The popularity of the best things to do in Fort Lauderdale is apparent in the city’s growth. As new residential high-rises and oceanfront hotels change the skyline, Fort Lauderdale looks less and less like a mini Miami and more like its twin sister—or, perhaps, even the favorite child.
The city enjoys a slew of advantages: an international airport and cruise port within five miles of one another; a Virgin Trains station that travels to Miami or West Palm Beach in under 40 minutes; and more waterways than there are in Venice, Italy, which make Fort Lauderdale the yachting capital of the world and a natural host for the largest annual boat show.
Even while boasting new and evolving restaurants by celebrity chefs, popular beaches and a burgeoning art scene in downtown pockets like FATVillage and the MASS District, the city’s best trait (at least for now) is that it’s still got a small-town vibe—where the barista knows your order when you walk in and the neighbor who takes her dog on walks every morning smiles at you as you duck into your car.
But expansion and change are on the way, and by the time you finish experiencing all of the following things to do here, we’ll likely be working on the next list of all new and exciting places to explore.
Best things to do in Fort Lauderdale
Ever since Rooftop @ TWLO became the first rooftop bar in Fort Lauderdale in 2017, there’s been a race to the top. For now, Sparrow, which opened in May, wins the prize for tallest. On the 25th floor of The Dalmar—a Tribute Portfolio, Marriott International hotel—the indoor-outdoor lounge not only is the highest rooftop in the city, but it also boasts chic decor and inventive cocktails. But be wary: if you want to sink into a chair reminiscent of the 1960s, you and the other guests at your table are going to have to each spend a $50 minimum, which is easy to do. Drinks, like the School Boy Heart (a take on an old-fashioned), average $15, while shareable dishes cost upwards of $26.
Fly into Fort Lauderdale International Airport and you’ll see the city like a grid below, sectioned off by streets and waterways until suddenly, you see it: a massive guitar. Blink a few times, but it’ll still be there. The 36-floor instrument-shaped hotel is part of a $1.5 billion expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, which is set to be completed in time for the 2020 South Florida Super Bowl—hosted at Hard Rock Stadium (about a 20-minute drive south from the hotel and casino). While the 638 guest rooms inside this marvel aren’t yet ready for a visit, bookings are now open for future stays.
While the beach is lined with impressive hotels and restaurants, Hugh Taylor Birch State Park at the end of Sunrise Boulevard is like the Fort Lauderdale’s Central Park. What sometimes feels like the city’s secret garden is also a great place to park for just $6 and then travel below A1A through the tunnel that connects to the beach. But drive into Birch (for short) and you’ll likely forget the beach and want to stay. Take a bike ride or rent a kayak before rewarding yourself with a beer and some tacos at the the toes-in-the-sand, beachside eatery Park & Ocean set under banyan trees and twinkle lights.
No matter the day of the week, from 4-7pm, this Mexican restaurant’s bar is bound to be slammed. El Camino, which started in Delray Beach and opened a second location in Fort Lauderdale last year, is a see-and-be-seen spot for local professionals working on or near the city’s prominent Las Olas Boulevard. Here’s why: $2 beer bottles, $2 tacos and $5 craft margaritas (we’re talking a variety, from classic to strawberry basil, muddled on-the-spot without the use of syrups). And for those who don’t make it in time, after midnight the bar’s deals renew for a late-night happy hour.
Fort Lauderdale isn’t known for having a savvy transportation system. There’s no metro or mainstream bus system, but there is a solution for traveling north and south without getting stuck in aggravating traffic on Interstate 95. Think a European-style train with sleek interiors, spacious seats, no-touch bathrooms and free cart service for those who book Select Service. The newly rebranded (and still transitioning from Brightline) Virgin Trains offers a fleet of luxury carts for those visiting Miami or West Palm Beach (and soon, Boca Raton). By 2022, the train’s last stop will be at Orlando International Airport, making it the ideal travel option for South Floridians vacationing at Disney World and Universal Studios.
Commemorate the artists who died at age 27 inside this transformed warehouse in Flagler Village where the faces of Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and more are plastered on the walls in a pop-art mural. While the tribute is eye catching, once inside, don’t forget to look up. The ceiling is lined with black-and-white photos of musicians from the past, arranged like a scrapbook. The outdoor patio comes equipped with games like Corn Hole and Connect Four, and exterior art was done by Miami’s urban artist Ahol Sniffs Glue, who’s known for his signature “drowsy eye.”
Curiously enough, while so many restaurants in town fight to stay relevant, constantly rebranding or launching gimmicks, Tap 42 has continued to accomplish morning success with a weekend line that wraps the perimeter of the building with locals who are ready to brunch. The restaurant, known for burgers and bottomless mimosas, isn’t really near anything, and there are plenty of other worthy contenders for hosting Sunday funday. Yet, Tap 42 has persisted for the past eight years. So much so that the owners bought the other half of the building and turned it into Bar Rita, a Mexican restaurant with psychedelic, glow-in-the dark art on the walls and a second-story rooftop bar. Old habits die hard, though, so while Bar Rita welcomes a crowd on taco Tuesdays, on weekends everyone still waits in line for a table next door. Meanwhile, those who are smart enough grab seats at Bar Rita and order the street corn avocado toast.
At Chops + Hops, guests are encouraged to channel their inner lumberjacks by throwing axes and drinking beer. The new establishment in Flagler Village introduces a social activity that doesn’t involve going to the beach, getting sunburnt, going home to take a nap and then realizing it’s 8pm. During 90-minute sessions (which range from $25 to $40/person and must be reserved in advance), guests learn how to chuck the tool and make it stick on the target, a task more attainable than a novice might think. “Axperts” are at hand to teach guests how to hold, aim and toss—and to ensure everyone winding up their pitch hasn’t indulged too much on the bar’s cheekily named cocktails and brews.
The Bonnet House is a century-old home set on 35 acres, tucked away from the populated parts of Fort Lauderdale beach. The grounds host a slew of ecosystems, like dunes, mangrove wetlands and a maritime forest, in addition to wildlife like migratory birds, manatees and, at times, monkeys. Inside, the Caribbean-style architecture is a backdrop to the art and personal treasures that belonged to the initial owners, back in 1920. This upcoming year, the accredited museum turns 100 and, to celebrate the milestone, the Bonnet House will host events, programs, workshops, classes, tours and a gala.
Remove one sense to heighten another by sitting in a dark dining room—without cell phones or a menu—and enjoying a six-course tasting with an optional wine pairing at One Door East. Tucked behind sister mainstay Valentino Cucina Italiana (hence “one door east”), the restaurant positioned along Federal Highway offers an exclusive menu for each dinner, which is prepared by chef Cesar Perez. The recurring event takes place two to three times per month, but private parties of more than six can set up their own dining in the dark experiences.
This new spot in Flagler Village comes to us in part from Grammy-nominated rapper Tory Lanez. The ice cream parlor is a partnership between Lanez and Bobby Velez, the GM of the neighboring longtime favorite indoor-outdoor lounge Rhythm and Vine. Stop by the nostalgic shop with a modern flare to get your fix of ice cream cones (with vegan options), ice-cream sandwiches, cookies, brownies and cake slices. Birthdays are extra sweet at Notorious with milkshakes that are topped with slices of cake, which are in turn topped with cotton candy, which are topped with sparklers. Yes.
With a retired professional athlete as the founder and owner, and with one of the only coffee shop drive through windows in Fort Lauderdale, Circle House Coffee already stood out. But then former Miami Dolphins player Stephen Tulloch added a cappuccino machine that can print your selfie, your dog’s face or your business logo, and he changed the game. The shop in Flagler Village boasts a bright mural that can’t be missed and, although it might look quaint from the front, the venue expands into a spacious interior and patio with bleacher seating and board games.
The Italian tradition of riding a gondola is borrowed by this Asian fusion restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard. Guests at Casa Sensei can book a ride with partner Riverfront Gondola Tours, which will pull up to the dock at the restaurant and take guests through the Intracoastal Waterways. Trips can take place before dinner—think blue crab rangoon, bao buns, dim sum, sushi and sashimi—while enjoying a glass of wine, or meals can be prepped and packed onto the boat for a 90-minute private dinner serving up to six people. Pro tip: go during December to see all of the million-dollar homes along the water with their holiday lights up.
The newest arts section of Flagler Village, the MASS District (an abbreviation for: Music and Arts South of Sunrise [Boulevard]) is a pocket of retail spaces, food spots, bars and galleries, housed in buildings covered with murals within walking distance of FATVillage. Pop into a class at Red Pearl Yoga, discover a favorite bowl at Poke Lolo or browse exhibits at MAC Fine Art. Whatever you do with your day in the area, make sure to end up at Glitch, a bar with more than 100 craft beer options to complement a selection of arcade classics. Play Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Mortal Kombat and Skee Ball, all for free.
At the edge of Victoria Park along Broward Boulevard, The Wilder is a dark, sexy, cathedral-like bar with even sexier looking cocktails. This downtown edition is an indoor-outdoor lounge serving Insta-worthy drinks like the Sage the Day, a mix of gin, apricot liqueur, blackberry sage reduction, egg white and pink Himalayan sage salt. During weekend nights when the back room brings in a DJ, craft cocktails are hard to come by as bartenders are busy pleasing a large crowd. Next door, the newly opened sister establishment Boulevard Kitchen + Juice Bar is a trendy spot for refreshing acai bowls or indulgent pancake stacks to revive The Wilder’s late-night guests come morning.
Boasting four breweries within about 12 miles of each other—the oldest of the pack being LauderAle, a nano-brewery with small batches of local favorites like Black Mamba, a chocolatey stout—locals don’t go thirsty here. Khoffner is a go-to for huge flights of German specialties. Tarpon River is the newest, offering a full food menu in addition to its tap list. As for the weird stuff, Invasive Species will be your happy place. Known for experimental brews and zero flagships, the FATVillage brewery is gaining recognition for its Ninja Juice, a rice beer fermented with sake yeast, and its Warehouse Saison, a light and dry peppery brew with notes of banana and bubblegum.
Check into the B Ocean Resort and you might not even notice the blackened windows off to the side of the front desk. But cup your fingers on the glass and peer inside, and you might catch a glimpse of a “mermaid”—or a recently introduced “merman”—swimming through a tank behind the bar. Peel back a wooden door reminiscent of an old ship and find some quintessentially Florida entertainment inside the Wreck Bar, which dates back more than 60 years. Spend $30 on food and drinks, and the mermaid show is free. A family-friendly act takes place on Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm but, after that (and on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays), during shows like Sirens & Sailors, the AQUAMEN, Aqua Burlesque and Mermaids & Mimosas Brunch, the sirens get naughty—some even shedding their tails for lingerie, bringing an entirely new meaning to the word “fishnets.”
Travel to Cuba without the hassle by bellying up to the counter at 925 Nuevo’s Cubano’s. The outdoor-only Cuban secret garden is stocked with quirky art, Cuban flags and coladas and croquetas as far as the eyes can see. This colorful shack has been around since the late ’70s and is a great place to grab a filling, affordable lunch on a nice day. The spot’s most popular item is, unsurprisingly, the Cuban sandwich. But all the classics are offered as well, including midnight sandwiches, sweet plantains, steak sandwiches and ropa vieja (warning: the shredded stewed beef dish sells out fast).
What was once an empty warehouse district set beside a train track is now a packed street of cars on any given day. That’s because of a thriving mix of local artists renting studio and gallery spaces, plus relaxed coffee shops and interactive, experimental events in what’s now FATVillage. During your lunch break, grab an oversized deli sandwich at Henry’s Sandwich Station and sit out on the patio to watch the trains roll through. Or, visit C&I Studios during an Art Walk for a silent disco or Instagram activation, and then push through a hidden passage disguised by a bookshelf that leads to BREW Urban Cafe, which transforms from a coffee shop to a bar during the last Saturday of every month.
Tucked behind some unassuming vacant buildings is a hidden little world on Northeast 13th Avenue: The Yard is a colorful patio and garden space where visitors can grab a coffee, savor a French crepe and thrift through antique stores. The co-op space houses The Alchemist—where you can get a wicked cold brew—as well as Voo La Voo Café and La Frutera Garden Bar for food and drinks. Lola’s Market is open on the weekends, slinging local products like handmade soaps and fresh flowers. And Tuesday through Sunday, visitors can walk through Marisa Folz’s refurbished chrome Airstream and shop a curated collection of trendy clothes and accessories at The Wander Shop.