Two photos from the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, including chairs on the pool deck, and hotel's lobby

Younger Travelers Are Flocking to Palm Beach — Here's How the Ritzy Florida Town Became Cool Again

For more than a century, Palm Beach has been a symbol of monied exclusivity. But it's now becoming more accessible, beckoning a younger, more fashionable crowd.

It was barely noon on a Thursday, but cocktail hour had already begun by the pool at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. I had claimed one of the last open loungers and, shaded by a green-trimmed umbrella, sat sipping a Monkey Business, a refreshing mix of mango, citrus, and mint.

"Hold the vodka," I had told the server. Not only was it early; I was also three months pregnant. But looking around the palm-lined pool, I seemed to be the only one abstaining. A young mom sipped a glass of rosé from a float, watching as her son performed underwater somersaults and handstands. Nearby, the tables were full at Swifty's, the terrace restaurant, where chandeliers dangled from a pergola of hanging plants. Next to me, a group of Chicagoans ordered another round of Pink Paradise cocktails.

I had decided to spend a few days in this pink paradise, escaping the first chill of autumn in New York. Though I found no shortage of inspiring bon vivants all around me, I was taking my social cues from a character from the city's past: a spider monkey named Johnnie Brown. In the 1920s, the beloved pet of eccentric architect Addison Mizner was a local celebrity, known for sipping martinis and perching on his owner's shoulder during strolls along Worth Avenue.

Two photos from Palm Beach's Colony hotel, including the lobby and exterior
From left: The Colony Hotel lobby, with its custom DeGournay wallpaper; bicycles available for hotel guest use. Gesi Schilling

I had become acquainted with Mizner and his sidekick while taking a stroll of my own down Palm Beach's main thoroughfare, South County Road. A few blocks from the Colony, at Classic Bookshop, I picked up a copy of An Illustrated History of Palm Beach, a colorful archive published by the local historical society. Along with tales about Johnnie Brown—including the animal's unsuccessful bid to become mayor—I read about the boom that, in the wake of 1918's Great Influenza epidemic, turned the once sleepy coastal hamlet into America's Riviera. Mizner and other local names, including the industrialist Henry Flagler, oversaw its transformation into a Gilded Age playground for the wealthy, filled with Mediterranean Revival mansions and grand hotels. After World War II ended, veterans began flocking to the area for its year-round warmth and easy living—and were followed by a steady stream of well-heeled retirees, who continue to migrate here to this day.

Lured by the possibility of more room to roam, not to mention lower taxes, a new generation is reclaiming this old-school haven and making it their own.

In the past two years, of course, the COVID pandemic has spurred another influx—this time of young, urban sophisticates from big cities like New York and Los Angeles. Lured by the possibility of more room to roam, not to mention lower taxes, a new generation is reclaiming this old-school haven and making it their own. A panoply of restaurants, galleries, hotels, and shops has followed, bringing a fresh attitude—while still retaining the island's retro glamour. The result? Palm Beach is actually cool again.

"The momentum started pre-COVID and then accelerated," said Sarah Wetenhall, a third-generation Palm Beacher who, along with her husband, Andrew, purchased the 75-year-old Colony Hotel in 2016. "Anyone who was thinking about moving down here came in full force during the pandemic."

Two women look at surf boards in a surf shop in Palm Beach
West Palm Beach’s Gypsy Life Surf Shop, at the Grandview Public Market. Gesi Schilling

According to U.S. Census data, the population of Palm Beach County (which includes the island of Palm Beach and the neighboring city of West Palm Beach, as well as the resort town of Boca Raton) grew by roughly 13 percent between 2010 and 2020. Since Wetenhall took over the Colony, she has noticed an increase in younger and more diverse residents in Palm Beach, and at the hotel in particular, the average guest age has gone down by several decades. "To a lot of folks, the veil around Palm Beach has been lifted, and it's more accessible," she said.

That shifting demographic has inspired many of the county's top hotels to spring for makeovers: the Colony and other well-established favorites, like Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa and the Breakers, have all recently been renovated to reflect the tastes of a more youthful clientele. For her property's new look, Wetenhall enlisted the local firm Kemble Interiors to preserve an authentic Palm Beach aesthetic. In the double-height lobby, hand-painted DeGournay wallpaper depicts Johnnie Brown, along with Wetenhall's Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Palmer, amid a lush jungle scene of flamingos, alligators, and butterflies. Glossy black terrazzo is reminiscent of the tiles that covered the floor when the hotel first opened in 1947. Pastels and wicker are sprinkled throughout.

Related: The 14 Best Beaches in Florida

"Palm Beach has had a tension between new and old for a long time," said designer Celerie Kemble, who was raised on the island and joined her mother, Mimi McMakin, at Kemble Interiors in 2002. "We can argue about what that inherent identity is, but what I grew up with, and what my mother grew up with, is still strong and present."

While Kemble Interiors' floral patterns and baby pinks and blues are subtly old-school, the text I received from the Colony's front desk alerting me that my villa was ready lent a touch of 21st-century modernity to my stay. Minutes later, I arrived at Villa Jasmine, designed by Estée Lauder scion and Palm Beach regular Aerin Lauder. On the wicker coffee table, Lauder's book Palm Beach sat next to a silver wine bucket containing a bottle of Sancerre. Orchids lined the white plaster walls surrounding the fireplace, and a fountain bubbled in the courtyard. It was the perfect blend of heritage and modernity—just like Palm Beach itself.

Diners sitting und er a black and white striped umbrella at a hotel restaurant terrace in Palm Beach.
Dinner at LoLa 41, the restaurant at the White Elephant Palm Beach. Gesi Schilling

"It is the biggest scene down here!" David Lucido yelled over the din of the Wednesday evening crowd at Le Bilboquet. The Worth Avenue restaurant's nickel-topped bar was starting to fill up at 6 p.m., something the New York designer told me was common any day of the week. "The first night we opened, women were in backless gowns on a Thursday night," he said—and judging by the well-dressed diners surrounding us, little had changed in the eight months since.

When Lucido first arrived in Palm Beach last year to oversee the design of the restaurant—an outpost of the beloved Manhattan bistro—he quickly realized that his preconceived notions of the island as a closed-off and uptight community were outdated. "Florida was never a place I was excited about, but then you come down here and see how sophisticated it is," he said. Charmed by the area's booming social scene—and the commissions that quickly materialized during his stay—he purchased a 1930s Spanish-style bungalow in West Palm Beach's historic Southend neighborhood, which he uses as an office and a second home and shares with his partner and their Jack Russell terrier.

Le Bilboquet isn't the only New York culinary favorite to have heeded the call of Palm Beach. On South County Road, La Goulue brought its decadent terrines, soufflés, and pommes frites to a dimly lit oak-paneled dining room that's a spitting image of the Upper East Side original. Sant Ambroeus's putty-pink umbrellas have been set up alongside the fountains at Royal Poinciana Plaza. And West Palm Beach's One Flagler tower is set to become a power-lunch hot spot with the opening of an outpost of midtown Manhattan staple Estatorio Milos.

Two photos from Palm Beach, including women enjoying a seafood tower lunch, and the exterior of a restaurant at night
From left: Le Bilboquet’s seafood tower— a Palm Beach lunchtime staple; French bistro La Goulue’s new Palm Beach location. Gesi Schilling

Another recent East Coast arrival, the White Elephant, came to Palm Beach by way of Nantucket. A glammed-up interpretation of the historic New England inn of the same name, the boutique hotel is housed in one of the island's many 1920s buildings inspired by Addison Mizner's Mediterranean Revival aesthetic. But while many original architectural details have been restored, much of the hotel feels modern. Inside, I came face to face with The Lady of the House, a chic Orit Fuchs painting that's part of the property's extensive contemporary art collection. More pieces lined the hallways leading to the 32 guest rooms, where the aesthetic was a pared-down version of the Colony, with crisp white linens, Scandinavian-style furniture, and the occasional wicker detail.

"The art world followed where everyone went, so the past two years have brought this amazing scene of pop-ups and really good galleries."

Beyond the lobby, in the U-shaped courtyard, LoLa 41 was packed with young Palm Beachers. The restaurant is another Nantucket offshoot, named for the 41st parallel and the various cuisines native to countries on that latitude, including Japan, Korea, and Italy. The menu was almost bewildering in its global influences, with everything from poke nachos and bulgogi to octopus carpaccio. It was unclear what latitude my foie gras burger hailed from, but it was still delicious.

The next morning, I borrowed the keys to one of the White Elephant's house BMWs and set out to cross a different kind of line: Lake Worth Lagoon. Though the narrow body of water dividing Palm Beach and West Palm Beach is easily navigated by the Memorial Flagler Bridge, it has represented a metaphorical barrier for decades, with the island's wealthy residents generally content to remain hermetically sealed from their more affordable neighbor to the west. But as more new residents put down roots on both sides, that division has begun to blur, with new businesses and more attractive real estate drawing locals west.

Two photos showing terrace dining tables in a hotel restaurant, and a bronze peacock sculpture in a garden, both from Palm Springs
From left: Swifty’s restaurant, at the Colony Hotel, in Palm Beach, Florida; a bronze peacock by Dan Ostermiller at the Philip Hulitar Sculpture Garden. Gesi Schilling

It took just seven minutes to drive from the White Elephant to the Square, West Palm Beach's open-air shopping center, which is home to organic cafés, casual boutiques, and public art installations. At Rohi's Readery, a progressive children's bookstore, I picked up And Tango Makes Three, a board book based on the real-life story of a pair of gay penguins at the Central Park Zoo, for my toddler. From there, I proceeded to Grandview Public Market, South Florida's first food hall, which opened in 2018 in the emerging Warehouse District. I paused in front of each stall, contemplating ramen, Nashville hot chicken, and chorizo tacos, before deciding on a shrimp po'boy from Roux Cajun Cuisine.

A short drive away, I felt a sudden hit of unexpected nostalgia at the lifestyle boutique Town Country Coast, where owner Dana Lorenz has channeled the country-chintz aesthetic of traditional Palm Beach—Pierre Deux, Laura Ashley—to curate a whimsical inventory of vintage and newly designed jewelry and home goods. Lorenz said the store is big among young parents, who moved to the area for the charming bungalows and Spanish-colonial homes and brought with them a new set of ideals.

More Trip Ideas: The Top 15 Resort Hotels in Florida

"A lot of people in Palm Beach don't want the look of it to change, but they're still thinking differently," she said, adding that, despite the long-held conservative political views of many prominent locals (including its most famous, former president Donald Trump), both cities are seeing a shift leftward. That was especially evident in the summer of 2020, when a mural depicting icons of the Civil Rights Movement was painted across a block of Clematis Street. Lorenz, who bought her Dutch Colonial house in the El Cid neighborhood in 2019, argues that changing attitudes have had as much impact on the county's demographics as the area's widespread economic growth.

I had the uncanny feeling that I was back in New York City at Sant Ambroeus the next afternoon as I dined on the same fusilli alle verdure invernali—pasta with winter greens—that I order at my local outpost on Madison Avenue. Manhattan's Milanese mainstay was one of the anchor tenants at the Royal Poinciana Plaza shopping center when it opened in 2016, and it has been almost impossible to get a reservation ever since.

As I sipped an after-lunch cortado, the heels of Gucci-muled shoppers clacked past me across the plaza's checkered floors. Kirna Zabête, Jimmy Choo, Kiton—the shops were all busy, but it was a different story in the center's early days, when Samantha David, president of WS Development, set out to convince luxury brands to come to the Royal Poinciana.

Two photos from Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana shopping plaza, including a store exterior, and outside dining tables by a fountain
From left: The Royal Poinciana Plaza shopping mall; fountain-side dining at Sant Ambroeus. Gesi Schilling

"When I started talking to Saint Laurent in 2017, they said, 'Palm Beach is not on our radar. No one wears black there,'" David told me. "I had to fight the Lilly Pulitzer perception." The cotton-candy-colored fashions of Palm Beach's most enduring label were noticeably absent from the luxury storefronts at the plaza—Hermès, Frame, and Veronica Beard all displayed darker tones in their windows. According to David, Royal Poinciana currently has a 20-tenant waiting list for retail space.

David was equally instrumental in bringing international galleries to the shopping center. During the pandemic, Sotheby's and Acquavella both expanded there, joining outposts of art-dealing titans Lévy Gorvy and Pace. Sarah Gavlak, who opened her namesake gallery on the island in 2005, also recently moved to the Poinciana. As one of the first contemporary art dealers to see the potential in South Florida, Gavlak has been on the front lines of its changing art scene for nearly two decades.

Related: You Can Own Palm Beach's Only Private Island For $210 Million

"It was very different back then," she said about her early years in Palm Beach. "There was this old, nineteenth-century version of what avant-garde meant." Gavlak—who primarily represents LGBTQ, BIPOC, and female artists—was often told that her programming was too provocative for buttoned-up Palm Beach. But she wasn't deterred. "When you're a pioneer, you're creating something," she said. "I had to create this." In 2018, she launched the New Wave Art Wknd, a Palm Beach expo held annually before Art Basel Miami. Last year, the fair partnered with Lehmann Maupin, Paula Cooper, and other galleries to present the works of emerging artists like Bronx sculptor Kim Dacres.

Two photos from palm beach, showing staff at a classic pharmacy soda shoo, and artwork at a museum
From left: Alger Chapman and Nanci Lane work the lunch counter at Green’s Pharmacy, in West Palm Beach; Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, at the Norton Museum of Art. Gesi Schilling

Gavlak's mission might have raised eyebrows in 2005—but it would have caused a huge stir back in 1941, when the Norton Museum of Art first opened. Commissioned by steel magnate Ralph Hubbard Norton and his wife, Elizabeth, as a public exhibition space for the family's personal collection of paintings and sculpture, the institution, like most galleries and museums of the era, displayed few pieces by women or artists of color. In 2013, when the board approved an architectural overhaul and a 59,000-square-foot addition to the Norton, it pledged to focus on greater inclusivity, diversity, equity, and access.

The $100 million expansion of the museum by Foster & Partners demonstrates how far the city of Palm Beach has come. I skirted past Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, feeling dwarfed by its massive tilted red wheel and wavy blue fibers, and entered the gallery showing "For the Record," an exhibition celebrating the work of female artists. Pausing at …of Prosperity, South African Mary Sibande's compelling sculpture of a domestic worker ensconced in heaps of royal blue fabric, I considered how vastly different the Norton must have been without these divergent perspectives. It was decidedly not the staid Palm Beach of old. Neither are the many new works of significance that have recently been added to the museum's permanent collection, including an extensive archive of photographs documenting the African diaspora and evocative portraits of Arab women by Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi.

"The renovation of the Norton really changed the game," collector and curator Beth DeWoody told me later over the phone. "All of a sudden, Palm Beach became a real art destination. There are sophisticated people here looking for things to do—you can't sit on the beach every day!"

According to DeWoody, the pandemic only magnified the Norton's impact. "The art world followed where everyone went, so the past two years have brought this amazing scene of pop-ups and really good galleries," she explained. Her by-appointment-only Bunker Artspace in West Palm Beach, which shows highlights from her massive personal collection, has recently been joined in the neighborhood by an ongoing pop-up from Hong Kong's White Cube. Nearby, the Ben, an Autograph Collection hotel, has become a public gallery space in its own right, featuring rotating exhibitions curated by local artists and gallerists like Paul Fisher.

"Palm Beach has had a tension between new and old for a long time."

Back at the Colony that evening, Blair Voltz Clarke was preparing for an exhibition of Atlanta artist Khalilah Birdsong's large-scale abstract paintings. For the Manhattan-based dealer, who splits her time between her Voltz Clarke gallery on the Lower East Side and a pop-up space in the hotel, Palm Beach's exploding art scene has been just one more reason the seasonal crowd has become permanent. "People don't need to hop back to New York every week or zip to art fairs anymore, because so much is right here in their backyard," she said.

Of course, her gallery's backyard also happens to be the Colony's pool, where the lively scene had evidently carried on since my last visit. As tempting as another art opening was, I couldn't help returning to my lounger for another Monkey Business mocktail. I had the feeling it's exactly what Johnnie Brown would have done. After all, monkey see, monkey do.

Yellow and white striped chairs on an oceanside restaurant terrace in Palm Beach
Views of the Atlantic Ocean from the Eau Palm Beach Resort. Gesi Schilling

The Best of the Palm Beaches

Where to Stay

The Ben, Autograph Collection: This 208-room property is a luxe addition to the developing West Palm Beach waterfront. Doubles from $515.

Colony Hotel: The recent renovation of this 90-room Worth Avenue landmark has redefined classic Palm Beach style. Doubles from $810.

Eau Palm Beach Resort Spa: The public areas just got a multimillion-dollar refreshand now there's a kids' club, too. Doubles from $1,105.

White Elephant Palm Beach: Mediterranean Revival architecture meets contemporary design at this Nantucket spinoff. Doubles from $650.

Where to Eat

Grandview Public Market: The vendors at this West Palm Beach food hall offer global cuisine, from pizza to pupusas.

Green's Pharmacy Luncheonette: West Palm Beach's family-run lunch counter since 1938.

La Goulue: A New York City transplant serving French bistro classics. Entrées $38–$59.

Le Bilboquet: Elegant French fare on Worth Avenue. Entrées $26–$62.

Sant Ambroeus: Manhattan's Milanese café brings a touch of sprezzatura to the Royal Poinciana Plaza. Entrées $27–$79.

LoLa 41: A smorgasbord of cuisines from countries located on the 41st parallel. Entrées $18–$89.

What to Do

Bunker Artspace: By appointment only, this gallery shows works from owner Beth DeWoody's collection.

Four Arts Gardens: An urban oasis comprising the 2.2-acre Philip Hulitar Sculpture Garden and the Four Arts Botanical Gardens.

Gypsy Life Surf Shop: A laid-back boutique with beachwear and bathing suits, plus surfboard rentals.

Norton Museum of Art: Palm Beach's first major museum recently underwent a $100 million renovation and established a new inclusivity mission.

Royal Poinciana Plaza: Home to fashion boutiques, high-end restaurants, and blue-chip galleries.

The Square: Downtown West Palm Beach's retail center has dozens of shops and restaurants, plus public art and events.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A New Leaf.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles