vallarta so special.

Downtown Puerto Vallarta: Overview

Downtown Puerto Vallarta is the soul of the Bahía de Banderas Metropolitan Region. The area around the parish church is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Puerto Vallarta. There is a lot of traditional Mexican architecture that can transport the casual observer back in time.

Cobblestone streets, brick buildings, tropical gardens, murals, street food vendors, and papel picado strung across the streets create a timeless vision of Mexico.

Downtown is a very small area that is sandwiched between the 5 de Diciembre neighborhood to the north, Cerro de la Cruz Hill to the east, and the Cuale River to the south. The Emiliano Zapata neighborhood, which is commonly referred to as the Zona Romantica, had a very different development experience as it is situated on the far side of the river.

There is so much to do in such a small area that is incredibly walkable. Most visitors will enjoy walking everywhere just to see what is around the next corner. Photo walks are particularly fruitful.

My favorite morning of a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta included coffee at Puerto Cafe, a walk along the malecón, a hike up to the Cerro de la Cruz lookout point, birria tacos, and some spectacular murals along the way. Life doesn’t get much better than that until you head to the beach in the afternoon.

What is the downtown area in Puerto Vallarta called?

Puerto Vallarta letter on the malecón

Downtown Puerto Vallarta is called the Zona Centro, Centro, or El Centro. You will see it painted on the front window of every public bus in the region. Zona Centro is the most important stop on the highway that leads to both Colima and Nayarit.

You may also hear people talk about the malecón. There is a huge beach boardwalk that runs the entire length of the Zona Centro downtown area. The malecón continues south of the Cuale River but is greatly reduced when it enters the Zona Romantica where it eventually disappears. The only malecón that really matters is the one downtown.

Is Puerto Vallarta a walkable city?

View of the Bahía de Banderas from Cerro de la Cruz

Puerto Vallarta is a city of 250,000 people. It is 13 km (8 miles) from north to south. The city as a whole is too large to be considered walkable. However, there are neighborhoods within the city that are some of the most walkable neighborhoods on the planet.

Downtown, 5 de Diciembre, and the Zona Romantica are a walker’s dream. There is nearly everything that a vacationer could desire within a few blocks. During peak traffic periods like spring break, it is easier to walk than it is to drive a car and find parking.

The best beaches in Puerto Vallarta are the exception to this walkability. The beaches in town are nice but a short drive north or south reveals some of the world’s finest beaches. It would be a shame to come all the way to Puerto Vallarta and not visit Yelapa or Majahuitas.

Puerto Vallarta Malecón Boardwalk

The best thing to do in Puerto Vallarta is to walk the malecón boardwalk, preferably at sunset. It is beautiful and there is so much to see, do, and eat.

Alejandro Colunga sculpture garden on the malecón at dusk

The Piece by Alejandro Colunga is my personal favorite. I have seen his art all over Guadalajara but the dramatic sunsets over the water really bring his surrealist vision to life.

It is the type of boardwalk that makes you want to come back every day for a walk.

What is the main street in Puerto Vallarta?

The main street in Puerto Vallarta

The main street in Puerto Vallarta is Highway 200 which runs along the coast of western Mexico. The highway has evolved over the years to make room for the malecón and accommodate more traffic. The northbound lanes and the southbound lanes split through downtown.

From the airport and through the marina, the main road is named Blvd Francisco Medina Ascencio and affectionately called Paseo de las Palmas.

The road splits at Calle Brasilia in the 5 de Diciembre neighborhood and changes names in Downtown and the Zona Romantica. The southbound lane is named Av. Mexico in 5 de Diciembre, Calle Morelos in Downtown, and Calle Vallarta in the Zona Romantica. The northbound lane is named Calle Colombia in 5 de Diciembre, Calle Juarez in Downtown, and Calle Insurgentes in the Zona Romantica.

What is considered Old Town Puerto Vallarta?

Old Town Puerto Vallarta

Old Town Puerto Vallarta, known as Viejo Vallarta in Spanish, is the Colonia Emiliano Zapata. However, almost all English speakers refer to this neighborhood as the Zona Romantica.

The Cuale River separated the Zona Romantica from the Zona Centro in the early years. After Hurricane Rosyln washed out the bridges in 2022 many Puerto Vallarta locals remembered how isolated the Zona Romantica can feel, even with the modern tunnels.

Zona Romantica Puerto Vallarta

The Zona Romantica is one of the premier LGBTQ beach destinations in the world. The LGBTQ community is responsible for the rehabilitation of a historically disadvantaged neighborhood. In the 1980s, there was still a great deal of persecution of LGBTQ businesses pushing them into less desirable neighborhoods. Much like San Francisco, California, the LGBTQ community transformed a dangerous neighborhood into a fabulous international destination that mainstream developers wanted a piece of.

The name, “Zona Romantica” is a reference to the red light district that was much more prominent in the 1980s than it is today.

Today, the Zona Romantica is one of the prime examples of gentrification in Mexico. Developers have built massive multiuse complexes along the water and are now heading inland. The number of high-end developments has pushed out most of the low-income residents.

Best Hotels in Downtown Puerto Vallarta

One thing that you will notice about the hotel options in Downtown Puerto Vallarta is there are no massive all-inclusive resorts like there are in the Hotel Zone. There are more budget accommodations than mid-range options. There are a couple of boutique hotels that have luxury remodels in a traditional coastal-Mexican architectural style.

Casa Kimberly is the former home of Puerto Vallarta icons, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They preserved the Puente Del Amor Bridge and built a respectable restaurant and tequila bar called The Iguana.

📍Budget Option – Blaze Hotel & Suites Vallarta
📍 Mid-Range Option – Luna Líquida Hotel Boutique (9.2/10)
📍Luxury Option – Casa Kimberly (9.8/10)
📍Luxury Option – Hacienda San Angel (9.6/10)

Best Restaurants in Downtown Puerto Vallarta

Café des Artistes in Downtown Puerto Vallarta

One of the best reasons to stay in Downtown Puerto Vallarta is to have access to the world-class restaurant scene. Puerto Vallarta has a homegrown coastal culinary style while also attracting international talent. The selection of wines at the local Costco in Puerto Vallarta is better than the selection in Guadalajara, a city 10 times bigger.

✔️ Oyster Grill de La Docena- A wildly popular concept by Chef Tomas Bermudez that started in Guadalajara and is quickly taking over Mexico. Excellent raw bar, the grilled oysters are top-notch, and the ceviches can not be missed. There is a revolving list of specials but the large blue shrimp and young octopus are some of my favorites
✔️Café des Artistes – Chef Thierry Blouet helped put Puerto Vallarta on the map as a culinary destination founding the International Gourmet Festival Puerto Vallarta. Café des Artistes has been his home since 1990 and helps to define what Puerto Vallarta is. This is a special restaurant that my wife and I have continued to enjoy since our honeymoon in 2016.
✔️Barcelona Tapas – One of the highest-rated restaurants in Puerto Vallarta for both the food and the view of the bay. Open for lunch and dinner, but make reservations for sunset. You will not be disappointed. They also host cooking classes that are wine-centric.

Puerto Vallarta Tacos and Food Tours

Puerto Vallarta style birria tacos

Take a tour, you won’t regret it. The food tours in Puerto Vallarta are as much about Mexican culture as they are about food. The tour guides are experts on Puerto Vallarta and know exactly how to make intelligent recommendations that will set up travelers for the rest of the week.

✔️Tacos de Birria Alex – Puerto Vallarta style beef birria tacos and deep fried quesabirria tacos
✔️Best Tacos After Dark Food Walking Tour in Puerto Vallarta (⭐️ Rating: 5.0/5.0 and 280 reviews)
✔️Downtown Puerto Vallarta Food Tour (⭐️ Rating: 5.0/5.0 and 1,803 reviews)
✔️Food and Mixology Tour: Tequila, Tacos, and Mexican Cocktails (⭐️ Rating: 5.0/5.0 and 1,039 reviews)

Puerto Vallarta Art Galleries and Shopping

Sergio Bustamante public art on the malecón

✔️Galerías Sergio Bustamante – Renowned Sinaloan artist and sculptor with public art all over Mexico.
✔️Galería Caballito de Mar- Spectacular collection of regional crafts from Western Mexico.
✔️Tierra Huichol – Wixárika beaded art in its finest form.
✔️Gallería Dante – Vast selection of local artists with a dynamite restaurant and wine bar upstairs.

Puerto Vallarta Nightlife

El Colibrí Cocktail Bar in Downtown Puerto Vallarta

I was in Puerto Vallarta for Semana Santa and Pascua this year. It is a lot of fun to walk around downtown at night when the place is going off. The streets were packed with people heading out to the nightclubs.

As someone who has frequented the nightlife in Tijuana, Rosarito, Mazatlán, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta is probably my favorite. The beach is magical and there are a lot of great places to party all within walking distance.

✔️El Colibrí Cocktail Bar – Small, intimate speakeasy-style cocktail bar playing techno.
✔️Mandala Puerto Vallarta – Touristy beachfront club on the malecón that’s more bar than a dance club
✔️La Noche – Super popular gay bar in Zona Romantica with a rooftop lounge and nightly drag shows.
✔️Co-De – Upscale and pricey gay bar with a large disco ball and varied music

What Is The Nicest Part Of Puerto Vallarta?

The best parts of Puerto Vallarta

This is a really difficult question because everyone is going to have a different response based on their prefered type of travel. I like staying at Playas Gemelas at a friend’s beachfront condo. It is my favorite beach in the Bay and it is close enough to the Arcos de Mismaloya that I can paddle over on a SUP. But we bring a car and can drive into town as we wish. Without a car, that is a long way from the excitement.

If it were my first time in Puerto Vallarta without a car, I would stay in Downtown at a boutique hotel and walk up and down every street. It is a luxury and quintessential Puerto Vallarta experience.

Puerto Vallarta FAQ

Is Puerto Vallarta Safe?

Yes, Puerto Vallarta is one of the safest places to vistin in Mexico. It is very easy to avoid dangerous situations.

It is also very easy to get in trouble. Puerto Vallarta is a hotbed of sex trafficking and drug use. The rate at which people go missing in Jalisco is unacceptable. There have been a number of high-profile incidents, one including the former governor, that made the international news.

Huge crocodile in the Vallarta Marina

The biggest safety dangers in Puerto Vallarta are cobblestone streets and uneven sidewalks. In the Marina, it is crocodiles and unleashed dogs. The Walmart parking lot has a number of pickpockets but all those problems are easily avoided if you are aware of them.

How To Get Around In Puerto Vallarta?

Walking is the best way to get around in Puerto Vallarta but Uber comes in a close second. They are cheap, safe, and plentiful. Even public buses are easy to use.

Renting a car is going to depend on each person’s level of comfort driving in a new city. Puerto Vallarta is not a difficult place to drive but the flow is different from other parts of North America.

How To Get To Puerto Vallarta From Guadalajara?

Puerto Vallarta is the premier vacation destination in the state of Jalisco. The new freeway is almost complete and already saving lots of time. I have a complete article on the different ways to get form Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara by car, bus, or plane.

The old highway from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara is slower but filled with pueblos mágicos and beautiful places. I highly recommend visiting Talpa de Allende and San Sebastian del Oeste.

Is There Surf In Puerto Vallarta?

Puerto Vallarta is a surf town but the surf season is limited to the hurricane season. However, within one hour of Puerto Vallarta there are a lot of great waves better consistency.

Some Final Thoughts

Puerto Vallarta is magical and a lot of that charm originates in the Zona Centro downtown area. The Parroquia is one of the most beautiful in Mexico. Jalisco has a lot of culture on display in Vallarta. Tequila, folkloric dance, culinary arts, and handycrafts among many more.

There is a long history of artsy, international folks falling in love with the Bay. I’m pretty sure you will too.

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