The “middle city” of Florida’s Gold Coast, Fort Lauderdale sits between Miami to the south and Palm Beach to the north. The city blends in nicely with its metropolitan neighbors, and elements of Miami’s chic vibe and the affluent nature of Palm Beach are recognizable here. But Fort Lauderdale is a destination in and of itself. Operating one of the busiest cruise ports in North America — more than 3 million people pass through each year — has helped to define Fort Lauderdale as a robust tourism spot in the United States.
Fort Lauderdale started out as a swampy outpost with a fort, built to protect against the Seminole Native Americans. The swamps were transformed in the late 1800s into a series of canals by scooping them out parallel to each other and creating long peninsulas in between them. This undertaking resulted in the city’s more than 300 miles of navigable waterways (twice that of Venice) — hence the nickname “Venice of America.” The abundance of waterways that wind up and down the coast have made Fort Lauderdale a boating hot spot, with more than 40,000 registered yachts holding forth.
The community gained fame and some measure of disrepute when it was featured in the 1960s movie “Where the Boys Are,” causing legions of college-aged boys (and, not coincidentally, girls) to descend for raucous spring break holidays. For decades, Fort Lauderdale was synonymous with spring break — and the giddy wildness that accompanies this rite of passage — until an effort by city leaders in the 1980s went into effect, in earnest, to tone it all down. Indeed, these days the fastest-growing market for Fort Lauderdale is actually the trendy high spenders that may once have gone south — or north.
Since shedding its “rowdy, college spring break” reputation, the city has grown into a more genteel community that’s family- and boater-oriented. Beyond the canals, and the Intracoastal Waterway that runs through the city, a major development has been the redefining of Fort Lauderdale itself. Downtown — especially around the hub of Las Olas Boulevard, with its cafes, galleries and boutiques — feels almost as Miami Beach as, well, Miami Beach.
Greater Fort Lauderdale’s 23-mile beachfront has also received a major overhaul, with lush landscaping and vivacious lighting complementing the expansive stretches of sand. In fact, since 1999, the beaches of greater Fort Lauderdale have earned “Blue Wave Beach” certification from the Clean Beaches Council, a designation awarded to the nation’s cleanest and safest beaches.
Fort Lauderdale Attractions
Las Olas Boulevard (particularly the stretch between 6th and 11th Avenues, near downtown) is a lively destination for shopping, dining and people watching. During the day, you can hop a boat for a tour of the intracoastal canals that wind through this picturesque section of Fort Lauderdale, or stroll along the Riverwalk, a 1.5-mile stretch of boardwalk along the New River that links many of the city’s historic and cultural landmarks. At night, festive diners spill out of sidewalk cafes, and romance-seekers ride in horse-drawn surrey carriages.
For a peaceful beach experience, head for Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, located on a barrier island where you can rent a canoe, go inline skating, bike along a scenic circular road or hike the trails. Be sure to look for the underground tunnel that leads from the park straight to Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Just a short distance from Hugh Taylor Birch State Park is Bonnet House, a plantation-style house dating back to the 1920s. Once a winter retreat for the artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, the home sits amid lush tropical gardens and is decorated with art by Frederic and his third wife, Evelyn.
For an easy “time stands still” getaway, head to nearby Delray Beach. The heart of the community — shops, boutiques, art galleries and fashionable restaurants — runs from the ocean along Atlantic Avenue. Definitely check out Old School Square, which has a number of restored 1920s buildings.
For an exotic and serene experience, drive to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach. The fascinating museum is devoted to Japanese art and culture, and the beautiful garden includes everything from fish-filled ponds and Zen gardens to pathways that wind in and out of pine woodlands.
The Jungle Queen Riverboat has been a Fort Lauderdale institution for more than 60 years; it offers daytime sightseeing trips up the New River and evening dinner cruises with famed barbecue ribs and shrimp.
There are more than 40 golf courses in the Fort Lauderdale area, and with south Florida’s year-round balmy climate, getting the chance to swing a few shouldn’t be too difficult. The city’s tourism website offers a full list of options at Sunny.org/sports.
Fort Lauderdale Beach bustles with activity. Lined with waterfront hotels and an array of restaurants with oceanfront patios, this beach is where you’ll go to see and be seen.
Compared to other beaches in the area, Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, located just north of Fort Lauderdale beach and south of Pompano Beach, is a quiet hideaway. Though still close to hotels and beachfront dining venues, it’s less frenetic and makes a great place to spend a lazy afternoon. Plus, conditions for snorkeling and diving are ideal there — there’s a reef within swimming distance.
John U. Lloyd Beach State Park is a great place to be active or just relax and watch the cruise ships go by. You can rent canoes and kayaks, go surf fishing, take a hike or have a leisurely lunch on one of its 300-plus picnic tables.
Dania Beach, just south of Fort Lauderdale, is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Warm sands, shady palms and a quaint fishing pier are at this calm beach, and with just a little legwork, you’ll discover a historic arts and antiques district, ice cream parlors, and plenty of pubs and seafood restaurants, all encompassed in a small beach town with big character.
Hollywood Beach, with its famous 2.5-mile “Broadwalk” — an asphalt strip along the beach that is filled with street performers, couples walking hand in hand and families with young children meandering along in the sunshine — was featured in the film “Marley and Me.” It’s the perfect setting for a day at the beach. Get involved in sports of all sorts (bike riding, rollerskating, kayaking and beach volleyball), or simply soak up the sun — loungers and cabanas are available for rent. Shops and restaurants are close by too.
Even if you don’t have kids in tow, the Museum of Discovery and Science in downtown Fort Lauderdale is worth a visit. You can catch an IMAX film, learn about Florida’s prehistoric past and check out living creatures from river otters to tropical fish.
Art lovers will want to check out the city’s Museum of Art, also downtown. Part of Nova Southeastern University, it hosts a variety of eclectic exhibitions.
A fun way to see the sights when you’re short on time is to hop on the Water Taxi, one of South Florida’s top attractions. The Water Taxi combines transportation with a guided boat tour, taking passengers from one end of the city’s Intracoastal Waterway to the other with 13 hop-on/hop-off stops, including the Las Olas Riverfront and Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. The Fort Lauderdale Route links up to a Hollywood Route with another half-dozen stops.
Fort Lauderdale Restaurants
As you might expect from this sunny city on the water, Fort Lauderdale has its share of seafood restaurants and beachfront burger joints. However, as the city has outgrown its old reputation as a spring break bastion, it’s also seen an influx of gourmet restaurants and ethnic options — including places where you can try out the local “Floribbean” cuisine (which combines the influences of the Caribbean and the Southern U.S.). Las Olas Boulevard is dining central with dozens of eateries along its two-mile stretch.
Take the opportunity to enjoy some people watching at Mangos, on trendy Las Olas Boulevard. You’ll find reasonable prices and inside (air-conditioned) or outside (sidewalk) dining; the restaurant serves everything from seafood to steak.
Also on Las Olas Boulevard is La Bonne Crepe, a charming French provincial country restaurant with alfresco dining on its terrace. Watch the town come alive while enjoying an assortment of crepes stuffed with cheese, chicken or seafood. La Bonne Crepe is also a “don’t miss” for breakfast, serving up waffles, French toast, eggs and — of course — crepes.
At Rocco’s Tacos on the quieter side of Las Olas Boulevard, there’s a countdown to Cinco de Mayo every day. With its live DJ and massive tequila bar (with more than 400 varieties), Rocco’s is the late-night spot on this end of town, but you won’t find the standard frozen and pre-fab bar fare here. The menu features both Tex-Mex and authentic-style Mexican specialties made with fresh, high-quality ingredients, including some of the best tableside guac served on this side of the Gulf and an inventive selection of tacos, burritos and molcajetes (the restaurant’s version of fajitas).
If you love Italian, you’ll appreciate La Dolce Vita, offering delicious pastas and meat/fish dishes in an intimate setting — perfect for date night.
Find your Zen at YOLO, a happening spot located downtown. YOLO, which stands for “you only live once,” is an energetic place with a simple menu. Items range from grilled octopus salad to veggie burgers and prime rib. At night, the place transforms into a hip spot to clink cocktails and toast your vacation, and the outdoor fire pit makes for a nice place to sit and chat.
Located on the Intracoastal Waterway, with glorious views, 15th Street Fisheries is a fish-‘n’-chowder house offering both casual dining downstairs and more formal meals upstairs. The Fort Lauderdale landmark serves up fresh fish, crab cakes and other seafood delights.
What fun to sit right on Hollywood Beach’s Broadwalk, watching the skaters, mimes and kids having fun, with a yummy kebab in hand. Istanbul on the Beach is cheap, casual beachfront dining at its finest. Drawing on Turkish and Mediterranean influences, the fare is light, featuring choices that range from cucumber, tomato and feta salad to baba ganoush and hummus.
The specialty at the G&B Oyster Bar is fresh seafood, including not just oysters but also shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster and more.
Excellent Cuban coffee is served up fresh and hot in the sunny, hip Colada Cuban Coffee House on Federal Highway, just a few minutes’ drive from the beach. The menu features pastries made at sister venue Miramar Bakery, sandwiches, build-your-own rice bowls and desserts, all with a Cuban flair. They even have local craft beers and sangria on tap, and offer a weekend brunch starring super-sized mimosas.
Casablanca Cafe, a brilliantly restored Mediterranean-style home that dates back to the 1920s, has been voted Fort Lauderdale’s most romantic restaurant. The menu comprises dishes from Spain, Italy, France and even Africa, and live jazz/contemporary music fills the air in the evenings. After dining, take a romantic stroll on the beach — this restaurant is on the peninsula between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.
If you happen to be spending a Monday on Hollywood Beach, head over to Arts Park for a fun dinner at the end of the day. Each Monday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., the park hosts a food truck festival featuring more than 20 food trucks offering everything from barbecue to Cuban food.
Shopping in Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale has a fun mix of shopping spots that go beyond the usual all-American malls (though you’ll find plenty of those too). Flea markets, art galleries, outlets and trendy boulevards are just a few of the offerings here — and best of all, you’ll rarely be too far from the beach when you’re ready to trade in your shopping bags for some sandals.
With its boutiques and art galleries, Las Olas Boulevard is one of Fort Lauderdale’s most popular shopping spots. When you tire of browsing housewares and fashions, you can grab lunch and do some people watching at one of the boulevard’s many restaurants and cafes. If you’re in town on a Sunday, check out the Las Olas Sunday Market, an outdoor farmer’s market offering local produce and unique handmade goods.
Sawgrass Mills is a huge outdoor outlet mall that houses more than 300 stores, including Burberry, Calvin Klein, Coach, Jimmy Choo and many more at uber-discounted prices.
There’s also the upscale Galleria Mall, which is located minutes from the beach and offers name-brand stores like Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, as well as restaurants and refuge from the sun.
For an entirely local experience, head to the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. The Swap Shop is a flea market with thousands of vendors selling the usual bargain wares including perfumes, cell phone cases and dirt-cheap clothing; there’s also an arcade and a small sports car museum. But the real stars of the Swap Shop are the huge farmer’s market, offering up local produce including tons of tropical varieties, and the large, old-fashioned drive-in movie theater showing all the latest releases.
Go early to the Festival Flea Market Mall in Pompano Beach, where more than 500 vendors are featured. Weekends are busiest, but any time is fun; you can browse stalls with antiques, new electronics and designer clothing.
Take a drive north along Interstate 95 to Palm Beach, about 50 minutes away. Here you’ll find unrivaled shopping and the world’s priciest boutiques and designers lining Worth Avenue, also known as the Rodeo Drive of Florida.
Antiquers shouldn’t miss the Art and Antique District in Dania Beach. You’ll find oodles of antiques, art and collectibles in a quaint downtown neighborhood, just a few minutes south of Fort Lauderdale by car.
–written by Jana Jones and Kimberly Karis; updated by Shayne Rodriguez Thompson