Overview

Getting around Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is half the fun on a vacation: One of Fort Lauderdale's main drags the New River, so visitors can hop on a water taxi and take in the sights.

This South Florida city's extensive system of waterways and reputation for gracious living have made Fort Lauderdale one of the country's largest yachting centers. Restaurants and bars overlook the canals and are accessible by water or from land by taxis and, believe it or not, from rickshaws. Several of the city's special events—including a winter holiday boat parade that draws local, national and international celebrities—revolve around boating and the water.

Redevelopment in the 1990s left Fort Lauderdale awash in museums, art galleries, restaurants, hotels and chic sidewalk cafes, all appealing to visitors. The Broward Center for the Performing Arts houses two theaters, which provide separate venues for the Symphony of the Americas, Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet, Broadway road shows and top-name performers. An elegant beachfront promenade attracts vacationers from all over the world, including the spring-break college crowd.

More sedate than it used to be, but still livelier than Palm Beach, its northern neighbor, Fort Lauderdale has more to offer visitors than most beach towns. The passage of a casino gambling law revitalized this resort town, and the former Hollywood Dog Racing Track, Isle Casino Pompano Park and Gulfstream Race Track have built multimillion-dollar casinos and entertainment venues attracting more tourists and businesses to the area.

Geography

Fort Lauderdale sits in the middle of the burgeoning megalopolis known as South Florida, which hugs the Atlantic coast from Miami (a 40-minute drive south) to Palm Beach (a 45-minute drive north). It is the principal city in huge Broward County, two-thirds of which is Everglades swampland. What isn't swampy includes 23 mi/37 km of wide white-sand beaches and 30 other municipalities.

Several nearby coastal communities make up Greater Fort Lauderdale. To the north are Pompano Beach (where sportfishing is a favored pastime), Lauderdale-by-the-Sea (a small seaside oasis) and Deerfield Beach (one of South Florida's best-kept secrets).

To the south are Port Everglades (the country's third-busiest port, frequented by top cruise lines), Dania Beach (known for its antiques), Hallandale Beach (a seaside community popular with retirees, younger folks and Eastern European immigrants) and Hollywood (its bicycle-, skateboard- and pedestrian-friendly Broadwalk parallels the ocean). Western suburbs include Davie, Plantation, Lauderhill, Sunrise and Weston.

If this sounds like a patchwork of towns, it is—making a car a necessity for almost any traveler.

History

South Florida was the ancestral home of the Seminoles and more than a dozen other Native American tribes, but that began to change in the 1830s when U.S. Army soldiers started clearing trails into the area. The city's namesake, Maj. William Lauderdale, built an outpost at the mouth of the New River. Around the same time, runaway slaves sought refuge in the Everglades, where they banded together with the Seminoles to battle white settlers.

It wasn't until the arrival of a railroad in the 1890s that the area began to grow significantly. Frank Stranahan, one of the city's founding fathers, migrated from Ohio in the early 1900s and established a trading post, ferry system and post office. He eventually married a native Floridian named Ivy Cromartie, and their home—two stories of Florida vernacular architecture—is now a museum in the historic district downtown.

Meanwhile Charles Rodes, an ambitious land developer from West Virginia, followed the lead of Venice, Italy, and increased the amount of waterfront property by dredging waterways through dense mangrove swamps, forming peninsulas and a network of canals that still exist.

Like other resort areas in Florida, Fort Lauderdale boomed following World War II. By the 1960s it was a famed spring-break destination, whose population of raucous partygoers peaked at 400,000 in 1985. Eventually the city government cracked down and forced the annual spring bacchanalia to go elsewhere. The city invested millions of dollars to clean up its crime-ridden quarters in the early 1990s, transforming Fort Lauderdale into a more refined, family-friendly destination known for tourism and business, though it still thrives on the seasonal college crowd.

Along with the rest of South Florida, Fort Lauderdale then experienced a real-estate boom, especially for condominiums. A younger crowd started to fill the city, lowering the age demographic and making the nightlife scene less stodgy and suburban.

The area's Latin community has also mushroomed in recent decades, many moving north into Broward County.

Sightseeing

Start your tour at the Riverwalk, a 2-mi/3-km promenade on the north bank of the New River. It borders the Arts and Entertainment District, a historic area with restaurants, bars, galleries, marinas and street life.

Las Olas Boulevard, which follows the New River as it flows toward the Atlantic Ocean, is Fort Lauderdale's upscale shopping and dining district. If you're a history buff, the restored Victorian home of city founder Frank Stranahan, now a museum, can easily be included in a boulevard stroll.

Getting around Fort Lauderdale is part of the sightseeing experience: Water taxis ferry passengers among hotels, restaurants, theaters and nightclubs until midnight. At night, the twinkling lights along the canals make the rides quite romantic.

Nightlife

Greater Fort Lauderdale has plenty of bars and places to listen to music or dance the night away. The best areas to wander from establishment to establishment are the Arts and Entertainment District (Himmarshee Village section) and the beachfront State Road A1A from Las Olas to Sunrise boulevards.

In the Himmarshee Village neighborhood, just a block or two west of downtown, you'll find a funky mix of nocturnal activities—from coffee bars to alternative-music clubs and trendy restaurants. Beach Place, along Fort Lauderdale's beachfront, is one of the city's hottest nightspots. The shopping and entertainment complex (on State Road A1A at Castillo Street) includes an array of shops, restaurants and nightclubs. It's also near enough to other beachfront spots that visitors can club-hop.

Fort Lauderdale's nightlife goes into the wee hours. On weekends, the most popular clubs remain open till 3 am. The exception is the Seminole Paradise in the Hard Rock complex, where many of the nearly dozen nightclubs and bars are open until sunrise on weekends, or in some cases, 24 hours. Other area casinos also offer late-night entertainment.

Dining

Fort Lauderdale has more than 4,000 restaurants, ranging from waterfront dining spots that you can reach by boat or water taxi to ethnic eateries and top-notch steak houses. Locals claim that it would take about seven years to eat at all of Fort Lauderdale's restaurants, and even then you might miss some places because new dining spots spring up every year.

Fort Lauderdale's restaurants range from formal to funky. Many of the city's best choices are clustered along the principal shopping artery, Las Olas Boulevard, and in the Arts and Entertainment District. Other fine restaurants are located in the western part of the city, north in Pompano and Deerfield Beach, and south in Dania Beach and Hollywood.

Try stone-crab claws (in season mid-October to mid-May), key lime pie or a style of cooking dubbed "Floribbean," a blend of Florida and Caribbean fare, which typically mixes fresh lobster, shrimp, swordfish, pompano and other sea treats with locally grown citrus and tropical fruits.

General dining times are 7-10 am for breakfast, noon-2 pm for lunch and 7-9 pm for dinner. Early-bird specials, usually offered before 6 pm, are a good value.

Most restaurants don't enforce a dress code, but men often need a collared shirt and sometimes a jacket in upscale places. Ties are rarely required.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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