The idea of going to an art gallery used to absolutely terrify me. Nothing makes you feel like more of a fraud than entering a room full of artists and aficionados, and pretending to be moved by a piece of abstract expressionism that, for all you know, is a picture of an exploded rubber band ball. Enjoying art at the amateur level can be tricky, because many galleries, museums, and art districts feel intimidating to those outside the art community. I had come to terms with the fact that I’d never be the artsy kind until I went to Fort Lauderdale.

Miami, particularly the street art hub of Wynwood District, might dominate South Florida’s art scene, but Fort Lauderdale offers a more relaxed, inclusive environment to enjoy local art. Whether you’re a total beginner who doesn’t know the difference between oil and acrylic, or an art history major, Fort Lauderdale is the perfect weekend getaway for art admirers. From galleries and exhibitions to monthly art walks and annual festivals, the city is increasingly becoming a center not only for local artists, but creatives around the world.

FATVillage

FATVillage is the Wynwood of Fort Lauderdale, but without the crowds. According to Andrew Martineau, chief creative altruist at UniteUs Group, an organization that spearheads creative initiatives in the area, the growth of Fort Lauderdale’s art scene has “strong roots in the FAT Village/Flagler District, which is host to the county’s largest and longest running art walk.”

FATVillage Arts District

Photo: FATVillage Arts District/Facebook

Strolling down NW First Avenue and through the rest of the Flagler Village neighborhood, these roots are obvious. You’ll stop at every block to admire the colorful murals, and you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate their eccentric brilliance. For a more organized art experience, FATVillage has three warehouses dedicated to showcasing contemporary art. The Projects Space, ArtsUP! Concepts building, and FAR Contemporary Gallery all regularly host contemporary art exhibitions of local, national, and international artists. Their websites are regularly updated with new resident artists, current projects, and exhibition dates.

“In recent years,” said Tayina Deravile, arts administrator for FATVillage, “the city has seen an increase in commissioned murals from internationally renowned mural artists like Ruben Ubiera, Marcus Borges, and Graffiti Kings […] The popularity has seen a rise in arts districts popping up in many Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods.”

Artwalk FATvillage

Photo: FATVillage

The monthly art walk, however, is what really distinguishes FATVillage from the rest of South Florida’s art scene. Held on the last Saturday of the month from 6:00 to 11:00 PM, the art walk is a chance to experience the area’s local art, music, crafts, and food, at your own leisurely pace. Exhibitions take place at all three warehouses in the district, as well as the Courtyard on NW First Ave, where you can also marvel at the open-air murals. And if you still can’t make heads or tails of cubism after 30 minutes in the galleries, you can shop the wares of local artisans selling their craft goods on the street, and enjoy live musical acts playing well after the galleries close.

The MASS District

Less than a 15-minute walk from FATVillage, the MASS District (Music & Arts South of Sunrise) is a gathering spot for artists and creatives of all types. The neighborhood is home to live music venues like 27 Bar & Lounge, local breweries like Orchestrated Minds Brewing (try the Cold Summer IPA), and art galleries such as the Arts & Crafts Social Club that host regular events and exhibitions. The district has also become a bastion of fine artists, photographers, digital artists, and musicians, many of whom have studios in the area.

MASS District

Photo: MASS District/Facebook

Like FATVillage, MASS District has an art walk the last Saturday of every month, from 6:00 to 10:00 PM. The walk spotlights the unique art community of downtown Fort Lauderdale, with galleries marked for visitors and local venues transforming into exhibit spaces. If you’ve been to FATVillage already, you know the drill. Local restaurants set up food stands along the street, live music flows through the neighborhood, and the Village Shops carry handmade crafts by local artisans. If you don’t feel like walking, you can take the hop-on, hop-off trolleys stationed at the corner of NE Ninth Street and NE Fifth Avenue, which run regularly between venues.

MASS District art

Photo: MASS District/Facebook

Whether you’re strolling through FATVillage or MASS District, Deravile firmly believes visitors will feel right at home among the art scene, even if you’re new to it. “No matter where you are in the greater Fort Lauderdale area,” she said, “whether tourist or local, seasoned or novice, there will be something for somebody.”

Art Fort Lauderdale

If you happen to be in Fort Lauderdale in January, chances are you’ll catch some of the city’s Art & Design Week, which runs for nine days every January. The centerpiece of the week is Art Fort Lauderdale — a truly unique experience that draws artists from all over the world, and takes full advantage of the city’s status as the “Venice of America.”

Every year, three impressive homes along Fort Lauderdale’s intercoastal canals transform into art galleries that host open exhibitions for visitors. Visitors are conveyed to each home by water taxi, and have the option of purchasing art pieces — or even the mansions themselves, if you happen to have $6 million in spare change. If nothing else, strolling the grounds of these immense mansions is sure to keep you entertained for the afternoon.

During the exhibitions, over 150 artists are present to explain their works, so you won’t even have to try hard to understand the shapes on the canvas.

Marcella Novotny, an Italian artist who has exhibited at Art Fort Lauderdale three times, calls Fort Lauderdale her second home thanks to its burgeoning art community. “It’s new and vibrant,” she said, “there are many projects supported by the city and good people with smart ideas that are able to build events and connect [the artists].”

From her perspective, Fort Lauderdale is even poised to become South Florida’s premier art destination. “I am sure that it will be a new destination comparable to Miami,” she believes. “As an artist I love to have a different experience when I am showing my art, and this is something different.”

But don’t make your visit all art and no play

No matter how alluring the art attractions in Fort Lauderdale are, you owe it to yourself to take advantage of the area’s natural beauty. Culture is important, but it’s so much easier to appreciate it when you have a tan. Fort Lauderdale is just a half hour away from Everglades Holiday Park, which offers airboat tours through the iconic wetlands. Of course, alligators are the main draw here, and though they’re somewhat timid of the airboats, you’ll still see several slithering through their natural habitat. Bird enthusiasts will also be pleased, as the Everglades is home to egrets, herons, storks, and ibises. You can even sign up for Animal Encounters after the ride, which allow you to hold baby alligators, pigs, turtles, and snakes.

Everglades Holiday Park

Photo: Everglades Holiday Park/Facebook

After a nautical experience with creatures you can touch, head to the Wreck Bar for a nautical experience with creatures you most definitely cannot touch. Located in the B Ocean Resort, the Wreck Bar is locally famous for its adult-only mermaid burlesque shows. This place gives a whole new meaning to the term “dive bar.” Four massive windows behind the bar provide a window into the depths of a pool, where women dressed in mermaid outfits swim down and undress in acrobatic, sultry fashion. You wouldn’t think that women kicking around in a pool, holding their breath, and attempting sensuality could rival a traditional burlesque show, but it does. It feels like an aquarium mixed with a strip club — only the performers are much better-looking than porpoises, and you’ll leave with all your dollar bills in tact.

The Mermaid Aqua Burlesque show takes place every Friday and Saturday at 10:00 PM, but you can catch a more family-friendly version at 7:00 PM on the same days. There’s also a mermaid brunch every Sunday from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. And for those who prefer to see men undress, there’s the Aquamen Underwater Burlesque, the only underwater male burlesque show in the United States, every Thursday at 9:00 PM.

Top it all up with a glamorous hotel and delicious food and dinks

If you’re the kind of person who needs to be in the heart of the action, there are plenty of great places to stay on Las Olas Blvd and throughout downtown Fort Lauderdale. To really take advantage of the beach scene, however, and get a taste of the area’s unique history, The Diplomat Beach Resort is the perfect home base. Located just a short drive away in Hollywood, the Diplomat is a staple of South Florida’s history, and a great complement to the cultural underpinnings of neighboring Fort Lauderdale. Since 1958 the beachfront hotel has been a stomping ground for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and still regularly hosts professional athletes and dignitaries.

The Diplomat Beach Resort

Photo: Greater Fort Lauderdale

You shouldn’t leave the Fort Lauderdale area without making a few stops on its lauded Ale Trail — a string of local breweries serving up a variety of craft beers — but you might be surprised to learn that one of the area’s best bars is actually a steakhouse right inside the Diplomat. Rather than being inundated with stuffy business travelers flitting in and out faster than you can say “expense report,” Diplomat Prime feels more like a neighborhood pub, with more locals than hotel guests. One man, who frequents the Prime bar several times a week, said he “just feels at home here,” and it wasn’t just the wine talking.

Diplomat Prime Bar

Photo: Greater Fort Lauderdale

Much of that sentiment is thanks to Daisy, the bartender. If the hotel itself is a fixture of South Florida, Daisy is a fixture of Diplomat Prime. She wields an impressive, intimate knowledge of the menu to ensure you have the best possible experience — so when she peer pressures you into getting the New York cheesecake (and she will), just go with it. The food isn’t cheap, but the drinks are pretty reasonable and Daisy never fails to deliver a strong pour.

Diplomat Prime Bar cocktail

Photo: Greater Fort Lauderdale

“One of my paintings is being shown at FATVillage tomorrow, wherever that is,” said a woman next to me at the bar, proudly. She was from Savannah, and had never been to Fort Lauderdale before. “Do you know it?”

For the first time in my life, I felt like an art guy.