The "middle city" of Florida's Gold Coast, Fort Lauderdale sits between Miami to the south and Palm Beach to the north. The city blends nicely with its metropolitan neighbors, and elements of Miami's chic vibe and the affluent nature of Palm Beach are recognizable. But Fort Lauderdale is a destination itself. Operating one of the busiest cruise ports in North America -- more than three million people pass through each year -- helps define Fort Lauderdale as a robust tourism spot.
Fort Lauderdale started out as a swampy outpost with a fort, built to protect against the Seminole Indians. The swamps were transformed in the late 1800s into a series of canals by scooping out parallel waterways and creating long peninsulas between them. This created more than 300 miles of navigable waterways (twice that of Venice) -- hence the city's nickname "Venice of America." The abundance of waterways that wind up and down the coast make Fort Lauderdale a boating hot spot, with 42,000 registered yachts.
The community gained fame and a measure of disrepute when it was featured in the 1960s movie "Where the Boys Are," causing legions of college-aged boys (and, not coincidentally, girls) to descend for raucous spring breaks. For decades, Fort Lauderdale was synonymous with spring break -- and the giddy wildness that accompanies this rite of passage -- until an effort by city leaders in the 1980s went into effect, in earnest, to tone it down. These days, the fastest-growing market for Fort Lauderdale is the trendy high spenders who at one time might have gone south -- or north. Area hotels include Ritz-Carlton, Trump International Hotel and Tower and W Fort Lauderdale.
Since shedding its "rowdy, college spring break" reputation, the city has grown into a more genteel community that's family- and boater-oriented. Beyond the canals, and the Intracoastal Waterway that runs through the city, major development projects have been redefining Fort Lauderdale. Downtown -- especially around the hub of Las Olas Boulevard, with its cafes, galleries and boutiques - gives off a Miami Beach vibe.
Greater Fort Lauderdale's 23-mile beachfront has also received a major overhaul, with lush landscaping and vivacious lighting complementing the expansive stretches of sand. In fact, since 1999, the beaches of greater Fort Lauderdale have earned "Blue Wave Beach" certification from the Clean Beaches Council, a designation awarded to the nation's cleanest and safest beaches.
Beyond surf, sand and Fort Lauderdale's role as cruise embarkation central, there are enough activities to entice travelers to spend a few days there before or after a voyage.
Cruise ships share Port Everglades with all of the port's commercial shipping traffic. It's an enormous and heavily guarded complex. Cruise terminals are located at the complex's Midport and Northport sections; several signs throughout the port point you in the right direction.
From the entrance at 17th Street, the Northport terminals can be accessed on foot in about 10 minutes, but with heavy bags, that isn't ideal. The port facility offers no snacking or shopping facilities, but most of the terminals contain vending machines. All nine of the cruise terminals offer free Wi-Fi access.
At berth 18, a $75 million terminal was built to accommodate Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships. This expanded terminal has designated 16,500 square feet of space to handle baggage for the passengers of these 220,000-ton ships. The terminal was designed with maritime influences -- 90 ticket counters were constructed to resemble the bow of a ship, and the floor is inlaid with a 3,000-square-foot epoxy and bronze art design of the earth. the terminal also includes a kids' play area and free Wi-Fi.
Cruise terminal four was redesigned in January 2015 to make it faster for cruise lines to process passengers by adding 50 check-in counters, 172 additional parking spaces and rearranging passenger drop-off zones to less congested areas. It is also the first terminal in Port Everglades to be LEED certified for reaching energy-efficient standards.
Beaches: Fort Lauderdale's beaches are among the nicest urban sand stretches in Florida. In the central area, between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean, there are numerous casual eateries, bars, T-shirt and souvenir shops and stores that sell essentials. As you go farther north, the nicer hotels offer more elegant restaurants -- most with oceanview seating. (See "Beaches" section below for more information.)
Las Olas Boulevard: The stretch between 6th and 11th Avenues near downtown is a lively destination for shopping, dining and people watching. During the day, you can hop a boat for a tour of the Intracoastal Waterway (canals) that wind through this picturesque section of Fort Lauderdale or stroll along the Riverwalk (U.S. 1, south of Broward Boulevard), a 1.5-mile stretch of boardwalk along the New River that links many of the city's historic and cultural landmarks. If you're in town the first Sunday of the month, the Riverwalk is home to a jazz brunch with food vendors and live music.
At night, festive diners spill out of sidewalk cafes, and romance-seekers ride in horse-drawn surrey carriages.
Gambling: At Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino you'll find a gamers' paradise. Live thoroughbred racing happens at the height of cruise season, from January until April, and there are also Vegas-style slots, no-limit poker, dining and entertainment -- all under one roof. This is a great spot for night owls; you can play until 3 a.m. during the week and all night on weekends. (901 South Federal Highway, Hallandale,; 954-454-7000)
Nature: For a peaceful experience, head to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. Canoes are available for rent, and guided Segway tours are offered. This 180-acre barrier island is a great place to in-line skate or bicycle along the scenic circular road or hike the trails. In addition to picnic tables along the Intracoastal Waterway, a tunnel connects to the public beach. (3109 E. Sunrise Boulevard; 954-564-4521; open 8 a.m. to sundown; entry fee)
Delray Beach: This is an easy "time stands still" getaway (you'll need to rent a car.) The heart of the community -- shops, boutiques, art galleries and fashionable restaurants -- runs from the ocean along Atlantic Avenue. Check out Old School Square, which has a number of restored 1920s buildings.
Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens: It's one of a handful of museums in America devoted exclusively to Japanese culture, but even better is the beautiful Japanese garden, which includes everything from fish-filled ponds and Zen gardens to pathways that wind in and out of pine woodlands. (Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach; 561-495-0233; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; entry fee)
Jungle Queen Riverboat: A Fort Lauderdale institution for more than 60 years, the riverboat offers daytime sightseeing trips up the New River and evening dinner cruises with barbecued ribs and shrimp. Afternoon cruises include a stop at the Jungle Queen's tropical isle for an alligator show, and dinner cruises last four hours and include an all-you-can-eat repast and entertainment. Two sightseeing cruises are also available that last 90 minutes but do not include a stop at the isle. (Bahia Mar Yachting Center, 801 Seabreeze Boulevard; 954-462-5596; 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. departures)
Sawgrass Mills: The huge outdoor outlet mall about 20 minutes west of the port houses more than 350 designer shops like Burberry, Calvin Klein, Coach, Kenneth Cole and many more with uber-discounted prices. (12801 West Sunrise Boulevard, Sunrise; 954-846-2350; open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday)
Galleria Mall: Broward county's largest upscale shopping center is located about 10 minutes north of port, just minutes from the beach. It offers name-brand stores like Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as restaurants and refuge from the sun. (2414 East Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1015; open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday)
Festival Flea Market Mall: Go early to this monster market, where more than 500 vendors are featured along with complimentary valet parking. Weekends are busiest. You can browse stalls with antiques, new electronics and designer clothing; there's a farmer's market on weekends and an international food court. (2900 West Sample Road, Pompano Beach; 954-979-4555; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)
Golf: The area offers more than 40 golf courses. Troon Golf at the Diplomat Gold and Tennis Club is the only five-star course in South Florida. The 6,728-yard, par-72 course has been around since the 1950s. Golfers can rent clubs, carts with GPS systems and shoes. (501 Diplomat Parkway, Hallandale; 954-883-4000)
No time for a full 18 holes? Not enough money for a country-club outing? Eco Golf Club is the way to go. This little nine-hole course not far from the port offers great greens, reasonable rates and a full-service restaurant for breakfast or lunch. (1600 Johnson Street, Hollywood; 954-927-1751)
Located a few minutes away from the port, the 7,280-yard Club at Emerald Hills was designed by Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge and has been consistently rated one of the best places to play by Golf Digest magazine. Challenging and demanding, with water on 12 holes, the course is also spike-less, so plan accordingly. (4100 N. Hills Drive, Hollywood; 954-961-4000)
To the Pier:
By Shuttle: Cruise lines typically provide shuttle service between Port Everglades and the two airports that serve Fort Lauderdale (Miami and Fort Lauderdale), but you must sign up -- and pay for them -- in advance. Check with your cruise line for its transfer program. If you're flying into Miami, the airport provides taxi and shuttle transportation to Port Everglades. Shuttles are about $37 per person, and taxis run about $77 for up to five people.
Another good option, whether you're traveling to or from the cruise port, is shared shuttles like SAS Transport Service (954-600-0240; $15 per person), Go Airport Shuttle (1-844-787-1670; $12.65 including gratuity) or Port Everglades Shuttle Service (954-822-8106; $11 with a two-person minimum).
Some hotels offer shuttle service to and from Port Everglades. Check with your hotel to see what's available. Comfort Inn, Courtyard by Marriott and Holiday Inn Express and Suites are among those that provide free transportation to the cruise terminal.
By Bus: A public bus (No. 40) stops in front of the 17th Street entrance, just north of the Convention Center and goes to the beaches or downtown. Fares are $1.75 per ride. The Sun Trolley also stops there on the "Beach Link" for a $1 charge.
Parking, for those who drive to port, is available at Port Everglades for $15 per day and can be paid by cash or credit card.
By Rental Car: Several of the major car rental agencies -- Hertz (800-654-3131), Avis (800-352-7900), Budget (800-218-7992) and Thrifty (800-847-4389) -- operate out of Fort Lauderdale's airport, and Sixt (888-747-7498) has a location at Port Everglades. Free shuttle service is offered from the cruise terminal to the rental agency on days when ships are in port.
By Car Service: If you want to arrange private transportation to or from your ship, USA Transportation (800-872-1130) provides luxury ground transportation in South Florida and is equipped with a fleet of executive sedans, SUVs, limousines, vans and mini-buses.
In Fort Lauderdale:
By Water Taxi: The water taxis that ply Fort Lauderdale's canals, are a great way to see the best of Fort Lauderdale while getting around town. With 19 stops near many of the area's hotels, water taxis drop visitors off at popular shopping and dining sections -- including Las Olas Boulevard -- and beaches. Plus, guides give a history of the storied mansions along the way. An all-day pass is $26, and taxis operate from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and run every 15 to 30 minutes during peak periods.
By Trolley: The Sun Trolley (954-761-3543) is a unique and inexpensive method of transportation in Fort Lauderdale -- when you see the trolley coming, just wave, and it will pick you up! Six routes, which cover Las Olas Boulevard, the beaches, downtown, airport and the convention center (cruise port) area, are available for $1 per boarding.
By Pedicab: Pedicabs (human-powered bicycle taxis) are widely available for transportation between the beaches, downtown and Las Olas Boulevard. (Ocean View Rickshaw; 954-561-2808)
Best Beach for Action: Fort Lauderdale Beach bustles with activity. Lined with waterfront hotels and an array of restaurants with oceanfront patios, this is where you go to see and be seen.
Best Low-Key Beach: Compared with other beaches in the area, Lauderdale by-the-Sea, located just north of Fort Lauderdale Beach and south of Pompano Beach, is a quiet hideaway. Though close to hotels and beachfront dining venues, it's less frenetic and makes a great place to spend a lazy afternoon. Plus, conditions for snorkeling and diving are ideal there -- in fact, a reef is within swimming distance.
Best Beach for Watching Cruise Ships: If you're in town for a pre- or post-cruise stay, go to John U. Lloyd Beach State Park's beach on the corner of the inlet. The mangrove-lined waterway is a great place to be active or just relax. There, you can rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, sailboats, pontoon boats, gazebos, barbecue grills and volleyballs.
Best Beach with Small-Town Charm: Dania Beach, just south of the cruise port in Dania, is one of the area's best-kept secrets. Warm sands, shady palms and a quaint fishing pier characterize this calm beach. With just a little legwork, you'll discover a historic arts and antiques district, ice cream parlors, pubs and seafood restaurants, all encompassed in a small beach town with big character.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Hollywood Beach with its famous two-and-a-half-mile "Broadwalk" -- an asphalt strip along the beach that is filled with street performers, couples walking hand-in-hand and families with young children meandering along in the sunshine -- was featured in the movie "Marley and Me." It's the perfect setting for an ideal day at the beach. Get involved in sports of all sorts (bike-riding, roller-skating, kayaking and beach volleyball), or simply soak up the sun -- loungers and cabanas are available for rent. Shops and restaurants are close by, too. There's something for everyone at this popular beach.
Fort Lauderdale's restaurants often feature a blend of seafood and traditional American fare, but just about every type of cuisine can be found in the city.
Mangos: Mangos offers the opportunity to enjoy people-watching during your pre- or post-cruise shopping on trendy Las Olas Boulevard. You'll find reasonable prices and inside (air-conditioned) or outside (sidewalk) dining; the restaurant serves everything from seafood to steak. (904 E. Las Olas Boulevard; 954-523-5001; open 11:30 a.m. until late)
La Bonne Crepe:This charming French provincial country restaurant offers alfresco dining on its terrace, situated on enchanting Las Olas Boulevard. Watch the town come alive while dining on an assortment of cheese-, chicken- or seafood-filled crepes. Plus, this quaint restaurant has been recommended many times over as a "don't miss" for breakfast. It serves up waffles, French toast, eggs and -- of course -- crepes, so you can't go wrong. (815 E. Las Olas Boulevard; 954-761-1515; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 8:30 a.m. to 10p.m. Sunday)
Johnny V: This restaurant is operated by Johnny Vinczencz, a Fort Lauderdale celebrity chef. The popular restaurant is expensive, but the decor is chic. His signature "Floribbean-style" menu is compelling, with ingredients like mango chutney, roasted corn sauce and barbecue demi-glace flavoring plates. (625 E. Las Olas Boulevard; 954-761-7920; open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday)
The Floridian: A Las Olas Boulevard landmark, this place is renowned for its breakfasts, but it has great burgers, too, plus meatloaf and other "American diner" favorites. Besides, you can order breakfast any time, so if you suddenly develop an urge for an omelet, head on over. (1410 E. Las Olas Boulevard; 954-463-4041; open 24/7; cash only)
Yolo: This contemporary restaurant is located downtown, where you can find your Zen. Yolo, which stands for "you only live once," is an energetic place with a simple menu. Items range from Yucatan dolphin tacos and veggie burgers to prime rib. At night, the place transforms into a hip spot to clink cocktails and toast your vacation, and the outdoor fire pit makes for a nice place to sit and chat. (333 E. Las Olas Boulevard; 954-523-1000; open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday)
15th Street Fisheries: On the Intracoastal Waterway, with glorious views, this fish-and-chowder house offers both casual dining downstairs and more formal meals upstairs. The landmark serves up fresh fish, stone crab claws and other seafood delights. (1900 S.E. 15th Street; 954-763-2777; open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday)
Bimini Boatyard Bar & Grill: This establishment features fresh seafood -- like mahi mahi, Pompano fish, swordfish and more -- prepared on a wood-fired grill. If you want a taste of true Caribbean cuisine before boarding your ship, this is a great option because it's practically across the street from the cruise port. (1555 Southeast 17th Street; 954-525-7400; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday)
Istanbul on the Beach: At this place, you'll have the chance to sit right on Hollywood Beach's Broadwalk, watching the skaters, mimes and kids having fun -- with a yummy kebab in hand. This is cheap, casual beachfront dining at its finest. Plus, following Turkish and Mediterranean influences, the fare is light, featuring choices that range from cucumber, tomato and feta salad to baba ganoush and hummus. (707 N. Broadwalk, Hollywood Beach; 954-921-1263; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, closed Tuesday)
Aruba Beach Cafe: Found in Lauderdale by the Sea, this open-air venue offers a lighthearted vibe and tropical cocktails and beachside dining. Menu items include seafood, sandwiches, a raw bar and other American fare, as well as the famous Bimini bread with Aruba glaze and honey butter. (1 Commercial Boulevard, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea; 954-776-0001; open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday)
Casablanca Cafe: A brilliantly restored Mediterranean-style home, Casablanca Cafe dates to the 1920s and has been voted Fort Lauderdale's most romantic restaurant. Meals are created from recipes from Spain, Italy, France and Africa, and live jazz/contemporary music fills the air every night. After dining, take a romantic stroll on the beach -- this restaurant is located on the peninsula between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. (3049 Alhambra Street, Fort Lauderdale; 954-764-3500; open 11 a.m. until late)
Fort Lauderdale Cruise Port Address:
1850 Eller Dr., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
Port Everglades is located 10 minutes by cab or shuttle from the Fort Lauderdale Airport and about 10 minutes from downtown. One of the cruise port's entrances is on the 17th Street Causeway, the yachting hub of Fort Lauderdale with several restaurants and hotels.
Editor's note: Port Everglades offers an app with maps, parking, a guide on where the ships are docked and more helpful information.
See photos of Port Everglades from a Fort Lauderdale cruise.
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Florida Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: United States Travel Guide
--By Kim Kazel; updated by Amber Nolan, Cruise Critic contributors
--Photo courtesy of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.