Travel

21 Reasons to Drive to West Palm Beach, Florida

It feels like an entirely different Florida.

West Palm Beach downtown district
West Palm Beach downtown district | Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock
West Palm Beach downtown district | Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock

Tell a Miamian they need to go to Ft. Lauderdale, and you may as well tell them they’re driving to Alaska. West Palm Beach? That might as well be going to Mars. But in actuality, driving to the largest city in Palm Beach County can be done in just over an hour. Or, to put it in Miami terms, less time than it takes to get to West Kendall at rush hour.

Once you arrive in West Palm, it will feel like an entirely different Florida.  You’ll find a city striking the perfect balance of urban energy and tropical relaxation, with the grandeur of Palm Beach just a short ride from the electricity of Clematis. And if you haven’t been up to West Palm in a while, what they’ve done with the past in the last half decade will impress you. So come take a ride up I-95 to the tropical urban gem you probably didn’t know about. And see why West Palm Beach is worth the drive for an ideal weekend getaway.

Waterfront drinking and dining doesn’t get better

After dealing with 60-plus miles of South Florida drivers, you’re going to need a drink. And possibly also a new insurance carrier. West Palm Beach can help you with at least at least one of those, with idyllic places to imbibe by the water. Your first stop should be the venerable E.R. Bradley’s Saloon, an indoor/outdoor drinking den where the breezes off Lake Worth blow through. You’ll enjoy cold drinks, bar staples, and plenty of TVs, though the mishmost of PBC locals who pack the place are often entertainment enough.

Just down the road in Lantana, you’ll find the Old Key Lime House, a weekend hangout for lovers of live music and cold beer. The breezy wood bar feels like a love child of a Jimmy Buffet song and the Florida Man Twitter, a little slice of the Keys you’ll want to enjoy without having to think about driving home. If you want something more substantial than bar food to enjoy by the water, head to Elisabetta’s along S Flagler Drive. Here you’ll enjoy red-sauce laden Italian food with rich wines and a calming view of the water. With plenty of outdoor dining to enjoy the soft winds.

Clematis Street has finally grown up

Perhaps you ventured up to Clematis Street to “try something different” back in the 2000s, and after a night of sticky floors, smoky hair, and people you’re pretty sure you saw on Cops the week before, you wondered why you drove an hour to experience Ocean Drive without the ocean. But the spot that used to seem like Spring Break for swamp people has done a 180. And while you can still catch glimpses of its frazzled Florida past, it’s now got an urban energy and sophistication that make nights here endlessly fun. 

Because, yes, you can still roll into Roxy’s and order a $8 vodka soda and shoot the shit with a guy who’s probably been sitting there since breakfast. Which is cool, but you can also venture down the street to Batch Southern Kitchen, a cousin to the Miami original that specializes in bourbon and fried chicken. You can also head west of the train tracks and hit Kapow! Noodle Bar for carb-heavy Asian stuff that’s far more satisfying than Miami’s glut of sushi joints. Or hit Hullabaloo, a funky, streetside café with woodfired Italian food that’s perfect for people watching.

South Florida’s best art museums are in West Palm

Yes, yes, Miami has the landmark Perez Art Museum with its Biscayne vistas and fancy restaurant. And the Rubell Museum, with its world-class art and even-fancier restaurant. But neither combines history and fine art like the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, where works run the gamut from Asian pottery to Renaissance to provocative modern. With a stairway meant to invoke swimming in the ocean running from the ground floor up. There’s also a sculpture garden in the back with a water view that’s a perfect place for reflection on warm winter afternoons.

Stroll through the jungle, past massive sculptures

The Norton Museum, however, is not to be confused with the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, set behind the industrialist billionaire Nortons’ old house on Flagler Drive. The “garden”  is more of a walk through a tropical jungle where you’ll encounter mysterious, 20-foot sculptures hidden between the trees. It feels a bit like hiking through ruins in Central America, if those ruins were about 100 years old, and there were plenty of benches to rest on. And is an ideal place to get lost on your brief gaunt to West Palm.

Bike though the old money of Palm Beach Island

Before Henry Flagler brought his railroad all the way to Miami, he lured wealthy northerners with posh hotels and sandy beaches to Palm Beach. Much of that old money remains on Palm Beach Island, and if you’re up for some exercise you can rent a bicycle and cross the bridge to Palm Beach proper. Here you’ll find street after street of jaw-dropping mansions, and even one you can tour at the Henry Flagler Museum. You can also cruise Worth Avenue, sort of the Rodeo Drive of Florida. 

But no trip to Palm Beach is complete without dinner at Buccan, which we’re not scared to call the best restaurant in South Florida outside Miami. Here, chef Clay Conley changes up the menu almost weekly based on what’s in season, and uses flavors from all over the world to plate in his casual-yet-chic dining room. You won’t find a weak spot on the menu, but if the main restaurant is out of your price range hit the Buccan Sandwich Shop around the corner. You’ll get the same level of food, between bread, for a fraction the price.

Go on safari and mingle with giant turtles

If you’ve lived in South Florida long enough, you’ve probably seen at least one billboard for Lion Country Safari. And you probably assumed it was something you’d save for when your niece and nephew came to town. But don’t save it for the kids; Lion Country Safari  may well be the coolest attraction in South Florida, where you’ll drive through a 600 acre game reserve, and see giraffes, rhinos, primates, and even lions roaming free around your car.   

Just up the road in Juno Beach you can get up close and personal with another hard-to-see animal: Giant sea turtles. The Loggerhead Marine Life Center rescues injured turtles from the ocean and rehabilitates them before sending them back out into the wild. And while they’re on the mend you can visit the adorable green guys in the center’s spacious courtyard. Loggerhead has a big educational component too, so if you’re looking to learn about South Florida’s marine ecosystem, it’s an ideal spot.

Learn how to blow glass

Blown glass makes for cool-looking decorations, sure, but do you really have any idea how it’s made? You and a group of your friends can not only watch the stuff get forged, but try your hand at it yourselves at the  Benzaiten Center for Creative Arts. This converted train depot in Lake Worth’s mural-lined arts district is filled with 2400-degree ovens affectionately called “glory holes,” where skilled instructors will walk you through making a blown glass treasure of your own. Try not to giggle too much as you and your group don a set of safety goggles and dip your rod in the glory hole (we swear, those are the exact instructions) roll the molten glass, force air into the tube, and go home with a rocks glass that looks like a work of art.

Hotels still feel like a real vacation

When Flagler brought his railroad down to Palm Beach, he intended for the city to be a dreamy vacation paradise, where hotels transported you to a world away from reality. That spirit lives on, not only at Flagler’s iconic The Breakers  in Palm Beach, with its gilded age ceilings and the ornate HMF bar. But  you’ll also find it across the water in West Palm Beach as well.

For an equally transportive experience, plant yourself at the AAA-Four-Diamond Hilton West Palm Beach downtown. Though the name might not sound as sexy, the expansive lagoon pool deck just begs for a tropical vacation with groves of palm trees and tropical cocktails delivered to your chez lounge. The massive rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, all boasting spectacular views of the blue skies and tropical landscape. And though you’re only a few short blocks from the bevy of restaurants on Clematis Street, staying in for a steak at Galley won’t disappoint.

For a more immersive experience in West Palm, hit the Canopy, where the rooftop bar is the star of the show, and gives you an ideal perch from which to plan your West Palm adventure. Downstairs, the lobby bar is often filled with local young professionals working remotely, so you can ask them what it’s like to live up here when the thought inevitably crosses your wind. You can also grab a bike from the front desk and use it all day to explore the city, perhaps the best perk any hotel offers in this inherently walkable city.

Shop among Burning Man sculptures and light shows

The ocne drab CityPlace got a big makeover in 2019 and has been reborn as Rosemary Square. And while sometimes new names don’t bring much more than new signage, the revamped shopping center has gone from ‘90s mall to treasure trove of pop-up boutiques from local designers, art installations, and chic restaurants (Planta, for example, is opening here in 2021). Its centerpiece is The Wishing Tree, an LED-light banyan tree developed by Symmetry Labs, in the mold of their similar luminescent works at Burning Man. The sculpture has 100,000 lights across 10,000 leaves, and puts on frequent shows after sunset.

A few feet away you’ll find the glowing water pavilion, a sort of splash park by day and mini-Bellagio by night. Show up on a hot afternoon, and you’re welcome to cool off by running through the fountains that shoot up at random intervals. And at night, you can do that too as long as it’s not during one of the installation’s choreographed music-and-light shows.  

There’s a world-class scuba dive trip that won’t require a boat

While crossing the bridge to Singer Island is certainly a majestic drive to one of West Palm’s lesser-known beach getaways, it’s what’s under the Blue Heron Bridge that makes it so fascinating. Not far below the surface you’ll find seahorses, octopi, pipesigh, and all varieties of colorful tropical marine life. So much so that PADI dubbed this the best dive site in the world in 2014. The best part: You don’t need to book an expensive boat ride to dive it. If you’ve got gear, or can rent some from a nearby dive shop, you can walk right into the water at Phil Foster Park, and do the dive yourself at high tide. The max depth is only about 20 feet, and seeing the fish swim around the bridge pillars in one of the most unique sites in the undersea world.

You won’t need a car once you get there

Perhaps the most surprising thing about West Palm Beach is that it’s almost entirely walkable. While you’ll need a bike—or a short car ride—to get to Palm Beach Island, experiencing downtown and the Waterfront can all be done by foot. So you can stroll from the West Palm Brewery and Wine Vault over to the waterfront, down to the Norton Museum and back up to catch sunset from the rooftop bar at The Ben hotel, and never deal with a South Florida driver. It’s an ideal drive trip where you won't touch your car once you park it. And a city worth discovering when the madness of Miami gets too much.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.
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