Fueled by hundreds of cultures and rich artistic sensibilities, South Florida’s passion for the arts is evident everywhere you go. Even if you’re just walking down the street. In Miami, Wynwood Walls evolved from unsigned street graffiti in the once-forgotten neighborhood of Wynwood, north of Downtown Miami. These large-scale, compelling works of art pinged the attention of the art world and launched Wynwood Walls, now renowned as a street art museum that has transformed the definition of modern art and defined the careers for hundreds of artists whose work might never have been recognized.
Today in Wynwood, visitors stroll among cutting-edge works from leading fine artists, graffiti writers and muralists from around the world, drawing even more attention to Miami as a major launch point for local artists as well as a must-stop for traveling exhibits and major international art events like Art Basel Miami Beach.
Meanwhile, performance stages in Miami overflow with local and international talent—the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Miami, the Fillmore Miami Beach, the Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables and the Moss Center in Cutler Bay are just a few among hundreds.
The same can be said of the entire South Florida region, where multiple cultural capitals each have their own artistic focus. In Greater Fort Lauderdale, heritage sites, colorful celebrations and annual events highlight the rich diversity that distinguishes Miami’s neighbor to the north from other destinations. As Florida’s LGBTQ+ capital and one of the most progressive destinations in the U.S., Greater Fort Lauderdale celebrates diversity and inclusion, earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, and becoming the home base for the first Pride of the Americas Festival in February 2023.
Also celebrating diversity in Fort Lauderdale are the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, and the Island SPACE Caribbean Museum, while venues like the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and The Parker present on- and off-Broadway plays as well as dance troupes and concerts.
When it comes to venue variety, though, Palm Beach County stands out with more than 200 cultural attractions including theaters, museums, art centers, indoor and outdoor auditoriums, enchanting gardens and other cultural venues. A complete list would take up several pages, but here’s a small sampling: the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Norton Museum of Art, Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Wick Theatre and Costume Museum, Silverball Museum & Arcade and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
Supporting the local artist community and broad spectrum of Palm Beach’s cultural offerings is the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County (palmbeachculture.com to learn more).
Specialty museums add a fantastical touch to your cultural experience in South Florida. Try the Paradox Museum Miami, southern outpost of two mind-twisting locations in Oslo and Stockholm; or the Frost Science Museum, boasting a three-level aquarium and state-of-the-art planetarium.
At the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, more than 20 hands-on STEM-related exhibits and activities engage your skills and expand your imagination. Discover the science behind aviation, understand the forces that drive hurricanes and meet ancient creatures that once roamed the earth. Then take in the mind-blowing visuals as they jump off the screen at the museum’s IMAX 3D Theater.
Across the Everglades from Southeast Florida is the art-centric city of Naples, where a thriving cultural scene is anchored by Artis—Naples, home of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and the Baker Museum, welcoming globally acclaimed artists and exhibits while also offering free community events.
With traditional performance venues and works of art readily available, local visions in Southwest Florida also create artistic engagement, from the classes and programs at the Marco Island Center for the Arts to the famed black & white landscape photography of Clyde Butcher on display at the Big Cypress Gallery on the Big Cypress National Preserve in Ochopee.
How does your garden grow? Artistically, if you’re the Naples Botanical Garden, a 170-acre tropical paradise housing plants from all over the world and showcasing a major artistic attraction in 2023. Through Sept. 10, the garden is presenting Frida and Her Garden, an exhibit featuring re-created portions of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul, her residence in Mexico.
Where else does your garden grow? In the Florida Keys, where the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden sits on 15.2 acres of native flora and fauna explored on boardwalks and nature trails.
In 1823, after Spanish rule was over but before statehood, Florida was a U.S. territory and settlers couldn’t get here fast enough. While much of the development was in North Florida, another part of the state was booming—Key West, accessible to Spain, Cuba, Bahamians and buccaneers decades before the first settlers made a dent in the sawgrass of South Florida.
In fact, 2023 is a great year to visit, as Florida Keys & Key West 200 commemorates the Florida Legislature’s July 3, 1823, establishment of Monroe County as Florida’s sixth county.
In the meantime, there are scores of historical attractions to include on your trek through this unique 125-mile-long island chain located at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, including Old Town Key West, the largest predominantly wooden historic district in the entire U.S. Landmarks include the Hemingway Home, where Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his best known works.
Don’t miss historic Pigeon Key at mile marker 44.8, once a camp for laborers working on railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad, which debuted in 1912 and connected the Keys with each other and mainland Florida for the first time. A section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, part of the historic Over-Sea Railroad, has reopened to the public, extending for 2.2 miles from Pigeon Key to Marathon, and with a 60-passenger tram taking passengers back and forth.
In fact, you can’t talk about Keys’ history—or Florida history, for that matter—without mentioning Henry Flagler, whose Florida East Coast Railway brought wealthy northerners to the Sunshine State to stay in Flagler’s luxury St. Augustine hotels and, once Flagler extended his railroad southward, to his hotel on the ocean in Palm Beach, The Breakers.
The Breakers still stands today, as does Flagler’s palatial mansion, known then as Whitehall and today as the Flagler Museum. Filled with the artwork and the ornate furnishings of the Gilded Age, the museum also includes a pavilion housing Flagler’s private railcar, No. 91. Flagler may have been the biggest player, but other wealthy industrialists also made their mark on South Florida’s early history, including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who wintered on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. It was Ford’s Model T cars that made the arduous journey across the Everglades with the Tamiami Trail Blazers who forced their way from Fort Myers to Miami. Today, the Tamiami Trail is a major thruway bridging the east and west coasts, while the Ford and Edison estates operate as museums and are open for tours.
In Miami, the Deering Brothers—wealthy executives running a family business—had a major impact on architecture and development in the Magic City, with James Deering building his landmark Villa Vizcaya estate on the banks of Biscayne Bay between the years 1914-1922 in present-day Coconut Grove; and brother Charles, who set his sights farther south in what is today Palmetto Bay, completing a mansion in 1922 known as the Deering Estate and now open to the public as a museum, nature preserve and archaeological site.
As wealthy families were investing in South Florida, hardy pioneers were also heading south to seek their fortunes and are now remembered in historic homes like Stranahan House in Fort Lauderdale and the Price House in Punta Gorda.
Closer to the present day, the sobering history of the Holocaust is honored at several spots in South Florida, including Miami Beach’s Holocaust Memorial; and the Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center in Naples, whose permanent collection includes more than 1,000 original photographs and artifacts related to the Holocaust and World War II.
North of Fort Myers, the Gulf towns of Punta Gorda/Englewood offer a pleasing mix of new and vintage communities, plus lots of natural places and spaces. Lined with peaceful coves and bays, Charlotte Harbor—Florida’s second-largest open-water estuary—is a bucket list fulfilled for boaters, paddlers and cruisers.
More than 830 miles of shoreline include river passages and mangrove-edged aquatic preserves as well as hundreds of miles of Blueway Trails leading from the Peace and Myakka rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. Local marinas and outfitters provide equipment and certified guides to get you out on the water.
Combine land and water adventures at Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park, Florida’s third largest state park, straddling Charlotte and Lee counties and offering opportunities to hike, fish, paddle and observe wildlife in habitats that include mangrove forests, marshes, scrub and pine flatwoods.
The photogenic towns of Clewiston and LaBelle provide the heritage and the surrounding landscape provides the thrill in Hendry County, inland from Fort Myers and away from the coastline…which is irrelevant when you’re talking about Lake Okeechobee, the second largest body of fresh water in the contiguous U.S. With a name that translates to “Big Water” in Seminole, the lake spans 730 sq miles and is not only home to an enormously diverse ecosystem but is nationally recognized as one of the best spots in the world for largemouth bass and black crappie fishing.
Cross South Florida between Estero and Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Naples, and Miami and Everglades City, and you will hit Everglades-adjacent wetlands on the northern end, while on the southern end, Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the country. Providing critical habitats for endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile and the Florida panther, the world has recognized the importance of the Everglades, naming it a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.
But for those who visit, it is simply otherworldly and magical, stretching out in an endless expanse of green, with creatures great and small darting in and out of view, long-legged egrets picking their way across the marshes and gigantic, grinning alligators sunning themselves on the banks of rippling waterways.
Three visitor centers offer educational displays, orientation films and informational brochures. Ask about ranger-led tours, tram tours and bicycle rentals. Airboat rides are offered by private operators like Miami’s Coopertown Airboats, and they’re a great option for exploring the “River of Grass.”
While the Everglades feel a world away from civilization, there are abundant green spots within the bustle of South Florida cities and towns. In the western Greater Fort Lauderdale city of Davie, Flamingo Gardens is one of the oldest attractions in the area, operating as an Everglades Learning Center and South Florida Wildlife and Botanical Sanctuary. Vivid pink flamingos and multicolored peacocks roam freely as visitors follow pathways to a Birds of Prey Center, Free-flight Aviary, a Butterfly Garden, and habitats dedicated to panthers, bobcats and otters.
Head north to the town of Delray Beach, where—minutes from the sand and ocean—you’ll find the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a small preserve of 50 acres with a walking path and great birdwatching opportunities. Meanwhile, set just behind Palm Beach International Airport is the hidden oasis known as Mounts Botanical Garden, home to a collection of tropical and subtropical plants, including tropical fruit trees, herbs and palms.
Farther north in Martin County, the city of Stuart offers a low-key urban/suburban mix while three miles away, the 164-acre Kiplinger Nature Preserve includes a picturesque hiking trail with three footbridges and a floating dock for canoe and kayak launches.
The Ivey House Everglades Adventure Hotel is close to many Everglades activities, including airboat tours and alligator shows. Crane’s Beach House Boutique & Luxury Villas in Delray Beach is a hidden retreat with Key West-style beauty.