Look out the window… if it’s anything other than sunny and 80 degrees, you probably wish you were in Florida right now. Alligators and all. But what is there to do in Florida when you’re not being beaten with reptiles? Go to the beach, of course. And in planning your next Florida fling, here are the 20 best beaches in the Sunshine State.
No hecks left to give? Daytona is the beach for you. Yes, it’s cleaned itself up a bit from its biker-and-breaker heyday, but if you want a wide stretch of sand with absolutely zero pretension, Daytona’s it. Here you can drive right up on the shoreline near Ormond and cruise the big beach up to the spot where the famous 500 started racing cars on the sand. You’ll pass by plenty of T-shirt shops full of stuff that’ll make you say, “You can still say that?” and not find a soul who objects. Where you’re staying: The Delta Hotels Marriott, a newly renovated hotel right on the water configured so every room has some sort of view of the ocean. And it’s actually quiet... if you go to Daytona Beach for that sort of thing.
You ever read those hilarious Florida Man stories and wonder, “Just where the HELL do these people come from?” The answer is Hollywood Beach. All of them. If you’re jonesing to see a baby alligator get pedaled up the boardwalk in a bicycle basket, post up at Taco Spot and just wait. Wanna see two geriatric men the color of footballs get in a fight over a spot under a palm tree? It’ll happen in Hollywood. It isn’t just as close to a SoCal beach town as exists in the Sunshine State, it’s also the best people-watching of any beach in Florida. Which considering the stuff our state gets into, is a pretty impressive. Where you’re staying: Diplomat Resort and Spa. Hollywood’s king of luxury high rises just completely redid itself, adding a solid burger joint and wine spot across the street at Diplomat Landing, and one of 2017’s best new restaurants in South Florida at Monkitail.
Panama City Beach
Since it banned drinking on the beach and effectively killed Spring Break faster than an '80s movie villain, Panama City is now probably best known as the home to Ironman Florida, which involves a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon. If you’re into doing things other than inhuman endurance sports on vacation, the beach itself is beautiful, with pristine white sand leading out to lake-like turquoise water. And the town is full of kitschy cultural beach staples like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum and the epic Shipwreck Island Waterpark. Where you’re staying: Legacy by the Sea. It’s a little removed from the “main drag” in PCB, but this beach-adjacent spot has upscale rooms -- by Panama City standards anyway -- and vastly cheaper rates.
Fort Lauderdale Beach
If you were rating beaches solely on spring break, and it was 1987, Lauderdale Beach might be the best in the land. But you'd also be reading this on a Commodore 64. As the city ushered out SB, it also ushered out most of the fun that came along with it, and now what’s left is a narrow strand of beach backed by bars full of people who came here for spring break 1987 and still can’t figure out where the rest of their group went. Need proof? That bar where Richie Incognito went all Richie Incognito on a pool table is one of them. Another is owned by an infamous male pornstar who has a proclivity to hunt. Where you’re staying: The Atlantic Hotel and Spa. No shortage of first-rate mega-resorts along Lauderdale Beach, but this one still feels like a charming boutique and offers the best new restaurant in the city at Coastal. If you’re into fresh seafood and Italian food, there’s not a better place to be in South Florida.
Not long ago we named South Beach the sexiest neighborhood in America, and for good reason. While the natural scenery is nothing to sneer at, with coarse grain sand and light turquoise waters fronting miles of art deco hotels, the human scenery is really what makes this one of the most popular beaches in the world. Do most of those bodies occur in nature? Of course not, but neither do beaches on marsh barrier islands. Don’t think too much, you’re in Florida. Where you’re staying: Stanton South Beach. Located right on the water in the much-quieter South of Fifth section of South Beach, this is one of the few beachfront hotels that’s a quiet escape from the insanity of South Beach. The first floor is also home to the new Miami outpost of the Michelin-starred sushi joint Azabu.
For Miami locals who enjoy beach days sans cigarette smoke and blaring reggaeton, Key Biscayne is the top destination. 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 visible but the water, giving you a deserted island feel in the middle of America’s seventh largest metro area. Where you’re staying: The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. Hotels are in short supply in Miami’s Island Paradise, and this one boasts a solid seafood restaurant at Lightkeeper’s, and its own private pastry chef.
Ft. Myers Beach
Ft. Myers was probably more known for home foreclosures than its beach in the late 2000s, but head out to the shore and you’ll see why so many people overspent on mortgages to live here. It’s all the fine powdery sand and calm green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, with a funky collection of beach bars and clubs set right across the street. You never hear much about it, but the spring break scene is also among the best in Florida, and never gets too sweaty or too packed like some better-known destinations. Where you’re staying: The Lani Kai Island Resort. If you’ve been, you know. This iconic, Hawaiian-themed spot is ground zero for every big weekend in Ft. Myers Beach, where parties on oceanfront balconies lead out onto sheer bedlam on the sand. Also, they’ve got a rooftop bar and a club on the ground floor. But if you want peace and quiet, perhaps look elsewhere.
Southwest Florida has the distinction of having the same great weather as Greater Miami, without actually having to BE Greater Miami. This means 85-degree weather in December, but no traffic, low crime, nice people, and soft, white sand beaches leading to clear, turquoise water. It also means you’re just a short Jet Ski ride away from the Everglades, so you can knock off your ecotourism plans in a few hours, get some pictures with alligators and egrets, and get right back to frying yourself in the sun. Where you’re staying: JW Marriott Marco Island. Not only is it home to one of the best beach bars in America at the rum-laden Kane, it’s also got one of South Florida’s best restaurants outside Miami at the beautiful Ario. And some pretty insane views from every room.
This is, without a doubt, the best beach in the Keys -- even after Hurricane Irma roughed it up a bit. Once rated the top beach in America, this state park was decimated after the storm leaving much of the beach as nothing but fence line and turquoise water. But the winter saw an impressive restoration effort and the beach is back up and running, as services like snorkel boats creep back as the marina undergoes repairs. Still, it’s the scenic stretch of sand in the island chain, and worth a few hours’ stop on any drive to Key West. Where you’re staying: There are no hotels near the park, nor campgrounds in it, so your best bet is to find somewhere north in Marathon, or south in Key West.
That noted beach aficionado, Dr. Beach, rated this the No. 1 beach in the world a few years ago. But he’s done that with a lot of beaches, so it’s kinda like having a stripper tell you, “You’re sexy.” Either way the vast, powdery sands and turquoise waters are just the beginning of what makes Clearwater so special. It’s the home of the Church of Scientology, so if you’ve ever wanted to find out more about that little slice of America, this is your chance. The nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium is home to Winter the Dolphin from Dolphin Tale, and Caladesi Island is an unspoiled gulf beach that’s only accessible by boat. Where you’re staying: Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach. With a heavy hat-tip to the venerable Sandpearl, this Wyndham is the newest luxury resort on the beach set right up against Pier 60, with Clearwater’s only Asian fusion restaurant at Ocean Hai.
Make all the jokes you want about the Redneck Riviera (and there are plenty. PLEN-TY.), but if you want to experience the more refined side of the South, visit Amelia Island. It boasts 13 miles of beaches, roads framed by oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and the best collection of Gilded Age mansions in the state. And since "nature" and "history" in Florida so often give way to "condos" and "more condos," the underdeveloped Amelia Island is a rare chance to see what "Old Florida" was like. Where you’re staying: Elizabeth Pointe Lodge. It looks like a cross between an old southern farmhouse and a Newport mansion, and is every bit the genteel luxury of the latter. This spot with wraparound balconies extends the island’s southern charm to your hotel room, making all of Amelia feel like a world away from the rest of Florida.
If you want the best beachside bars in Florida, look no further than St. Pete Beach. The sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico is especially enjoyable when struggling to hook the ring toss at the famous Undertow Beach Bar. Once you’re done, bury your feet in the soft, powdery sand and enjoy the parade of painfully Floridian folks who look like they’ve been drinking there since 10am (and probably have). Or head down the road to the Drunken Clam, realize it’s absolutely nothing like Family Guy, but still end up deep in conversation with characters almost as colorful as the water beyond. Where you’re staying: Hotel Zamora. This boutique hotel is actually a Kimpton, and gives you a quiet luxury escape that’s not quite as intimidating as the iconic Don Cesar. The fact that it serves one of the best brunches in Florida outside Miami doesn’t hurt either.
Anna Maria Island
Though the area around Bradenton doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for anything other than opioids, Anna Maria Island is a forerunner in beach town sustainability. It’s got some of the most spectacular sunsets in the state, none of which are blocked by high rise condos or hundreds of tourists jockeying for picture position -- all best experienced over a grouper sandwich at the locally legendary Sandbar. Anna Maria's Pine Avenue was also named the Greenest Street in America in 2016, packed with solar panels, energy efficient buildings, and some street surfaces made from recycled materials. Where you’re staying: Mainsail Beach Inn. Though there’s an abundance of great places to eat on Anna Maria Island, if you’re coming for a while with your family, having a big kitchen is key. As is having several bedrooms. This hotel has 12 short-term residences that fit the bill, and though you can rent condos all over the island -- this one has a restaurant, pool, and all the amenities of a hotel.
Cheap, Sanibel is not. But like so many things, you get what you pay for, so this serene stretch of sand in southwest Florida is worth the splurge to visit. The beaches here are some of the best for shelling in the world, and instead of throngs of tourists to contend with you’ll only have pelicans and sea gulls. You won’t find many chains here either, as the high-priced clientele prefer smaller, charming local spots like the funky Keylime Bistro and the storied Traditions' dining room. Where you’re staying: Seaside Inn. The most authentically Floridian of the luxe lodging options on Sanibel Island are these cottages set right on the shore. They’re big and airy with full kitchens, plus the staff brings you a fresh breakfast basket every day.
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