Beyond the Beach: soak in the island’s vibrant culture and history

Puerto Rico’s museums serve up a smorgasbord for the head, heart, and soul.

By Darien Rivers
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Puerto Rico is much more than just fun in the sun and sand. The restaurant scene is unmatched in the Caribbean, its nightlife is legendary, and its outdoor recreation opportunities are seemingly endless. But the island’s vibrant culture and rich history shine as bright as its blazing blue skies, shimmering Caribbean waters, and sultry nights. Let’s dive into the Enchanted Isle’s exceptional museums that are well worth a visit.

The Ponce Art Museum is recognized as an important center for European art in the Americas. Its stunning collection, the finest in the Caribbean, provides a rich panorama of western art stretching from the Renaissance to the present day.


This world-class museum is itself a work of art, with the main building designed by Edward Durell Stone, the architect behind the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and other iconic structures. A soaring sculpture by American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, “Brushstrokes in Flight,” gives way to a gleaming glass pavilion that was added to the original building as part of a recent $30 million renovation. Outdoor garden areas include pools and sculptures.

The internationally renowned collection is comprised of more than 4,500 works of art from many cultures, dating from the ninth century C.E. to the present. This dynamic, wide-ranging collection includes paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, decorative arts, pre-Hispanic and African objects, Puerto Rican folk art, contemporary ceramics, video, and sound art.

Founded by the late Luis A. Ferre, an industrialist and philanthropist who served as governor of Puerto Rico in the 1970s, the museum was built around what the Financial Times of London has deemed as “one of the most distinguished private collections in the Western Hemisphere outside the United States.” Ferre spent more than four decades acquiring works of the highest quality in support of his vision to present museum visitors with an abridged yet richly illuminating history of European art.

Two of the collection’s main strengths are 19th-century English painting and 17th-century Baroque painting. The collection of Christian iconography is not easily matched and the Spanish Golden Age and contemporary Latin American art are also impressively represented. The stellar Puerto Rican art collection ranges from the 18th century to the present day and includes masters such as Jose Campeche and Francisco Oller, as well as contemporary artists like Myrna Baez, Francisco Rodon, and Antonio Martorell.

Of course, you can’t miss “Flaming June,” the famed 1895 painting by Frederic Lord Leighton that has been practically synonymous with the museum since its opening.

Straddling the border between San Juan’s Condado tourism hub and its cultural heart of Santurce, the Puerto Rico Art Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

Designed in accordance with the strictest and most modern standards of contemporary museum design, this gleaming facility grew out of a neoclassic structure built and designed by architect William H. Schimmelpfennig in 1920. Its 130,000 square feet of spaces includes 24 exhibition galleries, a theater, workshops, an interactive area for children, and a research area, among others.

Guided tours are available to help visitors take in a stunning array of works in its permanent collection, which includes an exhibition representative of Puerto Rican art from the 17th century to the present, as well as world-class temporary exhibitions.

Step outside into the 2.5 acre Sculpture Botanical Garden, a true oasis that feels a world away from the bustle of the capital city. A walkway around the free-form pond eases through distinct environments including a grove of native trees, a bamboo forest, and a prairie. More than a dozen sculptures are positioned in harmony with the scenery while several gazebos serve as perches for rest and contemplation. A terrace with a natural amphitheater sets the stage for open-air concerts and other events.

An upscale restaurant and eclectic gift shop round out the experience.

Sitting in the heart of Santurce, the one-time cultural hub of San Juan that is in  the midst of a renaissance, the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art is located in a former public school built in 1918.

The Georgian-style building, designed by architect Adrian C. Finlayson as part of a U.S. Department of Education drive to build public schools in urban zones, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since the late 1980s and was renovated under the direction of Puerto Rican architect Otto Reyes Casanova for its new role as home to the island’s top collection of contemporary art.

The permanent collection at the two-story museum in the Stop 18 area includes important works by Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American artists produced from the second half of the 20th century to present.

The galleries, which surround a stunning interior courtyard, exhibit a wide variety of works ranging from paintings and sculpture to mixed-media, sound, and video installations.

Knowledgeable and friendly staffs are on hand to guide you through a collection that reveals the mixture of influences, cultures, and history behind the contemporary art movement in Puerto Rico since World War II.

Carve out a couple of hours for this urban gem, which can easily be combined with a visit to the nearby Puerto Rico Art Museum. There is a small gift shop on the first floor.

The Carolina Children’s Museum is an educational and recreational attraction for children and adolescents (and even adults) that puts a high premium on hands-on fun. Located a short drive from Luis Muñoz International Airport, it boasts more than 100 interactive exhibits through which young visitors can learn about and explore a wide range of issues including the environment, science, art, and technology. The signage and instructions posted at each exhibit are in in Spanish and English.

A massive model volcano that “erupts” periodically is a centerpiece among a seemingly endless array of educational installations that allow visitors to get involved with themes including marine life, ecosystems, construction, and much, much more.

Dress-up activities let kids role play through a range of professions, with costumes, wigs, and make-up all waiting to be put to use on the theater stage. Budding broadcasters can try their hands reading the news or delivering a weather report on camera in the mock TV station.

A retired commercial jetliner is a perennial favorite and is a big draw, giving kids access to all parts of the plane, including the cockpit, that are normally off-limits to fliers.

There is an interpretive nature trail along an adjacent mangrove area and a playground that is open to all. The facility also has a go-kart track. Picnic kiosks and an amphitheater can be rented out for private parties.

There is plenty to keep the young and young at heart busy over a full of day of learning as they play.

Take a trip through time at the Museum of Transportation in Guaynabo, which showcases modes of travel in, out, and around Puerto Rico dating back to the canoes that brought pre-Colombian seafarers to the island’s shores and up through horse and carriage, bicycles, trains, planes, and automobiles.

This two-story modern facility is built around an impressive collection of antique and classic cars, bicycles, and motorcycles. It is within easy reach located about 20 minutes by car from the capital city’s tourism hubs.

The varied exhibitions are sure to please visitors of all ages as they are transported to other eras through permanent displays that include: a short film; historic motoring photographs; themed murals; vintage neon signs; old license plates, and automotive toys.

The museum sparks discoveries in kids, jumpstarting their creativity as the clock turns back on the stories and curiosities of Puerto Rico’s road and transportation history.

Buckle up for a hands-on interactive experience as you test your racing skills on a Grand Prix race simulator that delivers the adrenaline rush of a real road track with high definition video and surround sound effects.

The sky’s the limit as you grab the controls of the School of Aeronautics flight simulator, putting on the pilot’s cap to take off and try to make the perfect landing at a virtual version of Puerto Rico’s bustling Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, the Caribbean’s busiest and your likely gateway to the island.

Don’t forget to make a pit stop in the gift shop.

The Puerto Rico Children’s Museum is a three-story museum in the middle of Old San Juan and is all about allowing kids to learn as they play. Everything is interactive.

The first floor features hands-on banking and TV news station attractions. There is also an area with materials appropriate for babies and toddlers and their caretakers.

Head up to the second floor where the emphasis is on health and the human body. There is also a reading room, a climbing wall, musical instruments, a recreation of a traditional Puerto Rican plaza, and a range of other offerings.

The top floor features the NASA space place, an astronomy exhibit that uses black lights to take kids to new heights as they learn about the planets, stars, and constellations that make up our solar system.

The third floor also has a simulated cave and interactive educational installations on the water cycle and organic farming.

The small Museum of Puerto Rican Music in the heart of Ponce’s historic downtown area packs a potent mix of exhibits tracing the origin and development of Puerto Rican music from the romantic danza genre, the favorite music of 19th-century Puerto Rican society, to the African-inspired bomba and plena styles.

Videos and a collection of local instruments help tell the story of the African, Spanish, and indigenous influences that came together to create musical styles that have been celebrated far beyond the island’s shores.

The collection includes memorabilia from the famed composers and associated with the three main genres of music that originated on the Enchanted Isle.

The museum is located in Casa Serralles, the downtown home of the family that founded Destileria Serralles, the distillery behind Puerto Rico’s popular Don Q rum. This neoclassical and art nouveau residence, designed by architect Alfredo Wiecher in 1912, is not to be confused by the hilltop Castillo Serralles that overlooks the Pearl of the South.

A free guided tour enriches the experience, which can be a quick stop as part of broader stroll through Ponce justifiably celebrated urban center.

Known as the Ciudad Criolla, Caguas is a former agricultural hub located at the bottom edge of the San Juan metroplex, marking the start of the long climb up the backbone of mountains that separate Puerto Rico’s northern and southern flanks.

It is no wonder that this most Puerto Rican of cities is home to the Museum of Tobacco, which aims to present and preserve the rich history of what was once the island’s most-important cash crop along with sugar and coffee.

Housed in a former 19th century forge, the museum also carries the name of Don Herminio Torres Grillo, a Caguas-born renaissance man who worked as a teacher, historian, journalist, and poet. Informative exhibits include tools, graphic art, photographs, and a film detailing the history of the tobacco industry in Puerto Rico. It also has a scale-model of a traditional Puerto Rican tobacco plantation that sheds light on the full production process from the planting, harvest and curing of the sweet leaves to their use in the crafting of the island’s celebrated cigars.

A live artisan workshop lets you see cigar-makers keeping a beloved tradition alive and within reach with their wares sold at the museum.

Chart a course for the Museum of the Sea, a pearl found near the entrance to Old San Juan.

The museum is the brainchild of Jose Octavio Busto, a Spanish-born mariner who spent more than a dozen years in the merchant marine before founding Continental Shipping Inc. Driven by a passion for the ocean and navigation and a mission to preserve relics of nautical history, Busto opened the facility to showcase his vast collection gleaned from his globe-trotting travels.

Exhibits include: navigational instruments; model ships, and ships in bottles, nautical prints, diagrams and maps; a 150-volume naval library; and more than 100 original life preservers from different ships – a collection the Guinness Book of World Records has deemed the largest display of its kind.

The museum’s iconic theme, “Through Unchartered Waters,” surfaces throughout its varied displays, which transport visitors through a chronicle of modern maritime history.

The legacy of master cellist Pablo Casals is the focal point of the Museo Casa Pilar Defillo, a new attraction in Mayaguez, a coastal city known as the Sultan of the West.

Built in 1841, the residence was the childhood home of Casals’ mother Pilar Defillo Amiguet, a Mayaguez native credited with instilling her son the virtues of peace and faith in his fellow man.

The lovingly restored neoclassical home now houses Casals-related exhibitions including photographs and art. Musical and cultural events are also on tap.

There are plenty of museums to visit in Puerto Rico packed with interesting exhibits that allow visitors to soak in the island’s vibrant heritage.

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