There are a million and one reasons to love Florida, not least of which are the striking contrasts that exist at every turn. One minute you can be perusing European masterpieces at a world-class museum, and the next raising a rum drink during a live mermaid show in an underwater bar.
Follow our lead for a mix of cultured and quirky fun as you road trip from West Palm Beach south to Fort Lauderdale.
Starting Point: West Palm Beach
Roughly three-quarters of the way down Florida’s east coast, West Palm Beach is the point in the state when things really start to feel tropical. This is also the start of Florida’s moneyed Gold Coast, where the Mediterranean-style mansions of Palm Beach lie within one of the country’s wealthiest zip codes and the haute couture shops of Worth Avenue tempt shoppers with deep pockets.
Culture runs deep in West Palm Beach, too, and at the Norton Museum of Art, you can admire the works of 19th-century European masters and see some of the world’s finest examples of Chinese jade and bronze artifacts.
Take the bridge across Lake Worth (aka the Intracoastal Waterway) to reach Palm Beach, where the former estate of Florida railway magnate Henry Flagler is now the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, a National Historic Landmark that gives a fascinating look at Florida’s Gilded Age.
And to feast your eyes on some of the oddest sights in town, dip underwater with a mask and snorkel to explore the artificial reef and underwater snorkeling trail at Phil Foster Park, just north of West Palm Beach in Riviera Beach.
Sunken shopping carts and statues of hammerhead sharks are waypoints to look for as you fin along. But the quirkiest things you’ll see here are marine oddballs such as frog fish and stargazers (bottom-dwelling fish that look like something from beyond the grave) that live in just a few feet of water.
Dining Tip: South Florida’s first true food hall, Grandview Public Market, is a collection of eclectic vendors selling everything from Hawaiian-inspired poke and cold-brewed coffee to Thai-style rolled ice cream.
Driving time from West Palm Beach: 25 minutes (21 miles)
Delray is one of those Florida towns that manages to mix big-city sophistication with a salt-in-your-hair beach-town vibe.
The town’s art scene is positively booming along Atlantic Avenue, and in the nearby Pineapple Grove Arts District, with surprise galleries like Whitewall Contemporary putting the focus on women artists and the recently renovated Cornell Art Museum, housed inside a historic 1913 elementary school building, spotlighting fine art, pop art and crafts.
Delray’s greatest cultural treasure, however, is devoted to Japanese culture. At the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, you can stroll through rock gardens and see a traditional tea ceremony while learning the fascinating history of Japanese farmers who settled in this part of Florida in the early 20th century.
For a quirky night out in Delray, time your visit for a Monday, when a retired local police officer conjures the King during his weekly Elvis tribute shows at Johnnie Brown’s bar on Atlantic Avenue.
Dining tip: Café-hopping along Atlantic Avenue (Florida’s longest main street) is the perfect wind-down after a day on the area’s beautiful beaches.
Fans of the raw stuff flock to Yellowtail Modern Asian Cuisine & Sushi on Atlantic Avenue. For dessert, don’t miss the whimsical ice-cream wonderland that is Sloan’s Ice Cream, where Almond Joy and carrot cake might be among the ever-changing flavors.
Driving time from Delray Beach: 45 minutes (30 miles)
Once known mainly for its rowdy spring break scene, Fort Lauderdale is carving its own space in Miami’s shadow as one of Florida’s other artistic powerhouses.
All eyes of late are on FATVillage (that would be Flagler Arts & Technology), a former downtown warehouse zone that’s emerged as the city’s creative hub.
Various contemporary art spaces here host immersive exhibits. And the monthly ArtWalk, held near the railway tracks on the last Saturday of every month, is an alfresco explosion of food, music and art with none of the attitude you’ll find farther south in Florida.
For a fascinating look at a bygone Fort Lauderdale, stop by the Historic Stranahan House Museum — a former trading post and private residence that’s been beautiful preserved and sits conspicuously along the New River in the heart of downtown, surrounded by incongruous high rises.
And when all you really want is something frosty to go down with a kitschy, only-in-Florida backdrop, Fort Lauderdale has you covered, too. Raise a Tiki-inspired cocktail during a Polynesian-themed review at Mai-Kai restaurant, which dates to 1956.
Or cross the bridge to the Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale Beach, where a Spanish Galleon –style bar has porthole windows that look out onto an underwater mermaid show.
Dining Tip: The garlic crabs are a cult favorite at Rustic Inn, an erstwhile roadhouse saloon with dockside dining that’s been a Fort Lauderdale fixture since 1955.