Alligators, Astronauts, and Art Await on This Road Trip Along Florida’s Space Coast

Visitors to the central part of Florida are typically there for one of two reasons: Theme parks or the Kennedy Space Center. But if all you see during your time there is NASA and cartoon characters, you’ll miss much of what makes this part of the state so special. Add a couple of days on to your vacation, rent a car, and take a road trip through Florida’s Space Coast, where alligators, sea turtles, surf lessons, and fantastic food all wait along A1A.

Eau Gallie Arts District | Domenic Agostini

Day 1: Orlando to Melbourne

Whether you’re leaving from the theme parks, downtown Orlando, or MCO airport, your first stop when leaving the city should be the Wave Hotel in Lake Nona. The high-tech hotel is worth a look even for non-guests as it has one of the best collections of modern art featured at any hotel in the US. A couch set on its side welcomes guests into the lobby, which is illuminated by oscillating chandeliers. The back terrace doubles as a chrome sculpture garden which, among other works, has a companion bull to the one on Wall Street, and a provocative depiction of “Leda and the Swan.”

You can opt to check out the bustling suburb of Lake Nona, or head out on US-192 to Melbourne. The drive isn’t particularly scenic, but as you roll through the Central Florida swampland, you may find yourself wondering if any alligators are lurking by the side of the road. And just as you’re nearing Melbourne, you find a place where your questions are answered: Camp Holly Airboat Rides offers a truly Floridian experience, where salty pilots take you into the marshlands and, yes, the thick of alligator country. It’s one of the few airboat tours you’ll find north of the Everglades.

After delving into the swamps, you’ll likely be hungry. Skip the snack stand at Holly and save yourself for the Intracoastal Brewing Company in the heart of Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District. While the beers are fantastic, the food is even better. Enjoy the breezy, dog-friendly patio and savor chicken bacon ranch tacos and teriyaki steak bites among the brewery’s colorful murals.

After you eat, get a little exercise wandering the colorful streets and boutiques of the Eau Gallie Arts District. Melbourne offers an official mural trail, but you’ll be equally entertained wandering in and out of the independent artisan shops. Each offers clothes, crafts, and other unique items that make for great conversation pieces once you get home.

As evening rolls in, check in at the Hotel Melby, a chic, art-adorned boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Melbourne. It’s the only hotel of its kind along the Space Coast, and the rooftop offers a spectacular place to watch the sunset. After the sun goes down, walk a block or so for dinner at Crush XI, where inventive stuff like sriracha-marinated flatiron steak and smoked duck fettuccine are on the menu. Or opt for sweet, smoky barbecue at Cyderman’s.

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Day 2: Melbourne to Cocoa Beach

In the morning, log some beach time at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge about a 25-minute drive to the south. It’s a completely undeveloped stretch of sand whose surrounding hammocks (coastal habitat) have been restored to what they looked like before rampant development. In addition to being a great place to enjoy the coastline without crowds, the refuge is the world’s largest nesting beach for green turtles. You can stop into the welcome center after your beach day to learn all about the refuge’s conservation efforts.

From there, head north on A1A, and watch the Atlantic peek out from behind beachside homes and condo buildings as you venture towards Cocoa Beach. The hour-ish drive takes you through Patrick Space Force Base, and right into the heart of America’s space country.

The main attraction here is obviously the Kennedy Space Center, home base of America’s space program. The tour offers an education in the past, present, and future of NASA, and features artifacts from the Apollo missions as well as several others. The Kennedy Space Center also just debuted All Systems Are Go, a 20-minute music and light show that teaches visitors about the space program.

Cocoa Beach is about more than just the space center, though, so after your requisite trip to NASA, take a stroll on the Cocoa Beach Pier. Walk to the end and enjoy a meal over the water at the Rikki Tiki Tavern — Cocoa’s most scenic lunch spot — with everything from Korean bibimbap bowls to gator melt sandwiches accompanying a 360-degree view of the ocean.

Cocoa Beach is also Florida’s surfing capital, and no trip here is complete without a visit to the original Ron Jon Surf Shop. If the boards and surf wax get you itching to hang ten, walk a couple of blocks to the School of Surf. Here, a family of lifelong Cocoa Beach surfers will take you out into the water and show you that even on the smaller waves in Florida, surfing can be a rush. After an active afternoon, check into the Beachside Hotel and Suites, Cocoa’s only hotel with its own lazy river, where you can float and gaze up at the sun and relive the second day of your road trip.

Once you’ve relaxed and showered, hit the town for dinner. Tucked next to a downtown jazz club is Flavour Kitchen, arguably the best restaurant on the Space Coast, which could hold its own with anything in a big city. The chef-driven spot features unique dishes like smoked salmon nachos with black caviar, fig jam flatbread with black pepper ranch, and maple chili glazed bacon, plus an impressive wine list.

If you’d like some further unwinding after dinner, grab an ice cream cone and play 18 holes at Lighthouse Cove Adventure Golf. Or if it’s still light out, book a sunset sail with Sail Cocoa Beach. You just might find yourself sharing the Intracoastal Waterway with a pod of local dolphins.

Sunrise Bread Co.

Day 3: Cocoa Beach to Titusville

If you time your trip right, you can also catch a rocket launch while you’re on the Space Coast. You’ll likely have to wake up early, but if you’re up for it, drive about 25 minutes north to Kennedy Point Park in Titusville. It offers an ideal vantage point to watch the rockets take off across the water. If you can’t focus without your morning coffee, stop into Sunrise Bread Co. a few blocks away and grab some fresh made pastries to munch on while you wait for the launch.

Now that you’re in the space spirit, delve even deeper into America’s space history at the American Space Museum. While not affiliated with NASA, the smaller museum's exhibits go into painstaking detail about specific missions throughout the American space program, and lets you get closer to 1960s-era artifacts than you can at Kennedy.

A short walk through downtown Titusville brings you to the museum’s Walk of Fame, set in Space View Park. You’ll be able to see how your hands stack up to the ones eternalized in concrete by famous Apollo-era astronauts.

Post up for lunch at Playalinda Brewing in downtown Titusville. It's located in a historic hardware store, and eating here feels a little like walking into a 1930s street-side restaurant in small-town America. If the weather is pleasant, grab a table outside and people-watch as you enjoy the murals along the city’s main drag. The red pepper hummus is cool and refreshing on such an afternoon, though the pulled pork nachos are a can’t-miss.

Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. Visitors can explore a massive collection of military planes, featuring Blue Angels, Russian Migs, and even a B52 cockpit that you can climb inside. It’s an Instagram dream for plane buffs and a fascinating look at America’s airborne military history.

Cap off the evening at Third Culture Kitchen, where cuisines from across Latin America and Asia merge in a delightfully varied menu. And while the mojo pork bao buns, phaenang curry, and brisket burritos are all outstanding, you can get a true taste of Florida with the Public sub (fried chicken, mayo, shredded lettuce, tomato). 

As the sun sets, drive back down towards Cocoa Beach, and enjoy one last night by the ocean. In the morning, it’s a short drive down the Beachline Expressway through Central Florida to Orlando. From there, you can continue exploring the city or head home. Either way, you’ll have done the Space Coast like a true space enthusiast, and hopefully learned a little about what makes Florida so special along the way.