Vero Beach isn’t a famous destination in Florida, and that’s one of the things folks love about it.
There are no big attractions.
I don’t think I can create a listicle of 10 things you Must Do in Vero Beach— unless four or five of the items on the list are different places to enjoy the beautiful beaches or interesting restaurants.
But visiting it as it celebrates its centennial in 2019, I found Vero Beach very much worth exploring. It’s a charming beach town not ruined by over-development with some wonderful funky Florida history, gorgeous beaches, a cute downtown with interesting restaurants and shops – oh, and free parking.
Free parking may seem like a minor element, but it is emblematic of Vero Beach. We visited three of Vero Beach’s attractive beachfront parks; parking was free at each. We stopped downtown on the busy main street; parking was free. In fact, in February when I visited, signs were protesting a proposal to put meters on the beachfront shopping strip. They read: “Parking meters will not solve the seasonal parking issues on Ocean Drive. Maintain the welcoming spirit of Vero Beach.”
Vero has worked hard to maintain its low-rise, small-city character, embracing preservation of historic sites and its natural beauty.
With miles of Atlantic beach coastline as well as the Indian River Lagoon extending through its middle, Vero Beach, population 18,000, has a lot of natural aspects worth preserving. It’s located a half hour north of Fort Pierce, 45 minutes south of Melbourne and two hours southeast of Orlando.
Waldo Sexton and Driftwood Inn got it all started
There are a lot of options for hotels in Vero Beach, including the very popular-with-families Disney Resort eight miles north of town as well as luxury resorts Kimpton Vero Beach Resort, and Spa and Costa d’Este Resort and Spa.
But I think the true Vero Beach experience is staying at the Historic Driftwood Inn and Resort, 3150 Ocean Drive, Vero Beach,and that’s what we did.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Driftwood Inn is eclectic and eccentric, just like its legendary founder, Waldo Sexton, who came to the Vero Beach area in 1914 and became a citrus farmer, dairy farmer, business leader, developer and so much more. He opened the Driftwood Inn in the 1930s and in 1947 added a restaurant now known as Waldo’s. His hotel jump-started Vero’s tourism business.
Today, some original parts of the Driftwood Inn are preserved and even if you don’t stay there, you should dine at Waldo’s just to admire the place. True to its name, the original buildings are covered in driftwood and decorated with mosaics, bells, cannons, striking ceramic tiles and remnants from various churches, trains, ships and schools.
The complex overlooks a beautiful stretch of beach and not far off shore, a flagpole in the water marks the sites of a sunken ship – the Breconshire, which went down in 1894. (It’s popular with divers.)
The rooms at the Driftwood Inn are not fancy; I’d call them rustic and nostalgically dated. Our efficiency looked like the 1970s, with a tiny galley kitchen and bath. But the room is paneled with pecky cypress and it was steps to the beach. We could hear the waves from our room and were surrounded by the marvelously decorated original part of the inn. My husband David LOVES the place.
The Driftwood feels more like a community than a hotel, and that’s because many of its rooms were sold as time share units decades ago. You can tell that people staying here come back for their week or weeks year after year — like the owners of the car in the lot with Wisconsin plates that read VERO BCH.
Discovering Vero Beach local history: McKee Botanical Garden
You’ll probably find a Waldo Sexton angle to every Vero history story, and there’s definitely one to lovely McKee Botanical Garden, 350 US-1, Vero Beach, which is worth visiting. Sexton and Arthur G. McKee opened the garden in 1932, bringing together a collection of waterlilies, orchids, plus strange and wonderful objects. Before there was a Disney, this roadside attraction drew 100,000 visitors a year.
The business partners created the garden as a tourist attraction when they realized the property they bought to turn into citrus groves was too beautiful to plow under.
Today, the small garden makes a delightful stop. Read a Florida Rambler story about the McKee Botanical Garden here.
Vero Beach’s old Jungle Trail
I am always intrigued by old roads and this is one is on the National Register of Historic Places. This 8-mile-long hard-packed-sand road runs along the Indian River Lagoon. It was constructed in the 1920s to help transport the citrus crop, for which Indian River County is still famous.
The Jungle Trail is ideal for exploring on fat-tire bikes, but you also can drive (very slowly) on it, jog or walk. We started at Wabasso Road on the northern end of Vero Beach where the Disney resort commands the beach, and drove south.
The scenic waterfront trail passes through palm hammocks and coastal wetlands, although much of its eastern edge is now housing developments. There are two wonderful exceptions to that, and they are both worth a stop.
Heading south, you first come to Captain Forster Hammock Preserve, 8610 Jungle Trail. It’s the last stretch of original maritime hammock –a jungly forest of live oaks and ferns. There are a number of short trails, but the main one is well groomed and shady and extends from Indian River Lagoon to A1A. One highlight is a green pond with a tiny island with a single bench reached via a little bridge. Captain Forster was an early pioneer and a chimney is all that’s left of his lagoon-front home.
Further south along the Jungle Trail is Jones Pier, 7770 Jungle Trail, where a pioneer cabin is preserved along with the original fruit stand. None of the buildings have been restored or are open, but the pier into the Indian River Lagoon is open to visitors and it’s a great place to pause and enjoy the beauty of this location.
Lively downtown Vero Beach
Vero Beach has preserved some great old buildings in its main street area. This original downtown has several intriguing restaurants and interesting art galleries and shops, including a gallery devoted to art the Florida Highwaymen, a group of 26 self-taught African American artists who painted vivid landscapes along the Treasure Coast. These are now collector items. Ray McLendon, son of one of the Highwaymen, owns the gallery and was painting there, where he was happy to chat.
Two blocks off the main street is a great example of a historic building restored and put to a new use – the American Icon Brewery, 1133 19th Place, Vero Beach. This large building was the 1926 Vero Beach Municipal Power Plant and one of the original diesel engines is preserved and painted to be the centerpiece of the large brewery and restaurant. Outdoor seating around a fire pit was popular when we visited.
Other things to do: The beach, parks and kayaking
My favorite thing to do in Vero Beach was just to walk the beautiful beach first thing in the morning.
If you aren’t staying at a beachfront hotel, you can park at several small beachfront parks. The facilities at centrally located South Beach Park, 1704 Ocean Dr., Vero Beach, were outstanding with shaded picnic tables, restrooms, playgrounds and an oceanfront walkway.
At the southern end of town, we recommend Round Island Beach Park, 2200 South A1A, Vero Beach. Not only does it have a beautiful natural beach, but there is an interesting display about how World War II soldiers practiced beach landings here in preparation for D-Day. Tank-sized concrete-and-metal obstacles were placed in the water for training purposes. Many remain, and several are on display in the picnic area of Round Island Beach., along with informative signs.
There’s another good reason to visit Round Island Park, but it’s across A1A on the lagoon side, which is a favorite kayak launch and place to see manatees. (Local outfitters will deliver kayaks here for you.)
I am always happy to see manatees, and everything I read said that I would see manatees here. Knowing that wildlife is unpredictable, I was dubious about that statement. But the manatees made good on the promise — three of them drifted in a lagoon area only a few feet from the boardwalk where they could be easily seen by happy visitors. They were so still, they looked like hairy rocks until they breathed and you briefly saw their snouts.
Even with such beautiful beaches, Vero Beach does not ignore its other waterfront, the Indian River Lagoon.
Riverside Park, located on the beach side of the lagoon in the center of town, preserves a long stretch of lagoon front and is home to Vero Beach cultural institutions, including an art museum and theater. Free outdoor concerts occur most weekends at the Riverside Theatre’s driveway loop and the park has picnic tables, playgrounds, tennis courts and walking trails.
A highlight of Riverside Park is a landscaped man-made island turned into a veterans memorial, which has beautiful views and inspiring monuments.
Where to eat in Vero Beach
You won’t have a hard time finding good dining choices in Vero Beach – you’ll have a hard time narrowing them down.
We loved the two places we dined; each captures real Vero Beach ambience.
Waldo’s, 3150 Ocean Dr., Vero Beach, located in the most original part of the Driftwood Inn, celebrated its 70th anniversary last year and its popularity is going strong. We loved sitting at an open air table on a deck, directly overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean, and eating fresh fish.
Riverside Café, 3341 Bridge Plaza Dr., Vero Beach. Located adjacent to the Merrill Barber Bridge (over the Indian River Lagoon) and inside Riverside Park, this café has a view over the marina and the lagoon. It’s great for sunsets and after dark the fish lights at the waterfront dock illuminate dozens of catfish that delight visitors who throw them French fries. We recommend the mahi sandwich and the fish tacos.
What’s near Vero Beach
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.
Pelican Island, the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge, 4055 Wildlife Way, Vero Beach, offers trails, a boardwalk and an observation tower overlooking the island, which is a bird rookery. It’s 15 miles north of Vero Beach.
Sebastian Inlet State Park, 9700 S. Highway A1A, Melbourne Beach, is a good destination for kayaking and camping.
St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, 1000 Buffer Preserve Dr., Fellsmere, is a wilderness park that can be explored by hiking, biking and horseback.
Hutchinson Island, the coastal barrier island area south of Vero Beach, is full of beaches and interesting places, including Avalon State Park, N. Highway A1A, Fort Pierce, where Navy frogmen practiced for D-Day. More obstacles placed in the water to challenge them in their landings are still there. The Navy Seal Museum, 3300 N. Highway A1A, Fort Pierce, in nearby Fort Pierce is a good place to learn about this history.