Overview

Ponce, Puerto Rico's fourth-largest city, is the birthplace of a long roster of Puerto Rican writers, statesmen, singers and poets.

Known as the Ciudad Senorial (the Noble City) or La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South), Ponce has taken equal pride in its architecture. In the mid-1800s, Ponceno leaders used the profits from their vast sugarcane and coffee crops to construct ornate buildings for various civic, cultural and artistic institutions—turning the downtown into a showplace. When Ponce's city economy waned in the 1930s, however, the buildings slid into disrepair.

Ponce has undergone a revival in the past decade or so, receiving millions of dollars from the Puerto Rican government—and some special assistance from Spain—to revitalize its wooden and plaster buildings (and quadrupling the number of historically significant protected ones), many of which are adorned with pillars, balconies and intricate latticework. The refurbishment campaign, known locally as Ponce en Marcha (Ponce on the Move), has had impressive results.

In addition to its architecture, Ponce also offers visitors a standout art museum and a picturesque boardwalk.

Note: Puerto Rico sustained severe damage during Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Recovery efforts may take years. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.

Geography

The southern city of Ponce is at the foothills of the Cordillera Central mountain range. You will definitely know when you're entering the city because five monumental letters spell out "Ponce" in alternating black and red colors, positioned at the highway entrance to the city.

Look out for the lions, too—concrete figures of lions representing Ponce's pride, history and tradition. The neoclassical architecture and European touches distinguish Ponce from other Puerto Rican cities.

History

Ponce was founded in 1692 by Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon's great-grandson Loiza Ponce de Leon. Ponce was Spain's capital city of the southern region until 1898, when Puerto Rico fell to the U.S.

In addition to being known as the Ciudad Senorial or La Perla del Sur, Ponce is also called the Ciudad de los Leones (City of the Lions), and there are many freestanding lion figures and sculptures throughout the city, especially in the downtown plaza and entrances to the city.

The firehouse in Ponce, known locally as the Parque de Bombas, holds much history for the southern city, as do the firefighters of the station. While on duty in 1883, the firefighters put out a fire that nearly destroyed much of the southern coast. Today, many tourists flock to visit the red- and black-striped (the city's colors) station, which is now a main visitor attraction in the central plaza of the city; the station operated until 1990 before becoming a public museum.

The Ponce Museum of Art, another historical gem, houses the largest art collection in the Caribbean and holds a sentimental place in the hearts of Puerto Ricans and Poncenos. It was founded by the island's late Gov. Luis A. Ferre, a highly regarded political figure and humanitarian. Ponce's history is also evidenced by the main plaza, which includes city hall, the oldest colonial building in the city, dating to the 1840s. Poncenos hold a great pride for their city.

Sightseeing

Visitors to Ponce have no problem exploring the historic downtown by foot or by taking the regularly scheduled free trolley service that whisks you by the historical sites.

The Plaza las Delicias serves as a great launch pad for visits to the nearby cathedral, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the old black and red firehall, Parque de Bombas, and the many other architectural gems.

For a walk along the ocean, the boardwalk of La Guancha resonates local color as vendors and musicians embrace a Spanish charm, welcoming tourists to soak in the sea breezes. History thrives there.

To understand the earliest civilization on the island, head to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center in which archaeological finds showcase ancient Antillian Indians among other periods. The Hacienda Buena Vista, formerly one of the region's largest coffee plantations, is now open as an interpretive center and museum.

The cherished Ponce Art Museum houses a vast collection dating from the 14th century to the present. Also visit the Ponce Historical Museum for a flashback to the Taino Indians who once lived there, and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music for an understanding of cultural fusions influencing the Puerto Rican sound.

Nightlife

Evening activities center on the hotels, especially the La Bohemia cocktail lounge at Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort, which has live music on the weekends.

But you should visit the downtown plaza briefly to view the Fountain of the Lions all lit up—it's worth the trip. Downtown is pleasant and safe after dark.

There are casinos at the Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort and the Holiday Inn Ponce.

On weekends, La Guancha is the place to be—a local band is usually playing on the open-air stage, and the boardwalk is full of dancers and strollers.

Dining

Ponce has several excellent restaurants serving Continental cuisine. You'll also find local eateries serving filling plates of comida criolla (local food) for little money. Fast-food restaurants abound, as do food carts and stalls where you can buy local favorites such as empanadillas (chicken- or beef-stuffed turnovers), rellenos de papa (fried potato balls stuffed with meat) and alcapurrias (plantain wraps filled with meat and seafood) for a dollar or two.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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