Let’s talk about South Florida. It’s got a reputation for being, well, the most basic U.S. vacation destination of all time. I myself thought the only things to do in Fort Lauderdale were lie on the beach and sip frozen cocktails. But on my third trip to the region a couple months ago, I realized there’s actually quite a bit going on – so much so, that I didn’t spend any time in a beach chair!
Some background: my friend Camila grew up in Fort Lauderdale, so on previous trips to visit her hometown we had never done anything touristy as we usually hung out with her friends (or escaped for the night to Miami). To be honest, I didn’t even know there were any local attractions that would interest me.
But this time around I was in town for TBEX, a travel blogger conference that brings writers from around the world together to discuss the latest happenings in the industry.
Since it was sponsored by Fort Lauderdale’s tourism department, I had the chance to explore some of the region’s tourist attractions as their guest. And it turns out, Fort Lauderdale isn’t so basic after all: it’s got a plethora of historic attractions and adventure activities, and a weekend in Fort Lauderdale is significantly more affordable than nearby Miami to boot. Looking for fun things to do in Fort Lauderdale beyond the beach? Here are a few.
Five Things to Do in Fort Lauderdale
1. Learn About Fort Lauderdale’s History
I know, I know… touring history museums is probably the last thing on your beach weekend getaway itinerary. But bear with me: there are a couple really cool things to see in Fort Lauderdale that I promise will hold your attention.
The first is the Bonnet House, a historic home that is so beautiful, it’s frequently chosen as a wedding venue. The artist Frederic Clay Bartlett created Bonnet House in 1920 on land given to him and his second wife, Helen Louise Birch, by her father, a prominent Chicago attorney, real estate investor, and naturalist. For more than seventy years, Bartletts and Birches resided on the property, enhancing the 35 acres and collecting a variety of unique decorations.
I loved the outside of the house and it’s blue and yellow color theme – and the gardens are really beautiful for taking a stroll through as well. Guided house tours ($20) are available every day except Monday, and if you’re on a budget or not feeling the whole indoors-on-a-tropical-vacation thing, you can just tour the gardens for $10.
The second is the riverfront Stranahan House, which was built by Fort Lauderdale’s “founding father,” Frank Stranahan, and his wife, Ivy Cromartie Stranahan, the area’s first school teacher, in 1901. While I didn’t find the interior of the Stranahan House particularly exciting visually, I did love the history behind it. Tours are lead by an actor who plays Ivy and shares her life story. Ivy seemed like she was one cool chick for the early 1900s: she was an ambitious woman, and pretty feminist for the times, and dedicated much of her time to teaching the local Seminole tribes things like how to read. She even pulled herself up by her bootstraps, renting out the lower floor of her house to a restaurant to make ends meet after her husband committed suicide when their financial situation was bleak.
2. Take the Water Taxi
Fort Lauderdale is known for its yacht culture, but if you’re like me and don’t have a yacht or many yacht-owning friends, a trip on the Water Taxi is probably your best bet at getting a peek into the lives of the area’s elite. The Water Taxi is kind of like a hop-on-hop-off bus tour (pay one fare, hop on and off all day), but it’s way better because it’s on a boat. You’ll be able to get an up close look at the incredible homes along the canal, and hop off for some of the best things to do do in Fort Lauderdale (including the aforementioned Stranahan House!).
3. Explore the Everglades
Call me a geographical dummy but I didn’t realize that the Everglades were so close to Fort Lauderdale. About thirty minutes away, you can take an Airboat tour with Everglades Holiday Park where you’ll zip around the wetlands and see lots of birds and quite a few gators in the wild.
The tour finishes with a live gator presentation, where a volunteer does crazy things like put her hand in a gator’s mouth (you read that right: she’s not getting paid). You’ll leave this excursion knowing more about alligators than you ever thought was possible, and have some pretty cool photos too. A 60-minute tour is around $30 per person.
4. Art Walk
Edgy art installations are synonymous with Miami’s Wynwood arts district, but FAT Village is giving Fort Lauderdale some serious cred with its monthly Art Walks (FAT stands for Flagler Arts & Technology, in case you’re wondering). Head there on the first Saturday of each month from 7pm to 11pm for art, food and music. (Image above courtesy of FATVillage.com)
5. Eat & Drink
Fort Lauderdale also has an up-and-coming dining and bar scene that’s nothing like the resort town buffet-fest I had imagined. For a fun dinner, head to Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar for tacos and tequila (duh!). They make guac tableside, which always wins me over.
For a quicker meal, my favorite place was Taco Craft for modern Mexican street food.
If you’re looking for some really yummy pizza, make a beeline for Mellow Mushroom, an eclectic chain restaurant that serves really creative pizza combinations and even offers gluten free crust.
Bonus: after dinner you can walk over to Rhythm & Vine, a new beer garden where the Fort Lauderdale hipsters hang. Complete with picnic-style tables, food trucks, Jenga, and craft beer and cocktails served out of a re-purposed Airstream, Rhythm & Vine gives off a cool backyard party meets speakeasy vibe.
So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t count South Florida out as a cultural travel destination. You might be surprised at how much history, art and yummy food you can squeeze in between afternoons at the beach!
Know of any other cool things to do in Fort Lauderdale? Share them in the comments!
Legally required disclosure: my admission to Bonnet House, Stranahan House, Water Taxi and Everglades Holiday Park were courtesy of Fort Lauderdale’s tourism department.