By Vanessa Caceres
Downtown Fort Pierce offers visitors art, history, shopping, noshing, and scenic views nestled along Southeast Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Here are nine things you can see and explore during a visit to downtown Fort Pierce.
1. The Florida Highwaymen history
If you’ve ever seen Florida landscape art from the 1960s, there’s a good chance it was done by Fort Pierce’s Highwaymen. These 26 African American artists (all men except for one woman) painted Florida landscapes and sold them from their car trunks along Route 1, which was a prominent north-south travel route along the East Coast. Once sold for $15 to $25, many of the paintings are now worth thousands. The young painters were taught by landscape artist “Bean” Backus; the Highwaymen used wallboard for canvases and crown molding for frames. Discover more about The Highwaymen along the Highwaymen Heritage Trail, with 10 stops in and around downtown and at downtown’s A.E. Backus Gallery & Museum.
2. Shopping and art
Downtown Fort Pierce has several cute boutiques and novelty stores, but art is the theme that crops up again and again in downtown. “There are several galleries throughout the downtown district, large art pieces, and walls painted left and right,” said photographer Lloyd Wilkinson of Orlando, who was surprised by all the art during his first visit. Considering the town’s Highwaymen history, all of that art is a natural fit. The Art Connection, features work for sale from 30 area artists, including impressive drawings and woodwork done by owners Judith Suit and Larry Burchard (Suit is a Fort Pierce native and trained under “Bean” Backus). The Art Connection is located in the historic Arcade Building, a downtown fixture since the 1920s. Closer to the water, you’ll find the One Eleven Building, where Mike Nemchick of Port Saint Lucie recently opened an art space that shares and sells work from several local artists. Fort Pierce also hosts Friday night Art Walks once a month.
3. Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market
Held on Saturday mornings year-round, the lively downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market attracts about 70 vendors. You’ll find cider donuts, fish dip, local honey, in-season regional produce, smoothies, conch fritters, and much more, along with art -- an important addition considering Fort Pierce’s artsy history. The market is held along the waterfront near the marina, so you’ve got a great view along the Indian River while you shop or eat. “It’s a fabulous farmers market,” said Judy Vobroucek of Bradenton, Fla., who was also happy to find free parking. If you visit in the winter or spring, get there early -- the market gets so busy, it can be hard to find a spot. An alternative: Use the free downtown trolley, which loops around every 15 minutes.
4. Summer Crush Vineyard and Winery
While technically not downtown, Summer Crush is worth the 15-minute or so drive. You’ll try wines made from Florida muscadine grapes, so the vino is usually on the sweeter side. Summer Crush doesn’t take itself too seriously, with wine names like That’s What She Said, Rated Arr, and Marlin Monroe (the bottle is adorned with a marlin in a white dress a la Marilyn Monroe). During a tasting, staff member Lorna Nickle filled in visitors on the white, red, mango, and dessert wines everyone tried and gave recommendations for drink combinations. Summer Crush also has a covered area for its weekly concerts, bingo, and yoga.
5. National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum
The National Navy SEAL Museum is located on the grounds of the original training area for the Frogmen, who were the original Navy combat divers. The Frogmen were Navy SEAL predecessors; many of the 140,000 soldiers who trained on Fort Pierce’s shores were preparing for World War II’s D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. The museum will fill you in on Navy SEAL history, SEAL training and their roles in various wars. You’ll also get to sit inside some SEAL vehicles, try on gear and, if you’re up to it, complete a SEAL obstacle course. The museum is a short drive from downtown, located on Hutchinson Island.
6. Heathcote Botanical Garden
Are you into plants? Then don’t miss Heathcoate. With its Japanese Garden, Herb Garden, Rainforest Display, and Native Plants Garden, among other displays, you’ll view a large variety of plants common in Mediterranean climates down to the tropics.
7. St. Lucie County Aquarium and the St. Lucie County Regional History Center
Want to touch a sea star, hermit crab, or other marine life? You can do it at the St. Lucie County Aquarium, which showcases a variety of aquatic habitats around St. Lucie County. Since it’s within walking distance, mosey on over to the St. Lucie County Regional History Center and use the self-guided audio tour to trace the area’s history through time. From Ais Indians to Spanish treasure hunters, each exhibit area gives a feel for key parts of Fort Pierce and regional history. Other historical highlights: pineapple farming (a boom for the area until the early 1900s), railroad development, citrus and cattle farming (both still prominent today), and pictures and mementos from families that have helped build and support St. Lucie County.
8. Manatee Observation and Education Center
Who doesn’t love manatees? These gentle sea cows are stars of the show at the Manatee Observation and Education Center. Use the hands-on exhibits and educational displays to learn more about manatees and other sea life in the area. You may even get to see manatees in their natural habitat from the center’s observation walkway.
9. Lots of eating
You won’t go hungry during your visit to downtown Fort Pierce. The Second Street Bistro is recommended highly by locals who enjoy parmesan herb kettle chips, bistro fried cheese, shrimp and grits, and the Fort Pierce Po’ Boy. Over at The Original Tiki Bar along the marina, you’ve got shrimp and seafood fare, along with Southern fried chicken. At 121 Tapas, there’s a variety of flatbread and crostini plates, along with short rib tacos and jumbo crab cakes. And if you haven’t broken your diet enough yet, Dixie Cream Donuts, located a short drive from the main downtown area, has all manner of hot, fresh donuts and sweets.