Get your bearings
Fort Lauderdale's geography is curious, because of the Intracoastal Waterway that runs along America's eastern seaboard and which separates the beach area from the rest of the city. The Downtown area lies on the inland side, running east-west along the New River, with the Riverwalk on the north bank. It is cut through by US1, the Federal Highway that runs from the Canadian border to Key West; the busy road bores under the New River through a tunnel built in 1960. As a result the Downtown area is relatively free of traffic. The main east-west thoroughfare is Las Olas Boulevard, which extends by a bridge over the waterway to reach the ocean. Here, Atlantic Boulevard runs north-south, giving access to miles of beach. For more information visit the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor Bureau (sunny.org).
Take a hike
Begin with a stroll through the grounds and interior of Stranahan House at 335 Southeast 6th Avenue (stranahanhouse.org) – a handsome dwelling in exuberant grounds, where the story of Fort Lauderdale is told. It was originally a military settlement against the Seminole Indians.
Later, Frank Stranahan established a trading post, located in this house – which he built in 1901. The city began to grow around it. Join a fascinating one-hour guided tour ($12/£7.50), at 1, 2 or 3pm daily. Emerge from the house for a walk along the north bank following the curves of the shady Riverwalk. When you reach the Broward Centre for the Performing Arts, head away from the river and east along SE 2nd Street. You reach the Las Olas Riverfront, a shopping/entertainment complex and shortly after, the landmark Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art appears on the right at Andrews Avenue (corner of East Las Olas Boulevard; (moafl.org; 11am-5pm daily except Monday, Sundays from noon). Compared with the striking, ambitious exterior (and clever outdoor touches such as Impressionist landscapes on utility cabinets), you may find the interior disappointing.
Make an early start for the best bargains at the world's largest daily flea market. The doors of the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop at 3291 West Sunrise Boulevard (floridaswapshop.com) open at 8am. Take bus 40 (destination Lauderhill Mall, every half hour) from Broward Central Terminal; get off at Sunrise Boulevard and walk five minutes west to an extraordinary retail location – full of music, fashion, tat and Latin American food and drink stalls. After dark, it becomes a multi-screen venue for drive-in movies. By around 11am, the outdoor areas are getting hot and the crowds begin to arrive, so an air-conditioned bus (with free Wi-Fi) back into town is a good option.
Lunch on the run
Just beyond the bulky Riverside Hotel, Las Olas Boulevard becomes a mass of eateries. Gran Forno at No 1235 (gran-forno.com) makes paninis with its own freshly-baked ciabatta, usually with lots of mozzarella and tomato. Devour on the terrace or as a picnic beside the river.
Dining with the locals
If you are tempted to stay for dinner at Southport, the catfish with fries and slaw is good value at $9.75 (£6). Back in the city, Yolo (short for You Only Live Once) is adjacent to Vibe at 333 East Las Olas Boulevard (yolorestaurant.com) and an excellent place on a summer evening. Perch at the outdoor counter, enjoying the evening breeze and coriander-seaweed crusted tuna ($26/£16) – or an old-school burger ($12.50/£8).
Make a splash
If swimming is your passion, then Fort Lauderdale is the place – thanks to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a block from the beach at 501 Seabreeze Boulevard. This combines a Museum of Swimming (ishof.org; 9am-2pm, to 5pm weekdays; $8/£5) with the city's Aquatic Complex (fortlauderdale.gov/flac), containing a beautiful pair of late-1950s pools. Anyone can swim 8am-2pm at weekends (longer hours on weekdays) for $5 (£3). But get there quick: from August, the pools are closing for refurbishment.
Out to brunch
A block away, on the verge of the beach, the Oasis Café at 600 Seabreeze Boulevard (oasiscafefortlauderdalebeach.com) opens daily at 11am. The Caribbean Salad ($10.95/£7) contains avocado, papaya and sprouts (the alfalfa, not Brussels, variety).
Take a ride
The scheduled Water Taxi service (watertaxi.com) plies along the New River and the Intracoastal Waterway. A day pass costs $20 (£12.50). Alternatively, a 90-minute cruise on the Carrie B (carriebcruises.com; $25/£16) departs from Fort Lauderdale dock at 11am, 1pm and 3pm (not Tuesday/Wednesdays) to ripple past the homes of the famous (in south-east Florida, at least).
Hugh Taylor Birch was a Chicago lawyer who moved to South Florida in 1893. He donated 40 acres to his daughter, which is where Bonnet House was built in 1920. Today, the walls that wrap around the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens at 900 N Birch Road (bonnethouse.org; 9am-4pm Tuesday-Sunday; $20/£12.50) protect a fascinating mix of tropical garden, architecture and art from Spanish mission to Deep South plantation.
A walk in the park
Taylor Birch also bequeathed his 180-acre estate, Terramar, to the state. It is now the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park (floridastateparks.org; 8am-sunset daily). A mile-long freshwater lagoon runs the length of the park. West of the water, there are trails to walk or cycle. Admission $2 (£1.25).
Icing on the cake
Lester's Diner opened in 1967 at 250 W State Road 84 (lestersdiner.com) and hasn't closed since. At any time of day or night, you can tuck into superb comfort food such as pancakes, French toast and eggs done in any style.