There’s water everywhere you look in Fort Lauderdale—and endless ways to get out on it, too. Start along the 23 miles of palm-fringed beaches overlooking the Atlantic; then over to the New River, which cuts right through downtown; and out along 165 miles of canals webbing their way through the city’s pretty neighborhoods, earning the South Florida hub a (somewhat generous) nickname: “the Venice of the U.S.”
That’s just one angle of this vibrant city. Feel like grabbing a craft beer in an edgy arts district? Or hopping aboard an airboat ride in alligator country at the edge of the Everglades? Read on for a few of our favorite ways to make the most of good times (many outdoors, COVID- and family-friendly) with these things to do in sunny Fort Lauderdale.
Toast live music with mojito pitchers at the Wharf
For all the lure of the beachside of things in Fort Lauderdale, there’s lots of riverfront fun to be had here, too, particularly along the New River that runs through downtown and skirts the café-lined main drag of tony Las Olas Boulevard.
When it opened in late 2019, the Wharf, an open-air, pop-up event space, quickly became the spot to enjoy great weather along the New River, with DJs and live music (expect anything from lounge sounds to Latin pop). People settle in at the outdoor bars with pitchers of mojitos, or grab a quiet stretch of Astroturf lawn with a platter of oysters from the pop-up food vendors to ogle the passing parade of yachts.
Pack a picnic and scout for gopher tortoises at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
Fort Lauderdale’s answer to Central Park is this 180-acre slice of Florida wilderness between the Intracoastal Waterway and A1A. Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, one of the area’s best remaining examples of pristine Florida landscapes, is home to the threatened gopher tortoise, a burrow-digging turtle native to the southeastern U.S.; diamondback terrapin turtles; and hundreds of bird species that dwell within its tropical maritime hammock.
You can hike along the flat Coastal Hammock Trail here with the sea breezes stirring or rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore one of the park’s more distinctive features: Long Lake, a mile-long coastal dune lagoon. (People don’t swim in the freshwater lake because it’s shallow—and who knows what might be in there, being Florida and all.)
Pack a picnic to make the most of your afternoon. Even if pavilions and picnic tables are closed during the pandemic, you’re welcome to bring a blanket and chairs to spread out under the shade of century-old banyan trees that are among the park’s jewels.
Swing a racket at clay tennis courts Chris Evert grew up playing
In a state with no shortage of fabulous tennis facilities, the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center in Holiday Park stands apart as one of the best public tennis court facilities in the United States. For as little as $9 an hour, you can hone your backhand on the center’s 18 lighted clay courts where the likes of Chris Evert and Jennifer Capriati have trained. (There are 3 hard courts, too, if that’s more your style.) Private lessons are available and it’s worth a swing through the clubhouse to see memorabilia from Chris Evert’s legendary career.
Go snorkeling in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea
With a limestone reef lined with honeycomb-shaped formations just 80 yards offshore, the friendly seaside community of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is one of the best places in Florida to kick out right from the beach for great snorkeling.
You can rent a mask, snorkel, and fins from Gold Coast Scuba, a few blocks from the beach, and fin out to explore on your own. Better yet, join one of the shop’s guided tours for help spotting nurse sharks hiding under ledges and moray eels peeking from crevices in the rock. During the winter months, you might even see manatees frolicking in the clear, shallow waters.
Take the family on an easy paddleboarding excursion with SUP PUP
Together with her adorable Welsh corgi, Mr. Beaches, Natasha Baker Williams takes families and groups out exploring the waterways and canals around Las Olas Boulevard with SUP PUP Paddleboard Fort Lauderdale. Keep an eye out for iguanas, shorebirds, and sometimes even dolphins and manatees on the easy paddling excursions, during which little kids can chill in their life jackets on the front of your board while you paddle. Sunrise and sunset paddling excursions as well as SUP yoga are also on offer.
Take a monthly art walk and enjoy a craft brew in FATVillage
Just west of the beach and Las Olas Boulevard, down by the railroad tracks, is Fort Lauderdale’s street art–laden warehouse arts district. Three warehouse exhibition spaces host contemporary art by emerging artists. (Past exhibitions have showcased works by Colombian artist Nathalie Alfonso, who investigates the degeneration of the human body through drawings, installations, and video.) The atmosphere is experimental and fun—the artists can often be seen at work and it’s easy to start conversations with them, especially during the approachable atmosphere of the art walks.
Though it was paused during COVID-19, a monthly art walk—the FATVillage Open House—resumes the last Saturday of February 2021. Gallery spaces invite passersby inside to admire their works, while food trucks and market vendors keep visitors fueled.
You can mingle with creative types over excellent espresso drinks at Brew Urban Cafe, a coffee shop tucked inside a video and film production studio in the district. And the city’s best food hall, Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery, is another anchor of the artsy neighborhood where you can take cooking classes, tour the brewery, and see more installations.
Spot alligators during an airboat ride near the Everglades
Have you really been to Florida if you didn’t see an alligator? Chances are good (in fact, almost guaranteed) you’ll see one of the state’s infamous reptiles during 30-minute airboat tours at Sawgrass Recreation Park in Weston, on the eastern edge of the Everglades. Captains regale you with stories from the slow-moving sawgrass marshes that Marjory Stoneman Douglas famously called the “river of grass,” while scouting the placid waters for lurking gators, stalking birds, turtles, and other swamp denizens.
While you’re not actually within Everglades National Park here, the wildlife and scenery are very similar to what you’d see within the park (where airboats aren’t allowed). It’s fun for the family and a testament to the fact that such wild Florida spaces still thrive so close to populated places.
Mingle with winged wonders at the world’s largest butterfly park
Even if you’ve visited other butterfly gardens, nothing can prepare you for the winged spectacle that is Butterfly World in Coconut Creek. Walk among more than 20,000 butterflies from around the world, as well as exotic bird species like macaws and lorikeets within free-flight aviaries, set among botanical gardens with waterfalls. You’ll see the most butterfly action during the hottest and sunniest part of the day (around noon and just after), when they flutter everywhere. Ask someone on staff to help you spot a special species called the piano key butterfly. A hybrid heliconia species bred on site, it can only be seen here and is named for the distinctive markings on the bottoms of its wings that resemble piano keys.