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Perhaps the best way to take advantage of Florida’s sunshine is an al fresco meal surrounded by nature. It’s the ultimate dinner with a view, all the better if your meal is inspired by or borrowed from the garden.
Each of these foodie-friendly spots across the Sunshine State offer an unusual way to experience the classic garden picnic. Bring your camera. It’s hard to say what’s better: the fresh flavors or the floral backdrop.
Its agricultural roots date to the early 20th century when several Japanese farmers immigrated to southeast Florida. One donated his land to the county as a park. Thus, today we have Roji-en: Garden of the Drops of Dew.
The grounds with their bridges, stone lanterns, and bonsai are lovely, as is a meal in the Cornell Café, but don’t miss the chance to watch or take part in the traditional art of sado with a tea ceremony.
You can observe a demonstration or sign up for a workshop to get more hands-on learning about how to make, serve, and drink tea as well as the proper way to enter the tea house and sit. Admire how whisking creates a thin swirl of foam before savoring your cup of matcha green tea.
Photo Credit: Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens
You can picnic at any number of gardens across Florida, but only one will have monumental, monolithic sculptures towering in the distance as silent spectators to your meal. Sounds odd? Indeed, the former home of sculptor Ann Weaver Norton is something rather different. The Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens are filled with over 250 cycad and palm species, artwork intermixed among the flora. Picnicking here adds to the experience, slowing down your visit to this special place.
When I called the garden to ask for tips on where to get lunch, they suggested Aioli, excellent advice as it turned out. A West Palm Beach favorite since 2014, Aioli has one location just five minutes away. The bakery specializes in made-from-scratch bread (don’t miss the seeded sourdough!), and the salads, sandwiches, soups, and sweets spotlight local ingredients brilliantly prepared.
I can vouch for the turkey and brie on cranberry walnut bread, a dreamy blend of sweet and savory, as well as the caprese on ciabatta, as good as can be found in Italy. Even the side pasta and potato salads, so often an afterthought, are memorable and cleverly seasoned. Don’t forget dessert—the chocolate cake is meltingly moist—best enjoyed in the garden courtyard, where there are tables, chairs, and a nearby sculptural fountain to contemplate while dining.
Photo Credit: Cheryl Rodewig
Bok Tower Gardens
Featuring a 1930s villa, an art deco carillon, and a landscape designed by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted, Bok Tower Gardens is a bucket-list landmark in Central Florida.
Foodies will enjoy the kitchen garden with its orchard, herb beds, and seasonal veggies, including kale, cabbage, peppers and tomatoes—some used for cooking classes. Sign up for a class and you might learn how to ferment beans, make vegan “nice cream,” or build your own salsa.
The on-site café serves a range of dishes, from Asian noodle salad to avocado toast, along with beer and wine, and you can even order it as a boxed lunch. Most recently, the garden has launched a “brunch in a bag” series on select Sundays. Changing from week to week, the portable meal allows for plenty of social distancing as you find your own corner of Eden on the sprawling 250-acre estate.
Photo Credit: Bok Tower Gardens
About 20 minutes west of Fort Lauderdale, Flamingo Gardens is part garden, part wildlife sanctuary. On its 60 acres, you’ll find thousands of species of plants plus alligators, otters, bobcats, panthers, and others. The free-roaming peacocks and ancient oak trees just add to the old-Florida beauty.
The garden began as a citrus orchard back in 1927 before growing into one of South Florida’s most beloved botanical attractions. Take a tram tour, included with admission, to see the hammock, wetlands, and tropical groves where Indian jujube, mangos, kumquat, jackfruit, guava, lychee, and more flourish.
Then grab a seat at the Flamingo Café. It serves sandwiches, salads, snacks, and pies, but the star is the view: flamingos wading in their pond, butterflies flitting through the pollinator garden, and the occasional ibis or starling intent on your meal.
Photo Credit: Cheryl Rodewig
Not far from Cape Canaveral, Rockledge Gardens is a family-owned nursery founded in 1962.
But this isn’t just any plant store. The four-acre property features manicured gardens, fountains and ponds, including several colorful plantings to give customers an idea of what their purchases might grow up to be. With its flowering vines and shrubs, it’s pretty enough to be a coveted wedding venue, but picnickers are welcome.
Consider supplementing your meal with fresh finds from the farmer’s market, most sourced from within 100 miles of Rockledge. Honey, jams, candied jalapeños, cheese spreads, and hummus create a smorgasbord for diners, no cooking needed. The bestseller? The salad mix: baby greens with a few edible flowers (violas, nasturtiums, begonias, calendulas, and borage) thrown in. Sourced from a local farm and the on-site garden, it’s available seasonally. You can even pick some of your own flowers and greens.
If you don’t feel like packing your meal, visit for the weekend when in-house caterer Cypress Table serves up charcuterie as well as meals that explore different approaches to Florida cuisine.
Photo Credit: Rockledge Gardens
More Gardens to Savor
Hungry for more? Here are a few other Florida foodie experiences where you can get a flower fix.
Miami: Across from the Orchidarium and adjacent to the Swimming Pool Grotto, the café at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens will fortify you for a full day exploring the grounds. The 1920s landmark wows visitors with 10 acres of bayside Italianate gardens, laid out as a series of garden rooms, fronting a Mediterranean-style villa.
Sarasota:Sun Garden Café is Florida outdoor dining at its best. Located on Siesta Key, it serves creative dishes like chicken with mango habanero or Cajun benedict topped with mahi-mahi, crawfish, and Gulf shrimp. It tastes even better on the colorful patio surrounded by greenery and blooms.
Ocala: Privately owned but free to visitors, Shalom Park celebrates tranquility, seen in its expansive trails, woodlands, and labyrinth. Pick up a pie from Piesanos Stone Fired Pizza, a popular local chain, to enjoy on the open lawns.
Plan A Trip
If you want to see multiple gardens in one trip, try combining Flamingo Gardens with the sculpture garden and Japanese garden, all in southeast Florida. Drive a couple more hours up the coast for Rockledge Gardens. Bok Tower, meanwhile, works well as an add-on to visiting Lakeland, which has its own stunning (and free) Hollis Garden.
Cheryl Rodewig is an award-winning journalist, specializing in travel for more than a decade. When she’s not planning her next trip—preferably to a waterfall or garden—she’s putting her MBA to use crafting marketing stories for brands. You can read her words in USA Today, The Guardian, Fodor’s, and all over cherylrodewig.com.