A byword for conspicuous wealth since the tycoon Henry Flager built a lavish hotel here in the 1890s, Palm Beach is a world-famous haven for billionaires.
In fact there were at least 30 living here when I wrote this article. One is the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose permanent residence is Mar-a-Lago in the south of the city.
The fitting way to spend time in Palm Beach is shopping for the new season on Worth Avenue, being cosseted at a spa, or reclining in a beach chair. There’s splendor and history to uncover at the Flagler Museum, and elevated culture courtesy of the Society of the Four Arts.
1. Flagler Museum
Not one for understatement, Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler’s (1830-1913) mansion is a grandiose monument to the Gilded Age.
I can’t understate Flagler’s significance in the development of Palm Beach, and pretty much all of Florida’s Atlantic coast, down to The Keys.
You can learn all about this compelling figure at the Whitehall, his Beaux-Arts residence, completed in 1902. With general admission you’ll get a self-guided audio tour, but can also join one of the thrice-daily docent-led tours.
One of the more dumbfounding sights awaits you in the conservatory. Here you’ll see Flagler’s private railcar, well worth checking out given Flagler’s leading role building Florida’s railroads.
2. Worth Avenue
There are luxury shopping destinations and then there’s Worth Avenue, which is a cut above. From the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic, this is a complete premium lifestyle district, with a who’s who of luxury fashion and home furnishings.
Interspersed among cutting-edge restaurants are the likes of Valentino, Gucci, Tiffany & Co, Chanel, Versace, and Max Mara, among a glittering assortment of exclusive shopping centers and emporia.
Along the way, I found it easy to be drawn down the little vias, which are walkable nooks, with yet more shops and restaurants. These are architecturally noteworthy and will keep you exploring for quite a while.
Finally, at the east end stands Palm Beach’s now iconic clock tower. This is much newer than it looks, and built as part of a streetscape improvement in 2010.
3. Norton Museum of Art
Expanded at great expense in the 2010s with a wing designed by Norman Foster, Florida’s largest museum is five minutes away in West Palm Beach.
Founded in 1941 by steel magnate Ralph Hubbard Norton (1875-1953), the Norton Museum of Art has wide-ranging collections. A few fortes include American, European, and Chinese art, along with contemporary art and photography.
The lower floor is dedicated to contemporary art, while there’s a stunning display of European works up to 1870 upstairs.
I have to say, I got lucky when I was in Palm Beach, as I caught a landmark Impressionism exhibit with selections from the Pearlman Collection. On show were pieces by Manet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Degas, Pissarro and Cézanne.
Whenever you come, the Norton Museum of Art is a cultural beacon for South Florida. Indeed, the calendar is packed with workshops, classes, live performances, lectures, and the weekly Art After Dark on Friday nights.
4. Society of the Four Arts
With an exceptional variety of activities and events, the Society of the Four Arts is a pillar of cultural life in Palm Beach.
Founded in 1936, the society hosts important year-round art exhibitions, guest speakers, and artists’ workshops. There’s also a season of classical and jazz performances by acclaimed ensembles from around the world.
These take place in the Walter S. Gubelmann Auditorium. When I was in town the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center was performing J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos.
The society’s grounds are magnificent, with tropical demonstration gardens maintained by the Palm Beach Garden Club.
5. The Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum
For the background on Palm Beach County you can make the short hop across the lagoon to this free museum in West Palm Beach. Housed in the old county courthouse (1916), it’s full of interesting artifacts, memorabilia and information panels.
The permanent exhibits deal with everything from the discovery and settlement eras to the civic and cultural figures of the 21st century. Plenty of space is given to the Native American cultures that occupied these lands for many generations.
The temporary shows are always worth your time. When I went to press there was an excellent display about the chic resort wear in style at Palm Beach through the years.
6. South Lake Trail
I can’t think of many places I’d rather be at sunset than this path by the Lake Worth Lagoon. From the Flagler Museum downtown Royal Palm Way, the Palm Beach Lake Trail is relatively short.
Still, within less than a mile it passes some extremely opulent waterfront residences. With palms, bougainvillea and neatly clipped hedges, it’s a fantastic spot for a civilized stroll.
Occasionally you’ll get a peek of those magnificent properties behind the hedges. That is if you can take your eyes off the water, the West Palm Beach skyline and the rows of private docks. Last but not least, when the sun gets low, the trail reaches a whole other level of beauty.
7. Palm Beach Municipal Beach
Within a few steps of Worth Avenue, there’s a wide and inviting public beach, patrolled daily by lifeguards. Aside from how easy it is to reach, one of the great advantages of this spot is its cleanliness.
I’m not usually troubled by it, but seaweed is a common nuisance at the more remote beaches in these parts. The municipal beach is swept clean daily, so the sand is always immaculate.
Behind, on S Ocean Blvd there’s a long succession of benches under the swaying palm fronds. If you’re an early riser this is a beautiful, not to mention grand place to watch the sunrise.
8. Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea
Arguably Palm Beach’s most beautiful building is this Episcopal church built in the 1920s. Set around a courtyard with dainty traceried arches, the Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea has a Gothic Revival design.
If you want to know more about this building you can come for a tour on Wednesdays, or the 2nd and 4th Sundays following services.
Led by a docent, I got to see the ample wood carvings, stained glass windows, gardens and koi pond. I was also informed about some of the famous people in the long history of this building.
This was Donald Trump’s local place of worship during his presidency, and where he and Melania married in 2005, and where Barron Trump was christened.
9. Phipps Ocean Park
Things feel pretty remote at this public beach in the south of the city. Phipps Ocean Park is a little out of the way so doesn’t get the same kind of traffic as the main municipal beach or Lake Worth Beach Park to the south.
What I found was a wide band of sandy shore, accessible down a steep slope from the parking area. The beach has been rehabilitated in the last few years following severe erosion and looks better than ever.
Amenities are sparse, with little more than bathrooms and showers, but the main attraction is the peaceful setting.
10. Giant Kapok Tree
One of the most amazing trees in Florida awaits you along the Lake Trail in Palm Beach. Passing the grounds of the Royal Poinciana Chapel you’ll be dumbfounded by an enormous kapok tree.
Thought to have been planted by a groundskeeper working for Henry Flagler, the Giant Kapok Tree needs to be seen to be believed.
This magnificent specimen has buttress roots that snake out in all directions. Even 20 feet from the trunk the roots still reach waist height. Be sure to get a photo with a person for reference.
This species can grow to more than 200 feet, so I find it exciting to think that this beast could get much bigger.
11. Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course
The city’s recreation department maintains this oceanfront golf course, just south of Phipps Beach Park. With 18 holes and a Key West-style clubhouse, the Palm Beach Par 3 is held as one of the best par 3s in the country.
The views are sensational throughout, from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re expecting crazy layouts and island greens, you won’t find them here. What I think makes this course so special is how it melds with the natural terrain.
This course opened to the public in 1961 and was renovated in the 2000s. One of the big updates was Paspalum turf, which is more resilient against the South Florida climate.
12. North Lake Trail
North of the Flagler Museum the Palm Beach Lake Trail continues to near the very tip of the barrier island. To my mind, this longer stretch of the trail is better suited to bicycles.
The journey is no less rewarding, passing by some of the most historic properties in Palm Beach. Wreathed with jasmine and bougainvillea, these gorgeous old houses are matched by imposing specimen trees.
One I passed had the strangest profile, apparently collapsing but still full of life. A sight to check out from the path is the old Bethesda-by-the-Sea, the predecessor to the current church.
Now a private residence, this fairytale wooden building dates to the 1890s and was deconsecrated in the 1920s. Across the lagoon, look out for Safe Harbor Rybovich, with its astounding megayachts.
13. The Spa at the Breakers
It’s not like there’s a lack of deluxe spas in Palm Beach where you can be pampered in perfect serenity. Still I’m going to go with the Spa at the Breakers resort, which stands out from a competitive field and is open to non-guests.
With nearly 20 private treatment rooms spread over more than 20,000 square feet, this is an exquisite facility, graced by the sound of ocean waves.
Amenities include steam baths and saunas, a beauty salon, massage therapy, and indoor and outdoor areas for relaxing and sunbathing, all in an elegant Mediterranean Revival backdrop.
The spa also features multilingual staff, and offers a variety of holistic skin and body treatments, using exotic natural products. There’s even Spa Petite, where children aged 6 to 15 can be treated.
14. Paramount Theatre Building
Joseph Urban (1872-1933), the architect who designed Mar-a-Lago, also conceived this magnificent movie palace.
At the corner of North County Road and Sunrise Avenue, the Paramount Theatre dates to 1926. The architecture is a blend of Spanish Colonial Revival and Moorish Revival, catching the eye with its giant pointed arch.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, this building has a few chapters to its story. In its time it has served as a movie theater, performance stage and most recently a church.
When I was in Palm Beach last the building had been sold to a developer. Part of the plan was to turn the auditorium back into an event space.
15. Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival
No doubt, a culinary festival in Palm Beach is no ordinary get-together with a few food trucks. On the contrary, the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival, now a December tradition, is a high-end gastronomic showcase, attended by the country’s best chefs.
When I compiled this list, the most recent iteration had partnered with Wine Spectator and featured an expanded wine program. None of the picks at the 60+ wine tables at the festival are rated less than 90 by this prestigious publication.
Also on the schedule are samplings, exclusive chef-led workshops, cooking demonstrations, private meals, kids’ classes, and a smorgasbord of other epicurean experiences.