Cape Canaveral is known the world over for its decades-long ties to space exploration and the space industry. The city itself is a short way south of the namesake space force station, and the Kennedy Space Center.
You can reach both with ease, although I should point out that there are restrictions on who can visit Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Both installations are still active, and during your time here you may witness NASA or SpaceX launches. These are jaw-dropping sights, with plumes climbing up to the heavens.
Cape Canaveral has family visitor attractions, a selection of beach parks, and, on the west side, the dumbfounding natural wealth of the Banana River lagoon. At waterfront parks here you may see dolphins playing, or herds of manatees grazing on the seagrass.
1. Kennedy Space Center
The awe-inspiring visitor complex for the Kennedy Space Center is the Space Coast’s most visited attraction. No question, this is a must-see for those interested in science, technology, and space exploration.
Most Kennedy Space Center tours include transportation and a knowledgeable guide. Depending on the package, you can access many behind-the-scenes areas and plenty of amazing interactive exhibits as well.
Items on display include moon rocks, space suits, equipment, photographs, and first-hand accounts of those who’ve worked in the program over the years.
If there’s one thing I think everyone should prioritize, it’s the mind-boggling Space Shuttle Atlantis. This veteran orbiter made the last of its 33 flights in 2011, and is mounted at an angle like it’s floating in space.
2. Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum
Space exploration history has been made many times at the world-famous Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS), just north of the city proper and founded in 1949.
The first US astronaut, the first US astronaut in orbit and the first US satellite in orbit were launched from this installation.
Now, as an active launch site, creating a wonderful spectacle periodically, access isn’t easy. This can be done on the Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour via the Kennedy Space Center, or via the Canaveral Tours company. These were the only way for the public to visit the installation’s museum when I compiled this list.
But you do not need special arrangements to visit the museum’s Sands Space History Center. This attraction is located just outside the base, and is a must for anyone interested in the early history of space exploration.
There are artifacts going back to the 1950s, along with complete histories of each of the base’s launchpads.
3. Cape Canaveral Rocket Launches
Space exploration and the space industry are part of the history but also the present of Cape Canaveral. This is never more apparent than when there’s a rocket launch.
And in Cape Canaveral you’re in the perfect location to watch these events. Taking off from various sites around the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center, these are generally SpaceX launches, but there are some NASA launches too.
I found the experience of watching a launch from the beach in Cape Canaveral to be almost surreal. For the clearest view there’s a designation viewpoint on the Banana River outside the space force station.
4. Banana River Aquatic Preserve
Between the cape and Merritt Island, the Banana River is an ecologically vibrant portion of the Indian River Lagoon.
Cape Canaveral is one of a number of cities bordering an Aquatic Preserve comprising nearly 30,000 acres. Almost all of this area is water, along with man-made spoil islands created by dredging, and now taken over by nature.
The preserve is home to a variety of wildlife, like manatees, gators, and sea turtles. It’s also one of the largest pelican rookeries on the state’s Atlantic coast.
To fully immerse yourself in this natural haven I reckon you need to hit the water in a kayak. There’s a catalog of outfitters and tour companies to help you do this.
A few in and near Cape Canaveral are A1A Beach Rentals, BradyYaks Kayak Tours and Rentals, Cocoa Kayaking and Fin Expeditions.
5. Jetty Park Beach & Pier
As well as being an awesome vantage point for rocket launches at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, this shorefront park is also right by Port Canaveral.
At the long pier at Jetty Park I saw some cruise ships of truly epic proportions passing close by. There’s also amazing wildlife to check out, and you may well spot dolphins and sea turtles from the pier.
Jetty Park also has a campground, with scores of RV sites, cabins and tent sites, as well as amenities like a superb play area, boat ramps, and pavilions. A word on the beach too, which is several acres of soft sand, with umbrellas and chairs available for rental.
6. Wizard of Oz Museum
Opened during the pandemic, this museum is an enchanting ode to the Wizard of Oz. That goes for L. Frank Baum’s books, as much as the 1939 Hollywood movie.
Considering this is a private museum, realized by just one person, I was amazed by the Wizard of Oz Museum. There’s a whole trove of memorabilia, with some 2,000 items relating to the stories and the culture surrounding them.
Most enthralling of all is the Immersive Experience, using projectors to recreate scenes from the Oz books. These include the Party in Emerald City, the Tornado, and the Witch’s Castle.
7. Cherie Down Park
This gorgeous public beach access is in a quiet, mostly residential area. With a lot of parking and a range of amenities like showers and picnic shelters, Cherie Down Park is a wonderful place to spend the day on the Atlantic shore.
I counted three entry points through the dunes, and when you get onto the beach you’ll be wowed by an epic swath of pale sand, stretching out at least a couple hundred feet at low tide.
Conditions permitting, the waves are consistent enough for surfing, and this is one of many places to watch the launches to the north.
8. Manatee Sanctuary Park
Facing west on the Banana River, this picture-perfect park is my favorite place to be at sunset. Despite the name, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll see manatees here.
They are occasionally seen munching on the seagrass, but tend to show up infrequently. Either way, you can study the lagoon from a covered boardwalk, and there are a variety of observation points along the way.
While manatees pass by occasionally, you stand a much better chance of seeing dolphins and turtles.
Among the park’s many amenities there’s a ½-mile fitness trail, exercise stations, a covered pavilion, and a playground with sun sails.
9. Brevard Zoo
What I adore about this zoo on the mainland is the naturalistic setting for its animal residents. Instead of fences, Brevard Zoo’s 900+ animals are contained by natural-looking barriers and water.
This makes it possible to view exotic species in surprising ways. So, in addition to typical zoo activities, you can go kayaking past African wildlife.
Or you can make your way across a high ropes course in the rainforest with a bird’s eye view of jaguars and monkeys.
Feeding experiences bring you even closer to the Brevard Zoo’s animals. For instance, you can hand-feed the giraffes, or enter a free-flight aviary, where lorikeets and cockatiels will come and perch on your finger.
10. Exploration Tower
An architectural icon for Port Canaveral, Exploration Tower opened in 2013 on the port’s 60th anniversary.
With inspiring views in all directions, the tower has seven floors of exhibits and interactive stations. These explore the cape’s culture, animals, ecology, not to mention its fascinating space exploration history.
There’s an on-site café and gift shops as well. Meanwhile on clear days, there’s no better place to watch a rocket launch than the 7th-floor observation deck.
The last time I visited, the Exploration Tower was temporarily closed to the public due to a maintenance project.
11. Cape Canaveral Lighthouse
Standing 151 feet tall and dating back to the mid-19th century, the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is set within the Space Force Station.
The current tower was lit in 1868, and then the whole structure was moved inland to its current spot in the 1890s.
Now, being on the space force station poses some difficulties when it comes to access. Visits are only available via Canaveral Tours, based in Port Canaveral. Meanwhile non-US visitors were unable to access the station at the time I wrote this article.
If you’re fortunate enough to gain access, you’ll be in the company of an enlightening docent. They’ll share all kinds of interesting facts and anecdotes about the cape, the lighthouse, and its keepers.
12. Golf N Gator
More than a simple miniature golf course this attraction along A1A is a complete outdoor fun center. Set among water features and tropical plants, there are two 18-hole courses at Gator Mountain and Swamp Cave.
These are made all the more fun by challenge wheels, posing special tests for players. As you may tell from the name, Golf N Gator keeps live alligators, of all ages and sizes.
Kids will get to hold a baby gator and feed the monsters in the swamp. On top of all that, there’s a mining area, where little ones can pan for gemstones.
On the same property, Beachside Grand Prix is a separate attraction. What you get here is wacky Mario Kart-style track, with multiple levels and electric karts.
13. Center Street Park
Follow Center Street until it touches the Banana River and you’ll come to this small but wonderfully located park. Center Street Park is tiny, but its appeal comes from its western orientation.
Under grand palm trees or the shelter of a gazebo you can set your gaze on the lagoon in all its glory. This is another spot in Cape Canaveral where the sunsets are out of this world.
Linger long enough and you may get to see some of the Banana River’s wildlife. I was fortunate to see dolphins breaching, while manatees are known to appear in any season.
14. Tropic Ice Cream
A necessary stop on A1A, there’s a traditional ice cream stand with a big selection of flavors. I was pleased with the ample serving sizes at Tropic Ice Cream, not to mention the surprisingly affordable prices.
I counted 35 hand dip Hershey’s ice cream flavors, and another 25 that are gluten free. If I had to recommend just one, it would probably be the brown butter bourbon truffle.
Of course, Tropic Ice Cream makes shakes, and with all these flavors there’s an almost endless list of combinations. There’s also soft serve here, as well as sundaes, and shaved ice, if you want something refreshing on a hot day.
15. Victory Casino Cruises
Setting sail from Port Canaveral is a casino ship offering a Vegas-style gaming experience on board. On board Victory Casino Cruises there are 600+ slot machines, along with a lot of card/table games from baccarat to roulette, blackjack, Mississippi stud and Texas hold’em.
Add to the mix bingo and sportsbook, and you’ve got a gaming paradise. As well as the joys of the open ocean, Victory Casino Cruises pack high-quality live entertainment.
This all ramps up on the weekends when there’s a party vibe, boosted by DJs and nationally-renowned performers. There’s à la carte dining at the Atlantic Café, and alcoholic beverages are complimentary while gambling.