Who doesn’t love Fort Lauderdale? This beautiful Florida town is an ideal family vacation spot, offering tons of kid-friendly activities and located only a three-hour flight from NYC. We visit here all the time, especially in the dark of winter. The lifestyle in this Miami-adjacent town is easy and the pace is slow. Because we visit it so often I am constantly looking for new and different things to do in Fort Lauderdale. I also love to explore the nearby area.
This article has been updated for 2021, to mark socially distant options for dining and entertainment. Look for this icon to spot those activities:
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1. Stroll inside a fairy tale at Luminosa Chinese Lantern Festival
If you are visiting Fort Lauderdale around the holidays, my number one recommendation for a kid-friendly activity is the Luminosa Chinese Lantern Festival in Miami. This magical forest lights up every year from around Thanksgiving to the first week of February. In addition to strolling 13 acres of illuminated trails, you can also listen to live music, enjoy food and drinks, and even see a free acrobatic show. The forest is huge and the visitors spread over big areas, so Luminosa does not feel crowded.
Best hotels in Fort Lauderdale:
- The Ritz Carlton, Fort Lauderdale
- The Pillars Hotel, Fort Lauderdale
- The Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort
- W Fort Lauderdale
- Marriot’s Beach Place Towers, Fort Lauderdale
2. Indulge in delicious ice cream at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour
For my younger son, Jaxsons is paradise, for me – well its still pretty good. The most important thing to remember about Jaxsons is the size of the ice cream is only matched by the size of the lines to get the ice cream. Still, the 30 or so minutes you might wait online is a fun experience with live music and ice cream lovers camaraderie. And once you get to the magic order window, the wait will be worth it. This enormous ice cream was both delicious and cheap, a banana split big enough for four is about $14. And best of all, all the ice cream is made on premises from the freshest local ingredients so the quality is similar to Haagen Dazs or another premium brand.
And if you are feeling really brave, the restaurant next door offers even more Americana indulgences and lines that are a few hours long. Still, the tireless who wait for the restaurant will receive a just desert – a literal kitchen sink filled with ice cream. Jaxsons is conveniently located just a few minutes drive from Ft. Lauderdale.
Florida Vacation Travel Tip:
Are you traveling to Tampa Bay while on vacation in Florida? Check out city pass Tampa Bay, a great way to save money on top attractions such as Busch Gardens and the Florida Aquarium.
3. Dine and Watch the Sunset from Taverna Opa
Mid-priced eatery Taverna Opa in Hollywood Beach offers delicious food and friendly staff. But its claim to fame is the outside water seating – lining the intercoastal, these views offer a stunning perspective of the sunset. While in Florida, on our socially distant trip in 2021 (first in a year) this was our pick to celebrate my older son’s 15th birthday. Solid Greek food (they are well known for meat and fish plates), friendly service, and of course stunning views, on a reasonable price tag (about $200 for 5 people) made it a no-brainer. To get the best seating show up for dinner early, around 6 pm. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t take outside reservations, but if you come in at 6 pm on a weekend or 6:30 on a weekday you should be able to secure a coveted water seat.
4. Explore History and Enjoy the Surf At Johnson State Park
The hidden away and uncrowded Johnson State Park is one of Florida’s best-kept gems. Located about 30 minutes south of Ft. Lauderdale, the park offers uncrowded send, fishing spots, a kayaking rental place, and even a hidden bar, aptly named Whiskey Creek Hideout. Families really enjoy the forty-five-minute hiking trail through the subtropical coastal hammock, and nature lovers will appreciate the plethora of endangered Mangroves you can find here. Mangroves are a salt-tolerant tree that serves as a nursery for fish, crustaceans, and fish. The park also offers picnic areas and a spot to barbecue, so a visit here is an ideal way to make a day of it.
The park was named in honor of Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson, two civil rights leaders who led the efforts to locate a public beach that would welcome people of color in the 1960s. At the time, most beaches in this area were whites only.
5. Combine amazing views with delicious seafood in Ft. Lauderdale’s Favorite Eatery
“Sea Watch On the Ocean” has been a long-time favorite restaurant for the locals and tourists of Fort Lauderdale. This popular (and might I add, scrumptious) seafood joint first opened its doors to the public in 1974. From the outside, it looks exactly like what you would imagine a beach house on the ocean to look like. It’s an old-fashioned, eco-friendly, seafood eatery that has built a well-deserved reputation for itself. This fine dining establishment has two floors, both complete with floor-to-ceiling windows covering almost every wall. The decor inside feels comforting and cozy but still high quality. The second floor has outdoor seating with a beautiful balcony which completely elevates the atmosphere of sand and surf with a gentle salty breeze.
Here you can see some spectacular views of sand dunes, tropical palm trees, and beautiful crashing waves of the rising tide. There’s plenty to offer from appetizers all the way to desserts as well as a really nice wine selection. No matter what you get on the menu, I highly suggest trying the oysters. They are salty, delicious, and best of all, fresh from the ocean.
6. Enjoy an amazing milkshake at “Robert is Here Fruit and Farmstand”
Family-owned and operated since the 1950’s “Robert is here fruit and farm stand” is a must-stop for a foodie or a vegan visiting south Florida. Although this is about an hour’s drive outside of Fort Lauderdale, it’s totally worth it. Packed to the brim with fresh fruits and vegetables it’s a food lover’s paradise. Must try: fruit-loaded milkshakes which taste like super fresh ice cream and juicy mangoes that the owner cuts up fresh in front of you. Also, pick up some incredible guacamole made fresh on-premises (pair with the local corn chips). There is an adorable free petting zoo in the back and this may be the only place in Florida where you can find tortoises playing with goats. Combine this attraction with the nearby Alligator Farm located only a couple of minutes away.
Looking for more family-friendly vacation ideas? Check out “20 Best Resorts in North Carolina.”
7. Feed the flamingos and see a wildlife sanctuary at the Flamingo Gardens
Flamingo Gardens in South Florida is a sprawling aviary rescue complex. In addition to countless resident birds, you’ll also find a botanical garden and a breed and release program for rare birds. This wonderful attraction occupies several well-maintained acres a bit south of Miami. Walk around the grounds a bit and you’ll discover several huge trees more than a hundred years old. Among them are 21 certified champion trees (the largest trees of their kind). After you explore the grounds, visit the feeding presentation (takes place 3 times a day), which is both adorable and educational. This not-for-profit facility is supported entirely by ticket sales and donations, so you can feel good about where your money is going.
Florida Travel Tip:
Are you traveling to multiple locations, in Florida and beyond? Check out the USA sightseeing pass. With this pass, you can select attractions you want to visit Florida and in the USA. Pay online for your selected attractions, and save close to 50% off admission. The USA sightseeing pass gives you an opportunity to create your own discount package – a really good deal.
8. Spend the afternoon exploring the tranquil Japanese gardens at Morikami
Explore the amazing combination of Japanese history, culture, and nature throughout this beautiful Southern Florida attraction. Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens was established to educate, celebrate, and emulate long-time Japanese traditions and culture to share with the world. With 16-acres of beautiful sprawling gardens, Morikami is a fantastic way to get a little taste of Japan, without having to endure an international flight. Although, the scenery may inspire you to add a new destination to your travel bucket list.
Time seems to slow down as you walk through the gardens. It’s peaceful and quiet. The background noise of streaming water and singing birds has a special way of grounding you and making you feel present in the moment. I love this place because it may not be something you’d expect to do in Florida and it’s still fun for the whole family. And as a little side note, the food available on the premises is excellent. I definitely recommend it! [Cornell Cafe] has an Asian-inspired menu to delight your taste buds while also enjoying a view.
9. Stroll around the beautiful Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya was originally constructed as the Florida winter estate of a wealthy businessman. Today this enormous museum and garden is open to the public and offers stunning interior and exterior spaces you can explore for hours. As the inspiration for this property came from the great estates of Europe, many bedrooms are Europe-themed. Themes include Marie Antoinette, Venice, and Pompeii. After you explore the inside, step outside into Vizcaya’s extensive gardens. You can easily spend a day here, wandering the shaded trails or reading a book in a quiet spot. My kids particularly enjoyed the maze and pirate ship relics we found while exploring the grounds.
Florida Travel Tip:
Ever thought about taking an RV family trip? Outdoorsy is the largest RV rental market in the world. Check out great RV rental options in Florida – for a family adventure you will never forget. Renting an RV can be a great way to save money too since you won’t need to rent a hotel or a car.
10. Eat at Food Truck night in Young Circle in Hollywood
A list of things to go in Fort Lauderdale can never be complete without great places to eat. Every Monday night the Hollywood based Young Circle park hosts a food truck night. More than 40 trucks arrive to serve every type of cuisine – from Cuban to seafood, Americana to Brazilian. The event starts at 6 pm and goes until 11 pm every week. In the same park, you will find a unique kids’ playground – an awesome way to release after-dinner energy. Walk towards the edge of the park and check out the permanent glass blowing workshop and store. You can even make your own work of art here – a unique way to end a great evening.
11. Play at the Science Museum of Fort Lauderdale
Museum of Discovery and Science located in Fort Lauderdale is the quintessential children’s science museum packed to the brim with a plethora of kid-friendly activities and fascinating exhibits. Even my two, who have been spoiled with extraordinary things to see and do, found the place fascinating running from exhibit to exhibit for hours. Of particular interest is the 7 dimension theater, the IMAX, 3d printer workshop, and of course this awesome snapping alligator turtle. Stop by here on your visit with kids to southern Florida for a great educational activity while traveling. This place is a fantastic option if you have hit a rare stormy or rainy day while on your vacation in Florida.
Florida Travel Tip:
12. Dine deliciously at Mizumi Sushi Buffet (yes, seriously).
I have to admit, of all the things I ever thought I’d recommend, a visit to a sushi buffet is just about the last on the list. Yet, here I am recommending a sushi buffet. I know, I know… hear me out. Mizumi Sushi is actually really good, super fresh, offers an amazing variety and, most importantly, is super clean. I visited the restaurant because our friends insisted we try it, and even as a total sushi snob I was not disappointed. Although the rolls are not fancy, the fish is very fresh and expertly prepared. In addition to sushi, you’ll find a great selection of Chinese food and desserts from around the world. The lines, too, speak to the quality of the food. To beat the rush come in at 5 pm (opening time) or take your chances with a wait time of up to an hour. Mizumi Sushi is located near Sunny Isles, about half an hour outside of Fort Lauderdale.
13. Try to solve the mystery of the Coral Castle
Edward Leedskalnin, an eccentric freemason, created Coral Castle more than 60 years ago. He constructed the structure entirely by hand, out of limestone. Many people know the Coral Castle as America’s Stonehenge but in essence, it’s a giant rock dollhouse. Edward constructed the house to accommodate his family (he didn’t have one). While at Coral Castle you can’t help but marvel at Edward’s genius and madness. Using nothing more than than the most primitive rock carving and engineering tools the structure includes bedrooms, a throne room, a bathtub, and even a “punishment room” supposedly created for his future wife. Edward built mostly during the night and adorned his rock castle with Freemason symbols. Perhaps it was those symbols or the fact that he worked only at night, but legend says he was assisted by aliens in the project. Several TV shows have filmed here, all attempting to decipher this eccentric achievement of one man’s genius, or else madness.
Florida Travel Tip:
Prefer to rent a house rather than stay at a hotel in Florida? Check out VRBO Florida for lists of beautiful homes available for rent. This works great for a family or several families traveling together.
14. Meet the dinosaur’s relatives in an alligator farm
Everglades alligator farm is located on South Florida’s on the Red Land Tropical Trail. The farm features several exhibits where you can watch hundreds of alligators at different stages of life. While here, you can also enjoy a ride on the motorboat through the swamplands. During the tour, you will encounter wild alligators, softshell turtles, and countless birds. If you plan on visiting the alligator farm wear clothes that will dry easily because you will almost certainly get wet, especially if you seat in the front of the boat. Ideally, get to the farm by 12 and you’ll catch all three shows (snake show, alligator show and the feeding of alligators). The Alligator Farm is located about one hour drive from Fort Lauderdale. Although a bit of a commute, this unique experience is definitely worth it.
Florida Travel Tip:
Florida water is beautiful! Help keep it beautiful for generations to come – Don’t forget to bring coral safe sunblock on your vacation!
15. Visit “Butterfly World”
Butterfly world is a unique attraction and a great place to take the smallest Florida visitors. Situated almost entirely in the fresh air, the attraction includes 13 distinct areas. In addition to butterflies, you’ll get to see plenty of other insects, and (unsurprisingly) lots of birds. Make sure you have lots of space on your phone or camera to take pictures. Wear bright clothes in yellows, reds and blues and the butterflies will be more likely to land on you. Butterfly World is located about 20 minutes drive outside of Fort Lauderdale.
For more amazing family-friendly vacation ideas check out our “Favorite Resorts in North Carolina.”
16. Grab lunch and take a kayak tour at Whiskey Creek Hideout (located inside Johnson State Park)!
Whiskey Creek Hideout is a small restaurant that is anything but lacking in dishing out a unique experience. This restaurant sits on the waterfront and has a tasty food and drink menu. I would describe the food itself as pub-style with a seafood flair. They are open seven days a week and each day there is some kind of food, drink, (and even water rental), special for you to take advantage of. There’s a little shop that’s fun to look around and the atmosphere is perfect for enjoying a refreshing happy hour. With lots to offer in this little hidden establishment, it’s a great find for something fun to do.
What I find to be the most unique thing about this place are the guided kayak tours. You can book a reservation for an Eco Tour to experience a different perspective of the state park. Also available are Sunset Tours and Full Moon Tours. Each experience offers different amenities and attractions – like s’mores around a beach campfire at the end of the Full Moon Tour! Not every tour is available every day, so make sure to visit their website to check for availability
17. Dip your toes in the warm Atlantic Ocean at Sunny Isles Beach
Is it really a trip to Florida if you don’t go to a beach? What’s great about Sunny Isles Beach is its convenient location. Situated at the very north end of North Miami Beach and just south of Hollywood and Golden Isles, makes this an ideal location. The shore never seems to get very crowded in this particular area which makes it a great spot to sit back, relax, and soak up the sun.
Sunny Isles also offers a well-rounded variety of fun beach day activities, nearby kid-friendly entertainment, comfortable hotel accommodations, and dining options. Take a walk or cast a line close by at the Newport Fishing Pier. Get on the water and rent a jet ski, kayak, or paddleboard at various locations found by walking along the beach. Take a short 15-minute drive from Sunny Isles and spend the day having endless fun at Tidal Cove Waterpark! Overall, this beach area lends itself to endless summer fun.