The Palm Beaches are home to one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country (we’re looking at you, Palm Beach). Here, mega-yachts dwarf mansions, and yet there is a surprising array of great, wallet-friendly experiences to be had if you know where to find them. Over the course of a day, you can stroll through a Japanese-inspired bamboo garden, spot an octopus in a shipwreck along a snorkel trail, or sip a cocktail from a pineapple next to the surf. The Palm Beaches, it turns out, might just be Florida’s most entertaining patch of coastline. Here’s how to do it right.
Made up of 39 communities spanning mellow beach towns, interior farmlands, glitzy coastal enclaves, and everything in between, the Palm Beaches area stretches about 40 miles from Jupiter in the north to Boca Raton in the south and lies about an hour north of Miami and two and a half hours southeast of Orlando.
Consider renting a car to make the most of your time here, whether you decide to spend most of your vacation lounging on a beautiful beach, diving fork-first into one of Florida’s best foodie scenes, or shuttling the kids to the excellent family parks, playgrounds, and nature centers. You’ll hardly run out of things to do, whether you spend a few days, a week, or longer.
West Palm Beach
It makes sense to start your explorations in the center of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, the largest city in Palm Beach County (it still feels like more of a town, especially along its main drag, Clematis Street). Diverse cultures swirl in the pedestrian-friendly downtown area, where there’s always something going on.
The biggest date on the city’s 2019 cultural calendar (and arguably all of Florida’s) was the February reopening of the Norton Museum of Art (1450 Dixie Hwy.; 561-832-5196; adults, $18; children 12 and under, free). New gardens designed by celebrated architect Lord Norman Foster (his first gardens specifically for a museum) and a spectacularly modernistic entrance are among the $100 million in upgrades.
After you’ve browsed the exhibitions, you’re only a mile south of Clematis Street, where free trolleys cruise by great nightlife, restaurants, and shopping. If you’re feeling peckish, Tapeo (118 S. Clematis St.; 561-514-0811; dinner for two, $60*)conjures Galicia with Spanish-inspired murals designed by a New York graffiti artist and dishes such as authentic paella and “Pulpo a la Gallega” (octopus). A few doors down, the whimsical Sloan’s Ice Cream (112 S. Clematis St.; 561-833-3335; cones for two, $10) scoops rotating homemade flavors, some with chunks of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
For a casual trip out on the water, it’s just a few steps from there to a dock on the Intracoastal Waterway, where Visit Palm Beach (100 N. Clematis St.; 561-881-9757; cruises, from $30 a person; children 12 and under, from $15) runs daytime tours and particularly lovely sunset cruises on the Hakuna Matata catamaran. Guests break out cheese trays and plastic bottles of wine they’ve brought along (you can BYOB or try the house rum punch and other drinks from the onboard bar) and settle in, gliding past mind-blowing yachts and waterside mansions, with in-the-know commentary from the captain along the way.
Just north of West Palm Beach, the Phil Foster Park Artificial Reef and Snorkel Trail (900 Blue Heron Blvd., Riviera Beach; 561-966-6600; admission, free) explores the fascinating underwater world within the Intracoastal Waterway. An hour before high tide is the best time to enter the water right from the shore (no boat required); as the tide changes, the water turns crystal clear. Experienced snorkelers can explore on their own, but it’s worth considering enlisting a guide from Pura Vida Divers (2513 Beach Ct., Riviera Beach; 561-840-8750; daily snorkel-gear rentals, $17; snorkel tours, $50 a person, including guide and gear). You’ll swim over small shipwrecks in about 20 feet of water where sea turtles, manatees, and even eagle rays are often spotted during the summer, along with year-round residents, such as octopuses and seahorses.
Crossing the Bridge to Palm Beach
From West Palm Beach, drive east across the Intracoastal Waterway to reach the barrier island of Palm Beach, the wintering grounds of America’s elite since railroad tycoon Henry Flagler began developing the area in the late 19th century.
You may want to explore the island on a driving or bicycle tour with Leslie Diver of Island Living Tours (561-309-5790; driving tours, from $45 a person for 90 minutes; biking tours, from $35 a person, excluding bike rental). The longtime local shares fascinating tales of the town’s residents as you cruise past the Mediterranean-style mansions lining South Ocean Boulevard and pop into interior courtyards secreted away on Worth Avenue that were designed by Addison Mizner, Palm Beach’s best-known architect. “People love to hear about how our residents live,” Diver says. “Nobody ever leaves the tour—or Palm Beach, for that matter—underwhelmed.”
Diver’s tours sometimes depart from the parking lot at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (1 Whitehall Way; 561-655-2833; adults, $18; children 13–17, $10; children 6–12, $3; children 5 and under, free), where railway exhibits and the colorful and sometimes scandalous stories of Florida’s Gilded Age come to life in a grand estate that Flagler built in 1902 for his third wife.
You can also consider taking the roughly five-mile-long waterfront Lake Trail on your own by renting a bike from the Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop (50 Cocoanut Row, Suite 117; 561-659-4583; rentals, $20 an hour; $39 a half-day; $49 for 24 hours). To reach the most scenic part, pedal south from the shop all the way to elegant Worth Avenue, known for its couture retailers and pretty architecture.
For a fabulous meal in a part of Palm Beach that’s reinventing itself with more-youthful shops, outdoor yoga sessions, and the like, dine on Instagram-worthy charcuterie boards or sit outside with an espresso and a slice of divine St. Honoré cake at Sant Ambroeus (340 Royal Poinciana Way, Suite 304; 561-285-7990; prix-fixe lunch for two, $70). The restaurant is midcentury modern all the way, and the Royal Poinciana Plaza shopping area, where it’s located, is cheerful and a little more low-key than Worth Avenue.
Laid-Back Lake Worth
Continuing south along the ocean from Worth Avenue, it’s about six miles to the no-frills beach town of Lake Worth. The town itself is set inland, with the beach easily reached (about a mile away) across the Lake Avenue Bridge.
To go for a dip in its crystalline waters (the Gulf Stream swings close to the Florida coastline in the Palm Beaches), drive east to cross the bridge and park at the lot at the William O. Lockhart Municipal Pier (10 S. Ocean Blvd.; 561-582-3474; rental of two lounge chairs, an umbrella, and a table, $15 an hour), where you’ll find beach umbrellas and chairs for rent on a sugary stretch of sand.
At the beginning of the pier, Benny’s on the Beach (10 S. Ocean Blvd.; 561-582-9001; lunch for two, $50) offers a quintessential alfresco Florida dining experience, with peel-and-eat shrimp, jumbo crab cakes, and cocktails served in hollowed-out pineapples.
Cross the bridge once more and continue west to the town of Lake Worth itself, where unpretentious watering holes host live music and an annual street painting held each February has left a legacy of colorful murals around town (look for the particularly moving Martin Luther King Jr. mural on the Cultural Council’s headquarters).
Paradiso Ristorante (625 Lucerne Ave.; 561-547-2500; dinner for two, $70) is a tucked-away and locally beloved Italian spot run by an Amalfi Coast native known for his delectable branzino al sale, a Mediterranean sea bass cooked in a salt crust and ceremoniously cracked open tableside.
A few miles southeast of Lake Worth, on a quiet private beach in the South Palm Beach area, you can indulge yourself at the award-winning 42,000-square-foot Eau Spa (100 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan; 561-540-4960; 60-minute massages, from $175), considered among the most unique in the country for its unapologetically self-centric approach to wellness and its inviting outdoor spaces where you can swing in a chair over a reflection pool.
Delray Beach Delights
Drive about 20 minutes south along the scenic coastal road (A1A) to Delray Beach, a fun-loving beach town that’s more upscale than Lake Worth but still casual at its core. A perch overlooking the Atlantic from the second-story restaurant 50 Ocean (50 S. Ocean Blvd.; 561-278-3364; lunch for two, $50) will make you want to beeline across the street to Delray’s main beach after feasting on the mussels sautéed in chili-spiked broth.
For a romantic dinner spot, order the divine port-wine-glazed salmon at Atlantic Grille (1000 E. Atlantic Ave.; 561-665-4900; dinner for two, $80), inside the Seagate Hotel & Spa, where moon jellyfish propel themselves to mesmerizing effect around the restaurant’s enormous centerpiece aquarium.
Along Delray’s pedestrian-friendly Atlantic Avenue, you can browse independent restaurants and shops. Antica Sartoria (512 E. Atlantic Ave.; 561-501-7977) is particularly noteworthy for its collection of beaded and shell-embellished beach cover-ups inspired by Positano, Italy.
It’s a short and pleasant stroll west along Atlantic Avenue from there to the Silverball Museum (19 NE Third Ave.; 561-266-3294; one-hour sessions, $12; day passes, $15), which is actually a Jersey Shore–inspired arcade room where pinball wizards of all ages push the flappers on vintage machines, and a disco ball and rugs strewn across wooden floors complete the quirky living-room vibe.
You’ll need to jump back in the car to head inland to experience another one of Delray’s gems: the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens (4000 Morikami Park Rd.; 561-495-0233; adults, $15; children 6–17, $9; children 5 and under, free). On 200 acres once owned by a Japanese immigrant who started a pineapple plantation, you can spot koi swimming in a large pond and iguanas, marvel at an impressive bonsai collection, and stroll through a bamboo forest. “There might not be a more peaceful place in the entire world than the Morikami’s bamboo forest,” says Florida photographer Nick Zantop, a loyal visitor since childhood. During the summer, anime films from Studio Ghibli are screened monthly in the museum’s on-site theater (tickets, $5), and Sushi & Stroll events, on select Fridays, draw crowds with food trucks and live Japanese-style taiko drumming in the gardens.
Boca Raton’s Family Fun
Thirteen miles south of Delray is Boca Raton, another oceanside community chock-full of waterfront mansions, golf courses, and enough passing yachts to give you whiplash. Lots of families go to Mizner Park (327 Plaza Real; 561-362-0606), a pleasant outdoor retail center with shops, galleries, and a movie theater, but Boca’s natural side is the true highlight for vacationing families.
Let the kids burn off some energy at Sugar Sand Park (300 S. Military Trail; 561-347-3900; admission, free), a playground to end all playgrounds. There’s a carousel, a sea-creature-themed splash pad, and a three-story “science playground” with interactive areas that put the principles of gravity and motion into play.
On a beautiful beach day, spread out a towel at Red Reef Park (1400 N. Ocean Blvd.; 561-393-7974; admission, free), a 67-acre oceanfront park where the dunes are undeveloped and waves crash on a beautiful shore.
Right across from the park’s beach, nature lovers will want to pull over at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center (1801 N. Ocean Blvd.; 561-544-8605; admission, $5 suggested donation), where a quarter-mile-long boardwalk winds past gumbo limbo trees and strangler figs. You may spot a red-bellied woodpecker stalking a trunk or a five-lined skink (an endemic lizard). One of the center’s facilities rehabilitates rescued sea turtles for eventual release back into the wild. March 1 through October 31 is sea-turtle nesting and hatching season, during which the center holds regular hatchling releases (sometimes on the beach right across the street, depending on where the eggs were originally laid) and nighttime excursions to scout for turtle mothers. Watching the mamas and their babies make their way to the crashing surf is as pure Florida as it gets and may just be the highlight of your summer.
*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.