Our Insider’s Guide: Things to Do in Fort Lauderdale

As a longtime Floridian, I’ve spent more than half of my life here, so I am somewhat of an expert on things to do in Fort Lauderdale. I’ve come of age, you could say, alongside some of our most celebrated cities. My evolution, it turns out, has been running parallel to Fort Lauderdale’s own remarkable metamorphosis in the past several decades, changing from a party-hearty place to something more refined, multifaceted and world welcoming, a boon to anyone whose cruise will depart from here.

Fort Lauderdale and environs./Shutterstock

The South Florida vacation hot spot where the classic 1960 spring break movie “Where the Boys Are” was shot on location was also the scene of my own youthful and intrepid spring-break moments. Now, when I come to Fort Lauderdale with my family or on a trip with friends, those golden beaches still beckon as they always have, asking us to kick back and relax, including doing so at the odd beach bar that can still make me feel 21 again.

Fort Lauderdale is revelatory in a new way now, offering seductions beyond the beach, including sophisticated shopping and cafe-hopping along Las Olas Boulevard, evolving arts districts and wanderlust-inducing day trips to surrounding cities to the north and south that boast more cultural and natural attractions than can be crammed into a couple of days.

There are plenty of cruises that leave from Fort Lauderdale and plenty of things to do in Fort Lauderdale before or after your trip. Here are some favorite neighborhoods to explore as well as nearby easy, breezy destinations that are equally worth the trip.

Downtown Fort Lauderdale/Las Olas area

Fort Lauderdale’s riverwalk at day’s end/Shutterstock

In brief:

Hugging the New River lined with condos, shops and more, the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale runs along Las Olas Boulevard and stretches west from the beach across the Intracoastal Waterway. The area’s parks, cafes, museums and boutiques are best explored on foot, so park the car and stroll to enjoy.

What to do:

Start your morning with Parisian cafe vibes at Ann’s Florist & Coffee Bar on Las Olas Boulevard, with its adorable onsite flower shop as well as a wine and coffee bar serving floral-inspired cocktails, strong espresso drinks and pretty pastries.

After some properly caffeinated people-watching, stroll west along Las Olas Boulevard for about 10 minutes, passing more cafes and shops. (The family-owned mainstay Swimland might tempt you in for a new bathing suit.) Then make your way to the mile-long Riverwalk, lined with parks, and gazebos where you can sit to ogle passing yachts. (You’re in the yachting capital of the world in Fort Lauderdale.)

Favorite stops for things to do in Fort Lauderdale near the Riverwalk include the Stranahan House Museum, formerly a trading post at the river’s edge that dates to 1901 and offering sweeping river views from its wide porch. You can ride the free Riverwalk Water Trolley from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily to cross to the New River’s south bank or visit eight other stops, including the Downtowner Saloon (a favorite for live music and craft beers with river views) and Esplanade Park, where you might catch a festival or concert in the waterfront gardens.

Where to eat:

Downtown is a hotspot for dining in Ft. Lauderdale, and we have many favorites. Try Chima Steakhouse, for Brazilian. For upscale pub food, head to Big City Tavern, both right in the heart of Las Olas Boulevard. Seafood enthusiasts will love Eddie V’s Prime Seafood and Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, in the Riverside Hotel (and another favorite spot there is the Boathouse at the Riverside, partly for its fabulous canal-side location).

Where to stay:

Las Olas Boulevard, in the downtown district of Fort Lauderdale, does not have the variety of hotels you’ll find on the beach, but we love its Riverside Hotel in the heart of the city. The hotel has historic bonds (you’ll notice the old Florida charm of the lobby and its courtyard); you can stay in the old section or upgrade to the Tower, which was built a decade ago. We also love its small pool, which is on one of the canals.

Fort Lauderdale Beach

Fort Lauderdale Beach, Fla./Shutterstock

In brief:

Continuing east on Las Olas Boulevard from downtown Fort Lauderdale takes you to the Atlantic Ocean and famous Fort Lauderdale Beach, lined with high-rise hotels, restaurants, marinas and beach bars. A beachfront promenade hugs the coast for about two miles and is the spot to channel your inner flâneur, pop into cafes and bars overlooking the surf or detour for an ocean swim.

What to do:

Rub elbows with off-duty yacht crew and casually dressed billionaires at Coconuts, Fort Lauderdale Beach’s beloved yachtie restaurant that hugs the Intracoastal Waterway and dishes up enviable views of other people’s yachts alongside more accessible Floribbean classics, including blackened mahi sandwiches and crab empanadas whose flavors nod to South Florida’s Cuban and Latin American immigrant roots.

If you saw “Where the Boys Are,” you can get nostalgic over beers at the Elbo Room, a mainstay beach watering hole since 1938 and where scenes from the film were shot.

Fans of mid-century modern architecture will enjoy a walk around North Beach Village Resort, where a smattering of reborn boutique hotels looks straight out of Miami’s South Beach cluster. This cool little beach neighborhood is home to Wine Garden, a favorite dinner spot, where you can pop in for Neapolitan pizzas and boutique wine selections in a gardenlike setting.

If quirky entertainment appeals, make your way to the southernmost stretches of the beach to the famous Wreck Bar, a top thing to do in Fort Lauderdale. There, you can sip fruity cocktails while peering at mermaids and mermen who perform behind portholes cut into the bar walls.

Where to eat:

If downtown has a stronger concentration of excellent restaurants, you’d be surprised at how many terrific options there are at the beach, too. Casablanca Café has the ambience of a historic building, breakfast through dinner menus, including happy hour and dessert. For a casual meal, check out Shooters Waterfront Fort Lauderdale for lunch, brunch and dinner.

What almost every dish at Blue Moon Fish Co has in common – and this won’t catch you by surprise – is that the seafood, from a Moroccan seafood salad to Southern shrimp and grits, reigns supreme. And Steak 954 at the W Fort Lauderdale, run by James Beard award-winning chef Stephen Starr brings a classic steakhouse option to the beach.

Where to stay:

If you’re craving an intimate boutique hotel, The Pillars has a canal-side location and is just a few short blocks from the beach. (One tip: Rooms, although elegantly lovely, can be on the small side, so you may want to book its larger accommodations.) The Conrad and the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale are on the beach.

Flagler Village/MASS District

In brief:

Head to this burgeoning area just north of Las Olas Boulevard and south of Sunrise Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale to gauge the city’s artistic pulse.

What to do:

If your visit to Fort Lauderdale aligns with the last Saturday of the month, check out the food trucks and creative buzz during the evening MASS District Art Walk in Fort Lauderdale’s MASS District. The former warehouse district covers only a few blocks, but it has been reborn with galleries and music venues and buzzes with youthful energy.

Where to eat:

You’ll find unique restaurants here, too, including chic Italian spot Heritage, with its excellent antipasti, New York-style pizza and stuffed calamari inspired by recipes passed down by chef Rino Cerbone’s Italian immigrant family. And live music bar Laser Wolf, which shares a courtyard inside a lovely Mediterranean Revival building, is an inviting spot to sip craft beers under the stars on a balmy South Florida night.

Where to stay:

Plan to stay either downtown or on the beach.

Wilton Manors

You can kayak around Wilton Manors, an LGBTQ+ friendly city, on the Middle River./Shutterstock

In brief:

About three and a half miles north of downtown Fort Lauderdale, the Wilton Manors neighborhood is the center of Fort Lauderdale’s LGBTQ+ community, where shops, restaurants and nightlife establishments can easily be explored on foot.

What to do:

Wilton Manors, a popular city for same-sex couples, beckons with open-minded hospitality, tidy streets lined with gay-owned businesses and pretty urban parks to explore.

Stroll an elevated boardwalk over protected red and black mangroves at Colohatchee Park, then reward yourself for the effort with vintage candies you’ll likely remember from childhood at To the Moon, an amazing shop selling nostalgic sweet treats sourced from 60 countries.

Visit the Stonewall National Museum & Archives to see changing exhibits on LGBTQ+ themes. Longstanding dancing hot spot Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar has regularly scheduled karaoke nights and drag shows.

Where to eat:

More than bars, restaurants and shops populate Wilton Manors, including The Alchemist, serving open-faced sandwiches in a Key West-style courtyard. Authentic sweet and savory buckwheat crepes stuffed with ingredients such as Gorgonzola and pear, just as you would find in France, are on the menu at Voo La Voo Cafe.

Where to stay:

The W Fort Lauderdale, right on the beach, isn’t in the neighborhood but is an easy taxi or car ride from Wilton Manors.

Curious about things to do in Fort Lauderdale before or after your cruise? Learn more here.