Visitors to Central Florida are usually there for one of two reasons: the theme parks orKennedy Space Center. But if all you see there is NASA and cartoon characters, you'll miss a lot of what makes this part of the state so special. Add a few days to your vacation,Rent a car, and take a trip through Florida's Space Coast, where alligators, sea turtles, surf lessons, and fantastic food await you along A1A.
1. and: Orlando - Melbourne
Whether you're departing from the theme parks, downtown Orlando, or MCO Airport, your first stop when leaving the city should beHotel Wavein Lake Nona. The high-tech hotel is worth a look even for non-guests as it has one of the best collections of modern art of any hotel in the US. A couch placed to the side welcomes guests to the lobby, which is lit by oscillating chandeliers. The back patio doubles as a chrome sculpture garden that features, among other works, a bull stalking the one on Wall Street and a provocative depiction of "Leda and the Swan."
You can choose to visit the bustling suburb of Lake Nona or take US-192 to Melbourne. The drive isn't particularly scenic, but as you roll through the Central Florida swamp, you might wonder if there are any alligators lurking by the side of the road. And just as you approach Melbourne, you come across a place where your questions are answered:Airboat ride at Camp Hollyoffers a truly Florida experience, where cute pilots take you to wetlands and, yes, thick alligator country. It is one of the few airboat tours you will find north ofEverglades.
After diving into the swamps, you'll probably be hungry. Skip the snack stand at Holly and get ready forIntracoastal Brewing Companyin the heart of MelbourneWater Gallie Arts District. While the beers are fantastic, the food is even better. Enjoy the breezy, dog-friendly patio and enjoy chicken bacon tacos and teriyaki steak bites among the brewery's colorful murals.
After you eat, get some exercise by wandering the colorful streets and boutiques of the Eau Gallie Arts District. Melbourne offersthe official trail of the mural, but you'll have just as much fun wandering in and out of independent craft shops. Each offers clothing, crafts and other unique items that make great conversation pieces when you get home.
As the evening approaches, log on toHotel Melby, a chic, art-decorated boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Melbourne. It is the only hotel of its kind along the Space Coast, and the rooftop offers a spectacular place to watch the sunset. After the sun goes down, walk a block or so to dinner atCrush XI,where the menu features inventive items like sriracha-marinated flatiron steak and smoked duck fettuccine. Or opt for a sweet, smoky grill onCydermanova.
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2. and: Melbourne do Cocoa Beacha
Check in at the beach in the morningArchie Carr National Wildlife Refugeabout 25 minutes drive south. It is a completely undeveloped stretch of sand whose surroundingshammocks(coastal habitat) have been restored to the way they looked before rampant development. In addition to being a great place to enjoy the coast without the crowds, the sanctuary is the world's largest nesting beach for green turtles. After a day at the beach, you can stop by the welcome center and learn all about the shelter's conservation efforts.
From there, head north on A1A and watch the Atlantic peek out behind the beach houses and condos as you head toward Cocoa Beach. The hour-long drive takes you through Patrick Space Force Base and right into the heart of America's space country.
The main attraction here is obviously the Kennedy Space Center, the home base of the US space program. The tour offers education about the past, present and future of NASA and features artifacts from the Apollo missions as well as several others. The Kennedy Space Center also just made its debutAll systems go, a 20-minute music and light show that teaches visitors about the space program.
Cocoa Beach is more than just the space center though, so after the requisite NASA trip, take a stroll along the Cocoa Beach Pier. Walk to the end and enjoy a meal on the waterKonoba Rikki Tiki— Cocoa's most scenic lunch spot — with everything from Korean bibimbap bowls to gator sandwiches that melt with 360-degree ocean views.
Cocoa Beach is also Florida's surfing capital, and no trip here is complete without a visit to the originalRon Jon Surf Shop. If the boards and surf wax make you want to hang ten, walk a few blocks toSurfing school.Here, Cocoa Beach's family of lifelong surfers will take you into the water and show you that even in Florida's smaller waves, surfing can be a rush. After an active afternoon, check intoHotel and apartments by the beach, the only hotel in Cocoa with its own lazy river, where you can float and gaze at the sun and relive the second day of your trip.
After relaxing and showering, head into town for dinner. It is tucked away next to a jazz club in the center of townDelicious cuisine, arguably the best restaurant on the Space Coast, which could handle anything in a big city. The chef-driven spot offers unique dishes like smoked salmon nachos with black caviar, fig jam flatbread with black pepper ranch, and maple chili-glazed bacon, along with an impressive wine list.
If you want to relax a little more after dinner, grab an ice cream cone and play 18 holes onLighthouse Cove Adventure Golf. Or if it's still light, book a sunset sailPlovidba Cocoa Beach. You may find yourself sharing the Intracoastal Waterway with a pod of local dolphins.
Dan 3: Cocoa Beach do Titusvillea
If you time your travel well, you can also catch a rocket launch while on the Space Coast. You'll probably have to wake up early, but if you're up for it, drive about 25 minutes north toPark Kennedy Pointin Titusville. It offers an ideal vantage point for watching rockets take off across the water. If you can't focus without your morning coffee, stopSunrise Bread Co. a few blocks away and grab a freshly made bagel to munch on while you wait for the launch.
Now that you're in the space spirit, dive even deeper into America's space history atAmerican Space Museum. Although not affiliated with NASA, the smaller museum's exhibits detail specific missions throughout the U.S. space program and allow you to get closer to artifacts from the 1960s than you can at Kennedy.
A short walk through downtown Titusville brings you to the museum's Walk of Fame, located in Space View Park. You'll be able to see your hands match those immortalized in concrete by famous Apollo-era astronauts.
Post for lunch atPlayalinda Brewingin downtown Titusville. Located in a historic hardware store, eating here is a bit like walking into a 1930s street restaurant in small town America. If the weather is nice, sit at a table outside and people-watch while enjoying the murals along the city's main street. The red pepper hummus is cool and refreshing on such an afternoon, although the pork nachos are not to be missed.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploringValiant Air Command Warbird Museum. Visitors can explore a vast collection of military aircraft, including Blue Angels, Russian Migos, and even a B52 cockpit you can climb into. It's an Instagram dream for plane lovers and a fascinating look at America's air force history.
Cap in the eveningThird Cultural Kitchen, where cuisines from all over Latin America and Asia blend into a wonderfully diverse menu. And while the mojo pork bao bun, phaenang curry and brisket burritos are great, you can get a real taste of Florida with the Public sub (fried chicken, mayo, shredded lettuce, tomato).
As the sun sets, drive back to Cocoa Beach and enjoy your last night by the ocean. In the morning it's a short drive on the Beachline Highway through Central Florida to Orlando. From there you can continue exploring the city or head home. Either way, you'll pass the Space Coast like a true space enthusiast and hopefully learn something along the way about what makes Florida so special.