We are so lucky to have access to a free amenity that makes many Americans jealous: the beach.
The beach is our getaway, our escape from the pressures of work and home, our respite from the unforgiving sun with its (usually) gentle winds and bobbing waves.
The problem is keeping it low-cost. Almost every city charges for parking now, and even those spots can be hard to come by. You can bring your own food, but if you want to walk over to a restaurant, prices are often excessive. And if you want to rent a bike or a pair of skates, the costs of our free beach excursion start adding up.
Here’s a handy guide to budget-conscious places where you can park and eat, as well as concessions that won’t break the bank. We couldn’t include every beach in South Florida, of course, but here’s a sampling to help you plan a relaxing, reasonably priced jaunt east to the ocean (don’t forget your sunscreen).
This is not your beach if you want to get away from it all. Fort Lauderdale’s beach remains a beloved national destination, crowded most of the time and excellent for people-watching. The beach has a wide promenade on the eastern side of State Road A1A, and hotels, shops, outdoor bars, restaurants and thumping music on the west side; choose the vibe you’re in the mood for and stroll away.
Parking: Metered parking near the beach costs $2 to $4 an hour, depending on your chosen spot. There’s also Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, on State Road A1A just north of Sunrise Boulevard, which charges $6 for the whole day. It offers several parking alternatives, including a free shuttle, the Sun Trolley, that allows you to park inland and takes you to the sand. In Lauderdale-by-the-Sea to the north, fees range from 75 cents to $3 an hour.
Food: For a classic Fort Lauderdale beach dining experience, head over to Coconuts on the Intracoastal Waterway, where you can get peel-and-eat shrimp for $17 and a $14 burger. If you’re in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, a terrific choice is Park & Ocean, a casual bar and cafe inside the park. Their burger is $11.50 and fish tacos go for $12.50.
For a kitschy treat, check out the mermaid show at The Wreck Bar at the B Ocean Resort (free if you spend $30 on food and drinks).
Sun Sentinel entertainment writer Ben Crandell is a big fan of the North Beach Village neighborhood, near the Intracoastal south of Sunrise Boulevard, where he says “a distinctively laidback, Old Florida beach vibe has managed, quietly, to hold on.” His favorite spot: the Wine Garden, “one of South Florida’s great hidden wine bars.”
Rentals: You can rent almost any beach amenity imaginable, including parasails, boats, bikes and paddleboards. At American Watersports, cost is $30 for an umbrella and two chairs and $35 for a cabana.
Hollywood’s beach is known for its Broadwalk, 2.5 miles of wide sidewalk promenade and bike path with an assortment of characters in colorful dress or wearing very little. It’s fun to see the old Art Deco-style cottages right on the sidewalk with sunbathers out front, the way it used to be before condo towers took up priceless people-watching space. There are lots of benches for resting and cafes for feeling the breeze, or set up right on the sand with your chairs and umbrella in tow.
Parking: The least expensive city parking is at the North Beach lots, beginning around 3600 N. Ocean Drive: $2 an hour Monday to Thursday and $3 an hour Friday to Sunday. Otherwise, the city’s beach garages (300 Connecticut St. and 327 Nebraska St.), Beach Community Center lots (1300 block of South Surf Road and 1200 block of South Ocean Drive) and other lots are $3 an hour Monday to Thursday and $4 an hour Friday to Sunday.
hollywoodfl.org (and search for “beach parking”)
Food: On Let’s Eat, South Florida, the Sun Sentinel’s foodie Facebook group, members have a lot to say in terms of recommendations. Among their suggestions: Rocco’s for pizza ($3 a slice), 205 Johnson St.; Istanbul ($12.95 for a chicken kebab sandwich), 707 N. Broadwalk; and Pachamanka (an assortment of ceviches starting at $12), 321 Johnson St.
There’s also Le Tub, a famous dive bar a few minutes away on the Intracoastal Waterway, which the Sun Sentinel’s former food critic Mike Mayo said often achieves “simple burger perfection.”
Rentals: Your least expensive option if you want to cruise the Broadwalk on a bicycle is Hollywood Beach Trikke, 327 Johnson St.; $20 for three hours for bicycles or skates. There’s also Sun & Fun Cycles, 1404 N. Broadwalk, which offers a basic cruiser or skates for $10 an hour. Hollywood Beach Bike Shack, 101 N. Ocean Dr., is a little more expensive at $15 an hour for a basic bike.
In Deerfield Beach, you can find a spot in the sand, fish from the pier, stroll along a widened sidewalk and grab some lunch, all within a compact area. There are also volleyball courts, tiki huts for shade, coral reefs for snorkeling, and grassy areas with benches that face the ocean.
Parking: At meters and city-owned lots near the beach, you’ll pay $2 to $4 an hour, depending on time of day and location.
Food: Take a walk through the densely packed strip of restaurants along Northeast Second Street; options include pizza, burgers, burritos and lots of seafood. The Whale’s Rib has been around for almost 40 years and was featured on the Food Network in 2009. It’s famous for the raw bar and Whale Fries ($7.99), which are served with a honey-mustard dipping sauce patrons call “liquid crack.”
Rentals: Oceanside Beach Service charges daily rates of $20 for a lounge chair and $30 for an umbrella. You can also fish on the 976-foot-long International Fishing Pier; it’s $2 for entry for non-residents and $4 to fish. Rod rentals are $18 plus a $25 refundable cash deposit. There are several shops where you can rent a bike. Try Fun Rentals, right in the beach downtown, which offers Scootcoupes, or super go-carts, for $89 for four hours, as well as bikes and scooters.
Drive east to the end of trendy Atlantic Avenue and you hit the water. The city widened the 1.3-mile beach promenade in 2019, and it’s roomy and clean. There’s a large covered gazebo for feeling the breeze in the shade. For a uniquely South Florida experience, walk over to Sandoway Discovery Center, 142 S. Ocean Blvd., an authentically renovated 1930s house that now serves as a nature hub, with live shark feedings, a living coral reef, a pristine seashell collection, and an assortment of invertebrates that visitors are allowed to touch.
Parking: If you go early enough, you may be able to snag a space right on Ocean Boulevard. Cost is $1.50 an hour for up to 3 hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Beachside public lots are also $1.50 per hour, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The city’s public parking garages are free before 4 p.m., but they’re too far from the beach to walk with all of your beach gear. However, you could take a free, on-demand, electric-powered shuttle called the FreeBee from one of the city’s three downtown garages to the beach.
Food: Cross Ocean Boulevard from the beach and there’s an assortment of restaurants, bars, ice cream shops and T-shirt stores. A perennial favorite is Boston’s on the Beach, 40 S. Ocean Blvd. A little farther west on Atlantic Avenue, Pizza Rustica has loads of pizza options, including “The 4 Pigs” (ham, pepperoni, sausage and bacon; $6.95 for a personal size), and there’s also Sandwiches by the Sea, a lovely little cafe with lighter options (turkey sub, $7.75). For ice cream, indulge in a creamy cone from Ben & Jerry’s; they have sorbets and vegan ice creams now, although my favorite flavor remains Coffee Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz! ($5 for a single scoop).
Rentals: Chair rentals from Oceanside Beach Service, which include two cushioned loungers and an umbrella, are $50 for the day (”Simply sit down and the attendant will approach you,” according to the website.) Delray Beach Watersports, in a beach trailer at the Casuarina Road intersection, rents surfboards for $15 an hour, bike cruisers for $20, kayaks for $30 and sailboats for $90 to $140, depending on size.