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.
Any list of things things to do in Vero Beach is going to include visiting several beautiful beaches.
Beyond those terrific beaches, however, I found Vero Beach very much worth exploring. It’s a charming beach town not ruined by over-development. It has some wonderful funky Florida history and 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, 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 Beach has worked hard to maintain its low-rise, small-city character, embracing preservation of historic sites and its natural beauty.
Several of my South Florida friends have moved up to the coast to Vero Beach to get away from congestion and development. After visiting, I see why.
Things to do in Vero Beach: McKee Botanical Garden
McKee Botanical Garden, 350 US-1, Vero Beach, is my favorite stop in Vero Beach, both because of its beauty and its fascinating history.
It features one of the biggest outdoor displays of water lilies in the United States, with lilies blooming in lagoons, streams and around waterfalls on paths that wind through the jungly property festooned with orchids.
Before there was Disney, McKee Botantical Garden attracted 100,000 visitors a year. Waldo Sexton, an eccentric genius who left a lasting mark on Vero Beach, was the co-founder of the garden along with Arthur G. McKee. Sexton came to the Vero Beach area in 1914 and became a citrus farmer, dairy farmer, business leader and developer. (Sexton also built the iconic Driftwood Inn on the beach.)
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. It opened in 1932.
Today, the garden makes for a delightful visit. If you have kids, it’s a must: It has a wonderful whimsical children’s garden. Read a Florida Rambler story about the McKee Botanical Garden here.
A highlight of the year is the annual Water Lily Festival. It’s June 18, 2022. Details.
Things to do in Vero Beach: Slowly drive the 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. Indian River citrus was transported on Henry Flagler’s Florida’s East Coast Railroad (FEC), which began service here in 1893.
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.
Vero Beach has a lively historic downtown
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 is popular when the weather is cool.
A five minute walk from American Icon Brewery is another treasure trove of local history: The Heritage Center and Indian River Citrus Museum, which tells the story of the fruit that made Indian River a household name in the U.S. It’s a small, one-room museum, but it’s free and full of interesting items. The museum is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
More in Vero Beach: Parks and kayaking
One of my favorite things to do in Vero Beach was just to walk the beautiful beach first thing in the morning.
If you aren’t staying at a hotel on the beach, 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. Go across A1A to the lagoon side and you’ll discover 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.
Vero Beach’s other waterfront: The Indian River Lagoon
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.
On the west side of the Indian River Lagoon, the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area offers a beautiful hike through a forest of large live oaks full of airplants and Spanish moss with an understory of ferns and native plants. This coastal hardwood forest transitions into a mangrove wetland. You can walk several miles on marked trails. The best sections are those closest to the parking area at 150 9th Street SE (Oslo Road), Vero Beach.
Where to eat in Vero Beach
You won’t have a hard time finding good dining choices in Vero Beach. No, 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, is more than 70 years old 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.
Hotels in Vero Beach
Waldo Sexton and the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach got beachfront development in Vero Beach started, and I think a classic Vero Beach experience is staying at the Historic Driftwood Inn and Resort, 3150 Ocean Drive, Vero Beach.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach, some original parts of the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach are preserved. 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 Vero Beach are not fancy; I’d call them rustic and nostalgically dated.
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.
We also had a great stay at the reasonably price South Beach Place, 1705 Ocean Drive, Vero Beach. This funky boutique hotel is across the street from a great beach.
What’s near Vero Beach
We’ve visited some terrific places close to Vero Beach, so if you make Vero your base, consider these spots.
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.
Fort Pierce is another historic town on the Indian River Lagoon with a lot going for it.
Notes from the editor:
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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.