Melbourne is an old Florida town on the Indian River Lagoon with some charming historic areas that are well-preserved and worth exploring.
Its downtown has a number of historic buildings and a good variety of restaurants, bars and shops. It’s a lively place on weekends and an ideal place to stroll.
What drew me to Melbourne: It has a terrific, interactive zoo that U.S. News and World Reports recentedly listed as one of “26 Best Zoos in the U.S” for 2023.
Melbourne is on the Atlantic Coast a little over an hour southeast of Orlando; a location that makes it an easy getaway destination from both Central and South Florida.
When you’re planning your visit, consider these things to do in Melbourne, Florida.
- The Eau Gallie Historic District
- Outdoor things to do in Melbourne Florida
- Historic downtown Melbourne is a lively spot worth visiting to browse and shop
- One of my favorite things to do in Melbourne: the Brevard Zoo is full of interactive fun
- Near Melbourne: Florida Rambler has written about these nearby places
The Eau Gallie Historic District
My husband and I fell in love with the Eau Gallie Historic District north of downtown, where we stayed in an exceptional vacation rental – a 100-year-old mansion on an acre overlooking the Indian River Lagoon. From there, we walked all the streets of old Eau Gallie, which started out as an independent settlement in the mid-1800s and is now a neighborhood of Melbourne.
The Eau Gallie streets are narrow with shady canopies of oaks and there are a number of historic buildings remaining. The community grew up along the Eau Gallie river, and there’s a beautiful small park tucked away next to the river at the end of Houston Street where you can admire the view.
Eau Gallie has many historic signs telling the story of the community. There is a historic house museum, the Rossetter House, which can be toured but was not open when we visited.
The Eau Gallie Arts District is a small walkable community with a great brewery, Intracoastal Brewing Company, a pizza restaurant in the original historic bank (FM Pizza) and several restaurants and galleries.
Outdoor things to do in Melbourne Florida
We brought our bikes to Melbourne and enjoyed riding six miles roundtrip on the paved, 10-foot-wide Brevard Zoo Linear Park, located just beyond the entrance to the zoo. The free bike and walking path made a nice traffic-free ride.
On the south end of Melbourne in Palm Bay, you’ll find a good paddling and hiking location along Turkey Creek and at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Turkey Creek Sanctuary, where you can explore 3.5 miles of trails, including a 1.8-mile boardwalk through a lush hammock. We reached the sanctuary via a 6-mile-roundtrip kayak outing, which I recommend.
West of Melbourne, birders flock to the Viera Wetlands, officially know as the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands. Visitors frequently see alligators and variety of birds. This is primarily water treatment facility, but it offers superb birding by foot or bicycle. Crested Caracaras nest at this site. (To see them, the Great Florida Birding Trail website advises: Check the sabal palms and pines near the start of the loop drive and along the wetland perimeter.
The beaches in Melbourne are beautiful and broad with pure white sand, but the stretch of A1A in the city lacks the charm and human scale to make Melbourne a walkable beach town. The beach is lined with hotels and condos. A favorite beach in the area, however, is Paradise Beach and Park, 2301 N. Highway A1A, Melbourne, FL 32903. It has picnic pavilions and a playground.
A half hour south of Melbourne is one of the nicest beach parks on the entire Atlantic Coast: Sebastian Inlet State Park, which has three miles of beautiful undeveloped beach. In the immediate area of the park there are some excellent camping opportunities too. The park offers hiking and is a great place for boating. You can rent kayaks, SUPs and pontoon boats from the concession there.
In the state park are two interesting history museums:
- The McLarty Treasure Museum, south of the inlet, is the site of a 1715 Spanish Fleet wreck survivor’s camp. The museum features artifacts, displays, and an observation deck that overlooks the ocean. Salvagers continue to work the ocean bottom offshore, seeking gold, silver and the “Queen’s jewels” lost to the sea and its sandy shores. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $2. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Phone: (772) 589-2147. 13180 North A1A, Vero Beach, FL 32963.
- The Sebastian Inlet Fishing Museum commemorates three of Sebastian’s early families that operated fish houses. Inside you will find a replica of an original fish house and dock. A homemade fishing boat, nets, fishing gear, and photos of fishing in the lagoon are also on display. Admission is free with park admission Video: Sebastian Fishing Museum
Historic downtown Melbourne is a lively spot worth visiting to browse and shop
Melbourne’s downtown has historic architecture, an old commercial strip and has attracted new shops and restaurants in recent years. It’s become an interesting place to stroll, shop and dine. Favorite downtown spots include:
- Hemingway’s Tavern, 1800 W Hibiscus Blvd., Suite 115, Melbourne, FL 32901 321-802-9648. This hidden spot (you have to look for it) is a Key West-inspired bar and restaurant with lots of Hemingway-related touches.
- Meg O’Malley’s, 810 E New Haven Ave Melbourne, FL 32901, (321) 952-5510. One of the restaurants that helped bring folks back to downtown Melbourne, this Irish pub is known for its energetic atmosphere and good food served in large portions.
- The Dove III, 836 E. New Haven Ave, Melbourne, FL 32901, (321) 725-3683. This is a classy white-table-cloth Italian spot known for fine dining with some extra touches.
- Hell ‘n Blazes Brewing Company, 1002 E New Haven Ave, Melbourne, FL 32901, (321) 821-4052. This craft brewery is built in one of the oldest buildings downtown, once the Fee & Stewart Hardware Store built in 1898. It has a full menu including cocktails with some creative dishes inspired by Florida’s diverse population. Example: Brisket Poutine and Fried Green Tomato Benedict (for brunch.)
Here’s more about downtown Melbourne.
One of my favorite things to do in Melbourne: the Brevard Zoo is full of interactive fun
Our favorite activity in the area was the Brevard Zoo. It is unique in offering kayaking tours through zoo animal habitats. Yes, we knew it is a gimmick – it’s only a half hour long and it is guided, so it’s not like you feel like you’re exploring a river in Africa.
But it was fun, and we discovered it is just one of many ways the Brevard Zoo is an entertaining interactive attraction.
The young Brevard Zoo (it opened in 1994) often makes lists of “best 20 zoos” in the US.
After experiencing the kayaking tour and then enjoying everything else in the zoo for another two or three hours, my husband and I came away understanding why this smaller zoo in a smaller city could be so highly regarded.
The Bevard Zoo offers many interactive opportunities – some cost extra, but many do not. It just makes the zoo a fun experience in addition to offering a great assortment of animals, exhibits built with multiple intriguing levels and excellent signage with simple, relevant environmental messaging.
Two very grown up adults had a great time there. We could see that kids and families were loving it too.
Brevard Zoo kayaking tour
To do the kayaking tour, first you have to pay the not-insignificant entrance fee ($25 for adults.) Then, each person on the kayak tour is $10.
After you enter the zoo, you sign up for the kayak tour in the Africa exhibit, where you’ll see a platform that overlooks the kayak put-in site.
The Nyami Nyami Kayak Tour is offered 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You must be 5 or older and children must share a tandem kayak with an adult.
Our tour group had four adults and we were all enthusiastic when we saw camels, impalas and ostriches from our kayaks as we paddled around the Africa exhibit.
On foot later, we actually did not see the camels or impalas, so there were some experiences we wouldn’t have had any other way. (On the other hand, there are so many animals to see, it’s not like you’d miss the camels if you didn’t take the kayak tour.)
The kayaks are prevented from entering animal habitats by wires positioned a few inches above the water. It’s a clever system with little visual impact.
The kayak instructions and the technique for getting people in and out of the kayaks is designed for first-time and inexperienced kayakers.
In the tour, a staff member provides a running commentary and answers questions as you paddle, which adds interest and value to the tour.
Our favorite interactive activities at Brevard Zoo
The kayak tour is one of several experiences that make this an exceptionally interactive zoo.
Our favorite was the giraffe area, where you come eye-to-eye with giraffes from a large shaded platform. For $2, you can feed a few pieces of lettuce to a giraffe, but everybody is close enough to see and experience the giraffes, even without buying the lettice.
Similarly, there are two walk-in aviaries where you can get close to gorgeous birds flitting about. For a few dollars, you can buy sticks coated with bird food and hand feed the birds. We watched lots of people thrilled to be doing this, but you didn’t need to pay for seeds to enjoy the experience.
We also loved that we could walk into the kangaroo enclosure. You don’t interact with the kangaroos, but you are quite close to them. We had never seen a kangaroo joey (a baby) in its mother’s pouch before and we were able to observe one mom and baby from only a few feet without a fence between us.
Brevard Zoo offers relevant environment messages
As we explored the zoo, viewing animals from platforms and walkways and winding through beautiful landscaping and thick vegetation, we appreciated the simple easy-to-understand messages about climate change, rising sea levels and habitat preservation. Often while we were looking at an animal from another continent, the signage tied it into relevant issues in Florida. (For example: survival of the Florida panther.)
In addition to the educational aspect, families will appreciate the many active areas for children built into the zoo, from a water-play area to rope-mesh ladder passageway kids can use to climb down from the platform overlooking the cheetah. There is also a miniature train ride that provides another way to experience the zoo.
The Brevard Zoo isn’t the biggest zoo, but it is cleverly designed using various elevations to pack in a lot of viewing areas and habitats without making any animal squeezed for space.
Overall, whether by kayak, train or on foot, the Brevard Zoo is an engaging place — a gem worth visiting.
8225 N Wickham Rd, Melbourne, FL 32940
Brevard Zoo ticket price:
- Adults (12 & over)$24.95
- Seniors (65 & over) $22.95
- Children (ages 3 – 11) $15.95
- Children under 3 free
- Brevard Zoo tickets
The zoo also operates a zipline adventure park adjacent to the zoo call Treetop Trek and is fundraising to build an aquarium on the Banana River in nearby Cocoa.
Near Melbourne: Florida Rambler has written about these nearby places
- Kayaking to spoil islands in the Indian River Lagoon.
- Discovering 100-year-old Vero Beach and Driftwood Inn
- McKee’s Botanical Garden in Vero Beach
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Oak Hill: Old Florida seafood house and Seminole Rest historic site – Oak Hill is on U.S. 1 at the north end of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, just a mile or so north of the turnoff into the refuge on State Road 3.
- Apollo Beach at Canaveral National Seashore – Merritt Island offers access to the southern entrance of Canaveral National Seashore, but there’s another way into this 24-mile pristine beach from the north in New Smyrna Beach.
- Bio-luminescent kayak tours: Eerie glow on night paddles – A special treat awaits visitors to Merritt Island during summer.
- Blue Cypress Lake, 7400 Blue Cypress Lake Road, is one of my favorite kayaking discoveries. Located 22 miles west of Vero Beach, this large lake has a shoreline dotted with hundreds of magnificent bald cypress trees. Just as impressive, there are hundreds of osprey nests on this lake and in late winter/early spring when the osprey are nesting, it is a sight to behold.
- St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, 1000 Buffer Preserve Dr., Fellsmere, is a wilderness park that can be explored by hiking, biking and horseback.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.