The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Florida
From Siesta Key’s pristine shores to Biscayne Bay’s underwater paradise, these breathtaking locales are worth the trip.
Florida haters—of which there are many—love to point out that the best viewpoints in our state are at the top of freeway onramps. First of all, if you can’t appreciate the majesty of a city spreading out in front of you from atop the Golden Glades Interchange, that sounds like a personal problem. But more importantly, you haven’t explored enough of the state to understand we’re filled with some of the most beautiful places in America, whether or not there’s an off-ramp involved.
Many of them are white sandy beaches, sure. But look beyond South Beach, and you’ll find Florida is home to cenotes (we call them “sinkholes”), stunning cypress groves, and storybook towns dripping in Spanish moss. We’ve got scenery both above the water and below it, and sunsets that bring people from around the globe. So read on for proof that the Sunshine State is more scenic than many people believe, and take a gander at the most beautiful places in Florida.
The quiet little town of Grayton Beach is what would result if someone carved Mayberry into a forest of pine trees, as its shady streets lead to a small, colorful downtown and a perfect powdery coastline. What makes the adjacent state park so special are the natural sand dunes along the shore, where inland freshwater runs between the dunes leading out to the Gulf of Mexico. This means you can post up there with a beach chair in about three inches of water when the tide is right, and let the gulf breezes blow over you. Underwater, the park is also home to the Underwater Museum of Art, where sculptures by artists from around the globe sit submerged in 58 feet of water, creating one of the most provocative artificial reefs in the world for scuba diving.
The beaches that sit off Jacksonville might be the most underrated in the state, and none stands more spectacular than the eerie landscape along Boneyard Beach. It sits in Big Talbot Island State Park, just south of Amelia, where a short stroll through thick forest brings you to a mile-long stretch of toppled oak and cedar trees. The epic graveyard of windblown wood was created by fast tidal shifts that caused saltwater to encroach on the trees, which fell as they died. What remains is one of the most popular photo shoot locales in northeast Florida. You’ll feel absolutely miniscule while you step over the hulking limbs and remaining roots of these mysterious giants. And it’s only about half an hour from downtown Jacksonville, making it an easy side trip whenever you’re in the city.
Granted, the beauty of Key West is often seen through a Duval Street-induced haze. But if you can take a morning or two off your vacation binge, the westernmost island in the Florida Keys offers beauty of all kinds. The sandy shorelines along Smathers and Ft. Zachary Taylor beaches are perfect slices of tropical paradise. And the sunsets from Mallory Square are the stuff of vacation legend. The quirky island also houses its own brand of architecture, where colorful homes with narrow pillars and wraparound porches fill the narrow little streets. With tree canopies shading most of the major roads, much of the island feels a little like a storybook—albeit one that can have a very adult ending thanks to all the booze flowing through town.
These botanical gardens on the border of Delray Beach and Boca Raton are the odd slice of Eastern tranquility in South Florida that don’t come with an overpriced sushi bar attached. The onetime Japanese farming community of the early 1900s is now a meticulous journey through six traditional gardens, where ornate bridges cross bubbling streams and bamboo forests clatter in the soft tropical breeze. Guests can also peruse a grove of bonsai trees, and learn about the delicate art of cultivating them. Additionally, Morikami is a fantastic place to learn the intricacies of Japanese culture, where taiko demonstrations, crafting classes, and movie screenings are all part of the experience.
Granted, seeing the true beauty of Biscayne National Park is going to require either a snorkel or a scuba certification. But Dade County’s other national park—the one that’s 95% underwater—is the best preserved piece of our reefs-and-wrecks history. The Florida Reef acts as the park’s seaward border, and the limited fishing and diving have left it more intact than almost anywhere else in the Keys. The colorful fish and coral are only part of the park’s draw, though. The rest lies in its trail of shipwrecks, the remains of boats that met unfortunate finishes against the reef. Recently, the Biscayne National Park Institute began running dive trips leaving from Coconut Grove, so you can experience the park without having to drive past Miami—a big time bonus.
Once upon a time, one could board a train along the East Coast in the dead of winter, fall asleep, and awake to find themselves click-clacking above turquoise water and swaying palm trees. That magical tourism experience died with the hurricane of 1935, unfortunately, but lives on for motorists along the Overseas Highway. The final 113 miles of US-1 are a rolling trip through mangroves, beaches, and bridges set over pristine tropical seas. It’s the odd traffic jam you won’t mind sitting in, as congestion just means more time to take in the epic views. The road is also filled with hidden pull-offs only frequent travelers know about, from stunning white sand beaches to biker bars with the best pizza in the state.
Telling someone there’s a waterfall in Florida sounds a little like bragging about the surf breaks in South Dakota. But tuck off I-10 between Pensacola and Tallahassee and you’ll find the only thing rarer in Florida than a fourth-generation Boca resident: a waterfall. The 70-foot cascade is flanked by tropical ferns and lush hillsides, a veritable taste of Puerto Rico in the Panhandle. How did this wonder of nature get here? It’s a sinkhole, of course, because this is Florida, after all. But the 100-foot deep, two-foot wide circular fall is one of the most impressive geological formations in the state. And gives us a waterfall we can visit without jumping on a plane.
This tropical Alcatraz was once used as a protective fort during the Civil War, and then as a prison for about a decade after. Now, it’s an impressive burst of red against the turquoise water and green trees of the island. And, even if you don’t get in the water, it’s a majestic site after a long morning at sea. Under the water, you’ll find some of the most abundant marine life in the Keys; since it’s nearly impossible to dive Fort Jefferson nearly everything here is undisturbed. With natural beaches to lay out on once you’re done snorkeling, it’s a calming trip to heaven in a place that used to be hell.
Though Florida is best known for its soft, powdery sand beaches and flat shoreline that goes on forever, just south of Jacksonville you’ll find a beach that feels more like Madagascar than Miami. It’s the golden sands along the beach at Guana River State Park, where massive grass covered dunes separate the sand from the highway, and the isolation they provide gives you the sense that you’ve traveled a lot further than 45 minutes from downtown Jax. The beach is rarely crowded, as northeast Florida beachgoers often opt for more lively stretches up north in Ponte Vedra and Atlantic Beach. So a summer wade into the water here will have you coming out of the surf and feeling like you’ve crossed onto another continent.
Mexico really knows how to brand its holes in the ground a lot better than Florida. Because where they’ve managed to convince people to spend thousands of dollars to come and bask in their majestic “cenotes,” we’ve just labeled them “sinkholes.” Call it whatever you want, Devil’s Den is downright spectacular. This underwater river boasts bright, blue-green water that stays at a consistent 72 degrees, a popular weekend lounging spot for UF students who forgot the campus in nowhere near a beach when enrolling. For a few glorious hours a day, the sun shines in the hole in the roof, giving the Floridian Cenote the look of a heavenly lake. It’s possibly the most stunning waterfront in Florida that doesn’t have a beach.
If you’re into dripping Spanish moss, grand old manors, and a downtown that could double as the set of a deep south horror movie, look no further than Micanopy. The streets winding through this antiquer’s paradise are lined with massive live oak canopies, where moss drips down to the street like a lime-green veil over the city. That’s probably why anyone in North Central Florida doing an engagement shoot has their pictures taken here, and mini-mooners are commonplace at the B&Bs housed in Micanopy’s historic homes.
St. Augustine is the “oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States” founded by the Spanish in 1565. At the risk of making a terrible pun, it truly never gets old here. This is a place that takes its history very seriously: The original cobblestone streets are often marched during period reenactment parades complete with blacksmiths and military characters, and many of the establishments look like the kind of place where Ponce de Leon himself might have grabbed a drink (and who knows, maybe he did). The city is also home to some of the most breathtaking architecture in the New World, centuries-old buildings heavy on Spanish, French, and English influence standing tall against a breezy Atlantic backdrop. And sure, for every original 1700s schoolhouse there may be a tourist trap or two, but the fact remains the 144-block National Historic Landmark District is stuck out of time. Your best bet is to stay at one of the many antique-filled, multi-century-old bed and breakfasts, and don’t skip the Lightner Museum or one of the renowned restaurants like Collage (there’s a solid food scene here!), along with one of the tucked-away jazz bar you’ll likely stumble upon.
As soon as you hit the city limits of this cozy beach town—the northernmost of a trio that sits on a seven-mile-long island just south of St. Petersburg—you feel immediately relaxed. The old Florida charm abounds in the form of sun-faded architecture and beachside seafood shacks, but the best part about this place is that all you really need is a lounge chair and a smile, because its simple beauty takes care of everything else. First and foremost, the sunsets are unparalleled. And despite being a truly sleepy town, outdoor adventure-seekers can take advantage of the slew of paddleboarding and kayaking tours, plus snorkeling excursions to nearby spots like historic Egmont Key. Back on land, you can explore the historic Spanish-American-era fort and by sea, swim through abandoned shipwrecks and get up close and personal with stingrays, manatees, and dolphins. The “no shoes, no shirt, no dice” rule certainly does not apply in Anna Maria, as almost all of its fare (like the signature grouper sandwiches) are devoured from the docks of Rod & Reel Pier or in the actual sand at Sandbar.
Quite possibly one of the best parts about the Florida Panhandle is the fact it really encompasses the “Old South,” and no town does that quite like Apalachicola. From the oak-shaded streets, historically preserved homes, and charming bookstores to the mellow Gulf Coast vibe, this village is dripping with whimsical appeal. Perhaps that’s why it’s so sought after for weekend getaways. Well, that and the fact it’s also home to the largest of Florida's three national forests. Apalachicola National Forest occupies nearly 938 square miles of the Panhandle—that’s half a million acres for you math nerds—spanning west of Tallahassee to the Apalachicola River. Think a labyrinth of lakes, trails, and lowlands packed to the brim with the east coast’s version of the Redwood: old cypress trees with natural hammocks popping from the water. Then of course there’s the wildlife that live within it including gray and red foxes, coyotes, bats, alligators (because, c’mon), and even the elusive Florida black bears and panthers. Honestly, this is as about as National Geographic as Florida gets.
Don’t let the MTV reality show scare you away. From its cozy quarters (opt for one of the beachside rentals) to watersports, the chill island of Siesta Key is a stunning eight-mile stretch of pure quartz-white sands and sapphire waters. Let’s just say there’s a reason this town was chosen to be the backdrop for the misadventures of a wealthy mogul’s over-privileged teenagers. Siesta Key Village’s centerpiece is its main drag, which basically transports you back to the '50s with its lineup of homemade ice cream parlors and pint-sized seafood joints where the selections of oysters, stone crab, and fish are so fresh they tend to sell out fast, since they only hawk whatever’s caught that day. The Siesta Key Oyster Bar will likely have a wait, but post up with a drink and you’ll barely notice your table took an hour. This elegant barrier island is also home to the Ringling Museum Complex (the winter estate of circus tycoon John Ringling) and Ringling’s Center for Asian Art, so you may as well take in a touch of culture while appreciating the views.
Florida is home to the largest protected wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River: Everglades National Park. Hiking through the glades, you’ll walk over black water marshes along the Anhinga trail where alligators like to swim, and through gumbo limbo forests not a quarter mile away. You can also hike to some of the most secluded beaches in Florida, if you’re up for the 15 mile round trip along the Coastal Prairie Trail. Just north of the park along the Tamiami Trail, you’ll find the Miccosukee Indian Village, home to a tribe that’s called these wetlands home since long before Europeans ventured down. The Miccosukee, along with knowing their “backyard” better than anybody, are also deeply dedicated to preserving it. In other words, the guides at the Miccosukee Indian Village know their shit and will take you on a tour of history and culture by land (wood carving demonstrations, beadwork, and the world-famous Miccosukee fry bread and Everglades frog legs) and of course by sea. Or in this case, an airboat tour to discover the elusive and native wildlife that makes up these muddy waters.