Discover the Quirky Charm of Cocoa, Florida

Cocoa is a riverfront city with an artsy downtown, flourishing food scene, and deep respect for its history.

When artist Carolyn Seiler landed in Cocoa, Florida, with her military husband more than 20 years ago, she anticipated mourning the loss of the barefoot island life she had enjoyed farther south. "For a while, I held onto Key West—my cottage and my studio on Duval Street—like a life preserver," she says. "But sometimes when you think that you're giving up something, you're really trading it in for so much more."

Brevard Avenue
Shops and restaurants flank Brevard Avenue, the historic main drag. Tina Sargeant

What she discovered was a peaceful little pocket off the highway connecting Orlando to the Atlantic, an area that brought together many of the amenities of her old home—history, art, and water-blessed geography—in a less trafficked, less expensive package. "It has all the uniqueness of an Old Florida town, but the beauty is that nobody really knows about it," says resident Halim Urban.

Cocoa Riverfront Park
Cocoa Riverfront Park offers pavilions, an amphitheater, and a boardwalk. Tina Sargeant

It wasn't always like that. Decades ago, Cocoa was the anchor for the Central Florida region that's now known as the Space Coast. (Cape Canaveral, home to the sixties-built Kennedy Space Center, is 15 minutes away.) Founded by fishermen in the 1800s, the town grew up along its coastline, which was once blanketed by citrus groves. Thanks to its location on the Indian River, roughly halfway up the Florida peninsula, Cocoa was an obvious hub for the fruit industry, the success of which helped build the eventual downtown area known as Cocoa Village. Relics from this flourishing era pepper the 13-square-mile town, from the restored 1920s playhouse to the stately homes sprawling out along the water and dripping with charm (think wide porches and gingerbread detailing). "It's a town that has done a good job preserving the past, which is unusual in Florida," says Seiler.

But for all of Cocoa's investment in its history, the city has also spent the past couple of decades priming itself for a lively future. Snuggling up to the well-worn brick buildings today are breweries, tapas bars, and niche galleries and boutiques (like the beloved Antilles Trading Company Pirate Museum and Store) that lend Cocoa Village a good dose of quirkiness. Murals decorate the streets. Just beyond, a revitalized waterfront offers the perfect setting for a picnic or an afternoon stroll. It's a place where mom-and-pop shops still dominate—but with a modern twist.

Green Circle gallery
Green Circle is a gallery featuring more than 60 local artists. Tina Sargeant

An Emerging Food Scene

Not long ago, dining along the Space Coast delivered exactly what you'd expect from a salty beach town: burgers and beer served in plastic cups. But Cocoa has arguably become the region's hotbed for cuisine. In addition to mainstays like Ossorio Bakery & Café (a casual coffee spot with a varied menu and a European feel) and Café Margaux (the ideal linen-tablecloth eatery to complement date night at the playhouse), other trendy outposts have also put down roots. Urban saw the transition happening, and he capitalized on the restaurant boom in 2018 by starting Village Food Tours, a walking excursion that combines local tastings with a side of history. "We're seeing a lot of younger entrepreneurs who grew up in the area now investing in the community," he says.

Pit stops on the tour might include Texas-style brisket at Crydermans Barbecue, which is set in a converted 1930s gas station and has handcrafted outdoor seating made of wood salvaged from Hurricane Matthew. Other local faves include River Road Coffee & Popsicles, where the boozy treats are a happy hour must, and Villa Palma at the Village, which dishes out upscale Italian fare and craft cocktails. For a sleepy town that formerly lived by a lights-out-by-eight mentality, there are plenty of places to imbibe, from a few local breweries to Tin Whiskey Southern Kitchen & Still, one of the newest additions to the food scene. "There's a nightlife that was never here before," notes Urban.

Crydermans Barbecue
Discover an array of wood-fired meats at Crydermans Barbecue, known for its Texas-style brisket. Tina Sargeant

Creative Roots

While Cocoa has managed to remain a best-kept secret to its residents and loyal visitors, it's also gradually developed a reputation for its robust community of artists who are attracted by the area's natural assets. "There's so much blue space," says Seiler, referring to the region's two rivers that unfold slowly across a series of barrier islands before opening up to the endless Atlantic. "That is part of the draw of living and painting here." Carolyn Seiler & Friends, a vibrant building splashed with a cheerful montage of Cocoa Village, represents close to 30 Space Coast artists working in different media. Dozens of others showcase their pieces at various studios, galleries, and co-ops in town. This creative presence that dates back decades has come to define Cocoa. The main drag of Brevard Avenue—or any of its growing offshoots—has evolved into a museum of sorts, with public art displays ranging from painted benches to sculptural flora.

The Patinaed Fleur
The Patinaed Fleur offers build-your-own fresh flower bouquets and monthly hands-on workshops. Tina Sargeant

Even the gift shops here have a creative flair: At The Patinaed Fleur, dried blooms strung up over a light-filled window bring a sense of whimsy to the pint-size flower shop. Over at Hello Again Books, a logo designed by a local tattoo artist invites visitors inside, where strewed pages from novels plaster the floors. While nearly every storefront has something different to offer, including Florida-made foods and goods available at the Sunshine Shop and a smorgasbord of ocean-themed souvenirs at the Village Beach House, they have also collectively embraced the sense of friendliness and funk that's quintessentially Cocoa. "People often tell me this place has such a welcoming, happy vibe," says Seiler of her studio. "But I think that's true of a lot of places in the Village. There's really something for everyone."

Hello Again Books
Opened in 2020, Hello Again Books sells new and used works and is filled with artful displays. Tina Sargeant
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