Sunshine State. Sometimes when I am traveling, in a hotel in some random corner of Earth, I find myself drifting, surfing, slowly flowing like ever-persistent waves, I find myself longing for Florida. The weather is irrational, the stories are bizarre and the lingo is eccentric but very few places on Earth offer the mix of cultures, the late-night cuisine, the thumping music, and the essence of life like Florida does. Today, with longing and an urge to travel back, I have made a list of the best places to visit in Florida so that you too can experience this wonderful state.
15 miles South of Miami on the Strait of Florida lies the archipelago of Florida Keys. The archipelago is made up of 1,700 islands that form a comma-like curve to the South and Southwestern sides of the Florida Peninsula. The word “key” refers to a low-lying sandy island that sits on top of a coral reef.
Once they were only accessible through water but with the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Overseas Railway, the Keys were connected to mainland Florida. That didn’t last long as hurricanes destroyed the railways. The Overseas Highway replaced the railway and now connects the islands of the Keys and mainland Florida. You can grossly divide the Keys into Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine, Lower Keys, and the westernmost part: The Key West.
With the biggest artificial coral reef in the world and a stunning oceanic ecosystem, Key Largo is the “Diving Capital of the World” and one of the best places to visit in Florida. You can explore the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park here by hiking through various hiking trails. Since you are in the Diving Capital of the World, you can take to the waters through kayaking, diving, and snorkeling.
Islamorada is called the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World”. If you aren’t a fan of fishing, you can visit the Theatre of The Sea where you can swim with dolphins, get close to sharks, and see rare turtles. There are also several parks like Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, Indian Key Historic State Park, and Long Key State Park where you can learn about the geological history and environment of the Keys.
In Marathon, you can visit the only hospital in the world for sea turtles. The Crane Point Museum is a major point of information on the history, culture, and nature of the Marathon. Marathon Air Museum is heaven for aviation nerds like me. There are also plenty of adrenaline-pumping activities to do in Marathon like snorkeling, cable wakeboarding, water skiing at the Otherside Adventure Park, and scuba diving at A Deep Blue Dive Center. After being tired of all these activities you can lounge at the Sombrero Beach or go sailing in the 36-foot catamaran, The Sirius.
Seven Miles Bridge takes you out of Marathon and joins you to the Lower Keys. It is quite simply one of the most beautiful road journeys you will ever make and it’s open to walking, rollerblading, and even cycling.
In Big Pine Key you can come close to the native plants and animals at the Bahia Honda State Park. You can also snorkel and have a laid-back time at the picnic pavilions on one of the three beaches: Calusa,
Sandspur, and Loggerhead. The National Key Deer Refuge is home to the subspecies of White-tailed Deer, the Key Deer which can only be found right here.
Key West is one of the best places to visit in Florida as it is stacked with tourist attractions. There are more than 50 species of butterflies and 20 species of exotic butterflies in the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Shipping and treasure hunting is a key parts of the Florida Keys and you can see this in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.
You can also visit the old Spanish colonial house where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote his A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Death in the Afternoon. If you are in the mood for more upbeat activities you can visit Duval Street and Mallory Square where you have the hip and happening restaurants, shops, and boutiques.
Tampa lies on the Gulf of Mexico on the West Coast of Florida. It is one of the major cities in a larger area called as Tampa Bay Area. It is one of the best places to visit in Florida for families looking for a mixture of urban life as well as outdoor adventure.
Busch Gardens is a mixture of a zoo and adventure theme park. Here you can get close to giraffes, kangaroos, sloths, and flamingos and see several other animals at the Serengeti Night Safari. Roller coasters, water rides, and other rides are also aimed at families looking for a thrill.
You can see various marine life like starfish, and African penguins and even get to swim with sea turtles in Florida Aquarium. A whole wide variety of animals from almost every continent are present at the Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. Native Florida animals like panthers, orangutans, and manatees also call the zoo their home.
Ybor city which once produced almost a million cigars a month is now the home of the Latino community in Tampa. This city experienced a hard period during and after the Great Depression but is making a tremendous come back lately. Other than exploring the city you must try Florida’s oldest Spanish restaurant, Columbia Restaurant which was established in 1905!
The Museum of Science and Industry is a wonderful place to learn about physics and Math in a fun, creative way. The lively Sparkman Wharf near the Tampa Aquarium is one of the best places in the city to casually hang out. You can also walk or cycle along the Riverwalk which is 2.4 miles long and connects Sparkman Wharf to Armature Works along the Hillsborough River.
There is no way that you talk about Florida and not talk about the Everglades, it simply is one of the best places to visit in Florida. The image of open boats with massive fan-like engines on the back zipping past marshes has become synonyms for the Everglades. I think that image does this natural wonder a huge disservice as it reduces it to nothing but an alligator-infested swamp.
It’s not true. Everglades isn’t a swamp either. The ecosystem that this southern region of Florida has cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
For starters, Everglades is a tropical wetland. The native Americans called it Pa-hay-Okee or “river of grass”. It can be easily accessed through Greater Miami Area (Shark Valley Visitor Center) , Naples (Gulf Coast Visitor Center), or Flamingo Visitor Center in Everglades National Park.
There are several great canoe and kayak trails here. If you aren’t into the noisy big swamp buggies then you can opt for traditional pole boats. Hiking is also a great way to explore the Everglades.
You can see various species of birds here like the Great Blue Heron, Roseate spoonbill, Anhinga, American Flamingo, etc. making it a paradise for bird watchers. Wildlife also includes American Alligators, white-tailed deer, dolphins and if you are really lucky: Florida Panther. Camping on chickees and fishing are other relaxing things to do here.
Naples is located on the Southwestern side of Florida. It is one of the major cities on Florida’s Paradise Coast. Perhaps not as famous as the top Florida destinations but Naples actually is one of the best places to visit in Florida.
Naples has a reputation for being an upscale and luxe destination. Yes, with its white-sand beaches and fancy shopping avenues, Naples does have this expensive charm about it. But it also has that cozy and laid-back vibe that makes it a perfect holiday destination without making you feel alienated.
The beaches of Naples will remind you of the Caribbean if you have been there. Pristine white sand beaches with turquoise waters are enough to make anyone sit and soak in the vista. There are plenty of beaches to do just that.
Vanderbilt beach and Lowdermilk Park are family-friendly public beaches with enough space to lounge or even have a game of beach volleyball. You can have a picnic, outdoor grill, and other activities on the pristine Delnor-Wiggins Pass beach. Getting on Hemingway Water Shuttle and exploring Keewaydin Island is also a must.
One of Florida’s native species of tortoise, the gopher tortoise can be seen at the Barefoot Beach Preserve. It is the destination to go to if you aren’t a fan of commercialized and crowded touristy beaches. The long natural stretch of beach can be explored on foot or through canoe tours.
Apart from beaches, golf Naples is also a hotspot for shopping and emerging nightlife. Mercato, Fifth Avenue, and Third Street South have high-end boutiques and restaurants that combine the old architecture with modern luxury. After sundown, these places glow up with bars, gastro lounges, pubs, and clubs that are sure to attract any night party animal in you.
St. Augustine lies on the Northeastern side of Florida on the Atlantic Coast. History is deep here as St. Augustine is the oldest city in USA, founded over five decades before the Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock. Not just that, St. Augustine also happens to be the oldest most continuously colonized city in the US and undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Florida.
Spanish colonial architecture, museums, brick streets, and restaurants slowly merge with pristine beaches in St. Augustine. This city can be explored on foot and if you aren’t too keen on that you can take the Old Town Trolley Tour. The trolley tour lasts for 1.5 hours and takes you around the historic district.
The 300-year-long history of pirates around this area is cataloged at the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. Another museum and perhaps one of the most distinct buildings in St. Augustine is The Lighter Museum with its huge courtyard. Here you can see Native American art and the remnants of what once was the Alcazar Hotel.
St. Augustine has a spooky side too. It’s frequently called the most haunted town in the US. You can take Ripley’s Ghost Train Adventure tour or Old Town Trolley’s Ghost and Graveyard Tour.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse which has a maritime museum and is also the oldest navigational site in the whole of North America is rumored to be haunted too. Ghosts or no ghosts, the lighthouse does give you absolutely stunning views of the ocean and the city.For adults, St. Augustine offers it’s Distillery named after the city itself where you can sample some of the spirits brewed here. St. George Street is the busiest area in the city and is lined with restaurants, boutique shops, bars, and even local musicians. Musicians also perform various shows at the St. Augustine Amphitheater which functions as a local farmers’ market during the day.
You have heard its name, you have seen it on TV, in movies, and in video games, and you have dreamt to be here, this is Magic City, Miami. Miami is one of the biggest and most populous cities in Florida. But the demographic stats don’t do justice to the vibrant, upbeat, and busy vibe of Miami.
Miami is also a huge financial center not just in Florida but around the whole US. It’s one of the busiest port cities bringing in more passengers through cruise ships than any other city in the world. From crazy nightlife to beautiful beaches to beautiful neighborhoods with tales from history, there is plenty to do for all of the millions of tourists that visit Miami each year.
You can soak up all the action and colors of Miami Beach by walking along the 3-mile beach Broadwalk. Featured in an awful lot of films, Lummus Park Beach sits right at the heart of urban Miami on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. If you are looking for just more than lounging in the sun, Crandon Park offers you chances to hike through dunes and walk around mangrove trees apart from the beautiful beach.
Lined with trees and full of people in printed T-shirts and swimwear trying to live that Miami dream, is the iconic Ocean Drive. I personally just like to walk around here, taking in all the beautiful sights of the beach nearby and all the art deco hotels and houses, walking under the shade of the trees. Casa Casuarina, the home of iconic fashion designer Gianni Versace is also here.
South Beach is also the place to see Art Deco architecture there is a whole district named after it. Talking about art, Wynwood Wall are the best places to visit in Florida for people who like murals and art. Visitors can also have the taste if authentic Cuban music, culture and cuisine at Little Havana.
Did you know that each year almost 6 million tourists visit Orlando? That’s 20 times more than the actual population of this central Floridan city. Most of those tourists come to the incredible array of theme parks this city has to offer making it one of the best places to visit in Florida.
On a surface level, Orlando is known for Universal Resort, SeaWorld Orlando, and Walt Disney World Resort. With these landmarks pulling millions and millions of tourists each year other world-class facilities like hotels, resorts, restaurants, and shops have been established all across Orlando. There is everything for everyone in Orlando.
Walt Disney World Resort or better known as Disney World is of course the top tourist attraction here. Apart from the four theme parks, and two water parks the resort also has a sports complex, a separate area for shopping and entertainment, and loads of accommodation options. The Cinderella Castle at the center of Magic Kingdom is one of the most iconic and most photographed landmarks in the world thanks to Disney cartoons and films.
With Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay, Universal Theme Park stands as a rival to the aforementioned Disney World. There are multiple theme park rides dedicated to different film franchises like Skull Island and Marvel Superhero Island which are popular With Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay, Universal Theme Park stands as a rival to the aforementioned Disney World. There are multiple theme park rides dedicated to different film franchises like Skull Island and Marvel Superhero Island which are popular with people of all ages. In recent years, a new theme park dedicated to Harry Potter has also been established.
SeaWorld Orlando and Discovery Cove is where people can interact with dolphins, sea lions, penguins, exotic birds and even sharks. Apart from Theme Parks, you can just stroll around Lake Eola Park in Downtown Orlando. A trip to Orlando Science Centre also is a great way to have fun along with learning various fundamentals of technology and biology.
If you want something more historical and something to inspire you and your child, a day trip from Orlando can take you to Kennedy Space Center which is less than an hour away. Here you can visit the Heros and Legends exhibition where you get to know about the people behind the expeditions that make space exploration possible. Along with taking part in a mock astronaut training program, you can also see the real space shuttle of Atlantis.
Beaches in Florida
Well, let’s be honest this could be a whole another list in itself. Florida is famous for its beaches and we have mentioned various beaches like Miami Beach, South Beach, and beaches in Naples separately above. However, since I have a soft spot for the beaches in the Sun Shine State and can’t seem to pick only one or two beaches, I have decided to make a small list of beaches that you must visit while in Florida.
Beaches in Destin in Northwest Florida.
Delray Municipal Beach for snorkeling and paddle boarding.
Santa Rosa Beach for staying away from the crowd without sacrificing the pristine white sand and turquoise waters.
One of the most famous beaches in all of the US, is Siesta Key.
Marco island for high-end resorts and unspoiled beaches.
If you are in Florida for a short period and don’t have a huge budget, Clearwater Beach which sacrifices absolutely nothing in terms of beauty but has accommodation nearby for all budget categories.
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