-- Sand and surf is certainly a big draw here: Greater Ft. Lauderdale, after all, is made up of eight pristine beaches -- from Hollywood to Pompano -- that stretch more than 23 gorgeous miles. But there’s a whole lot more going on here, from hip neighborhoods to designer shops, music to fashion, and hot dining to cool entertainment.
Check out some of these unique things to do in one of the Sunshine State’s most desirable destinations.
Skip Winter, Come Summer
Each winter, as the rest of the country deals with the doldrums, Ft. Lauderdale’s sweeping beaches and balmy weather become a major draw. This is also when hotel prices peak. So visit in summer, when savings are on the ground abound. The 2-for-1 Summer Savings Card (available May to October through the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau) gets you half-off savings on theater tickets, salon services, arcade games, watersports, tours, trolley rides and more. Also, summer is the time when even some of the area’s ritziest hotels will offer perks like complimentary upgrades, credits and freebies like valet parking and cabana rentals. It all makes the rising mercury and humidity a lot more bearable.
Flying In? Shop Around
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) gets high marks for its easy access; it’s your closest arrival point into this area. But there are two other major airports nearby – busier Miami International (MIA, about 30 miles away) and quaint Palm Beach International (PBL, 45 miles away). It’s always smart to search flights into (and out of) all three; fare variances may make a slightly longer drive a budget-friendly option, especially for families or large groups. Compare flights on www.fly.com.
Cruising? Fly in the Night Before
It looks good on paper: an early morning flight into Ft. Lauderdale, giving you plenty of time to hop on your cruise that evening. But in reality, flights can be delayed, connections can be missed and luggage can be lost. And that cruise ship isn’t going to wait around. So why risk it? Several hotels here incentivize arriving the day before with discounted rates that include free roundtrip transfers to the Port Everglades Cruise Port and extras like breakfast; some hotels even offer parking for your car while you sail the high seas.
Skip the Sand, Get Cultural
Don’t overlook the bevy of cultural options in Ft. Lauderdale, including the cavalcade of shows throughout the year at the beautiful Broward Center for the Performing Arts. For my colleague Rudy Tomarchio, a South Florida native who’s an assistant producer in Travelzoo’s Miami office, the Stranahan House and the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens are not to be missed. “These are two charming places that I believe few are aware of, yet they’re easily accessible,” he says. Dating back to 1901, the Victorian-style Stranahan House is the oldest building in Ft. Lauderdale, while Bonnet House is a former plantation home listed in the National Register of Historic Places. “Consider them Ft. Lauderdale’s version of the Barnacle & Vizcaya in Miami,” adds Tomarchio. Stranahan House is on the river, right next to popular Las Olas Blvd., while Bonnet House is off the Intracoastal Waterway, about eight blocks north of The Westin Beach Resort & Spa.
Skip the Museum, Become Your Own Artist
Part of the NSU Art Museum, the AutoNation Academy of Art & Design is a sleek 11,000-square-foot downtown facility with classrooms for painting, drawing, digital arts and more. Residents of all ages can choose from a myriad of five-week courses throughout the year. But visitors can hone their artistic knack, too, with day and weekend sessions taught by professionals and covering art forms like silk-screening, bookmaking and ceramics. Visiting on a Friday or Saturday with a group of eight or more? Their “Painting Twister” offers an evening of creative and customizable artistic expression; priced at $40 per person, it includes materials, wine and light bites.
Skip the Cab, Rent a Bike
The two-wheel revolution has arrived in Greater Fort Lauderdale. Broward County has set up more than 25 B-Cycle stations in beaches like Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, Dania, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Pompano. Rent a bicycle using your credit card and pay for the time you use it, returning it to any station. Rates start at $5 for each 30 minutes, with a $50 max per day. A 7-day membership is $25 and gets you your first half hour free every time. Don’t lose your bike, though; it’ll cost you $1200 to replace it.
Skip the Movie Theater, Go Big
The IMAX experience in Ft. Lauderdale just got better: the theater at the Museum of Discovery & Science got overhauled in late 2014, bringing in a new five-story screen (the largest in South Florida), new luxury stadium seating and a 32,000-watt digital sound system and new digital projector. This is a very cool way to watch first-run movies. For some great throwback films, and a genuine art house theater experience, check out the Cinema Paradiso locations in Ft. Lauderdale and Hollywood.
Skip the Beach, Hit the Garden
At more than 1500 acres, the Anne Kolb Nature Center is one of the largest urban parks in Florida. Here, the coastal mangrove wetland – including endangered species – is alive and accessible, with five boat trails that are perfect for sightseeing and fishing. Catch sweeping views from the top of the 68-foot observation tower. And on weekends, look for feeding opportunities at the 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium. Admission to the Center is free on weekdays; nominal fees apply on weekends and holidays.
Skip the Doll, Tour the House
Yes, the Barbie Dreamhouse is real. And yes, it’s very pink. Located at Sawgrass Mills Mall, this 10,000-square-foot immersive display features Barbie’s domicile in its entirety: her bedroom, closet, kitchen, bathroom, balcony and more. And all rooms feature interactive activities. There are hundreds of Barbie dolls throughout the home, and the real Barbie herself makes an appearance (albeit virtually). The Dreamhouse welcomes guests seven days a week, with kids’ pricing starting at $18.95.
Skip the Restaurant, Be Your Own Chef
Foodies give high marks to Chef Jean Pierre’s Gourmet Emporium, with its huge selection of gourmet food items - -from jams to vinegars – and kitchen wares. But the chef also hosts popular cooking classes several times a month, with themes ranging from romantic dinner and nouvelle Italian cuisine to basic sauces and easy desserts. Some classes are wine-focused. Sessions take place in the evening and last two to three hours.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals to and in Greater Fort Lauderdale here: http://www.travelzoo.com/destinations/fort_lauderdale/#.