From moon walks and dune overwalks to cruise ports and water sports, a galaxy of options await visitors at Florida’s Space Coast, a 72-mile stretch of sun-bronzed Atlantic shore, space age attractions and protected wildlife refuges flourishing along the surf — all at down-to-earth prices. Featured among Money magazine’s “Best Places to Vacation,” the Space Coast is comprised primarily of area cities Cape Canaveral, Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Melbourne Beach, Palm Bay and Titusville.
The city of Cocoa, also referred to as Cocoa Village, is a historic area full of antique stores, coffee shops, and 19th-century architecture. It is also known for its surf and for its association with the nearby Kennedy Space Center.
Things to do in Cocoa Beach
- Things to do in Cocoa Beach
- Where to Stay at Cocoa Beach
- Food & Drink
- How to Get to Cocoa Beach
These days there’s a certain charm to the city that encompasses the great things about Florida beach towns: A mix of swank hotels and budget lodging, a few high-end restaurants and a raft of greasy spoons, eco-focused outdoorsy adventure options, a memorable beach environment and yes, miniature golf.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, visitors can sense galactic adventures at this 140,000-acre megaplex including a replica of a space shuttle, two extraordinary IMAX movies that launch viewers into space, a Rocket Garden riddled with Mercury and Gemini era rockets and bus tours viewing breathtaking launch pads along pristine shores.
The Apollo/Saturn V Center celebrates one of humankind’s greatest achievements with an authentic Saturn V rocket – the most powerful ever built – created to transport man to the moon.
In sweeping contrast and absolutely free, surrounding the Kennedy Space Center, is the 220-square-mile Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge which is home to more federally endangered species than any refuge in the United States. A six-mile driving tour with shaded boardwalks weave through lush pine and oak hammocks of the second-largest sanctuary in Florida.
Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory
Also in Cocoa is the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory where visitors can spy comets crash on Jupiter, sneak a peek at the rings of Saturn and study the surface of Mars up to 450 million light years away at the planetarium claimed “The Best in the World” and all under a signature 70-foot aluminum dome.
Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier
The Cocoa Beach Pier — officially the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier — can be a one-stop plan for beachgoers, especially people only coming in for the day. The 800-foot pier is pretty nifty on its own, serving as a beach anchor on the north end of town.
The pier features five bars and restaurants, gear rentals, showers, a gift shop, fishing equipment and volleyball courts. There are lifeguards in this area, and bands and singers perform at regular intervals.
It’s also right near a prime surfing area, and manages to be close enough to Shepard Park to promote a party atmosphere, but far enough away to feel like its own destination. Most of the buildings along this stretch of the beach are condos, so be aware of treading onto private property.
It’s a little difficult to find, as the stoplight with a sign that directs people to the pier coming in from the north at Atlantic and Hendry avenues actually turns right into the Cocoa Beach Ale House parking lot.
Make your way to the coast and the big barrier is parking: The lot directly in front of the pier, between Meade and Pulsipher avenues, costs a whopping $15 to use.
That’s for the entire day, but still, that’s not a meager amount. The pier is popular, however, and on busy days you may not be able to find a parking space within several blocks.
Cocoa Beach, just south of Cape Canaveral between the Atlantic Ocean and Banana River is known primarily for its surf. At first blush, it may feel as if the surfers own this town — and you’d be right! Seriously, Kelly Slater has a street named after him and a statue downtown.
But that’s not a bad thing. One trip to the wrack line will show that the waves here are indeed — what’s the word? — gnarly much of the time. Most every day you’ll see surfers in wetsuits paddling out past the breakers, waiting for a good wave. This is an all-day thing, but the true diehards are there first thing in the morning.
Because of this clientele, there’s a friendly, laid-back vibe to the place, which has adopted a California-esque bent for fish tacos and surf lingo. Even with that Left Coast attitude, however, there’s something quintessentially Floridian about Cocoa Beach that is hard to pin down.
There’s the usual mix of lived-in motels and restaurants serving shrimp baskets, but more than anything, the beach caters to a really wide range of people. You’ve got crowds in from Orlando, retirees, families with kids, surfers, shellers and skimboarders. More than a lot of other beaches, you really get the feeling you can plop down on the beach and spend the day interacting with your neighbors under the canopy next to you.
Notable among the usual beach rules (no alcohol, camping, glass or fireworks, etc.) is the allowance for surfcasting, i.e. fishing from the beach. Florida residents are allowed to surfcast without a fishing license, as long as there are no people in the way to catch a stray hook.
No bonfires are allowed without a permit, which are subject to pretty strict conditions. Lifeguards are present in some areas, but not all, so be sure and check for the stand if you want someone looking out for you.
You should note, too, that Cocoa Beach for years has had a crime rate that is statistically higher than average for a town its size. Some of that no doubt is due to the huge influx of out-of-towners crowding the street over the spring and summer months.
The good news is that the city really is making crime a priority, and it has been seeing results. Recently, the crime rate has dipped significantly, with violent crimes seeing drops by a third or more. I’ll note the only time the Beachcomber fam felt nervous in the least during our visit is when a redneck in a lifted pickup took rather vocal umbrage at having to obey traffic laws and stop rolling coal while I parallel parked downtown.
Speaking of protecting things, sea turtles often nest in the area, so Cocoa Beach is very on the ball about marking turtle nests on the beach. Remember these animals are protected, and messing with a nest is a serious offense. The city asks people to observe lighting restrictions from March through October.
Attractions include the Cocoa Beach Pier, a 41-year-old landmark pier that stretches 840 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and serves as a beachside grandstand for space launches and endless festivals from surfing to seafood.
Dogs on Cocoa Beach
Lori Wilson Park has its own, enclosed dog park, but that’s behind the dunes where there is no beach.
In 2018, Cocoa Beach passed a temporary ordinance allowing dogs on the beach for 12 blocks between South Fourth Street and South 16th Street. Starting that summer, dogs were allowed on the beach from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. and from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
The goal was to see how the beach fared following so many canine visits. Chief among the concerns were the rule that owners had to pick up any landmines their pooches may have planted. Violations carried a potential fine of $250.
As of this writing, the ordinance seems to be working fine. The dog owners I saw were courteous and took care of their pets’ business. The kids, especially, seemed to enjoy having four-legged friends nearby. The city was due to revisit the ordinance to weigh whether it would continue.
Dinosaur Store and Museum
Fossils of all shapes, sizes and ages are on display here, both as an educational and an economic attraction. There’s a real museum, of course, which focuses not just on prehistoric animals, but contemporary ones and ancient human cultures, too.
Thousand Islands Conservation Area
There aren’t actually a thousand islands, but there are 338 acres of largely natural attractions in the Indian River Lagoon along Minuteman Causeway. This is a great place for kayaking, with frequent visits from the local marine mammal, the West Indian manatee. Access is by boat only, but there are hiking trails once you get there.
This mainland zoo is a bit of a drive, but is worth a trip for the Australasia and Africa animal exhibits. There are opportunities to go behind the scenes to see how animals are cared for, or take a kayak trip to see the zoo from a different perspective.
Cocoa Beach Aerial Adventures
If you don’t mind being 45 feet in the air right next to Atlantic Avenue, give one of the seven ropes courses here a try. There are three different levels of difficulty for courses, which kids as young as 5 can tackle.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
This federal refuge is located north of Kennedy Space Center, across from Titusville, but is a great place for a day trip. Among all the attractions is a manatee observation deck.
Where to Stay at Cocoa Beach
Surprisingly, Space Coast accommodations provide priceless beach vacations with great family value. Whether posh or practical, more than 9,500 East Coast rooms are dotted throughout the area from popular hotels and spacious condominiums to beachside cottages and five-bedroom bungalows.
International Palms Resort Cocoa Beach
Say you’ve got a whole family to put up for a week. Maybe a softball team full of 14-year-olds. Or you just had a baby and want a beach vacation with all the amenities that won’t break the bank. This is your resort. It’s got a pool, a splash park, tennis courts, easy beach access, an arcade, a fitness room, gear rentals and even a gift shop to get postcards and swimsuits, right off A1A in the middle of town. Try the s’mores at the fire pits outside Mambo’s.
Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront
If your pockets are a little deeper, head down the street to this mainstay lodging. There’s a fitness room, a business center, a decent bar and a strip of oceanfront that offers upscale-feeling lounge chairs and umbrellas.
Four Points by Sheraton Cocoa Beach
A more modern option is this hotel, which features the Cocoa Beach Surf Company store on the first floor (Ron Jon is right next door) and a multi-level parking garage. There’s a pool, fitness center, a place to rent kayaks, surfboards, paddleboards and lessons. The restaurant has a waterfall and the terrace has a hot tub.
Cocoa Beach Stay Cottages
If you need a space of your own, with more than one room and a kitchen and maybe room for a four-legged companion, these small units fit the bill nicely. They can often take people on short notice, or for longer stays, as long as you book far enough in advance.
Food & Drink
This is the Cocoa Beach outpost of a small, regional chain of family fare, Space Coast-style. There’s a bar, you can order fish and chips, there are surfboards nailed to the walls (the original, which is Indialantic, was started by surfers). The menu features some fairly healthy choices — the mahi sandwich is a good substitute for a burger, and the Banzai shrimp is unexpectedly spicy — but there’s a list of hot dogs worth trying, too.
A solid choice that includes chorizo tacos and several varieties of carnitas. Combo plates are a real deal if you order right, and it passes my true measure of a quality Mexican restaurant: The chip and salsa basket is free.
Sandbar Sports Grill
A real dive — in a good way — that features live entertainment, multiple theme nights each week, just about every sporting event broadcast on television, and tacos. Lots of tacos. Fish tacos, especially. And a 5-pound burrito challenge. If you finish that beast, they’ll put your photo on the wall, because you deserve that kind of infamy.
Epic Burrito Co.
Speaking of burritos (sensing a theme here?), this counter-service taco joint also has a burrito challenge. The menu features a 5-pound, 2-foot-long burrito called the Megalodon. Actually, they advertise it as being in excess of 5 pounds, so they can call it the biggest burrito in Cocoa Beach.
Rikki Tikki Tavern
A bar most notable for being at the very end of the 800-foot Cocoa Beach Pier, the recently renovated Rikki Tikki Tavern has seating for 100 people and now features food service. Proof that the bar fosters creativity: The signature drink is known as the Pieradise.
The Green Room Cafe
Acai bowls, smoothies and vegan-friendly options. If you’re tired of looking at surfboards, take in this establishment’s selection of skate decks. Also: A healthy selection of tea, coffee and beer.
Timeout Sports Bar Plus
A TV-filled sports bar in Cocoa Village on the mainland, with a covered patio lit by the soft glow of cable sports at all times. The most impressive feat here is a list of all-the-time drink specials that include $3 domestic pitchers and low-priced shooters. There used to be an original location on Cocoa Beach, but it closed. This outpost across the causeway remains.
Murdocks Southern Bistro
A Southern-inspired menu and a hipster vibe rule the day at this Cocoa Village haunt. Expect lots of greens, grits and fried goodies, but with a modern twist (including live entertainment on the regular). There is a decent beer and wine list, plus seven different kinds of mac and cheese, including lobster, Mediterranean and bacon jalapeno.
Von Stephan Village Bier Garten
A traditional, German-style beer garden in the heart of Cocoa Village. This features the usual German spaetzle and schnitzel, and steins as big as your head filled to overflowing with suds. Please remember the tables are communal, and don’t get bent out of shape when other parties sit down next to you.
How to Get to Cocoa Beach
The main gateway for air travel is Orlando Melbourne International Airport (MLB), a small commercial airport in the Melbourne area. It has some regional flights, plus American and Delta routes.
The typical ground transportation options exist here, although it’s going to take you some time to head all the way up to Cocoa Beach. In addition to courtesy hotel shuttles, cabs and the bus, rideshare companies Uber and Lyft are available. The Cocoa Beach Shuttle is among the shuttle services.
Closer to Cocoa Beach is Merritt Island Airport (COI), a general aviation airport for people who like to fly for fun, and also Space Coast Regional Airport (TIX), which is slightly larger and closer to Kennedy Space Center.
By car, there are four highways leading to the barrier islands in Brevard County, all of them connecting with the north-south arteries U.S. Highway 1 and Interstate 95.
A1A, the Martin Anderson Beachline Expressway, heads into Cape Canaveral from the north end of the island, and is the most used thoroughfare for cruise ship passengers looking to hit the seas. A1A turns into Atlantic Avenue as it heads south through Cocoa Beach.
State Road 520, the West Cocoa Beach (or West Merritt Island) Causeway, heads east directly from Cocoa Village on the mainland. This is the most direct route between Cocoa, Merritt Island and Cocoa Beach, and by no mistake leads right to Ron Jon Surf Shop, among other businesses.
Further south, beyond Patrick Air Force Base, S.R. 404 (the Pineda Causeway) and S.R. 518 (the Eau Gallie Causeway) stretch from Melbourne to the beaches. S.R. 404 leads to Indian Harbour Beach and 518 ends at Indialantic. If you end up on A1A from here, you’re in for a decent haul north to Cocoa Beach.
Space Coast Area Transit, which tries hard to avoid going by the unfortunate acronym SCAT, is the public transportation option in these parts. Routes mostly serve Cocoa and Melbourne on the mainland, but Routes 9 (the Cocoa Beach Trolley) and 26 connect Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral and the mainland towns.
Cocoa Beach features a bike share program called Zagster, which has several stations in town and in Cape Canaveral.