In general, if you want to experience Mexico, a new culture, the history, the food and the colorful ambiance, then you have to stay in Puerto Vallarta, preferably in the downtown or romantic zone areas.
If you are interested in staying by the beach, in an all-inclusive, just relaxing and maybe take a tour and eat outside the resorts once or twice, then you can go to Nuevo Vallarta, the North zone hotels around Punta Mita or the South zone, including the beaches south of Mismaloya, or any resort within your budget in the area, just check out that they have a nice beach, if that is your thing. Most hotels in the PV hotel zone do not have good beaches, either small, steep, rocky or maybe even without sand...
Families with children
Here it depends a little on your kids ages, but in general we can say, children enjoy the pools and the beach and parents want to take them out on smaller fun trips.
Offers a great beach, wide, low slope, waves aren't too strong (though that can vary at times)
There are many nice hotels that offer great pools, all-inclusive service, choose those with children for free or reduced fees.
Many of the resorts have great kids clubs, so they are well taken care of, have fun (treasure hunts and so on) and you can relax as a couple too.
Aquaventuras Water Park close by.
Vallarta Adventure, the main tour provider is here too.
There is a small mall by Paradise Village and a larger one out by the highway Lago Real, with a Walmart and cinemas.
You are far from Puerto Vallarta, it's not really Mexico (this is a planned tourist development).
There are many great things to do in downtown PV and you are really far from it all: the Malecon, one of the fun activities with kids, things you'd enjoy to see like Los Muertos beach and pier, The Marina, or the iconic Parish.
The Marina area has a good beach on the Pacific side, wide and some great hotels and resorts, the Marina itself offers some restaurants and shopping options and is a nice little trip for the family, but you are still a bit far from town to just jump in and enjoy the action, you can always take a cab. The hotel zone has many great all inclusive hotels too, but distances can be larger to get to malls and other shopping options, (check our maps ).
If you are going to really enjoy being in Puerto Vallarta with your kids, I think it's best to stay in the downtown area, you can walk everywhere, the malecon is at hand with the many options, the beaches aren't that great, that's the downside, but if you stay in the Romantic Zone, you have Olas Altas and Los Muertos Beach that are great fun for kids.
If you are going to relax and have a romantic time, the options are innumerable. There are many great and impressive hotels in the North Zone, like the Four Seasons or St. Regis or in Nuevo Vallarta too. If you want to go out a lot, then the options at the Marina Vallarta and the Hotel zone are better and the closer you are to town best. If you are into restaurants, bars, nightlife and being in the heart of it all, then downtown and the romantic zone are for you, plus you'll get to experience the real Mexico, which of course, is what most people want when on vacation, feel like they've gone to some other country and culture.
Here the option is clear, either downtown or the romantic zone. You can enjoy the city, the distances aren't large, you can stroll along the malecon, enjoy the sea, the views and you have everything close by. If you choose to make your own food for some meals, choose a hotel with a kitchen, makes things so much easier. If not, you have all kinds of food options around. The art galleries, the architecture, the history of the town, is right there, outside your door.
You are going to enjoy Vallarta because there are so many options, you'll be looking for fun with other single people, you can meet them on the various tours, in town, at the restaurants at the nightclubs and bars. It's easier to get to the main attractions and places to be if you stay in the Downtown area and in the Romantic zone. The romantic zone offers more concentrated activity and the south part of the area also caters to the LGBT community. Downtown Vallarta is more traditional and offers many bars, restaurants and nightclubs on the malecon or on sidestreets leading to the malecon. For tours and other activities, it doesn't really matter as many of them pick you up at your hotel or in nearby locations.
Gay and LGBT Community
You want to be in the middle of it all, then it's the romantic zone and more specifically the southern area of Los Muertos beach, there are also many bars and nightclubs in the general area. At Los Muertos beach, look for the blue beach chairs.