A port city on Florida’s Treasure Coast, Fort Pierce has the nickname, Sunrise City. This comes from the sublime sunrises that light up the broad expanse of the Indian River Lagoon.
Fort Pierce is my idea of the perfect coastal town. You’ve got picture-perfect beaches on the ocean and lagoon, a percolating downtown, live entertainment, and a buzzing social calendar.
The city has museums for everything from landscape painting to the Navy SEALs, which originated in this very place. Then on Saturday mornings you’ll kick off the weekend at a bustling farmers’ market on the waterfront.
You can also set your sights on the Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, where coastal hammock, dunes and mangroves border a wild Atlantic beach.
1. Fort Pierce Inlet State Park
On nearly 350 acres of scenic coastline, Fort Pierce Inlet State Park is a beautiful haven for outdoor recreation.
There’s a half-mile of Atlantic beach, but you’ve also got the calm waters of Tucker Cove on the Indian River Lagoon. In between are dunes and a coastal hammock, with trails tracing the cove.
Canoeing, kayaking, and birding are popular activities as well. To experience the area’s full beauty, I’d join a guided kayaking tour, leading through the mangroves and out to a sandbar.
From September until February, the park is one of the state’s hottest surfing spots. There are even tournaments here, which are a blast to watch from the shore.
2. Downtown Fort Pierce
Bursting with life and easy to get around on foot, Fort Pierce’s charming waterfront downtown area has earned a lot of recognition in recent times.
For instance, in 2015 it was voted among USA Today’s Most Idyllic and Historic Main Streets in America.
There are seven buildings on the National Register of Historic Places here. A big one is the Old City Hall (1925), while the late 19th-century P.P. Cobb building is the old general store, now a stylish coffee shop.
Downtown Fort Pierce has all the signatures of a flourishing town center, with ample art, culture, public events, live entertainment, and a dizzying concentration of restaurants.
By my last count, you could get steaks, sushi, seafood, smoothie bowls, tacos, pizza, subs, Cuban specialties, and American casual fare, all in the space of a single block.
3. The Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market
Farmers markets are perfect if you want a snapshot of daily life in an unfamiliar place, and Fort Pierce’s has been around since 1997.
Soundtracked by live music on Saturday mornings, the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market is right by the City Marina.
There are more than 70 vendors, selling local citrus fruits, artisanal cheeses, pasture-raised meats, guacamole, orchids, loose-leaf, teas, croissants, essential oils, all-natural soap, and much more.
Best of all for me are the food trucks. We’re talking, anything from gyros to pizza, BBQ, tacos, acai bowls, and Maryland-style crab cakes.
4. A. E. Backus Museum & Gallery
Founded in 1960, the A. E. Backus Museum and Gallery houses the world’s premier collection of the works by Fort Pierce’s most lauded artist.
He was Albert Ernest Backus (1906-1990), a self-taught painter known for his vivid Florida landscapes. The collection is a complete survey of Backus’s career, from the age of 16 to his final years.
When I came, I was also wowed by the exhibition for The Highwaymen, a group of around two dozen African American landscape artists active in the Fort Pierce Area in the Jim Crow era.
As with the Backus exhibition this display is updated regularly from large holdings, so there will always be something fresh to see.
5. St. Lucie County Aquarium
With 3,000 recorded species, the Indian River Lagoon is the most ecologically diverse estuary in the United States. You can glimpse this extraordinary biodiversity at the small but engaging St. Lucie County Aquarium.
What really caught my eye was the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit. Here you can study a detailed living model of a coral reef ecosystem that was originally made for the National Museum of Natural History.
Elsewhere the aquarium’s tanks contain a diversity of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks and more the waters of the Indian River.
Kids love the fun but educational Feeding Frenzy tours at 10:30 am and 2:30 pm, while there’s a behind-the-scenes tour by the lab staff on Saturdays.
6. Sunrise Theatre for the Performing Arts
One of the prettiest buildings downtown is the Sunrise Theatre, built in the Mediterranean Revival style in 1923. Today this is a city-owned performing venue, seating 1,200.
An entertainment linchpin for the Treasure Coast, the Sunrise Theatre has a packed calendar of events in a refined setting.
You’ve got opera, touring Broadway shows, ballet, live comedy, and concerts by famous recording artists from the rock and country world.
For something more intimate, my pro tip is to keep an eye on the schedule at the 220-seat Black Box Theatre here. This venue hosts live jazz every Tuesday and a recurring comedy night on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month.
7. UDT – SEAL Museum
Did you know that Fort Pierce is the original home of the United States Navy SEALs? It caught me by surprise.
In the 1940s, Naval Amphibious Training Base Fort Pierce was the training facility for the amphibious troops landing in Normandy. This was also where the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), a predecessor to the SEALs, were readied for combat.
You can find about these origins of the Sea, Air and Land teams at a preserved building at the site of the fort, which was decommissioned in 1946.
A nonprofit, the UDT – SEAL Museum is the only attraction dedicated to the Navy SEALs. The display is enthralling, with submersible vehicles, a 3D map of the Bin Laden compound, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a Humvee from Desert Storm, and a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.
I signed the waiver and tested myself on the outdoor obstacle course. This is a like-for-like recreation of the O-Course in Coronado. It didn’t go well for me.
8. South Causeway Beach
There’s a different public beach for every day of the week in Fort Pierce. All the same, if you’re visiting with smaller children or less accomplished swimmers, it’s best to look for somewhere on the sheltered lagoon.
One spot that is always in my plans is South Causeway Beach, just west of the inlet. For several hundred feet there’s a stretch of white sandy shore with clear waters.
Shaded by palms, the beach pitches gently into the lagoon. The parking area is a stone’s throw from the shore, and there are picnic shelters at intervals along the way.
At the west end are a couple of attractions on my list, at the St. Lucie County Regional History Center and St. Lucie County Aquarium.
9. St. Lucie County Regional History Center
Open since 1968, this museum recalls the history of St. Lucie County. The campus, a few steps from South Causeway Beach, is home to the charming Gardner House (1907).
With period decoration, this building paints a picture of domestic life for a lower-middle class South Florida family at the turn of the 20th century.
Elsewhere, exhibits touch on the Native American cultures that lived in the area for thousands of years, from the Ais people to the Seminoles.
You can see the interior of a doctor’s office and general store from the 1900s, and there’s a timeline of Fort Pierce’s commercial fishing industry.
Something that was completely new to me was the county’s doomed campaign to become the “Pineapple Capital of the World”. The plan was scuppered by pests and cold spells.
10. Heathcote Botanical Gardens
You’re never far from a botanical garden in Florida, and this one in Fort Pierce is not to be missed. The gardens go back to 1960, as the luxuriant commercial nursery for the landscape architect Molly Crimmons.
She and her husband Jim also moved their family home across town from Delaware Avenue to this property. Since the mid-1980s, Heathcote Gardens has been managed by a nonprofit organization.
Resting among stately live oaks, the Crimmons’ 1920s house contains the administrative offices.
On five acres, the surrounding gardens include a rainforest display, a herb garden, a cycad walk, a native plants garden, and a Japanese garden with a teahouse.
If you only have time for one thing, my suggestion is the James J. Smith Bonsai Collection. This is the largest display of tropical bonsai in the United States, with more than 100 specimens.
11. Manatee Observation & Education Center
Although the American alligator is probably more recognizable, the gentle Florida manatee is also a natural icon for the state.
Fort Pierce has long been associated with manatees, which started showing up in large numbers to bask in the warm outflow of a power plant here.
The plant has since closed, but there’s still a local population of manatees, and the best vantage point is at the mouth of Moore’s Creek.
The Manatee Observation & Education Center here has indoor exhibits on this vulnerable species, as well as aquariums with native fish.
The staff will also let you know about local sightings, and pointed me to a nearby jetty where I saw a mother with her calf.
12. Summer Crush Vineyard and Winery
Opened in 2012, Summer Crush Vineyard and Winery is a must for fun-loving wine connoisseurs. The 12-acre vineyard grows native Muscadine grapes for wines with a range of flavor profiles, from dry to sweet.
Along those lines, there’s Old Florida White, a sweet white wine made with golden bronze Muscadine grapes.
For something unconventional, Party Wave Pineapple and Mangotiki are both infused with tropical fruits. For the inside story from the owner, you can book a winery tour, available Tuesday through Friday.
Personally, I came for the wine, but stayed for the live entertainment as there was a Stevie Nicks tribute act playing. There are shows every weekend without fail, and you can pick up something from the rotating lineup of food trucks.
13. Al’s Family Farms
Family owned and operated for three generations, Al’s Family Farms is all about high-quality Florida produce.
If, like me, you’re from a cold climate, you’ll be struck by the abundance of citrus fruit at the farm stand. In fact, Al’s features more citrus varieties than any other grower in the Indian River region.
Based out of a 1939 red barn, there’s freshly picked Valencia oranges, navel oranges, ruby red/pink grapefruits, and tango tangerines, and more.
If there’s an ideal time to come, I’d say it’s March through May, when the Valencia oranges are in season.
Call in for fresh citrus fruit, citrus products, freshly squeezed OJ, organic honey, and a wide range of home-made treats, from fudge to key lime pie.
14. The Highwaymen Trail
After seeing the work of The Highwaymen up close, I followed a trail celebrating their legacy around Fort Pierce.
With ten stops, the trail is a great way to see more of the historic residential neighborhood north of downtown. You’ll come across a trove of public art, as well as kiosks chock-full of interpretive info.
Among the sights along the route are a former juke joint where Alfred Hair, one of The Highwaymen, was killed in 1970, and the studio of A.E. Backus.
Every year there’s a festival to celebrate The Highwaymen and their cultural legacy in Fort Pierce. Held in early February, this event has guided tours of the trail, live jazz, a kids’ zone and artists selling their work.
15. Gator Trace Golf & Country Club
A semi-private facility, Gator Trace Golf and Country Club features a moderately challenging 18-hole, par 70 course.
With a variety of tee boxes, the course accommodates players of all levels. This track is more beginner-friendly than many in the area, but still has a lot of interesting challenges.
With ponds, lakes and canals, you’ll have to contend with water hazards on almost every hole. Pre-existing nature is also incorporated into the layout. That means a green or fairway might be guarded by a lone pine or palm tree.
You’re sure to have a few wildlife encounters during your game. I saw a couple of alligators by the lake on the 15th, and also had to wait for a sandhill crane to clear one of the greens.