With a sunny and stunning location in South Florida fringed by sandy beaches, Fort Lauderdale and the adjacent inland community of Wilton Manors rank among the world's most desirable tropical gay vacation destinations. This largest city in Broward County, just a 45-minute drive north of Miami and the same distance south of Palm Beach, has steadily evolved from a relatively lesser-known gay getaway in the early 1990s into a favorite place among gays and lesbians for both quick winter getaways and longer seasonal stays. Not surprisingly, quite a few LGBT visitors have become so taken with this friendly and progressive community that they've moved here full-time.
Given Fort Lauderdale's abundance of relaxing clothing-optional gay resorts and hip hotels, it can be tempting simply to check in to your accommodation and relax by the pool all day, but there are actually quite a few enjoyable diversions in the area, from lively neighborhoods for strolling to one of Florida's most popular gay beaches to just enough in the way of museums and performing arts venues to keep culture vultures happy. Of course, this is also a major gay nightlife center, and you'll find plenty of great gay bars and clubs in Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors as well.
Here's a look at five attractions and activities that gay visitors to Fort Lauderdale should make a point of seeing.
Greater Fort Lauderdale extends along a beautiful 23-mile stretch of the Atlantic Ocean characterized by pristine sandy beaches. The heart of the beachfront is Rte. A1A from roughly Fort Lauderdale Beach Park (near the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa) north past Las Olas Boulevard and on north to East Sunrise Boulevard. It's along this stretch that you'll find a strip of gorgeous beach hotels and resorts, including such swanky gay-popular stunners at the W Fort Lauderdale, Atlantic Hotel, and Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. And just a couple of blocks off the beach, there are several gay clothing-optional resorts, mostly along the blocks between Riomar and Vistamar streets. The beachfront is lined with a paved boardwalk, and there's a gay section of beach right opposite where Sebastian Street intersects with Highway A1A.
A short drive or 15-minute walk south of the gay beach, you'll find the International Swimming Hall of Fame and museum (1 Hall of Fame Dr., off Hwy. A1A, 954-462-6536). Openly gay swimming and diving legends Greg Louganis and Mark Tewksbury are among the inductees whose aquatic sports careers are celebrated at this popular attraction near the beach, just a few blocks south of Las Olas Boulevard's junction with Highway A1A. Exhibits here discuss the history of aquatic sports and the careers of the world's most acclaimed divers and swimmers.
Home to dozens of GLBT-owned businesses as well as the excellent Pride Center at Equality Park (which functions as the official LGBT resource center for greater Fort Lauderdale), the small city of Wilton Manors and its main commercial thoroughfare, Wilton Drive (aka "The Drive") is a must for shopping, hitting up gay bars and cafes, and checking out the local scene. The fun stretch of curving Wilton Drive, where you'll find most of the bars and attractions, is from Northeast 26th Street south to about Northeast 20th - it's an easy stretch to walk, and many of the fun restaurants and bars have outdoor terraces and patios, making this an enjoyable area to relax, cruise, and mingle with friends both day and night.
Fort Lauderdale is laced with a Venice-like network of canals and bays that connect with the Intracoastal Waterway. The part of the city with the greatest concentration of canals lies between the coastal barrier beaches and Intracoastal waterway and the mainland. A relaxing and fun way to experience these calm waters and admire the lovely homes along them is by booking a cruise with Gondolas West.
Las Olas Boulevard connects the heart of Fort Lauderdale Beach with downtown and is lined with fashionable shops and convivial cafes and restaurants. It's less of a gay scene than Wilton Manors or the beach area, but you'll definitely find plenty of family in this area. Once you get to downtown, you'll find some of the city's key museums and performance spaces, including the NSU Art Museum of Fort Lauderdale, the Museum of Discovery and Science, and the Historic Stranahan House Museum.
Also downtown is the critically esteemed and locally beloved Broward Center for the Performing Arts (201 S.W. 5th Ave., 954-522-5334), one of South Florida's cultural icons. With superb acoustics and a high-tech sound and light system, the Broward Center hosts national touring musicals, major music acts, and acclaimed dance performances. It's also been a focal point of Fort Lauderdale's downtown renaissance.
You'll find some of the most significant museums dedicated to LGBT history and civil rights in the region. In Fort Lauderdale, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives (was started in 1973 and, as it grew, resided in several different spaces before landing in its current 4,000-square-foot permanent home, at the Fort Lauderdale Branch Library/ArtServe building (1300 E. Sunrise Blvd., 954-763-8565) in 2009. You can visit the main archive location and examine the thousands of LGBT documents, photos, books, magazines, and memorabilia inside. And then definitely get yourself to Wilton Manors to check out the new Stonewall National Museum Gallery (2157 Wilton Dr., 954-530-9337), which occupies an airy storefront space right on the heart of "The Drive" (see above). Here you'll find outstanding, rotating multimedia exhibits that shed light on the history of our community. Another attraction in Wilton Manors that's also definitely worth visiting is the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center (1201 N.E. 26th St., No. 111, 954-390-0550), which contains some exceptional - and also very poignant - exhibits that trace the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, pay tribute to those who were lost to or still battle with the disease, and continue to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS around the world.