Fort Lauderdale is sometimes called the Venice of the United States, and its waterways and pristine beaches may make you just want to hunker down with your toes in the sand, sipping a cold drink. But the city is a great base for you to venture out to experience other delights of South Florida. Here are eight of my favorite day trips, all within two hours of Fort Lauderdale.
1. Walk Hollywood Beach’s Broad Broadwalk
No, that is not a misspelling -- the 2.5-mile flat promenade was named the “Broadwalk” because that is exactly what it is, with room for walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and skaters. Hollywood Beach is just 20 minutes south of Fort Lauderdale and makes a great destination for a half-day or day trip. The Broadwalk is lined on one side with restaurants, bars, and shops, and on the other by what is one of the best beaches in South Florida. If you have more energy, you can rent a bicycle -- or a lowrider, surrey, or skates (special needs vehicles are also available). And if you tire of the sun and sand, catch the free and ADA accessible Sun Shuttle (there’s a Ride Service app) to artsy Downtown Hollywood’s galleries, shops, and very cool and colorful wall murals.
Stop for a cold drink at Landshark Bar and Grill at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort (there is a public parking garage). Try to score a table overlooking the promenade and the beach. It’s heavenly.
2. Flock To Flamingo Gardens: Welcome To Paradise
Located about 20 minutes west of Fort Lauderdale in Davie, Flamingo Gardens is one of the oldest botanical gardens in Florida, with over 3,000 species of rare and exotic, tropical, subtropical, and native plants and trees. The wildlife sanctuary offers up-close views of over 90 species of Florida birds and animals. But it’s the flamboyance of flamingos that draw the largest crowds -- we watch them and they watch us. The half-acre free-flight aviary boasts hundreds of wading birds, and the Bird of Prey Center is home to one of the largest groups of raptors in the United States. Don’t forget to book online -- tickets are limited and pre-registration is necessary.
3. Feel Miami’s Cuban Soul And The Wild Walls Of Wynwood
Greater Miami includes both Miami (about 40 minutes from Fort Lauderdale) -- the largest city in South Florida -- and Miami Beach, just across the bay. There’s just too much to see in one day, so you may want to spend a day in each.
First head to Calle Ocho, the core of Little Havana, where you can journey to the heart of Cuban culture by perusing home-made cigar shops, Latin music shops, authentic ventanitas (walk-up windows with Cuban coffee), and botanicas (religious goods stores). Check out the generations of Cuban-born aficionados playing dominoes at Maximo Gomez Park (also known as Domino Park). And yes, go to Versailles Restaurant; you may have to wait and there may be lots of other tourists, but lots of Cuban Americans frequent it for its authentic Cuban food. Check out their bakery next door to the restaurant.
Wynwood Walls is about 15 minutes northeast of Little Havana, but it is a different world. The area became a blank canvas for artists from around the world in 2009, when it was part of the Art Basel in Miami. Wander the indoors and outdoor art areas, where you’ll encounter more than 80,000 square feet of abandoned warehouse walls. Just outside the walls, Wynwood is home to some 70 art galleries, outdoor restaurants and bars, and hip retail stores.
4. Journey To European Extravagance At Vizcaya Museum And Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, just a mile south of Miami, is easy to visit from Fort Lauderdale for a day trip. Here the gorgeous winter villa that industrialist James Deering built between 1914 and 1916 stands right on the shores of Biscayne Bay. Deering filled the villa with art from the 15th to 19th centuries and built formal gardens that resemble those at Versailles. It all makes for a leisurely visit of two or three hours, depending on how long you sit in the gardens, staring at the blue, blue water. Just a few blocks north of Vizcaya is the William M. Powell bridge, which leads to the dramatic Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and its iconic lighthouse.
5. See Miami Beach’s Art and Art Deco
About 40 minutes south of Fort Lauderdale (and a scenic drive over Biscayne Bay via MacArthur Causeway), is South Beach, the southernmost area of Miami Beach. Known as a destination for international tourists and partiers, you will certainly see folks drinking giant colorful concoctions at boites (little restaurants and clubs) along Ocean Drive. But for me -- and I have been visiting since the 1950s -- South Beach is the place to explore graceful and colorful 1930s art deco hotels and buildings, visit a lively beach, and go to some wonderful museums. Then rest up at an outdoor cafe or restaurant on Lincoln Road, home of high-end shopping in South Beach.
One of my favorite museums is the Wolfsonian-FIU (for Florida International University) in South Beach two blocks from the ocean and housed in a stunning old art deco building. This unique and quirky museum is a treasure of North American and European art, architecture, and industrial and graphic design dating from 1850 to 1950.
Don’t miss Las Olas Cafe! Their Cafe Cubano (labeled as “rocket fuel” by a friend) and empanadas are to die for. The tiny cafe opens at 6 a.m., so an early arrival may enable you to skip the lines.
6. Experience Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (You Won’t Egret It!)
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is less than a two-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale, going west across the Big Cypress National Preserve. Corkscrew is like taking a journey to the heart of the Everglades ecosystem, with a 2.5-mile boardwalk wending its way through a marsh, pine flatwoods, and cypress forests. There are animals to see here, including alligators, deer, and even Florida panthers. But birds are the stars of the show, and sharp-eyed bird watchers come to track the wide variety. You may encounter birders on the path who often share their discoveries; breeds sighted each day are noted on a board near the entrance.
The sanctuary is a hidden gem. Although not as well-known as some of the larger nature destinations (and less crowded because of it), you will need online reservations in order to visit.
7. Ride An Airboat In The Everglades
Giant Everglades National Park, the third-largest in the lower 48 states, spans over 1.5 million acres and is accessible through three entrances: one in Miami, one in Everglades City, and one in Flamingo. Most visitors choose to enter at the Miami entrance, which is about 45 minutes away from Fort Lauderdale. There are many tours available through the Everglades, and the National Park Service recommends several. My family loved the narrated airboat tour, a unique and fun way to cover a large swathe of the park and see alligators, birds, pythons, turtles, and even panthers! For those who prefer to travel on the ground, there are tram tours, which take you to the Shark Valley Observation Tower.
If you want to skip the drive to the Everglades, there are a number of half-day and full-day airboat tours leaving from Fort Lauderdale. Reservations are necessary. Check with several companies for the best deals and for departure locations.
8. Explore John Pennekamp Coral Reef’s Delights (And Catch A Ride On The African Queen)
Key Largo is the first island in the Florida Keys, and the good news is that it takes less than two hours to drive there from Fort Lauderdale. It is the home of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the United States and a great place to explore coral reefs and mango swamps by canoe, kayak, snorkel, or scuba. A pleasant way to see the park is via a Glass Bottom Boat Tour (wheelchair accessible) or the Encounter snorkeling vessel.
If you are a snorkeler or diver, don’t miss Christ of the Abyss at Pennekamp, a nine-foot bronze statue of Christ that was lowered into the ocean near the Dry Rocks area in 1965 and is visible to snorkelers and scuba divers.
As many film buffs know, Key Largo is also the name of a 1948 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogie is also remembered in Key Largo by the presence of the iconic steamboat from another of his films, The African Queen (1951). Beautifully restored, today, theAfrican Queen and its crew take visitors on 90-minute day cruises and two-hour dinner cruises in the Key Largo canals. For more on Key Largo, consider these eight things you didn’t know you could do in Key Largo and Key West Vs. Key Largo: nine key differences between them. Also consider these incredible experiences in Fort Lauderdale and the five best things to do in Fort Lauderdale during winter.