15 Reasons to Drive to Fort Lauderdale

From romantic gondola rides to DJ-fueled pool parties, there’s more to Spring Break Central than meets the eye.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Fort Lauderdale, Florida | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Fort Lauderdale, Florida | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

For years, Fort Lauderdale has done it’s best to prove itself as more than just a spot for Spring Breakers and retirees. Sure, the beach and everything around it is still the main attraction in what was formerly known as “Fort Liquordale,” but there’s a ton of other cool stuff to do here that tourists don’t usually see. And now that it’s sandwiched by Brightline train stations coming from both Miami and West Palm Beach, getting to Fort Lauderdale while avoiding traffic is a breeze these days.

Here are 15 local-approved reasons to drive—or ride— to Ft. Lauderdale for a rejuvenating South Florida day trip.

Riverfront Gondola Tours
Riverfront Gondola Tours

Often referred to as the “Venice of America,” Fort Lauderdale is home to a labyrinth of canals offering ample opportunities to take in gorgeous waterfront views. Using Riverfront Gondola Tours and a well-timed order from neighboring pan-Asian Latin fusion hotspot Casa Sensei, and you can spend your visit noshing on sushi and kimchi fried rice while cruising through the the area oohing and aahing at the mansions and massive yachts dotting your path.

Butterfly World
Butterfly World

Inside Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek you’ll find Butterfly World, home to over 20,000 butterflies, making it the largest butterfly sanctuary in the world—not to mention the first ever to open in the States. It was founded in 1988 by Ronald Boender, a researcher who’s spent most of his life dedicated to educating the public about butterflies. A leisurely walk through the park takes roughly two to three hours, but don’t be surprised if you stay all day trying to catch a glimpse of the nearly 50 different species that can be found at varying times of the year.

DAER South Florida
DAER South Florida

So you happen to be in Greater Fort Lauderdale, but maybe you’re looking to pretend you’re in Vegas for a spell? This day club located at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood will give you those exact vibes in spades. With three different massive pools, private cabanas and bungalows, and a ton of daybeds all facing a DJ booth that’s more often than not manned by an internationally known artist—think Tiesto, ZEDD, The Chainsmokers—it’s a party-filled paradise for those craving that sort of thing.

Hollywood Beach
Hollywood Beach | fotomak/Shutterstock

Hollywood Beach is about as close to a real beach town as it gets in South Florida. It's where colorful characters ride beach cruisers down the broadwalk past leathery snowbirds, families of said snowbirds, and questionably employed locals. The shops, bars, and restaurants along the water offer the only real, affordable beachfront dining in the area, with bargain-priced pizzas, tacos, and gyros aplenty. Hit up Le Tub Saloon for a no-frills, award-winning burger and beer-steamed shrimp, all served humbly upon paper plates.

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
Birch State Park | Jillian Cain Photography/Shutterstock

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.

FATVillage Arts District
FATVillage Arts District

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.

Shipwreck in Pompano
Shipwreck in Pompano | Matt9122/Shutterstock

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

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

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.

Jaxson's Ice Cream
Jaxson's Ice Cream

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.

Everglades Holiday Park
Everglades Holiday Park

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 | Jillian Cain Photography/Shutterstock

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

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.

Lips - Fort Lauderdale
Lips - Fort Lauderdale

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.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Amber Love Bond is a contributor for Thrillist.
Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist.