Delray Beach is a walkable town with outstanding gardens, beaches, historic buildings and plenty of things to do
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 was founded in 1911.
Delray Beach is a perfect weekend getaway, a charming, walkable urban area with plenty of things to do and some remarkable assets:
- 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.
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.
Things to do in Delray Beach: 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.
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 has so many restaurants 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.
Things to do in Delray Beach: Well, the beach, of course
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.
Things to do in Delray Beach: Historic buildings and museums
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.
The Cornell Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is a suggested $8 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.
The gardens around Sandoway feature native plants and an observation deck over the ocean.
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.
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 pool designed to resemble the cenotes, sinkholes of the Yucatan. Sundy House, 106 S. Swinton Ave.; 877-439-9601.
Things to do in Delray Beach: Gardens and birds
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!
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.
Along the same road as the Morikami is Wakodahatchee 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
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 in Delray Beach
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 a decade ago. The hotel has a Zen-like ambiance: clean, uncluttered, serene. 1000 E. Atlantic Ave., 877-577-3242;
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.
Other major events during the year include 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
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 find things to do in Delray Beach:
- Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens: Feel harmony in nature
- Wakodahatchee Wetlands and Green Cay Wetlands
- Old School Square
- Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture
- Crest Theatre
- Sundy House
- Seagate Hotel and Spa
- The Colony Hotel
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.
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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.