The Best Things to Do in Ft. Lauderdale That Won't Make You Look Like a Tourist

hollywood boardwalk
hollywood broadwalk | Kamira/shutterstock
hollywood broadwalk | Kamira/shutterstock

For a long time, Ft. Lauderdale wasn’t considered a place to do much other than go on spring break or visit your grandparents. But since shedding its binge drinking/God’s waiting room image, the city has grown up in the past few decades. And while the beach and everything around it is still the main attraction in the place formerly known as “Fort Liquordale,” there’s a ton of other cool stuff to do here that tourists don’t usually see. Throughout the city and Broward County, unique, outdoorsy, and dare we say cultural activities abound. So as long as your definition of “culture” includes a fronton, here are a bunch of things you can do in Ft. Lauderdale that most tourists haven’t even discovered yet.

See the fastest game on earth at Dania Jai-Alai

Though many in Florida think Jai-Alai is an IPA made by venerable Cigar City Brewing, it’s actually an insanely entertaining spectator sport, in which the spectators can actually win money. In short: Professional players use a sickle-shaped basket called a cesta and hurl a ball at a wall at speeds up to 100mph, trying to get their opponent “out” by making it bounce more than twice. The rules are secondary, really, because the most important thing to know is that you can bet on whoever you think will win. And heckle the other guy unmercifully from only a few rows away.

birch state park
Flickr/Artie White

Kayak through Old Florida at Birch State Park

Ft. Lauderdale has one of the best park systems of any city in Florida, and the best among them is this one just north of Sunrise Blvd in Ft. Lauderdale Beach. Smack in the middle of the condos and hotels of the busy strip, this one-time estate is a glimpse at what Florida was before the world paved it over. Take a kayak or paddleboard through live oaks and palmettos to the freshwater lagoon and enjoy the serene break in nature.

Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi
Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi

Drink your way through town on a water taxi

With its aforementioned reputation as the Venice of America (though that begs the question why there’s another Venice near Naples. And one in California), Ft. Lauderdale’s labyrinth of canals make water transportation here a fairly normal thing. The most fun way to traverse the city’s waterways is via a water taxi bar crawl. Though organized crawls are few and far between, you can jump on the water taxi and stop at any number of the fine waterfront drinking establishments along the Intercostal and other canals. Many offer discounts with your water taxi receipt, and it’s a relaxing, scenic way to enjoy some cold beers with the perfect weather.

FATVillage Arts District
FATVillage Arts District

Stroll through amazing art at FAT Village

One of the great things about Ft. Lauderdale vs. its neighbor to the south is that its arts district hasn’t been overrun by overpriced bars, restaurants, and parking spaces. Yet. So catch FAT Village, where artists’ studios, galleries, and creative spaces still abound via one of its monthly art walks. On the last Saturday of every month, pop-up bars and food trucks line the streets, and walkers can stop into the storefronts to check out some of the more provocative art in South Florida.

hollywood boardwalk

Spend a sunny day at the Hollywood Broadwalk

Hollywood Beach is about as close to a real beach town as South Florida gets. It's where colorful characters ride beach cruisers down the broadwalk past leathery retirees, families of snowbirds, and questionably employed locals. The shops, bars, and restaurants along the water offer the only real, affordable beachfront dining in the area with cheap pizzas, tacos, and gyros aplenty. Hit up the Taco Spot, which in addition to being surprisingly cheap might also be the best Mexican restaurant in Broward.

Dive shipwrecks in Pompano

Just off the wide sands of Pompano Beach, a 324ft tanker has been sunk as the closest artificial reef to shore in Broward County. The cornerstone of Pompano’s Shipwreck Park has been retrofitted into a cartoonish “underwater casino” with statues of sharks playing poker, a mermaid cocktail waitress, slot machine sculptures, and more. It sits at a depth of over 100ft, so it’s a solid challenge for less-experienced divers. And if you want to learn how the whole thing ended up there, check out its intriguing backstory.

Gulfstream Park
Gulfstream Park

Play the ponies at Gulfstream Park

In much of America, horse racing is a sport people enjoy once a year, and really only as an excuse to wear funny hats and drink bourbon. Not in South Florida, where live horse racing is as good as anywhere in the country. Hit Gulfstream Park in Hallandale where you can not only bet at -- to our knowledge -- the world’s only Tiki hut betting window, but also enjoy some of Broward’s best restaurants on site, many of which let you wager from the table.

Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Broward Center for the Performing Arts

Catch an offbeat theater show at the Broward Center

The Broward Center for the Performing Arts is among the best-attended PACs in the country. And while touring productions of big Broadway shows are the draw, the Amaturo Theater and Abdo New River Room frequently have local productions or lesser-known works that can be equally as entertaining and a fraction of the price. The programming here is one of Ft. Lauderdale’s best kept secrets and is almost always guaranteed a good time.

Eat the Kitchen Sink at Jaxson's

Jaxson’s wasn’t rated one of the best ice cream shops in America just because it makes all 30-plus flavors in-house. This kitschy, old-school spot is fronted by merry-go-rounds and rocking horses and filled with old license plates and other oddities that make it feel a little like eating in your grandparents’ garage. If you’re with a big group, order the Kitchen Sink, a combination of whatever ice cream flavors the people in back feel like throwing into an actual kitchen sink, served at your table for $13.95 per person, minimum four people.

Take a trip back in time with antique cars

Greater Ft. Lauderdale is lucky enough to have not one but two classic car museums, both of which can be visited in a day. Berliner Cars in Davie boasts classics from the 1940s-1970s, including Packard convertibles, Chevy Bel Airs, and vintage Corvettes... many of which are for sale. In Ft. Lauderdale, the antique car museum won’t let you buy anything, but it will let you gawk at turn-of-the-20th-century Packards, dating as far back as 1909.

florida everglades
Philip Lange/Shutterstock

Cruise the Everglades and catch a gator show

People in South Florida don’t end up with alligators in their swimming pools because gators love floaty toys. They do because we live right on the edge of the Everglades, and if you haven’t seen one of the world’s rarest (and most endangered) ecosystems, you owe it to yourself to take an airboat ride through the sawgrass, mangroves, and vast swampland just west of the city. For one-stop shopping, the Everglades Holiday Park takes you out on one of Florida’s famous airboats, and offers alligator shows and personal animal encounters with snakes, iguanas, and baby gators.

Flamingo Gardens
Flamingo Gardens

Immerse yourself in tropical native wildlife

Though the words “nature conservation” and “South Florida” are rarely used in the same paragraph, in 1927 Floyd and Jane Wray were captivated with the tropical landscape of the region and developed one of our first eco-tourism attractions. This one-time citrus grove is now a sprawling park filled with over 3,000 tropical plants and 90 species of native wildlife, all preserved for us to visit. In addition to the botanical gardens, the wildlife sanctuary also rescues injured panthers who couldn’t survive in the wild, and has otters, parrots, alligators, and, yes, flamingos living onsite. And the Wray Home Museum is a fascinating look into life in Old Florida.

swap shop
Flickr/Herb Neufeld

Drive into the Swap Shop

You wanna “go native” in Ft. Lauderdale? Nowhere will you do it better than at the Swap Shop, where a Carl Hiaasen-esque collection of colorful characters sell everything from car audio to mangos to knockoff handbags in the closest thing you’ll find to an international bazaar in Florida. Cap off your day with a trip to the classic drive-in movie theater next door, a venerable trip back to the 1950s... if the 1950s had massive amounts of marijuana smoke abounding.

Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show
Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show

Transport yourself to the South Pacific at Mai-Kai

The kitschy neon Tiki huts at this local landmark are legendary. The Chinese food is good and the happy hour is one of the best in Ft. Lauderdale. But the Polynesian show here is a Broward bucket list item. The constantly changing show is inspired by life in small villages in the South Pacific and features fire tricks, Maori dancing, and more. Though the setting might feel a little Disney, the show itself is authentic, and one of the most unique things you can do in the city.

Praise Jesus (and brunch) with drag queens

You’ve heard of gospel brunches, where a choir makes you feel a little better about choosing unlimited mimosas over church. And you’ve heard of drag brunches, where men dressed as women lip-synch to Shakira while you dine. Well, in Lauderdale they’ve combined both for the best brunch experience in South Florida. Here the performers start out in choir robes and belt out gospel songs in full drag throughout the brunch. It’s a spectacle you’ll only find in Ft. Lauderdale, and there is no better way here to start your Sunday.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who truly believes everything is better in Broward. Use the hashtag #EBIB and follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.