With a modern history going back deep into the 19th century, Cocoa is a lovely coastal city in Brevard County.
The downtown area, known as Historic Cocoa Village, is beautifully preserved, and fizzes with events all year.
I have to talk about the location, right on the Indian River Lagoon. This is North America’s most diverse estuary, with thousands of plant and animal species.
You can head out onto these waters by kayak or on a boat cruise, or visit one of the many parks on the shores. There’s much to see, from manatees to alligators, while the views at dawn and dusk may take your breath away.
On the Space Coast, Cocoa is in a fine location, with swamps and marshlands to be discovered inland and Atlantic beaches little more than ten minutes to the east.
1. Historic Cocoa Village
You can take a step back in time at the earliest settled part of Cocoa. Here, you’ll find a variety of shops and eateries to meet your every need, as you marvel at the history on these streets.
To give you an idea of how far back things go, Travis Hardware at 300 Delannoy Ave, has been in business since 1885.
Every type of dining experience is catered for. When I came here last there was everything from fine dining to cute little bakeries and milk tea shops.
But the village isn’t just for dining and shopping. There’s also a whole calendar of events, from fine arts to book festivals.
2. Cocoa Riverfront Park
For me, a big part of Historic Cocoa Village’s allure comes from its marvelous location on the Indian River. So it’s natural that any walking tour will lead you to this blissful park.
Cocoa Riverfront Park is one link in almost ten acres of accessible waterfront, at three different parks. This particular space has a boardwalk, a splash pad, an expansive green area, a playground, and covered pavilions for picnics.
The main facility here is a sizable amphitheater, hosting big concerts and serving as the anchor for outdoor events like the traditional Holiday Boat Parade and Holiday Bike Parade at Christmas.
3. Brevard Museum of History and Natural Sciences
This free museum is a perfect change-up, after a couple of days on the beach. I find the exhibits at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science to be endlessly fascinating.
You can check out prehistoric megafauna, dip into the county’s history of space exploration, and learn about the area’s citrus industry, railroads, education and prehistoric Native American archaeology.
One absorbing exhibit along those lines is the Windover Woman. Her remains are among 168 individuals discovered in a peat bog near Titusville, and thought to date back 8,000 years.
After perusing volumes of local history, you can stretch your legs at the adjoining 22-acre nature preserve. Out here there’s a mix of sand dunes and wetlands, and you may see a gopher tortoise or two.
4. Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse
Nicknamed ‘Broadway on Brevard’ this handsome old 1920s movie house has been a stage for community theater for close to 40 years.
As you’ll see from the marquee, this Italian Renaissance-style building was originally The Aladdin. Now, if you’re wondering what to do on an evening in Historic Cocoa Village, my tip is to see what’s happening here.
A few picks from the most recent season include The Sound of Music, Sister Act, Oklahoma!, and The Drowsy Chaperone. As far as I’m concerned, the performances, direction and production values make a mockery of the low admission price.
There are also lots of one-off things going on, from spooky Halloween shows to classic movie screenings.
5. Jetty Park, Port Canaveral
Get on SR A1A and keep going east, and you’ll be on the Atlantic Shore in just a few minutes. The first public beach you’ll come to is Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park.
First up, this is somewhere I think everyone should visit early in the day, to see the sun come up. Shooting out from the end of the jetty is a 1,200-foot pier, and this is an extraordinary place to start a new day.
Being next to Port Canaveral, there’s also a steady flow of enormous cruise ships arriving and departing. You may also see manatees, sea turtles, and SpaceX launches at the Kennedy Space Center in the north.
Of course, there’s a beautiful sweep of white sandy beach here, complemented by amenities like a campground, kayak rentals, a playground, and pavilions with picnic tables and grills.
6. Kayaking on the Indian River Lagoon
The way to experience the full splendor of the Indian River Lagoon is on a paddling trip. This can be done with ease via Cocoa Kayaking, a highly-rated rental and tour company based in Cocoa Beach.
Single and tandem kayaks are available for self-guided rentals, and there’s a launch point a few minutes from Cocoa on the ramp next to SR A1A.
From here, you’ll be free to navigate this amazing estuarine habitat. You can paddle to a sandbar to relax in the sun, or head up to the Manatee Cove Park, which I’ll talk about later.
If you need to refuel, Dolphins Waterfront Bar & Grill at Cape Crossing is a hopping tiki bar and restaurant, right on the Canaveral Barge Canal.
Mid-November through mid-March is manatee season, while playful bottlenose dolphins can be seen all year.
7. Manatee Cove Park
On the other side of the Indian River Lagoon from Cocoa Village there’s a beautiful waterfront park. Manatee Cove Park gets its name from a small man-made lagoon with lush seagrasses that attract manatees in winter.
There’s a trail encircling the lagoon, and this is also popular with fishing folk. Manatee Cove Park is another fine spot if you want to begin a kayak adventure on the Indian River.
There’s a rental service here and you can spend a few hours spotting dolphins and alligators. At night, there’s dazzling bioluminescence in the waters by the park.
A few local operators, including Calypso Kayaks and A Day Away Kayak Tours offer glass-bottom paddling trips after dark here.
8. Florida Surf Museum
At 52,000 square feet, the largest surf shop on the planet is a few minutes away in Cocoa Beach. This is the flagship for the Ron Jon Surf Shop brand, founded in 1959 at Ship Bottom, NJ.
Opened in 1999, the Florida Surf Museum can be found within the Ron Jon Watersports Building. The permanent exhibits deal with East Coast surfing pioneers, important women surfers, surf music, and Cocoa Beach native, Kelly Slater.
There’s also a rotating exhibit of noteworthy and rare surfboards, and regularly updated temporary shows. When I came by, The Right Stuff recounted the history of surfing on the Space Coast, starting as early as 1909.
9. Sams House at Pine Island Conservation Area
A short drive across the Indian River will get you to the oldest standing residence in Brevard County. This cabin was originally built in Eau Gallie in 1875. Then in 1878 the owner dismantled it, floated it up the Indian River, and rebuilt it and its current spot on Merritt Island.
The accompanying house came a bit later in 1888, and is in the Florida vernacular style. An interesting titbit I picked up here is that there was no indoor plumbing until as late as the 1930s.
Sams House is part of the Part of the Pine Island Conservation Area, covering some 900 acres next to the Indian River. There are more than six miles of trails on land, through a mix of habitats.
By the water, look out for wading birds, manatees (in season), alligators, river otters, and turtles.
10. Brevard Discovery Garden (BDG)
If you’re in the area on the first or third Wednesday of the month, you can visit a unique horticultural facility. Open to the public October through May, the Brevard Discovery Garden is being developed by volunteers, planting Native, Keystone, and Florida-friendly species.
The Demonstration Garden showcases the many ways native Florida plants can be incorporated into local gardens. There are nine different garden areas to check out, from a Pollinator Garden to a Coastal Garden, Raised Vegetable Garden and Orchard.
Also on the site is the BDG Nursery, which hosts plant sales several times a year. When I was in town this part was under renovation.
11. Indian River Queen
An altogether more refined way to tour the Indian River Lagoon is on this old-timey paddlewheeler, docked in Historic Cocoa Village.
The Indian River Queen departs on a wide choice of public cruises throughout the week. I was here for the daily ‘It Takes a Village’ cruise.
Setting off at 10:00 am, this trip takes you out onto the Indian River Lagoon for an hour. There’s audio narration, telling you about the Cocoa’s mid-19th century origins, as you view elegant waterfront estates.
You should see a lot of wildlife, including manatees, and will hear how Merritt Island became NASA’s main launchpad for human spaceflight. Check the calendar for lunch and dinner cruises, as well as special seasonal events.
12. Twister Airboat Rides
Another unforgettable natural experience available near Cocoa is an airboat ride on the St. Johns River and Lake Poinsett.
Out in the city’s remote hinterland, these grassy marshlands and cypress swamps are inhabited by gators, black bears, white-trail deer, and a sensational array of birdlife.
The airboats are capable of 45mph, which means you’ll be out in the wilderness in a matter of seconds.
A typical tour lasts for 30 minutes, and no reservations are needed for these short trips. Still, I’d recommend an extended trip for 60 or 90 minutes, and these need to be booked in advance.
13. Porcher House
The grandest house in Historic Cocoa Village is this Neoclassical residence on the southwest corner of Riverfront Park.
The Porcher House was built for inventor and citrus grower Edward Postell Porcher. Constructed from local coquina rock, this house has a magnificent circular porch, and interiors finished with cedar, teak and oak.
Porcher’s wife, Byrnina Peck Porcher, had a love for card games, and this is recorded in the very stonework.
If you’re just passing by I’d urge you to walk up the path to check out the facade and its stones shaped as a heart, club, diamond and spade. You may need a moment to locate them, but I promise you will eventually.
The Porcher House is now owned by the city, and rented out for weddings and luncheons.
14. Fall Art & Craft Fair
It feels like there’s something big happening in Cocoa Village every weekend. I could pick any number of annual events for this list.
But the one that was happening when I was around was the Fall Art & Craft Fair, on the third weekend of October.
This fair brings more than 200 highly skilled artists and crafters to the village. Taking place rain or shine, the event is above all a chance to get hold of a truly unique work of art.
Beyond that there’s street food, live entertainment, and activities to keep kids engaged.
15. Lee Wenner Park
From Cocoa Riverfront Park you can wander over to another waterside park next to the Hubert Humphrey Bridge.
Lee Wenner Park shines most of all as a place to launch a boat on the Indian River. As well as a row of boat ramps, this park has day slips, and fishing areas if you want to drop a line.
For me, it’s another great place to pause and contemplate the Indian River. There are a lot of wading birds by the water, and you may get lucky and see a dolphin or two.
A paved walkway leads to a playground, restrooms, picnic tables, and a pavilion.