Florida natives know there’s more to the Sunshine State than Miami clubs and Disney World. After living there for 15-years I have seen most of the vacation destinations Florida has to offer. My favorite spots in Florida offer more than pretty beaches. They are full of activities and stops to unwind, surf, brunch, and snorkel. From The Keys to the Panhandle, these are my top 8 Florida vacation destinations.
8. St. Augustine
This lively beach town has something for everyone. Anastasia State Park has some of the clearest waters in Florida and the town center is home to thrift shops, record stores, restaurants, and bars. Be sure to book a distillery tour and history buffs can stop by the oldest fort in America for 360-degree views overlooking the coast and town center. The Atlantic coast is known as a surf destination and St. Augustine is no exception. On a sunny day, you’ll find surfers lining the shoreline. If you’re an adventurer like me you can rent a board and join them!
7. Santa Rosa Beach
The panhandle of Florida is well-known to rowdy spring breakers, but if you’re looking for a more peaceful vacation away from the parties this is your spot! Santa Rosa Beach is known for the pristine white sand and aqua water. Surprisingly, bright aqua water is a rare sight in Florida due to population and pollution. Santa Rosa showcases the crystal-clear water with fewer crowds than more well-known beaches in Florida.
6. Amelia Island
Some of the best sunrises and sunsets can be found throughout the islands of Florida. Amelia Island is no exception to this but also provides the amenities you’re looking for. A lively boardwalk, surprisingly quiet beaches, spa resorts galore, and easy access through Jacksonville Airport make this a prime destination for travelers. You won’t be overwhelmed with tourists here on a normal year because the island is so big! Visitors travel to this luxury island to escape, golf, fish, surf, and soak up a romantic beach scene away from the crowds.
Miami has more to offer than lively nightclubs and Star Island. A favorite local activity is a day trip to the picturesque art district of Wynwood where you can grab a beer at a craft brewery and explore the walls famous street art. South Beach will take you from boozy brunch to the sunny beach. Stop by Little Havana for Cuban cuisine, live music, and cocktails. Pro tip: Everglades National Park is less than an hour away from Miami and the best way to explore the glades is by booking a boat tour.
4. Siesta Key
This ritzy coastal town is well known worldwide as the number one beach in Florida. It’s a great option for those looking for more than just small coastal views with Siesta Key boasting unlimited restaurants, nightlife, golf, museums, spas, and a perfect pink-hued beach. Siesta Key has options for group fishing charters, or you can rent a boat to go island hopping just off the coast. If you are going to pick one beach to visit in Florida, this is the one!
Every time I tell someone Orlando is my hometown the first thing they say is “I’ve always wanted to go to Disney World,” but, I promise, there’s more to this city than Mickey Mouse! Downtown Orlando and Mills 50 are known for their lively bar and restaurant scenes. Water lovers and adventurers can float on the river at Wekiva Springs State Park or rent a romantic swan paddle boat at Lake Eola. One of my favorite Orlando destinations is Park Avenue in Winter Park where I worked as a waitress at the best brunch spot in town, Briar Patch. As a bonus, craft breweries have popped up all over the city. The theme parks are truly one of my favorite things about the city and put Orlando at number 3 on my list!
2. Boca Grande
A boater’s paradise, Boca Grande holds a special place in my heart. Floridians drive from all over the state for lobstering, deep-sea fishing, tarpon season, snorkeling and, of course, the food. Jimmy Buffet was rumored to have written “Cheeseburger in Paradise” about Cabbage Key, a small island off the coast of Boca Grande. After grabbing a burger and taping a dollar to the wall at Cabbage Key you can search for lighthouses and roam the crystal-clear water to find a private beach on any of the islands scattered throughout. Sanibel Island is a must-see for those who love collecting shells and enjoying pristine white-sandy beaches.
1. The Keys
My number one destination in Florida is just a few hours away from Miami and the oceanfront drive is worth it. The Florida Keys are known for their hundreds of small islands, or keys, where you can snorkel, fish, lobster, scuba dive, boat, and soak in hours on dozens of beaches. It’s a boat-lovers paradise and if you don’t have a boat there are boat rentals and group boat charters available. Islamorada is my favorite key because of the small-town vibes and childhood memories of feeding the tarpon at Robbie’s. Those without boat access can still enjoy Key West which is known for lively bars, beautiful sunsets, pristine beaches, boardwalk entertainment, and the famous Hemingway house.
Florida continues to flood the headlines with minimal precautions to stop the spread of coronavirus. Right now may not be the ideal time to visit Florida, but save this list to plan your vacation when COVID-19 cases dwindle. No matter what your travel plans are in 2020 wearing a mask will keep you and fellow travelers safe.