Florida is one of the most diverse states in the country – diverse in its people, in its plant and animal life, and in the variety of experiences and activities you can enjoy without ever having to leave the state. Orlando is literally in the center of it all – in every direction, you’ll find an example of the embarrassment of riches the state has to offer. So, take a spin around Florida and find out for yourself what makes the Sunshine State so great.
Take a Spin Around Florida
Click on the plus (+) sign next to any of the areas below to see what made the list!
Treasure Coast & Broward County
- While Palm Beach is famous for its residents’ literal riches, the natural ones are even more impressive. Exhibit A is Peanut Island, the most family-friendly snorkeling spot in Florida. The island’s sheltered location – set like a jewel in the mouth of Lake Worth Inlet – lets beginning snorkelers enjoy unlimited visibility without having to battle choppy seas. Accessible by an inexpensive, 15-minute ferry ride from the Riviera Beach Marina, it is both easy to get to and a world apart.
- Just up the coast in Hobe Sound is Blowing Rocks Preserve, where the ocean waves force water through holes in a limestone outcropping, creating 50-foot geysers.
- Treat yourself to dinner at the best tiki bar in the world, the Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale. Sip on colorful cocktails while marveling at the hula dancers and fire eaters.
- Stroll, bike or rollerblade down the 2.5-mile beachfront promenade in Hollywood. Strung with cafes, souvenir shops and ice cream joints, it’s a great place to hang out and people watch, and the beach itself is not too shabby.
- Get a babysitter and head to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino & Hotel, also in Hollywood. Sure, there’s every type of gaming you can think of and plenty of entertainment, but it’s worth a visit just to check out the resort’s 35-story guitar-shaped hotel tower, the only one of its kind in the world.
Most people don’t know this, but the Keys were born when Ernest Hemingway rubbed a genie’s lamp and told Barbara Eden “I love the turquoise water and laid-back vibe of the Caribbean islands. I just wish I could drive there.” Wish granted, Mr. Hemingway.
- On the northernmost key along the Overseas Highway, Key Largo, snorkeling charters at John Pennekamp State Park take you out to the Florida Reef, the third largest reef system in the world. At Key Largo Dry Rocks reef, you can SCUBA down to the famed Christ of the Abyss statue.
- Marathon is world-famous for deep sea fishing and another snorkeling spot, Sombrero Reef. From August through March, try your luck at lobstering.
- Further down the highway sits Bahia Honda State Park, home to the first Florida beach to be rated #1 in the country by good old “Dr. Beach.” Snorkel right off the beach, rent a kayak, or admire the view from a section of the old bridge, looming 80 feet above the water. The park also has cabins and a campground, but you’ll need to book in advance. Like, YEARS in advance.
- At the end of the road, literally, sits Key West. The southernmost point in the continental U.S. inspired the works of Jimmy Buffet, Shel Silverstein and Tennessee Williams, among many others. If you’re bringing the kids along, make sure you plan around Fantasy Fest, a celebration of some other things Key West has inspired: drunkenness and public nudity. The throngs of nearly-naked revelers woozy on gallons of booze and body paint might just scar your youngsters for life.
- If Key West isn’t far enough off the beaten path for you, jump on a high-speed ferry for the 75-mile ride out to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson – you know, that huge brick fortress rising out of impossibly blue waters that you’ve seen on every “beautiful places” screensaver. Once you’ve toured the fort – the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas – hit the white sand beach for a well-deserved dip. If you want to spend a night waaaay off the grid, you can even camp here.
Next time your ignorant uncle from up north tells you Florida lacks culture, you can point out that our very own Miami is ranked by the Globalization and World Rankings Research Institute as an “Alpha” level city, alongside L.A., Mumbai and Moscow. So there!
- Lined with vibrant restaurants, shops and art galleries, Calle Ocho (“Eighth Street” in Spanish) is the center of life in the Cuban enclave of Little Havana. A guided walking tour is the best way to explore this unique and dynamic area.
- Lincoln Road: This pedestrian mall between 16th and 17th Streets in Miami Beach, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, is perfect for people watching over Sunday brunch.
- Take a dip in the country’s biggest freshwater pool. Carved out of an abandoned coral rock quarry back in the 1920s, the four-acre Venetian Pool in Coral Gables features a family-friendly beach and shallow spots for the kids, plus ‘grammable waterfalls and grottoes. Like Lincoln Road, it too is on the National Register of Historic, the only pool listed on the register.
- Not far from the Venetian Pool sits the 50-acre Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, a waterfront estate built by tractor magnate James Deering. Yet another National Historic Landmark, the 50-acre property includes a ten-acre formal garden and 38,000 square-foot mansion, which now serves as a museum featuring more than seventy rooms of antique furnishings and artwork.
- Opened in 2017, the Frost Museum of Science in downtown Miami offers visitors a unique perspective on marine life – through the 31-foot diameter oculus at the bottom of the museum’s 500,000-gallon aquarium.
- Find a babysitter and join the jet-setters relaxing in teepees at the sexy, tops-optional Nikki Beach Club. This is the essence of chic Miami distilled in one place, nightlife and beach life served with a soundtrack of the latest in underground music.
- West of Miami, you’ll find an ecosystem that exists nowhere else on Earth. Recognized by UNESCO as an area of global importance, the Everglades is actually a wide river fed by runoff from Lake Okeechobee, emptying into Florida Bay. Enjoy the unique landscape, flora and fauna on a hike, in a canoe or on an airboat tour.
The Greater Orlando Area
Nowhere else in the country will you find such a huge variety of family-friendly resorts for every budget. Most have over-the-top swimming pools and other amenities, while a few take it to another level, with their own wave pools, lazy rivers and water slides, not to mention golf courses and day spas. Plan a staycation and play like a tourist in your own backyard.
- Disney Springs and CityWalk are great, but for an authentic local experience, head to one of Orlando’s “Main Streets” districts, like Church Street, Thornton Park, Downtown Winter Garden, Edgewater Drive, Park Avenue, Ivanhoe Village or Historic Downtown Sanford, for an endless variety of shops, restaurants and bars.
- Like a sandy roller coaster, the Snowhill Mountain Bike Trail twists, turns and plunges through pine flatwoods and along the shore of the Little Big Econ River. If you prefer a flatter ride, check out Orlando Wetlands Park for wide-open vistas and guaranteed gator sitings. Or, ditch the wheels and rent a canoe at Wekiva Springs State Park. It’s an easy paddle downstream to the riverside Wekiva Island restaurant, where you can tie up and enjoy lunch and a thirst-quencher.
- Have your turn at Stomping grapes, then take a winery and wine tasting tour at Lakeridge Winery in Clermont during their Annual Harvest Grape Stomp (event) in August. It’s a quick hop from there to Mt. Dora’s quaint main street, or head to Tavares for a ride on a steam train or seaplane.
- There’s a reason Central Florida is one of the most visited destinations in the world. Disney! Universal! SeaWorld! Legoland! I sometimes have to remind myself how amazing it is that we have these places at our fingertips to explore at off times, when no one is there, like right before (or during) a hurricane.
Florida’s panhandle stretches 200 miles, the same distance as going from Cocoa to Miami, and just like the peninsula, it’s studded with a variety of unique towns and sites to experience.
- Nestled between its big brothers Panama City and Destin sits the idyllic and IG-friendly town of Seaside. Home to some of the whitest sand and clearest water in Florida, Seaside is so neurotically perfect that it was used as the setting for the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show.
- Stop in the state capital, Tallahassee, to take in the views from the Capitol tower observation deck and check out the Museum of Florida History.
- You’ve heard of the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs, but only in Florida can you see the lowest of the highs. At 345 feet, Britton Hill is the lowest state highpoint in the U.S.
Ocala, Gainseville & the Nature Coast
- The best way to see a spring is to jump in with a mask and snorkel, but for those who prefer to stay high and dry, the glass-bottom boat ride at Silver Springs is a great alternative.
- The oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River, Ocala National Forest is 607 square miles of hiking, biking, canoeing and camping fun. With eighteen lakes, 13 campgrounds and numerous springs, it would be the crown jewel of many other states.
- Go tubing and snorkeling at Ginnie Springs, north of Gainesville.
- Thought you had to go out west to see bison in the wild? Payne’s Prairie has herds of wild bison and horses, along with the Sunshine State’s signature beasties.
- Off the beaten path, Cedar Key is a fishing village-turned-tourist center with excellent seafood restaurants and funky shops. Time your visit for either the sidewalk art festival in the spring or the seafood festival in the fall.
- If you’re not content just to watch the manatees, you can swim alongside them in the wild in Crystal River. While you’re there, explore Three Sisters Spring, where Jacques Cousteau and his cohort rehabilitated a manatee that had been trapped in the Miami sewer system.
- Summertime is scalloping season along the Nature Coast. If your kids can swim to the bottom of a pool, they can dive down to scoop the delicious little morsels off the shallow sea floor.
- Devil’s Den, near Williston, is hands down the coolest place to snorkel or scuba dive in Florida. This underground spring with a skylight is a magical place unlike anywhere else. Camping is available on-site.
Not far from Devil’s Den is another weird and wonderful must-visit attraction, Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens. A botanical garden set in a deep rock quarry, visitors follow a pathway that winds over bridges, through grottoes and under waterfalls. Highly recommended for a picnic lunch.
Tampa, St. Pete & Clearwater
- Ride Cheetah Hunt right after you watch a cheetah hunt, at Busch Gardens, home to some of the thrillingest thrill rides in the country.
- Join in the annual Gasparilla Pirate Invasion in Tampa.
- Another adult playground that’s a must-do for Florida sinners is Hard Rock Casino & Hotel in Tampa. If you blow your life savings here, at least you can take comfort in knowing that you’re supporting the native Seminole Tribe.
- In the late 1800s, Ybor City, near downtown Tampa, was home to cigar factories and the thousands of immigrants who worked in them. Today, this national historic district is home to restaurants, nightlife and shopping.
- In St. Petersburg, the Salvador Dali Museum houses the largest collection of the artist’s works outside Europe. Also in St. Pete is the Chihuly Collection at Morean Arts Center. If you’ve ever visited the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas and admired the colorful glass ceiling in the lobby, you know Chihuly’s mesmerizing work.
- Visit the sponge docks in Tarpon Springs and soak in the vibrant Greek community in what is considered to be the Sponge Capital of the World.
- Skip the traffic and ride between Tampa and St. Pete on the Cross-Bay Ferry. If you’re looking for more of a p(arrrrrrgh)ty, book a spot on Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise.
- At idyllic Fort DeSoto Park, enjoy white sand and turquoise waters with a view of the majestic Sunshine Skyway bridge.
- In the early 1900s, many of the springs around the state were developed into tourist attractions, offering things like “submarine” and forest-canopy monorail rides. While most of them have shut down, Weeki Wachee – north of Tampa – is still going strong. The mermaid show is classic Florida.
- Just a few miles from the mermaids and water slides, and just off I-75, Croom Motorcycle Area is Mecca for Floridians who love to ride all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes. Rent the off-road vehicle of your choice and explore some of the trails, jumps and sand bowls in this 2,600-acre park.
Volusia & the Space Coast
In Volusia county, you can start out your day watching a relative of the elephant move at one mile per hour, then drive a half hour up the road to see a relative of your Camry going 200 times as fast. And to the south, Brevard county is so synonymous with spaceflight that, even the area code is a countdown (“3-2-1 liftoff!”)
- Feel the rumble in your bones as you watch a rocket take off AND (thanks to SpaceX) land at the Kennedy Space Center. Plus, check out the Visitor Complex for the coolest and most underrated “theme park” ever. The “reveal” when you enter the Atlantis exhibit will give you goosebumps, and you’ll be awestruck at the immensity of the rocket in the Apollo/Saturn V annex.
- Get up close and personal with pods of dolphins on a pontoon boat in Melbourne, or supersize that idea with a whale watching excursion from Cape Canaveral. Or go microscopic and try a nighttime bioluminescence kayak tour in Mosquito Lagoon.
- Cape Canaveral National Seashore – do you know how many national seashores there are? Not many. With all of Florida’s overdeveloped areas, we’ve managed to keep 25 miles of natural beach and coastal scrubland.
- Visit Blue Springs, near Orange City, in the fall and winter to see the spring run teeming with dozens of manatees.
- Make your own pancakes at your table at the Sugar Mill Restaurant located inside DeLeon Springs State Park.
- Take the kids to see a race at Daytona International Speedway, but remember to bring earplugs!
Lake Wales, Sebring, Lake Placid & Arcadia
- Solomon’s Castle, north of Arcadia, was built entirely with recycled materials. While you’re there, grab a bite at the Boat in the Moat restaurant. Seriously.
- Sebring hosts races year-round, including the famous 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race.
- Bok Tower Gardens, in Lake Wales, features a 250-acre garden and a 205-foot-tall Singing Tower, topped by a 60-bell carillon.
- At Boneyard Beach, in Little Talbot Island State Park, large, knotted pieces of driftwood make for a one-of-a-kind natural playground.
- Contrary to popular belief, Jacksonville – not Miami – is actually the most populous city in Florida. The city merged with Duval County in 1968, creating the largest city by area in the U.S. (If Orlando pulled the same trick, it would be the 10th most populous city in the country, right behind Dallas.) Visit the Riverside/Avondale district for outdoor cafes, nightclubs, galleries and more.
- Step aside, Texas. Eight flags have flown over Amelia Island. The island is, however, home to only five golf courses. Still, check out the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival each May.
- Other than Splash, Space and Thunder, there are no real mountains in Florida. But if you’re a fan of climbing, we do have lighthouses. One of the “highlights” (get it?) on the Florida Lighthouse Trail is the St. Augustine Light. Book the nighttime ghost tour for a little added excitement to help you up the scares – I mean, stairs.
- With so much of the development in Florida happening only in the last hundred years, it seems odd that the state would also be home to the oldest city in the country. But, lucky for us, it is! Founded in 1565, today St. Augustine is both a tourist trap (see: Ripley’s Museum, Fountain of Youth and Trolley Tours) and a charming, walkable city with great bars, restaurants and cultural opportunities, not to mention an old Spanish fort to explore. Visit in early December to see the holiday boat parade and decorations.
- Did you know that Florida has a designate state art museum? Now you do! The Ringling Museum in Sarasota showcases more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures, photos and other artworks, from ancient to contemporary. Also on the museum’s campus sits the winter home of the circus king John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Ca’ d’Zan (“House of John” in the Venetian language) is five stories tall and 36,000 square feet, with 56 rooms and an 81-foot tall observation tower.
- The charming beach city of Venice, just south of Sarasota, is known as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World” thanks to the millions of shark teeth and other fossils strewn along its beaches, free for the finding. Start your hunt at Caspersen Beach (which also happens to be one of the best snorkeling spots on Florida’s west coast.)
- Supposedly, Captiva Island was where the pirate Jose Gaspar held his female prisoners captive. But try not to think of it as the island version of Matt Lauer’s office, just enjoy strolling along quiet beaches and searching for seashells.
- Captain Jonas Grumby. That’s the full name of the skipper from Gilligan’s Island. Catch the high-speed ferry from Ft. Myers or Marco Island to Key West for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.
- Get a selfie in front of the smallest post office in the U.S., in Ochopee, near Everglades City.
Anywhere in Florida
- Most Floridians live within an hour of the Florida Trail, which stretches 1,000 miles from south Florida to Pensacola. Inspired by the Appalachian Trail, it’s a livewire for outdoor enthusiasts throughout the state. It’s also a great option if you want to plan a getaway around volunteer opportunities. It takes a lot of time and effort to maintain and improve a trail that would stretch from Orlando to New York City.
- Legend has it that in Florida, you’re never more than a few feet away from a campground. Totally true.
- Fishing in Florida is like that old adage about smiling and frowning: With 30,000 lakes and 8,436 miles of coastline, it actually takes more muscles to NOT fish.
- Watch the wildlife: Step out your front door and count how many animals you can see. Seriously, the place is crawling with lizards, frogs, beetles, deer, bears, alligators and lots of other critters. Grab some binoculars and a camera and set out on a neighborhood wildlife scavenger hunt, or bingo!
- Though many golf courses in the state have been abandoned or developed into apartment complexes, we still have more than any other state. There are 1,250 to choose from, not including the ones where you have to putt through a windmill.
- Boating: See above regarding lakes and coastline. If you don’t have a boat, find someone who does and commence the charm offensive.
- Watch sports: Florida has nine professional sports teams, more than any other state except California. So, don your foam finger and put on a show for the Kiss Cam! We also have 12 state universities, each with a plethora of men’s and women’s sports competitions to experience. Go _____s!
- Get schooled: Speaking of colleges and universities, if you’re looking for an endless source of culture, art and enrichment, check out your local post-secondary educational institution.
Reader’s Choice: There’s so much to see and do, we couldn’t even pack it all into one, extremely large list. If you’re thinking “What about this?” or “They forgot that!,” we’d love to hear from you. Leave your suggestions in the Comments and we’ll include some of our favorite submissions in our May/June 2020 Travel issue.