Travel

The Best Beaches in Florida

There’s a beach for every kind of bum.

With more 2,100 miles of coastline, Florida’s beaches aren’t just a bunch of spring breaker-thronged, Florida Man-dominated circuses. Those are bountiful too, if that’s your bag. But from the Panhandle to the Keys, Florida’s sands are a wildly diverse lot. Whether you prefer to scale dunes to find seclusion, soak up some Old Florida charm, hit the breaks, or, yes, drink gigantic cocktails with hundreds of very good looking people in Miami, the Sunshine State delivers. There’s a beach for every bum. Here’s a guide to finding your place in the sun.  

Vilano Beach, Florida | Lance Asper / unsplash

Vilano Beach 

Sunburnt tourists waddle with ice cream cones along the brick streets of historic downtown St. Augustine, but the bronzed surf set heads east across the bridge to Vilano Beach, where they ride the consistent Atlantic Ocean beach break and bask on golden sands with the largely local crowd. Toss out a fishing line on the Vilano Beach Pier, which juts into the Matanzas Inlet, or grab an outdoor table overlooking the breakers for fresh grouper and crab legs at The Reef. If you’re up for a hunt, search the piles of shells brought in on the tide for sharks’ teeth, which abound here.

Where to stay: One of the best campgrounds in Florida, North Beach Camp Resort has sites shaded by Spanish Oaks and both river and beach access. If you’re more into hotel comforts, Casa Monica Resort & Spa in downtown St. Augustine is the city’s grande dame. with a great pool to match.

Vero Beach

The whole Treasure Coast moniker isn’t just a marketing tactic along this eastern stretch of Florida. During a hurricane in 1715, a fleet of treasure-laden Spanish galleons wrecked just offshore from Vero Beach. And if there’s one place you won’t look a fool waving a metal detector, it’s here (especially after big storms, when things like coins and jewelry are still found with some regularity). This is the point along Florida’s east coast where things start to feel properly tropical, with lush foliage tangling around everything. Sebastian Inlet, just north of Vero Beach, has what’s arguably Florida’s best and most consistent surf. And Waldo’s Restaurant and Bar, at a beachfront hotel built almost entirely of driftwood, is the prime spot for sunset debauchery.

Where to stay: The Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa has another fine oceanfront bar as well as luxe rooms for crashing later, complete with balconies overlooking the surf.

Marco Island

They don’t call this stretch of southwestern Florida the Paradise Coast for nothing, so why stop at Naples to the north when you can head right to the edge of the Everglades and the hard-packed white sand beaches of Marco Island? At this uber-moneyed southwest Florida enclave, lagoon-like waters lap kitten-like against chalky sands. With Florida’s greatest wilderness area just a short jet ski ride from the beach, climbing aboard one for a tour through the 10,000 Islands is one of the top adventures you can have in this part of the state. Just keep an eye out for dolphins and manatees between donuts.

Where to stay:  We love the JW Marriott Marco Island for its gulf front setting and adults-only area called Paradise by Sirene, as well as for the rum-soaked tiki bar, Kane, which offers up sunset views along with rums from the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Africa.

South Walton 

Pass on ticky-tack Panhandle spots like Panama City Beach and head west an hour to the beaches of South Walton. Sure, you won’t find an abundance of strip clubs and cheesy nightclubs, but the area still holds your attention with things like the annual Digital Graffiti projection-art festival. The area’s rare coastal dune lakes and beaches are ranked among the best anywhere, including the sublime one at Grayton Beach State Park, which known beach authority (yet unreliable gastroenterologist) Dr. Beach named the best in American in 2020. The coastal road here, 30A, is one of the most scenic drives in the state, lined with swim spots and craft breweries like Grayton Beer Company.

Where to stay:  WaterColor Inn & Resort on Santa Rosa Beach is right near Grayton Beach State Park and fronts a beach with similar postcard qualities. Sink into the Adirondack chair on your balcony overlooking the dunes with something frosty and stiff and wait for the sunset spectacular.

Longboat Key  

South of Tampa near Sarasota, the 12-mile-long Longboat Key often gets overlooked by visitors drawn to busier St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach. Come for quieter beaches that look like screenshots from the pages of a Caribbean guide book. At low tide, you can walk along the northern shoreline of the barrier island to reach the undeveloped stretch of sand called Beer Can Island, a favorite local hangout for the boat crowd where sculpture-like pieces of driftwood tend to wash ashore.

Where to stay: Good for social distancing, Sand Cay Beach Resort has 60 privately-owned condominiums you can stay in right on the beach and a resident egret named George (who may or may not get the memo about keeping his distance).

Clearwater Beach

On busy holiday weekends, Clearwater Beach is absolutely packed. But this one’s popular for a reason: powdery sands and warm, shallow waters make this as appealing to spring-break crowds as families. Come sunset, people gravitate to Pier 60, where you can watch street performers in the nearby park and stroll 1,000+ feet out to the end of the pier for the most stunning sunset views. For fewer crowds, Caladesi Island, accessible by boat only (there’s a ferry), is an unspoiled gulf beach worth venturing to if you don’t mind ditching the beach-bar scene for the day for escapades in the real, all-natural Florida.

Where to stay:  Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach tends to attract an interesting mix of the party crowd and families, with cute bunk beds painted with images of local celeb Winter the Dolphin and a happening bar by the pool. The more luxurious Sandpearl Resort, considered one of Florida’s top Florida hotels, appeals more to couples.

Amelia Island

If Amelia Island spoke, it would be syrupy—asking you to pull up an Adirondack chair and sip something frosty. The town—which blurs the lines between deep south and north Florida—has 13 miles of mostly empty beaches and quiet roads framed by oaks dripping with Spanish moss, as well as some of the most beautiful Gilded Age mansions in the state. A place of stereotypical Spring Break debauchery it is not. Spend your days biking the backroads or along the hard-packed sand at low tide, getting in some golf or fishing, or maybe just padding a kayak through the many quiet creeks.

Where to stay: With its wraparound balconies Elizabeth Pointe Lodge looks like a cross between an old southern farmhouse and a Newport mansion, and is every bit the genteel luxury of the latter. For more mainstream luxury that skimps on no indulgence and is also smack oceanfront, The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island ticks every box.

St. Pete Beach

Less than an hour south of Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach has a very different vibe that skews more toward the party end of the spectrum, especially on the weekends, with a lively beach bar scene north and south of the iconic oceanfront hotel, the Don CeSar. Catching the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico is a rite of passage here, and especially enjoyable when you’ve got a challenge to stay busy with—like struggling to hook the ring toss at the famous Undertow Beach Bar. For a scene that skews a bit more local, head a few miles south of the Don to Pass-a-Grille Beach, where the rooftop bar at the Hurricane Restaurant is the spot to sip a “colossal margarita” while scouting for the green flash.

Where to stay:  Hotel Zamora gives you a quiet luxury escape that’s a bit less buttoned-up than the Don Cesar. The fact that it serves one of the best brunches in Florida outside Miami doesn’t hurt either.

Anna Maria Island, Florida | Peter Unger / stone / getty images

Anna Maria Island

With no chain stores and a penchant for bikes and golf carts, Anna Maria Island is a Florida forerunner in beach town sustainability. In fact, Pine Avenue was also named the Greenest Street in America in 2016, and is packed with solar panels, energy efficient buildings, and some street surfaces made from recycled materials. You can count on seeing some of the most spectacular sunsets in the state here—none of which will be blocked by high rise condos or hundreds of tourists jockeying for a selfie. It’s a vibe best enjoyed over a grouper sandwich at the Sandbar, an iconic beachfront restaurant with tables in the sand and whatever team is playing on the big screens..

Where to stay:  Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club has luxe condo-style accommodations with full kitchens and a marina, if you want to bring your boat. For some of the most beautiful waterfront vacation rentals in all of Florida, Pineapplefish has the Anna Maria Island market cornered.

Sanibel Island, Florida | Hayden Dunsel / unsplash

Sanibel Island

Sanibel attracts nature lovers looking for an Old Florida vibe along the gulf coast. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot for snowbirds of the feathered variety from October through April, and has a four-mile-long wildlife trail you can drive or cycle along when you’re not relaxing on Sanibel’s sweeping sands. The beaches here are some of the best in the world for shelling—when you see people bent over looking for shells washed ashore, they're doing what's been dubbed the “Sanibel Stoop”. And if you’d rather just stoop over to a tiki bar after a day of sun and surf, Turtle’s Pool and Beach Bar is the spot.

Where to stay: The Seaside Inn is the most authentically Floridian of the luxe lodging options on Sanibel Island, with cottages set right on the shore. They’re big and airy with full kitchens, plus the staff bring you a fresh breakfast basket every day.

Cocoa Beach 

Some salty surfers refer to Cocoa as "Huntington Beach in the ‘60s,” and once you see past its tackier elements, its raffishness becomes part of its charm. Here, surfers and kiteboarders travel up and down the beach via trolley, doing downwinders on repeat. And when there's a rocket launch to the north at Cape Canaveral, any place along the beach (or in the waves) is a great spot to watch. Coconuts on the Beach is as quintessentially Florida as Florida beach bars get— complete with a few Florida Man types, to be sure—but also offers fun tropical drinks and live music overlooking the beach. South of downtown, Cocoa Beach gets particularly pretty, backed with dunes covered with sea oats that sway in the breeze. 

Where to stay: Cocoa Beach is hardly a luxury hotel haven (there are none here, in fact). We like the new Beachside Hotel & Suites for its retro-inspired rooms with balconies overlooking the beach and pool.

Key Biscayne, Florida | Kiko Ricote / getty images

Key Biscayne

When you want a beach scene that skews less scene-y than Miami Beach’s, all you have to do is cross the causeway for Key Biscayne instead. Here, Crandon Park offers soft, white sand backed by big green lawns and statuesque palm trees, with barbecues, boat rentals, and volleyball nets aplenty. Bill Baggs State Park, further down the island, has a historic lighthouse and a soft, narrow beach with nothing but water and sand all around, giving you a deserted island feel in the middle of America’s seventh largest metro area.

Where to stay: Hotels are in short supply in Miami’s island paradise, but the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne boasts a solid seafood restaurant at Lightkeeper’s and oceanfront suites that will have you feeling like the island is all yours.

Bahia Honda

The coral cays of the Florida Keys don’t lend themselves to powder-soft beaches—and most visitors don’t realize that until they get here. Indeed much of the allure of being in the Keys comes in getting out on the water to go fishing, snorkeling, or scuba diving—or sluicing though the turquoise waters aboard a catamaran waiting for sunset. But if you come to the Keys in search of a sandy beach to park yourself, the best one is at Bahia Honda State Park. Once rated the top beach in America, this state park has suffered from hurricane damage in recent years. But impressive restoration efforts have worked to restore it and it’s still our favorite beach in the Keys.

Where to stay: Bahia Honda State Park has beachfront tent sites considered among Florida’s best camping spots as well as raised waterfront cabins overlooking the lagoon within the park for rent.

Miami Beach

South Beach is no doubt the sceniest beach in Florida, if not America. But amid all the nightlife, gawking, pickup volleyball games populated by models, and massive cocktails lurks something people tend to forget about: An excellent beach, one whose sands are marked by coarse, raw-sugar sands and light turquoise waters sloshing in front of miles of art deco hotels. The fact that everything—from the tranquil waters to the mob scene to the ridiculous excesses—can be experienced in a couple city blocks is nothing short of spectacular. 

Where to stay: The rooms at Palihouse Miami Beach, in the Faena District, have a Provence-meets-Miami vibe that stays true to the city’s Art Deco roots. They’ll even drive you in the house Moke to the beach and set you up with a complimentary umbrella and chairs.

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Terry Ward is a contributor for Thrillist. 
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