New Smyrna Beach: Florida’s Charmingly Hip Surf Town
Spirited New Smyrna Beach
It’s incredibly rare that a town with deep historical roots (and a charming historic downtown to match) is also home to a progressive-minded surf scene, but that is precisely the magic of New Smyrna Beach’s warmly hip spirit. Known locally (and on abundant swag) as NSB, the town of 23,658 year-round residents lies on central Florida’s Atlantic Coast with waterfront along Ponce de Leon inlet and the Indian River, making for blue-water vistas in seemingly every direction, 13 miles of broad beaches (some of that with vehicle access), and a steady swell that has drawn surfers for generations.
New Smyrna Beach has deep historic roots—all the way back to 1768, when it was settled by a Scottish physician and 1,300 or so mostly Spanish settlers who intended to grow indigo, sugarcane, and hemp (and make rum, of course). But the course did not run smooth for Turnbull and his colonists, and after a few rough years they decamped north to what became St. Augustine.
The outpost remained a sleepy settlement until 1892, when the famously entrepreneurial Henry Flagler provided rail service to the town of around 125 souls, and a resort boom was born. With citrus and commercial fishing growing the town as well, the 19th century riches of New Smyrna are still on display in its charming historic downtown, from storefronts to a parade of elegant live oaks and palms that shade its sidewalks.
Historic Downtown & Canal Street
The legacy of New Smyrna Beach’s early days makes its historic downtown a visual treat and a lively mix of community businesses and visitor-luring restaurants, bars and shops that line Canal Street, where the parking is both plentiful and free. For a trip back in time, start your visit at Little Drug, a full-service pharmacy in a 1922 building that is home to a stellar penny candy counter and a working soda fountain that’s been keeping generations of kids and their parents in sweet treats (even the soda fountain itself is from the 1950s).
Shopping Canal Street
Get your arts, culture, and shopping fix at The Hub on Canal (shown here), a vibrant collection of more than 65 artist displays, 26 working studios, and home to a full schedule of workshops, classes, and events, in the town’s historic The Palace movie theater. Provision your next NSB water adventure (especially fishing) at New Smyrna Outfitters, a gorgeously outfitted shop of outdoor wear, plus an extensive collection of fishing gear for inshore, offshore, and fly fishing. Scout finds among consigned antiques and collectibles at the quaintly old-fashioned The Palms Collectibles.
This vibrant street runs five lively blocks from the river right to the beach (as in the street runs right onto the sand, where you can obtain a permit to take your vehicle, should you desire, right onto the sand). There are just enough old-school t-shirt and souvenir shops to keep it real and unpretentious, but nestled in among those neon-hued lures are bona fide kick-ass surf shops, fashion-forward coffee houses, ethnic food cafes, upscale independent designer boutiques, and one of the brightest pink beach bars ever created. At the center of Flagler’s awesomeness is, of all things, the 20-court Coronado/Mainland Shuffleboard Club (bring your own cue, and if you don’t know what that is, you’re not ready for shuffleboard). Membership is $20, and might well be worth the investment. The historic little cottages and courts that make up the club facility are truly a trip down memory lane.
Shopping Flagler Avenue
Flagler is lined with more than 30 independent shops of every stripe and price point… even though it’s just five blocks long, it’s a half-day stroll, and an all-day event if you stop for food and drinks in between. Highlights: The sharp eye of designer/owner Jaymi Kay Schulz ensures that everything inside her two little shops on Flagler (Sei Boutique and Sei Swim) is boho-perfect, from kimonos and intimate wear to tops, dresses, cover-ups, and a stunning curation of swimwear, including her own new line.
There’s beautiful, sea-inspired rustic pottery from Richard Collison at Palms Up Pottery. For hand-made, natural soaps (including a stunning bar with a pretty little snippet of sea sponge topping it), organic sunscreens, scrubs, and more, check out Salt House Soap Co. When it comes to surf lifestyle, Quiet Flight NSB has all the top brands you could ask for (and great service to get you outfitted). And for that I’ve-been-here swag? While a number of local spots may be overflowing with logo wear, the coolest NSB logo wear going is the NSB Inlet gear, which you can find right here.
The beach at New Smyrna Beach—all 13 miles of it—is a broad and soft swath that fronts the Atlantic’s surf, and you can drive right onto it from May 1 through October 31 (some stretches are traffic-free zones). Nine county and city parks provide gateways to the sand (see them all here); at the southern end of NSB is the northern stretch of the pristinely spectacular Canaveral National Seashore, where “natural” becomes a clothing-optional lifestyle at Apollo Beach (see why Canaveral National Seashore is one of our 10 Best Beaches in Florida, here).
Where To Stay: Black Dolphin Inn
While New Smyrna Beach offers a variety of accommodations, from resorts to beach hotels to B&Bs, the ultimate stay in town is at the gracious and beautiful Black Dolphin Inn, a luxurious boutique-style bed and breakfast with a sweeping view of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Sitting along a strand of early 20th century homes that face the water with slender docks, Black Dolphin is in an elegantly restored Mediterranean/Spanish Isle-style mansion that channels a chic villa vibe from both its white walls and red tile roof exteriors and within its live-oak-shaded courtyard (which glows with strands of twinkling white lights after dusk).
Inside, owners (and brothers) Brett and Scott Smith have created striking interiors in each of the inn’s 14 rooms that can feel nautical, Art Deco, or midcentury modern. (Returning guests are known to request a new room each time, just to sample the Smiths’ collection.) Beyond the aesthetic fun and family vibe (Brett’s wife, Sheila, daughter MacKenzie, and son, Taylor, all work on the property), what sets Black Dolphin Inn apart is its sumptuous cooked-to-order breakfast, served from an open kitchen off the inn’s living-room-like lobby and helmed by MacKenzie (an even more robust, Southern-style breakfast is offered on the weekends). From the inn’s beloved shrimp and grits to other elevated southern classics (often served with Florida specialties like cane syrup instead of maple syrup), breakfast is also available to non-guests on a reservation basis. Book your stay, here.
Old-School Seafood, Burgers, and More
Start, of course, with seafood, and there’s no better place to get your feet wet in old-school fish-camp flavors than JB’s Fish Camp Seafood Restaurant, down at the southern end of the barrier island. The interiors are a rustic riot of detail, the oysters and clams are excellent, and hush puppies a thing of legend. Come early and fish off the dock (they’ll sell you bait).
For more great seafood in an unpretentious seafood market with counter service, don’t miss Ocean’s Seafood. Always pick fresh catch off the board and get it as simple as possible, because it’s that fresh. And don’t be fooled by the crazy-pink exterior (and honky tonk interiors) of The Breakers Restaurant, a classic beach bar where Flagler Avenue meets the beach: the burger may be the best you’ve ever had, so grab a stool with a view of the water and settle in.
Save room for a soft-swirl cone from Treats on the Beach, and snap some Instagram in front of the shop’s eye-popping illustrations of its 35 flavors on tap (look for the ice cream with an eye patch advertising rum soft swirl). For a full-on retro experience, don’t miss NSB’s Dairy Queen. You’ll swear you've landed in 1953.
New-School Breakfast, Lunch, and More
Start your day with a killer acai bowl (in a mason jar!) at Mason Bar, a sweet hangout for all things whole food, local, and delicious, including cold-pressed juices and frozen pops. Downtown on Canal, Yellow Dog Eats Kitchen and Bar has instilled a bit of urban chic in a general store that’s more than a century old. Pork (BBQ and pulled) rules the roost here, so don’t miss out on sandwiches like the Florida Cracker (pulled pork topped with coleslaw, Gouda cheese, pecan-smoked bacon, pickles, fried onions, and Fish’s Gold BBQ sauce, embraced by two thick-cut pieces of white bread).
The gorgeous shaded courtyard patio at Third Wave Café on Flagler Avenue may lure you to stay forever, particularly if you start with their excellent coffees and house-baked pastries, and find yourself transitioning to the bar’s craft cocktails and kitchen’s local seafood, salads, and a host of brick oven pizzas, on a constantly rotating small menu. Practically next door, you’ll find great Asian fusion (including poke, which you can never have enough of in a fresh-catch town like this one) at AA Garden Fusion, housed in a cute little cottage.
Cocktails, Beer, and More
This is a beach town that takes its drinking life seriously, meaning there are a whole lot of fun places to drink. Start your evening off at Outriggers Tiki Bar and Grille, an open-air bar and restaurant in New Smyrna Marina with great water views and a remarkable assortment of rum (tropical cocktailers need to order the Zombie, which features four rums, fresh fruit juice, bitters, and a bit of Florida voodoo). The food is worth hanging out for—the restaurant works directly with fishermen—so ask what’s freshest and get that. Near the beach, Flagler Tavern is a perfect place to post up on the street-facing porches and watch the parade go by.
Downtown, the Half Wall Beer House is the stop for craft beer (76 local drafts, plus even more by the bottle, at least count). Grab a sidewalk table and enjoy the Canal Street scene. Just off Canal, New Smyrna Brewing Company’s tiny and fun taproom is open for tasting Wednesday through Sunday.
For coffee, head straight to Island Roasters, where organic beans are tumbling in the house roaster right in view, and the pours are excellent. Downtown, check out the eclectic vibe and on-site roasting at Hottie Coffee at the railroad end of Canal Street.
The Surfing Life
It might be enough just to hang out on NSB’s beaches and watch local surfers enjoy the swell (check out the Inlet for some of the best action), but you can share in the vibe, even if you’ve never gotten on a board. Start at Quiet Flight NSB for apparel, sunglasses, boards, and lessons. Swing next door to Rip Curl New Smyrna for more apparel, including a great selection of board shorts and bikinis. And don’t miss a chance to pay homage at downtown’s Museum of East Coast Surfing, a sweet tribute space to a great legacy, which began as an exhibit of surf artifacts at the town’s excellent New Smyrna Museum of History.
There are two things everyone visiting New Smyrna Beach needs to do (in addition to fishing, surfing, and hanging out at the beach): cruise with the local sea life and take in the incredible landscape from the air. For getting up close and personal to manatees and dolphins among the mangrove inlets of the area, there’s no better cruise than with the knowledgeable and affable crew from the Marine Discovery Center. (The center also runs guided kayak tours.) For an unforgettable ride way above the water, jump in the back seat of an open-cockpit vintage biplane with Biplane Fun Flights, which offers 10-, 20-, 30-, and 70-minute excursions. Even the shortest flight, which follows the island north and circles the Ponce Lighthouse at Ponce Inlet, is a thrill (and crazy photo opp). And if you’re really up for adventure, ask about the “Performance Maneuvers” option, which includes steep climbs and turns, lazy eights, and chanderelles.