Delray Beach: Lots of things to do for a great weekend getaway

Delray Beach is a walkable town with outstanding gardens, beaches, historic buildings and plenty of things to do

Pineapple Grove entrance in Delray Beach by Adam Fagan
Pineapple Grove entrance in Delray Beach (Photo by Adam Fagan)

~Some things get better with age — red wine, good friends, cast-iron pans.

I would add to that list a seaside town between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale: Delray Beach, which turned 100 in 2011.

Delray Beach is a perfect weekend getaway,  a charming, walkable urban area with plenty of things to do and some remarkable assets:

Old School Square in Delray Beach
Historic Old School Square in Delray Beach
  • A large and lovely Japanese garden and museum.
  • One of the most accessible birding hot spots you’re likely to find.
  • Well-preserved historic buildings along a traditional Main Street, full of interesting restaurants and shops.
  • A great natural beach without condos or hotels for a mile through the heart of the city.

Delray Beach wasn’t always so lively, so if your last visit was a decade ago, it’s time to rediscover Delray.

Beach at Delray Beach by Adam Fagan
Beach at Delray Beach (Photo by Adam Fagan)

Back in the ’90s, it was “Dull-ray Beach,” says Jestena Boughton, owner/manager of the 1926 Colony Hotel. She is a member of the third generation to run the hotel since her family purchased it in 1935. Today, she said, people are drawn to Delray because it didn’t “go big” in its redevelopment, preferring “people clustered around a main street of historic buildings.”

Delray’s renaissance started in the 1980s, when downtown storefronts were empty and older buildings neglected. The Community Redevelopment Agency began to address blight and crime and brought visible improvements such as trees and paving stones for downtown. Meanwhile, citizens led historic preservation efforts.

Little by little, the changing scene attracted artists and restaurants. Today, Delray is the envy of neighboring communities for its downtown full of people day and night.

Delray Beach is 15 square miles and has a population of 65,000. But it packs in a lot of things to do.

Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue

Colony Hotel on Delray Beach's Atlantic Avenue
Colony Hotel on Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue

One of the most popular things to do in Delray Beach is to just meander Atlantic Avenue and dine or drink at a sidewalk café. Atlantic — or just “The Avenue” — has galleries and boutiques as well as traditional downtown merchants. Hand’s Stationers, for example, has been there since 1934 and still draws folks with a wide selection of calendars, cards and art supplies. At night, crowds of well-dressed people of all ages spill onto the sidewalk from bars and restaurants offering live music.

You won’t have any trouble finding a place to eat. Atlantic Avenue and its environs have more than 1000 restaurants — so many that a few years ago the city briefly considered steps to discourage more. It’s not that Delray was always a mecca for foodies, but one successful spot attracted another, and today you’ll find many cuisines plus examples of most trends, from gourmet burgers to locally sourced seasonal menus.

The beach in Delray Beach

The non-chlorinated pool at the historic Sundy House in Delray Beach
The non-chlorinated pool at the historic Sundy House in Delray Beach. Be sure to stroll the gardens around the one-acre complex; they are so special they give free tours.

The other traditional draw in Delray is its 2-mile-long beach. Delray is fortunate — an early property owner deeded one mile of beach to the public and thus the view from State Road A1A is of native vegetation and sand rather than a wall of high-rise condos. Unlike many seaside cities, you can walk from the cafes downtown right to the beach.

Historic buildings in Delray Beach

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While you’re downtown, there are several historic buildings worth visiting — even if you just admire them from the outside. These are all on the National Register of Historic Places:

Old School Square. This complex was once the elementary and high school. It was saved and handsomely restored through a community effort in the 1980s, spurring the downtown renaissance.

Delray Beach Historic Cason Cottage
Delray Beach Historic Cason Cottage, home to the historical society

Today, it is a cultural complex, home to the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture and the Crest Theatre. The former high school auditorium was transformed into an impressive 323-seat theater.

The Cornell Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is a suggested $5 donation. 51 N. Swinton Ave.; 561-243-7922.

Sandoway House Nature Center. This 1936 beachfront home is a good stop for families, with its turtle pond, seashell gallery and especially its shark tank. Shark feedings are at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Delray Beach Dada cafe
Delray Beach Dada Cafe is a popular restaurant and live music venue built into a 1924 cottage.

The gardens around Sandoway feature native plants and an observation deck over the ocean. Admission is $5 for everyone 3 or older. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. 142 S. Ocean Blvd.; 561-274-7263.

Sundy House. What could be the oldest house in Delray Beach (there are two or three contenders), the 1903 Sundy House is now a popular bed and breakfast and restaurant. Be sure to stroll the gardens around the one-acre complex; they are so special they give free tours Tuesday to Friday at 10:30 a.m. Reservations required.

Tables for the restaurant are scattered throughout. If you’re going to pop the question, arrange for the romantically isolated “proposal” table. The most unusual aspect is a natural non-chlorinated swimming pool for guests of the inn; swimmers share it with fish. 106 S. Swinton Ave.; 877-439-9601.

Historic Colony Hotel lobby in Delray Beach
Lobby of historic Colony Hotel in Delray Beach. The same family has owned the hotel since 1935. The open-air lobby still isn’t air conditioned.

To learn a bit about the community history of Delray, consider the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History‘s culinary tour of Delray, which is offered many Saturdays. The $35 tour includes a sampling at three to four local restaurants. 561-243-2662. Here are dates and details.

Gardens and birds in Delray Beach

 Morikami Gardens in Delray Beach by Donielle
Morikami Gardens in Delray Beach (Photo by Donielle via Flicker) Don’t miss the bonsai collection: some are 400 years old!.

Two of the most popular attractions in Delray Beach are west of I-95. They will appeal to families and lovers of nature and all are outstanding.

The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens are actually another way Delray Beach preserved its history. The site was donated to the public by George Morikami, one of the Japanese settlers who carved a pineapple farming colony out of the pine forests of west Delray starting in 1904. There are two museums on the grounds: The original building is a model of a Japanese villa; the newer and larger building has extensive exhibition space, an excellent gift shop of Japanese merchandise and a well-regarded Japanese restaurant.

The star of the complex, though, is the garden, which is actually six distinct gardens representing different styles. Don’t miss the bonsai collection; some specimens are 400 years old!

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The Morikami has a specially built tearoom where tea ceremonies are held once a month, usually on the third Saturday.

Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens are located off Jog Road at 4000 Morikami Park Rd.; 561-495-0233. Admission: $15 adults, $13 ages 65+, $9 age 6-17, free for children 5 and younger; tea ceremonies are $5.

Stilt at Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach
Stilt at Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach (Photo by Maureen Leong-Kee, Flickr)

Along the same road as the Morikami isWakodahatchee Wetlands — a local treasure that is free. The manmade marsh filters water from the nearby treatment plant. But it has been engineered to host wildlife, and, boy, has it ever succeeded. Wakodahatchee is considered a birding hotspot and the birds are often easy to see, fearlessly feeding right next to the boardwalk. The place is a favorite with nature photographers, who wait patiently with their long lenses. Kids are always happy to spot one of the alligators.

Wakodahatchee Wetlands, located behind the Palm Beach County Water Utility Department’s building at 13026 Jog Road, is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day; free.  FloridaRambler.com wrote about Wakodahatchee and nearby Green Cay in a story about birding hotspots.

Tips for visiting Delray Beach

Gardens at the historic Sundy House in Delray Beach
Restaurant tables situated in the gardens at the historic Sundy House in Delray Beach. The historic inn is a popular place for Sunday brunch, dinners and, at this table, marriage proposals.

Getting there: Delray Beach is 50 miles north of Miami. Atlantic Avenue, the main street through downtown, is an exit on I-95. Head east for shopping and historic district, west for the attractions on Jog Road, such as the Morikami.

Where to stay: 

There are many good options in Delray. Here are a few we’ve visited:

The Seagate Hotel and Spa immediately became THE place to stay and a symbol that Delray had become a hot destination when it opened on Atlantic Avenue three years ago. The hotel has a Zen-like ambiance: clean, uncluttered, serene.  1000 E. Atlantic Ave., 877-577-3242;

Wright by the Sea is a good choice for families or those who want a view of the beach. Owned by the same family since the 1950s, it has a heated pool and a stunning sea grape-lined beach. All units have small kitchens and ocean views. 1901 S. Ocean Blvd., 561-278-3355.

The Colony Hotel is a grand 1926 hotel on Atlantic Avenue, with a lobby painted vivid tropical colors. It’s still owned by the family that bought it in 1935. Guests rave about the beach club. 525 E. Atlantic Ave.; 561-276-4123.

Sundy House, an inn in one of Delray’s oldest homes, offers 11 rooms, four of which are in cottages in the exotic garden. 106 S. Swinton Ave.; 561-272-5678.

Festivals and events in Delray Beach

One way Delray keeps people coming to its downtown is through a variety of popular festivals and events. The include a well-attended St. Patrick’s Day parade, a holiday tree-lighting event and a family-friendly News Year’s Eve First Night celebration.

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Other major events during the year include:

The Delray Beach Tennis Center on Atlantic Avenue is home to the Chris Evert Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic in November. Get details at www.chrisevert.org.

On the Avenue, a street festival formerly called Art and Jazz, is a quarterly art and music festival that draws a crowd on a Thursday night to dine and browse.  . Details at www.downtowndelraybeach.com.

The Garlic Fest is a chef’s competition and food festival at Old School Square in February. Information: www.dbgarlicfest.com.

Delray Affair celebrated 50 years in 2012 with more than 600 booths and nonstop entertainment stretched over 10 blocks of Atlantic Avenue. It’s a free street festival in April, and one of the most popular art fairs in the region. Details: www.delrayaffair.com

More things to do in Delray Beach:

Doc's All American drive-in on the corner of Swinton and Atlantic Avenue
Doc’s All American is a landmark on the corner of Swinton and Atlantic Avenue.

The Girls Strawberry U-Pick : This hydroponic farm is improbably found behind a storefront on busy Military Trail just north of Atlantic Avenue.  You can pick strawberries and buy various fruits and vegetables, but the gardens are a special delight for families because of the caged exotic birds and a farmyard area with goats and other animals.

Spady Cultural Heritage Museum:  If you get interested in Delray’s rich history, you will learn about the black settlers who were among the city’s earliest residents. The Spady museum is located in the former home of a prominent African American educator and community leader from 1922 to 1957 and tells the community’s story through photos, documents, handmade quilts and historic objects.

Links to help you plan a visit to Delray Beach:

 

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Wakodahatchee in Delray: Wood storks nesting | Florida Rambler

  2. Nice article. One can also “Taste Atlantic Avenue” on a Savor Our City Culinary Tour where Foodies spend 3 hours with a knowledgeable guide by foot tasting signature bites from 3-4 restaurants plus 1-2 gourmet specialty shops and a historical landmark. Tours depart every Sat during season from 11am-2pm and private group tours are also available for parties of 10 or more. For more info, visit our website or call 800-979-3370.

  3. Pingback: Best Florida B&Bs reflect the authentic Florida | Florida Rambler

  4. I had no idea there was so much to do in Delray. I’ll have to give it another try soon.

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