Between its skyrocketing SpaceX program, bustling cruise port, and a vast cast of superior seafood, Cocoa Beach and its neighboring city of Cape Canaveral have officially scrubbed its reputation as a sleepy surf town.
Located three hours north of Miami, this rejuvenated stretch along the Atlantic is home to well-known breweries, lively dives, tiki bars, and a fresh crop of dining destinations for tourists, spring breakers, and locals alike. And for travelers opting to fly here, FYI: this is the closest beach–just a 45-minute drive east–from Orlando International Airport, home to snazzy new Terminal C with chef Art Smith’s Sunshine Diner, Wine Bar George, and Orange County Brewers.
1 p.m. – Sandbar Sports Grill
Decked out with wild signage, decals, memorabilia, and surfboards honoring its hometown hero Kelly Slater, Cocoa Beach’s “Home of the Fish Taco” is a perennially packed local favorite (4301 Ocean Beach Boulevard, Cocoa Beach). The no-frills oceanfront hangout prepares its top-selling catch of the day grilled, blackened, or Baja style. Alligator tail bites or conch fritters dipped in its homemade jalapeno white sauce are also good calls. Rum drinks here are no joke, with Hurricanes listed from Category 1 to 5, frozen daiquiris, and take-home buckets of booze. Nightly jam bands and karaoke sessions augment the real-time sounds of waves lapping up to the sandy shoreline out back, with a newly installed patio up front.
3 p.m. – The Inn at Cocoa Beach
The nearly 35-year-old Inn at Cocoa Beach is boutique at its best (4300 Ocean Beach Boulevard). The charming, 50-room oceanfront hotel treats guests like gold, starting with reception desk reminders for scheduled shuttle launches visible from its privately accessed beach. The European-styled getaway, outfitted with a stone fountain, perch for its parrot patrons, and pineapple-shaped statues framing the salmon-pink property, also serves a stellar complimentary breakfast of homemade quiche and freshly squeezed Florida orange juice. Other on-site perks include a nightly wine-and-cheese social, an honest lobby bar stocked with top spirits, and a recently renovated pool with cruise ship-sized shuffleboard and hammocks. Unsurprisingly, its highly hospitable general manager Larry York is a Ritz-Carlton alum.
5 p.m. – Pancetta Pizza Bar
This nearly-year-old Italian restaurant (130 Canaveral Plaza Boulevard, Cocoa Beach) comes from New Jersey catering vet Anthony Cirillo, who brought down his culinary team to enjoy the warm weather with him. In an unassuming strip mall across from Ron Jon Surf Shop’s iconic, sandcastle-like headquarters, Pancetta Pizza specializes in all sorts of styles (New York, Detroit, pan, and wood-fired), and the fried eggplant-and-herb ricotta variety is a must-try. The catch-all menu also has an early fan following for its hearty, hot or cold hero sandwiches, clams and linguine, homemade burrata, fluffy table bread, and cured meats. Saddle up to the sleek, central bar for a spot-on Negroni, generous goblets of wine, and surfer-spotting.
7 p.m. – Carib Brewery
Cape Canaveral’s Florida Beer Co. was recently renamed after parent company Carib Brewery. Head to its 321 Lime House taproom to try fresh pours of its popular Giant Leap Kolsch, Key West pale ale, Swamp Ape double IPA, and Caribe tropical cider brands brewed in a massive barrel house visible past glass. The versatile warehouse facility also has exclusive limited releases, trivia and live entertainment, a patio with lights, brewery tours, and food trucks (200 Imperial Boulevard, Cape Canaveral).
8 a.m. – Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar
Head to this breezy Port Canaveral classic before a day of deep-sea fishing on the Ocean Obsession, exploring waterways aboard Time & Tide Tours, or parasailing to epic views of the Kennedy Space Center. Breakfast served daily from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., includes snow crab-topped Benedicts, omelets, and a section of filling fisherman’s favorites like a “Shotgun Start” plate of multiple eggs, buttermilk pancakes, pieces of bacon, hash browns, and more (500 Glen Cheek Drive, Cape Canaveral). Come back later to the outdoor tiki bar for its famed shark kabobs, tasty uses of invasive lionfish, and cover bands crooning on the wooden waterfront deck at dusk.
1 minute walk
12 p.m. – Seafood Atlantic
Since 1984, Cape Canaveral’s old-school seafood standby buys from hundreds of independent Florida fishermen who pull up around the clock with crown jewels of the Atlantic and Gulf caught that day. Off-the-dock pompano, red snapper, yellowfin, grouper, and swordfish get cleaned, cut, and displayed on ice in a fish market upfront or cooked fresh for dine-in guests (520 Glen Cheek Drive, Cape Canaveral). This is also one of the best spots to order local shrimp–from tiny rock to giant royal red–in three-pound portions or po’boy form. A recently expanded and renovated outdoor patio perch overlooks Port Canaveral, so bon-voyage views of cavernous cruise ships going out to sea are likely on any given day.
2 p.m. – Ellie Mae’s Tiki Bar
This Polynesian-themed standout slings rums from around the world, sliders, and peel-and-eat shrimp (116 Jackson Avenue, Cape Canaveral). The turquoise-tinged neighborhood newcomer is a party out back, complete with crushed Coquina shells, a big bar, Adirondack chairs, thatched straw umbrellas, and lawn games. The landlocked hideaway slings daily drink deals like $7 tropical punches and Florida mules engineered with OJ. Trivia and “Sax on the Beach” nights are also big draws.
Landing one block away soon is Moon Hut, which revives the standalone site of a Mexican restaurant where NASA astronauts frequently fueled up for breakfast in a private back room of the same name. For a quick bite before heading home, family-run takeout Vargas Cafe has $10-and-under Latin meals and Cubanos that give Miami a run for its money (8010 N. Atlantic Avenue, Cape Canaveral).