You may have passed through Fort Lauderdale on your way to catch a cruise, flown in to FLL as a cheaper alternative to Miami’s sprawling airport, or even spent a few days here in your younger years on spring break. And while the Greater Fort Lauderdale area is admittedly a great jumping off point for other adventures, there’s plenty here that calls for a full week of exploration—or more (because there really is no limit to how many beach days are enough beach days). If it’s been a while, or if you’ve never visited, these are some of the top experiences you will not want to miss in the canal-lined South Florida city dubbed the Venice of America, and its neighboring towns.
A close-up peek into celebrities’ backyards
Think of the Water Taxi not as a means of getting from A to B but as more of a very informative (and entertaining!) look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The open-sided boat makes eight stops (including Stranahan House and Las Olas—see below) as it takes you down the New River past mansions and yachts currently or formerly owned by the likes of actors Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors, sausage king Oscar Mayer, and Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. Along the way, your guide clues you in to interesting anecdotes about area residents, their homes and other bits of gossip.
A pioneering artist’s estate
There are historic homes, formal and staid, and then there’s Bonnet House, bursting with color and creativity, decorated with an eclectic collection of carousel animals standing guard at every turn. The artist’s estate was built in 1920 by Chicago-born painter Frederic Clay Bartlett and his wife, Helen Louise Birch. When Helen died of breast cancer in 1931, Frederic married Evelyn Fortune Lilly, of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune. She continued to spend winters at Bonnet House until 1995. Today, you can tour the museum house, its artwork and striking decor, as well as the surrounding estate, which includes five different eco systems.
Fort Lauderdale and surrounding towns really make the most of their waterfront space, with awesome festivals like the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade, which features local yachts dolled up in their holiday finest parading down the New River. Touted as the “Greatest Show on H2O,” the festive event typically happens mid-December. Tip: Spring for the Grand Stand tickets, which get you waterfront bleacher seating and access to the accompanying festival, where you’ll find food and drink vendors, games and more. If you’re not visiting in December, there are plenty of other festivals going on throughout the year, including big beachfront music fests like Riptide Festival (featuring big names like The Killers and The 1975) and Tortuga Fest (which brings in acts like Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and Pitbull).
Time your visit to this edgy, arty downtown neighborhood’s ArtWalk, where you can explore open studios, meet artists, check out some of their latest work and browse a maker’s market. The FATVillage ArtWalk happens the last Saturday of the month, but if that doesn’t jibe with your travel schedule come any time to take a look at the striking murals and hit up our favorite new coffee shop, BREW Urban Cafe. This design-forward little space is lined with bookshelves and dotted with couches, plus it serves up some of the richest, most heavenly cups of joe we’ve ever sipped. Also, keep an eye out for Sistrunk Market & Brewery, Fort Lauderdale’s first food hall, which also includes a brewery, distillery, and art and music space.
Las Olas Boulevard
For boutique shopping, galleries and teeming sidewalk cafes, head to palm-lined Las Olas Boulevard. The upscale neighborhood is home to restaurants offering every kind of international cuisine, from Brazilian to Thai to Italian and beyond.
The Yard & Eucalyptus Gardens
The Yard & Eucalyptus Garden in Fort Lauderdale’s Wilton Manors neighborhood is kind of a hidden gem—literally. You’ll think your map is taking you off course as you turn down a small residential street, until you see the open gates where the street elbows. Beyond the gates, you’ll discover a bohemian-vibed urban oasis thick with rainbow eucalyptus trees, colorful murals, and delightful restaurant patios and shops. Caffeinate at The Alchemist, indulge in authentic French crepes at Chateau D’vine Wine or browse locally crafted gifts at Lola’s Market, just to name a few.
Right along the New River, wedged between the soaring condos and offices of downtown Fort Lauderdale, you’ll find Broward County’s oldest home, Stranahan House. Ohio native Frank Stranahan, who’s considered Fort Lauderdale’s founding father, built the house in 1906, and through the years it served as a trading post for business with the Seminole people, a post office and town hall. The home was added to the National Historic Registry in 1974, and is now open as a museum offering daily tours.
Mermaid shows at the Wreck Bar
This is Old Florida at its best. B Ocean Resort, a 1956 beachfront property that once hosted the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, regularly hosts mermaid shows with both family-friendly and adults-only burlesque versions (check the hotel’s web site to make sure you book the right one!). If you book a table for the all-ages brunch, you’ll enjoy dining amid the shipwreck ambience of the bar as mermaids float by the windows that look out below the hotel pool’s surface. Heads up: The portions here are generous, so come hungry!
Mai Kai tiki bar Polynesian show
For fans of tiki and other retro fun, the Mai Kai is a well-known pilgrimage point. The bar and restaurant date back to mid-century heyday of Polynesian chic, with a tropical/nautical tiki theme that includes countless statuettes, masks and a lush garden with waterfalls out back. Stop in for their excellent happy hour, or reserve a table for the dinner show that includes traditional Polynesian music and dance, and even a little fire twirling!
Holiday Park Everglades Tour
This is Florida, so of course you’re going to want to see a few gators. About a half hour east of Fort Lauderdale, Everglades Holiday Park offers airboat tours through the Everglades, a.k.a. the “River of Grass,” where skilled guides will help you spot animals like snakes, turtles, birds and, of course, alligators. Afterward, check out the live alligator presentation with the Gator Boys (whom you might recognize from their Animal Planet show) and hold a baby gator or snake for a photo opp—if you dare.
In nearby Dania Beach, you’ll find Jaxson’s, a must-stop ice cream shop frequented by locals and visitors alike. Yes, there will likely be a line out the door to this old-fashioned ice cream shop, but it moves fast and once you’re handed a cone with an oversized scoop of creme caramel or blueberry ice cream, you’ll quickly realize it was worth it. If you’re coming with kids, rest assured the mini carousel outside will keep them entertained while you wait. Meanwhile, adults can pass the time to the tune of the keyboardist and harmonica player who regularly show up to play for those waiting.
Downtown Hollywood Mural Project
Come for the murals, stay for downtown Hollywood’s charming small town feel. During the day, use the mural map on the city of Hollywood’s web site to guide you around the different curated outdoor works of art by local, national and internationally-recognized artists. Then, stay into the evening to stroll the streets lined with bustling sidewalk cafes and lively bars.
Hollywood Beach Broadwalk
Consistently rated one of the best boardwalks in America, the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk (not a typo) has all the essential trappings of casual beachside fun: Pick up oversized adults beverages to go, lounge at a cafe to the tune of waves rolling in, rent a bike for a ride down the paved promenade, or catch some live music at the band shell near the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Quick tip: Parking can be scarce so opt for the free electric Sun Shuttle, which picks up from many area hotels, including the Diplomat Beach Resort (see below). You can also summon the shuttle on-demand via the Ride Circuit app, wait for it at a designated pick up stop, or just wave it down.
Hotels for every traveler
One of the best features of so many Greater Fort Lauderdale hotels is that you never have to choose between beach and pool. Book an oceanfront property like The Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood and a private beach will be right in your backyard, along with a cabana-lined, lagoon-style pool with waterfalls, and an infinity pool with a porthole bottom and sweeping ocean views. The 1,000-room hotel, built anew in the 1990s, takes extra special care of little guests with its waterslide play area, on-site ice cream shop and Kids Club activities. There’s plenty for adults, too, including an on-site spa, eight different dining and drinking options, and jet ski, kayak and paddleboard rentals. Located almost midway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, it’s a great option for anyone looking to spend time in both cities. For more modest budgets, Fort Lauderdale’s ship-shaped B Ocean Resort (home to the aforementioned mermaid shows) puts you right on the beach, and boasts two pools, including an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. The resort also offers loaner bikes, included with your resort fee.