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10 ways to enjoy Palm Beach island history, beauty & recreation

Palm Beach island is the exclusive winter home of billionaires and their poorer colleagues, the multi-millionaires. It is, of course, home to what former President Trump called the Winter White House, Mar-a-Lago.

A dozen presidents ago, John F. Kennedy also had a Palm Beach island home.

All this history means Palm Beach island is an interesting place to visit; all that money means it is also quite beautiful.

There are plenty of things to do in Palm Beach island: While you gawk at mansions and ficus hedges sculpted into works of art, you can also do a little snorkeling, biking and visiting museums.

Fountain in a courtyard off Worth Avenue in Palm Beach island
Things to do in Palm Beach island: Browse Worth Avenue. This fountain is in a courtyard off Worth Avenue in Palm Beach island. (Photos: Bonnie Gross)

The opulence of the island of Palm Beach is easy to spot: The pets are so pampered that there are four dog-watering fountains built around the town including one on Worth Avenue that is a picturesque basin made from Italian ceramic tile.

Of course, you see the flashy new Bentleys and Rolls Royces around town, but year ‘round residents tend to favor a nicely kept older Jaguar as their “beach” car.

The Flagler Mansion, Whitehall, in Palm Beach. island
Things to do in Palm Beach island: Visit the Flagler Mansion, Whitehall. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

You have to look hard for the Publix; in Palm Beach island, the only sign is its name subtly carved into the entrance.

If you book a luxury lodging deal in Palm Beach, you may want to spend much of your time taking advantage of the amenities at your hotel.

But when you’re ready to explore, here are 10 things to see, do and enjoy in Palm Beach:

Pizza al Fresco in Via Mizner on Palm Beach island.
Things to do in Palm Beach island: Have lunch at lovely Pizza al Fresco in Via Mizner, a great place to stop and dine along Worth Avenue. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

1. Biking the Lake Trail in Palm Beach island

Palm Beach island has one of the best bike trails in Florida, the Lake Trail, which has views of Lake Worth and mansions. You can rent bikes at Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop, 223 Sunrise Ave.  You might use bikes to visit other spots listed below. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to biking the Lake Trail.

Things to do in Palm Beach island: Visit Flagler Mansion. This is the Grand Hall . (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

2. Tour the Flagler Mansion

If you haven’t visited it, the Flagler Museum is the top attraction. Whitehall, as it is called, is a 75-room mansion built by railroad mogul Henry Flagler, who founded Palm Beach island and built The Breakers.

Knowing about Flagler (1830-1913) is essential to understanding not just Palm Beach, but all of Florida. In addition to his importance to history, his personal story is more dramatic than a season of Downton Abbey and his Gilded Age mansion is just as opulent as Downton. Admission is $18 adults; $10 ages 13 to 17; $3 ages 6-12.

The ballroom at the Flagler Mansion in Palm Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

When visiting the Flagler Museum, call ahead and find out when docent-led tours are available. We missed the 2 p.m. tour and instead took a very good self-guided audio tour. But on previous visits, the docent tour was memorable. Details.

via mizner Worth Avenue
Things to do in Palm Beach Island: You’ll feel like your in Europe when you admire the Spanish tile in Via Mizner off Worth Avenue. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

3. Window shop on Worth Avenue

Worth Avenue, home to luxury stores such as Hermes, Jimmy Choo, Chanel and Gucci, is a pleasure to stroll, even for those not into shopping. The charm comes from the nine “vias” or pedestrian walkways that lead off the avenue into courtyards filled with fountains, bougainvillea, Old World tile-work and more shops.

The vias are where you will see how architect Addison Mizner captured a bit of Venice here. Via Mizner, by the way, leads to a lovely courtyard with an excellent and affordable Italian restaurant, Pizza Al Fresco.  Look carefully in the courtyard and you’ll also spot the grave of Mizner’s pet monkey Johnnie Brown.

The walkways and courtyards are full of flowers on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach island.
Things to do in Palm Beach Island: Enjoy the walkways and courtyards that are full of flowers and fountains on Worth Avenue. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

While on Worth Avenue, be sure to admire the Living Wall at the corner of Worth Avenue and South County Road. The verdant vertical garden, added a few years ago, cost a quarter-million dollars and contains 10,000 plants.

Also nearby: Pan’s Garden. This Palm Beach Island garden is an insider’s secret. It’s the only botanic garden in Florida devoted only to native plants and it is full of delights. It’s free and makes an excellent addition to a day in Palm Beach. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Pan’s Garden.

The Living Wall, a vertical garden on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach island.
Things to do on Palm Beach Island: Admire the “Living Wall, a vertical garden on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach island. (Photo:Bonnie Gross)

Historic tours of Worth Avenue

These are only offered in the winter, so if you’re in Palm Beach December to April, you can take a 75-minute walking tour of Worth Avenue with Rick Rose at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays. Tickets are $25 per person. Details.

4. Find a moment of peace at historic Palm Beach island church

Stop by the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, 141 S. County Road, and peak inside the Gothic Revival church. The parish hall has a Tiffany window and behind the buildings are beautiful gardens with a koi pond. Bethesda-by-the-Sea, which some call the most beautiful church in America, was the site of the wedding of President Donald Trump and Melania. (Bill and Hillary attended. And boy does everybody look young.)

5. Lunch at Green’s Pharmacy

green's pharmacy window
Things to do in Palm Beach Island: Visit Green’s Pharmacy, an old-fashioned lunch counter that was frequented by members of Kennedy clan, including the U.S. president. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

If you’re interested in the Kennedy clan, which famously had a winter home at the beach here, you’ll want to have breakfast or lunch at Green’s Pharmacy and Luncheonette, 151 N. County Road, Palm Beach.

It’s an old-fashioned drug store with a soda fountain and lunch counter that hasn’t changed much over the decades. As a youth, JFK and his brothers would stop here and there are many stories of him sneaking away when president for a bite at Green’s.

The soda fountain is famous for its chocolate milk shakes, but all the food gets good reviews and it’s probably the most affordable lunch option in the area. (The Kennedy compound, altered in the ensuing years, is at 1095 N. Ocean Blvd., and sold for $70 million in 2020.)

6. Visit the Kennedy’s church

Across the street from Green’s is Edward Catholic Church, 144 N. County Road. The 1926 Spanish Renaissance church is ornately beautiful with an intricate hand-painted ceiling worth admiring. But a big reason visitors stop is because this is where the Kennedy family worshipped.

St Edwards Church in Palm Beach island
Following in Kennedy footsteps: This plaque marks a special pew in St Edwards Church in Palm Beach island. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

When I visited on a Sunday between masses, a gentleman asked if it was my first visit. Hearing it was, he said “Follow me” and directed me to sit in a specific pew. I had not expected this and found it quite moving: In front of me was a small brass plaque that read: “President John F. Kennedy knelt here at Mass.” If you want to sit in that pew, it’s easier to find with a guide, but start looking about three-quarters of the way back on the left side of the right aisle.

Peanut Island is the site of a Cold War fallout shelter built for President John F. Kennedy. It is no longer open to the public to tour nor is there any signage about it, but it's not difficult to find. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Things to do in Palm Beach Island: Visit Peanut Island, the site of a Cold War fallout shelter built for President John F. Kennedy. It is no longer open to the public to tour nor is there any signage about it, but it’s not difficult to find. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

7. Boat over to an island with a president’s bomb shelter

If you’re interested in JFK, you’ll want to visit Peanut Island, where a secret Cold War-era bomb shelter was built for President Kennedy to use if the end of world threatened while he was in Palm Beach. While Kennedy would have reached the bunker via boat from his Palm Beach estate, you’ll have to leave the island and get a water taxi either at Riviera Beach or Palm Beach Shores. You can easily spend a day on Peanut Island, which has excellent snorkeling and a picturesque walkway and picnic area, but the bunker is no longer available for tours. Details in this Florida Rambler story.

8. Snorkeling and swimming on Palm Beach island

The beaches of Palm Beach are as pretty and well-kept as the rest of the island. There is metered parking nearby. Bring your snorkeling mask because the small rocky breakwaters behind the Breakers Hotel attract schools of fish. (There are public access points to the beaches on either side of the Breakers.)

Another town park, Phipps Ocean Park, 2201 South Ocean Blvd., is a gem because there are outcroppings of limestone in the beach and near the shore, which attract fish and result in good snorkeling. There are restrooms, picnic tables and grills. Because parking is $5 an hour, it’s easy to get a space.

Nearby is the snorkeling trail along a manmade reef at Phil Foster Park.

palm beach island 2021 palm beach golf 10 ways to enjoy Palm Beach island history, beauty & recreation
Things to do in Palm Beach Island: A gorgeous par-3 golf course with a casual restaurant with a stunning view. (Photo courtesy Palm Beach Par 3)

9. Golf at an oceanside course

Just south of Phipps Ocean Park is one of the most scenic public golf courses in Florida – the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course at 2345 S. Ocean Blvd. (Golf Digest included it in its top-50 “most fun” courses in America.) The 18-hole course occupies some of the most valuable land in Florida – it extends from a fabulous ocean beach on one side to the Intracoastal. Nearly every hole on the breezy course has a view. Its summer rates are a bargain.  

Even if you don’t golf, the two-story clubhouse at the course is a great destination. Pizza Al Fresco operates an Italian restaurant there with ocean views and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.  If you want an outdoor table overlooking the ocean — the view and the breeze are divine — be sure to call ahead. (561-273-4130.)

Things to do on Palm Beach island: Enjoy the views of private oceanfront estates.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)

10. Kayaking or sailing on Palm Beach island

One way to stay cool is to get out on the water. West Palm Beach, just across the wide Intracoastal Waterway/Lake Worth, is a good place to book an activity by boat. The Seaside Activity Station is on the waterfront at North Clematis Street and Flagler Drive 561-881-9757. There you can book a catamaran and snorkel trip, rent jet skis or kayaks or book a kayak tour to Peanut Island. Details.

Drive by Mar-A-Lago

Of course, former President Trump’s private club Mar-A-Lago is not open to the public, but you can drive by: 1100 S Ocean Blvd. It’s not in the walkable part of the island near Worth Avenue; it’s located along the oceanfront in what long ago was nicknamed Billionaire’s Row.

Here it is on Google street view:

Where to stay in Palm Beach island

No surprise: There are no budget lodgings on Palm Beach Island. However, every year, Palm Beach luxury hotels traditionally offer deals in the summer. Check the Palm Beach County tourism site.

Some of the posh hotels offering summer deals are the Brazilian Court, 301 Australian Ave. and  the centrally located Chesterfield, 363 Cocoanut Row, a smaller historic boutique hotel. Two hotels south of the town center but on the beach are the the Four Seasons Resort, 2800 South Ocean Blvd. and the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, 100 South Ocean Blvd., Manalapan.

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