15 Best Things to Do in Wilton Manors (FL)

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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Nicknamed Island City, Wilton Manors has come through an incredible transformation since the early 1990s. What was once a relatively deprived area is now blossoming, and famed for its LGBTQ+ community.

This is a gayborhood with few rivals, becoming only the second city in the country to have an all-LGBTQ+ governing body in 2018. There’s a massive Pride celebration every June, as well as a sizable Pride Center, dating back 30+ years now. 

The artery is Wilton Drive, with its clubs, bars, restaurants and spas. Even the parking meters had a rainbow motif when I paid a visit.

Wilton Manors’ nickname comes from the Middle Fork River, which encircles the entire city. There are several gorgeous riverfront parks, perfect for launching a kayak or canoe.

1. Wilton Drive

Locally known as simply ‘The Drive’, Wilton Manors’ main thoroughfare is the beating heart of the city’s entertainment, cultural, and dining scenes.

It’s all a far cry from the 1990s when this was a low-key retail corridor. Now Wilton Drive is a regional LGBTQ+ destination, home to famous night spots like Hunters Nightclub and The Manor Complex.

These are complemented by a big helping of boutiques, small-scale bars, spas, galleries, and eateries for all tastes. Think Italian, sushi, burgers, gyros, tacos, pizza, Thai, ice cream, or fro-yo.

As part of Wilton Drive’s journey over the last 20 years, there are now widened sidewalks, bike lanes.

2. World AIDS Museum

World AIDS MuseumSource: World AIDS Museum & Educational Center / Facebook
World AIDS Museum

The main public attraction at Wilton Manors’ Pride Center is a museum commemorating the AIDS epidemic. With roots going back to an HIV support group, the museum is one of only a few of its kind in the world. 

On my visit I was given a docent-guided tour of The Colors of HIV exhibit. Produced by artist Toby Gotesman Schneir, this ensemble of paintings charts the progress of the pandemic, looking at political factors while honoring those affected by the disease.

The main exhibit is the acclaimed Chronology of AIDS, from the first symptoms to the nadir in the 1980s and the pharmacological breakthroughs of the 21st century.

Something equally inspiring and moving is the Michael David Slotsky Stamp Collection This was started by the namesake who passed away from AIDS complications in 1993, and continued by his father, with envelopes from all over the world, stamped for World AIDS Day.

3. Paddlesports

Wilton Manors is a prime place for activities like kayaking and paddleboarding. For one thing, you’ve got the serene waters of the Middle River, along both the north and south forks.

There are several public riverfront parks in Wilton Manors where you can put in. This will give you access to an incredible 300 miles of inland waterways in Greater Fort Lauderdale. No surprise that it’s called the Venice of America.

One trip I’d recommend is the paddling trail that surrounds Wilton Manors on the north and south forks. You can do a complete tour of the Island City, and there are five spots along the route for breaks.

If you don’t have your own vessel or gear, hit up Sunrise Paddleboards, BC Surf & Sport, OT Waves Kayaks & More, and Las Olas Paddle Boards, all of which are local.

4. Stonewall Pride Wilton Manors

The city’s signature event brings in tens of thousands of people every year. Taking place in mid-June, Stonewall Pride marks June 1969’s Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the LGBT+ human rights movement. 

Truly, I’d be amazed if anyone local could miss this date, as it envelopes the entire community. 

For Stonewall Pride, the entire length of Wilton Drive is lined with vendor booths, food trucks, drink stations, as well as booths for non-profit organizations.

Naturally live entertainment is a pillar of the event, with several stages. The largest of these is at the corner of Wilton Drive and NE 6th Ave.

5. Island City Stage

Just off Wilton Drive, this professional theater was founded in 2012 by members of Fort Lauderdale’s LGBT community. 

Specializing in new works, the Island City Stage has received a lot of awards and acclaim since that time. Naturally the LGBT community will identify with many of these shows, but they’re made with a large audience in mind. 

Many of these productions feature creative or performing talent with experience in TV, film, Broadway Off Broadway, and national tours. 

Check the calendar for live comedy, women’s nights, award shows, and tons more one-night events.

6. Colohatchee Park

On the South Fork of the Middle River there’s a lovely community park, mixing developed and natural spaces. 

In nature, there’s seven acres of mangroves that you can discover on an elevated boardwalk, beginning and ending at the back of the park.

For amenities, there are fitness stations, an asphalt trail, a picnic pavilion, a kayak launch, and a dog park. The latter is a superb facility, but does require a permit and key fob. When I took a look there was a sign for a free “Woof & Wine” event.

7. Island City Park Preserve

Hiding in a quiet residential area in the north of the city, this little park is a piece of bliss. If you have your own kayak/paddleboard, or have rented one, it’s an ideal place to launch. 

My way to describe Island City Park Preserve is a community backyard. You’ll be greeted by a view of the river, an elevated walkway, and a fishing pier.

Despite its seclusion, the preserve is a minute or two from Wilton Drive’s eateries, so it’s a nice spot for a picnic, with three pavilions. 

Additional amenities include a basketball court, playground, and a community center/event space for 100 people.

8. Out of the Closet

Wilton Drive has quite a few shops, bars, and restaurants with names that remind you of the city’s makeup. That could not be truer for the thrift store, Out of the Closet.

But, I’ve included this place on my list, because it’s not just any store. Out of the Closet’s proceeds go towards the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. There’s also free HIV/STD testing, and other services offered by the AHF.

Now, it’s also a great place to find something unexpected. There’s a lot of great stuff here, from clothing (t-shirts, pants, shorts, accessories) to books, lamps, art, furniture, and other home decor.

9. Stork’s Bakery & Coffee House

Stork's Bakery & Coffee HouseSource: Stork's Bakery & Coffee House / Facebook
Stork’s Bakery & Coffee House

From cakes, wraps, and empanadas to coffee, cookies, and pastries, Stork’s Bakery and Coffee House is the perfect place for cheat day.

I’ve got to say, my slice of raspberry white chocolate cheesecake was to die for, but the German chocolate cake, and strawberry rhubarb pie looked amazing too. 

Stork’s is located in a peaceful spot on NE 15th Avenue and is open every day until as late as 12:00 am. The bakery and coffee house has been open since 1997, and now has two area locations.

They also open earlier than most of their competitors. So for those beginning a day trip before most vacationers are out of bed, it’s an essential stop for fortification before heading out.

10. Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve

Richardson Historic Park and Nature PreserveSource: btrentler / Flickr
Richardson Historic Park And Nature Preserve

Right on Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors, Richardson Historic Park is another of the city’s tranquil riverfront properties. 

On more than five acres, this space comprises a riverside boardwalk, an observation pier, a boat dock, and a small network of nature trails.

The centerpiece is a handsome manor with accompanying carriage house. With elegant landscaping and a gazebo out back, this is a favored venue for weddings and other events. 

Looking at the informative signs in the park, I learned that this was previously the site of a golf course, built in the 1920s. The city acquired the land from the Richardson family in 2002, and turned it into a passive park.

11. Hugh Taylor Birch State Park

You can get to this magnificent park in just a few minutes from Wilton Manors. Developed at the turn of the 20th century, Hugh Taylor Birch State Park was the home of the wealthy namesake Chicago attorney. 

Birch’s magnificent Art Deco residence is now a visitor center, with exhibits about Fort Lauderdale, South Florida’s ecology, and Birch himself.

Outside, the park has been described as Fort Lauderdale’s ‘Central Park’, and I think it’s easy to see why. You can stroll, skate or ride a bike along the wide park drive, or venture into subtropical habitats on nature trails, admiring live oaks and immense banyans. 

A pedestrian tunnel leads under SR A1A to the beach, while you can also rent a canoe or kayak and paddle along the mile-long freshwater lagoon on the park’s west side.

12. Bonnet House Museum & Gardens

On the south side of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park is a palatial historic home that belonged to Birch’s daughter and her husband, the artist Frederic Clay Bartlett.

Birch gifted them the land in 1919 and the Caribbean plantation-style house followed in 1920. This was designed by Bonnet himself, and stands today as an opulent time-capsule of the Roaring Twenties in South Florida.

There are more fabulous details than I can list here. But a few are the mahogany ceiling in the drawing room, the naturalistic gardens, the orchid house, and the Carl J. Weinhardt Gallery, which features the work of Frederic’s second wife, Evelyn Fortune Bartlett.

13. Earl Lifshey Ocean Park

For some beachtime, the nearest public access is five minutes away, tops. This is Earl Lifshey Ocean Park, which like a few local access points is little more than a narrow walkway onto the shore.

On the way there’s a cute garden area, with some interpretive boards. The main attraction is of course the soft sandy beach and ocean, which is nothing short of majestic at sunrise. There are showers here, as well as a host of restaurants close by on Ocean Boulevard. 

If you’re in need of extra amenities, I’d head north to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea Beach, or south to Fort Lauderdale or Las Olas Beach.

14. The Galleria at Fort Lauderdale

Wilton Manors is moments from one of the top malls. Dating back to 1980, The Galleria at Fort Lauderdale is giant, with 120+ stores over three stories.

The vibe is relatively upmarket, with brands like Apple, Michael Kors, Banana Republic, and Abercrombie & Fitch. Still, there are plenty of more widespread mall regulars, like Sephora, Macy’s (anchor), Dillard’s, ALDO Shoes, Hollister, Vans, and Pandora.

Dining options are suitably high end, and include The Capital Grille for steaks, Bistro-style bites at Seasons 52, and familiar pan-Asian classics at P.F. Chang’s.

15. Coral Ridge Mall

Fair to say that shopping is never a problem in Wilton Manors, as there’s another mall nearby. Even closer than The Galleries, the Coral Ridge Mall is along US 1 on the city’s east side.

Among the 50+ stores at this long-standing spot are Marshalls, Old Navy, Bath & Body Works, T. J. Maxx, Foot Locker, Target, HomeGoods, and Perfume Boutique.

Food and drink choices run to Pizza Hut Express, Jamba, Subway, Auntie Anne’s, and Einstein Bros. Bagels. 

If I’m not mistaken, the 10-screen movie theater here is also the closest to Wilton Manors.This is an AMC Dine-In, which means in-theater food and alcoholic beverage service.

15 Best Things to Do in Wilton Manors (FL):

  • Wilton Drive
  • World AIDS Museum
  • Paddlesports
  • Stonewall Pride Wilton Manors
  • Island City Stage
  • Colohatchee Park
  • Island City Park Preserve
  • Out of the Closet
  • Stork's Bakery & Coffee House
  • Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve
  • Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
  • Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
  • Earl Lifshey Ocean Park
  • The Galleria at Fort Lauderdale
  • Coral Ridge Mall