This Former Spring Break Capital Is the Perfect Weekend Getaway

From retro underwater revues and waterway cruises to shopping local artisans, here are the coolest things to do in Fort Lauderdale.

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

Fort Lauderdale has been trying to shed its Spring Break past for decades now. With a plethora of new high-end hotels, trendy beachside restaurants, and luxury high-rises dotting the skyline, the city has mostly succeeded in dropping its “Fort Liquordale” nickname. (Mostly.) But the beach town, which is now easily accessible via Brightline trains from both Miami and West Palm Beach, still retains some of that Old Florida quirk. From sexy mermaid shows and historic dive bars to cruising the canals and trying to meet cast members from Below Deck, here are the best things to do in Ft. Lauderdale.

The Wreck Bar Mermaids
The Wreck Bar | The Wreck Bar

Eat, drink, and watch mermaids swim past a porthole at the classic mid century bar inside the B Ocean Resort (formerly the Yankee Clipper). Every Friday and Saturday night, MeduSirena and her team of underwater performers strip down past their tails during these lively, adult-only shows. (There’s also an Aquamen version every other Thursday.) While the late-night version is certainly the most fun—and the most South Florida—other less suggestive mer-people experiences are available, too, including a family-friendly version on Thursday nights and a weekly Mermaids & Mimosas Sunday brunch with unlimited mimosas and the option to add on a yoga class with one of the mermaids before the performance.

Water Taxi
Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi | Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi

Explore the “Venice of America” by water

Fort Lauderdale’s other, far less known, nickname is “Venice of America.” The Greater Fort Lauderdale region boasts 300 miles of inland waterways with more than half in the city itself. Traverse said waterways via a rented paddle board or kayak, a gondola dinner cruise, while soaking on a hot tub boat tour, or on the Water Taxi. The latter shuttles locals and visitors around the city from predetermined stops around town. Check the route map before starting your journey, as some stops, such as Seville Street right around the corner from the new AC Hotel by Marriott Fort Lauderdale Beach (which is a great place to stop for signature Gin & Tonic for the ride) require a call to the office for pick-up.

Marando Farms & Ranch - Davie | Marando Farms & Ranch - Davie

Hit some of the top farmers markets in the region

South Florida’s farmer market scene has expanded dramatically in the past couple of decades. Two of the best are located just outside Fort Lauderdale. In Davie, Marando Farms & Ranch offers tons of fresh produce, eggs, and other products grown onsite. It also boasts a cafe and petting zoo for those looking to make an afternoon out of their grocery run.

Just a quick drive south of the airport, in Hollywood, Yellow Green Farmers Market has become a favorite local weekend hangout. That's because it boasts nearly 250 vendors that sell everything from produce and pantry goods to houseplants, skincare, and crystals. The shopping is fantastic, but the real draws for many of its regulars are the two full liquor bars, events (like yoga and zumba), and food vendors that offer a huge array of cuisines including South American-style barbecue at Llanera Carne en Vara, one of the few Ethiopian restaurants in South Florida, Peruvian-style tacos, and more.

Line Dancing at Roundup Nightclub
Roundup Nightclub | Roundup Nightclub

Experience the country western life in Davie

A couple decades ago, you didn’t have to travel far outside of Ft. Lauderdale proper to come across hundreds of acres of cow fields. The vast majority of those pastures have since been replaced by suburban housing developments, but the area still maintains some country western stalwarts including cowboy gear purveyor Grifs Western, Davie Pro Rodeo, and Roundup Nightclub. The latter is the most popular place in South Florida to two-step and line dance. Have no clue how? Head over early for a lesson, which start around 7:30 pm most nights—and just so happens to be right in the middle of happy hour.

Pelican Grand Beach Resort | Pelican Grand Beach Resort

Drink a pina colada while floating down a lazy river

There are a few South Florida water parks with lazy rivers. The problem is most don’t allow alcohol. So, if you want to drift down a crystal clear waterway in an inner tube while downing pina coladas—with a seriously nice view of the Atlantic while you do—Pelican Grand Beach Resort has got you covered. The beachside resort is a lovely place to get a room, but even if you can’t afford a stay, a $40 resortpass will get you access to the aforementioned lazy river, the zero entry pool, and beachside chairs and umbrellas that come with waiter service.

People Dancing at Tap 42
Tap 42 | Tap 42

Track down future Below Deck crew at a yachtie bar

Fun fact: Fort Lauderdale is not just the “Venice of America,” it’s also the western hemisphere's hub for the superyacht industry. Several of Below Deck crew members, including chef Ben Robinson, have settled in town. And they're often seen out and about. But if you want to seek out crew members of the reality show or just regular old seafarers, head to one of the city's many yachtie hangouts. Popular bars amongst the yachting crowd are Tap 42, Bar Rita, Rooftop Bar @1WLO, and Rhythm + Vine.

People Dining at Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery
Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery | Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery

Eat, drink, and shop local around Flagler Village

One of the trendiest neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale (and home to Brightline’s Fort Lauderdale Station), Flagler Village is where locals stroll around when they want to eat, drink, and shop away from the touristy parts of town.

Grab an Ethiopia Sheka pour over from Wells Coffee Co., then hit up locally-owned shops, like designer swimwear purveyor Montce and womenswear specialist Thread + Theory, before grabbing a bite to eat at Top Hat Deli or one of the many vendors inside food hall Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery. You can’t go wrong with anything there, but the fried chicken sandwiches at Henry’s Sandwich Shop and Needa’ Pita’s vertical-rotisserie chicken shawarma are particularly good. Wash those down with a beer from the onsite brewery and make sure to pop into Sistrunk Kollective, a co-op shop featuring goods from local artists and makers including Roxana Lynch, who makes stunning handcrafted headpieces and jewelry, Soul Flar candles, and artists/jewelers, Arboleya Moreno Art.

The Apothecary 330 Drinks
The Apothecary 330 | The Apothecary 330

A grab cocktail in a secret speakeasy

A decade ago, Fort Lauderdale was a craft cocktail desert. Not anymore. The city is now home to a handful of great speakeasies spread throughout own including a high-end option set on the 11th floor of the Ritz Carlton, Fort Lauderdale (request a keycard from reception to get in), No Man’s Land in the Winn-Dixie shopping center by Victoria Park, Apothecary 330 Cocktail Club in the back of Pizza Craft on Himmarshee, and Room 901, set in a converted hotel room in the Hyatt Centric Las Olas Fort Lauderdale.

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.

Though many in Florida think Jai-Alai is an IPA made by venerable Cigar City Brewing, it’s actually an extremely 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 100 mph, 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.

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.

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.

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Sara Ventiera is a Senior Editor for Thrillist.