Travel

The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Florida

Get some fresh air.

Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park | Alex Couto/Shutterstock
Dry Tortugas National Park | Alex Couto/Shutterstock

Florida might be the only state in the nation that’s equal parts paradise and punchline. For every pristine beach with turquoise water, we’ve also got someone who grows pythons and meth in the same bathtub. So for people who’ve never been here—or at least haven’t ventured outside a theme park—it might seem like a tropical wasteland of palm fronds and face tats.

But there’s a lot more to the Sunshine State. Florida has one of the most unique landscapes in America, where you can travel from powdery coastline through blackwater swamps, up into live oak forests and into magical limestone caverns. Beauty in Florida lives far beyond the beaches, and while some of our best sites are right on the water, others sit hidden in places you’d never expect. So welcome to Florida, the place that’s just as weird and beautiful as you’d imagined. Just maybe not in ways you’d necessarily assumed.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson
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.

Guana River State Park
Guana River State Park | Flickr/oliver.dodd

Guana River State Park Beach

Ponte Vedra Beach
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. Interestingly, the park sits at 30 degrees 8 minutes north, the coordinates where Ponce De Leon is said to have first spotted Florida. Given he didn’t have a GPS anywhere nearby, we can only assume this is a rough estimate, but a statue in the parking lot still pays tribute to the historic site.

Devil’s Den

Willison
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,” in Florida we’ve 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 their campus in nowhere near a beach. For a few glorious hours a day, the sun shines in the hole in the roof, giving the Floridian Cenote (you’re welcome, Visit Florida) the look of a heavenly lake. It’s possibly the most stunning waterfront in Florida that doesn’t have a beach.

Micanopy

Alachua County
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.

Tamiami Trail

Tampa to Miami
In South Florida, the prettiest drive is actually nowhere near the ocean. The route of US-41 that connects Tampa to Miami might start out as an endless stretch of trees and grass, but as you draw deeper into the Everglades it becomes a tunnel of Old Florida nature. A canopy of Big Cypress trees covers the highway, and you’ll see herons, egrets, and even Golden Eagles soaring overhead. Look to the side of the highway and you’ll almost always spot a gator sunning themselves in the roadside blackwater. And every so often, the trees will clear and you’ll glimpse a misty savannah of South Florida swamp. It’s a site that gives you an intense appreciation for the people who lived here first, along a drive few outside Florida know is so special.

Boca Grande

I may be waxing nostalgia given I spent summers here learning how to tarpon fish, but the truth is Boca Grande (Spanish for “Big Mouth”) is at the top of the list of Florida jewels for a non-personal reason: it’s majestic as all get out. Not to mention riddled with folklore legends about rum-smuggling pirates, chief among them JosĂ© Gaspar, who, as the story goes, set up shop on this very island and loaded it with his booty. Located on the namesake Gasparilla Island (off the Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida), that treasure remains, but it comes in the form of untouched white-sand beaches, Banyan tree-lined streets, and Nora Ephron-esque village packed with adorable shops and cafes. 

I’ve long referred to it as the Hamptons of Tampa; not only because it’s just a 90-minute drive away from a metropolis, but because it’s a popular second home for the swanky set who tend to matriculate to this sleepy town several times per year to soak in the Old Florida culture. Typically that includes cruising in their two-seater bikes through Gasparilla State Park, a jaunt to the lighthouse museum, world-class tarpon fishing at Boca Grande Pass, or just driving golf carts (there are zero traffic lights on the island) through the windy roads on the way to the famous Gasparilla Inn for cocktails.
MORE: These are the best beaches in Florida

Stuart

St. Lucie
Likely due to its glitzy neighbor to the south in Palm Beach, this Martin County town is often overlooked. The refreshingly untouched portion of Atlantic Coast and its surrounding lagoons is home to more than 4,000 species of plants and animals, making it the most bio-diverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere, one where development restrictions have left the sands completely untouched. The hands-down crown is undoubtedly Blowing Rocks Preserve, a 73-acre protected area known for being the largest Anastasia limestone shoreline on the Atlantic Coast—and the giant near-50-foot waves crashing against it. There's not a scrap of development to be found, making it an ideal home to sea turtles and countless other wildlife.

St. Augustine

When you grow up in Florida, you’re taught certain things very young, among them how to run away from alligators (duh) and that the historical touchstone of our beloved state is St. Augustine. Hey, it is the “oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States” -- founded by the Spanish in 1565. But 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 on one of the many storybook-like corners of this town.

Delray Beach

I lived in Miami for nearly a decade and didn’t make a jaunt up to Delray until about halfway through my tenure there. It seemed so far away (it’s not), and I also assumed it would be very Palm Beach “plastic” -- a glamorous resort town full of Tommy Bahama stores (it’s also not). Founded by Seminoles, the aptly nicknamed “Village by the Sea” is far more low-key and actually exudes a bohemian vibe. It’s main thoroughfare, Atlantic Avenue -- lined with tall palms that are wrapped in twinkle lights year-round -- is a full-on destination in and of itself, an area that hums with energy. 

Unlike its much glitzier neighbor Palm Beach, Delray forgoes the posh high-rises and luxury cars for historic beachfront cottages and surfboards. Peppered with a slew of locally-owned boutiques, funky galleries, and sidewalk cafés, flip flop-clad passerbyers can easily stroll the strip on foot while stopping along the way to listen to a live band at one of the many picturesque, no-bullshit corner pubs. And of course there’s the two-mile stretch of white sand and glimmering waters to take in. Throw in the neighboring nature trails and the endless tiki bars, and hopefully you've got enough evidence to avoid my past mistakes and get to Delray immediately.

South Pointe Park, Miami Beach 

One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Miami was grab a to-go ceviche bowl, throw it in my bike basket, and cruise until I found the perfect spot to devour it in South Pointe Park. Located in the sought-after “South of Fifth” section of South Beach, this 17-acre park -- equipped with its own waterside bike paths, cafes, and sandy walkways leading to the gorgeous South Pointe Park pier overlooking the end (or point) of Miami Beach -- is truly serene. That’s quite a feat considering it’s also just blocks away from the bustling main strip of Ocean Drive. Whether you’re taking in the glistening waters from the observation deck, trying to spot celebs on the neighboring Fisher Island, or watching the cruise ships depart Port Miami, you can quite literally take in Miami from all its stunning angles here. 
MORE: The ultimate Miami travel guide

Anna Maria Island

I swear, 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. Petersberg-- 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 true sleepy town, outdoor adventure seekers can take advantage of the slew of paddleboarding and kayaking tours, plus snorkeling trips to nearby spots like the historic Egmont Key. Meanwhile, on land you can explore the historic Spanish-American-era fort and by sea swim through abandoned shipwrecks as well 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.

Sanibel Island

The term “barefoot and happy” could have very well been invented in Sanibel. This is Florida's ultimate leave-your-worries-at-home destination, a southwest-coast island where the only dollars anyone seems to care about are sand dollars. That goes for the development of its infrastructure as well: almost the entire northern half of the island is protected within the JN 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In other words, this is not your typical tourist spot. You won't find condo buildings or souvenir shops or any abundance commercial properties, for that matter. Even the public beach access is a crapshoot with only limited places to park (done intentionally to prevent overcrowding). In short, this is the place to go to if you want to avoid the riffraff. And if that seclusion isn’t enough for you, hitch a ride on the ferry to Cayo Costa, a preserved, 2,500-acre state park known for its idyllic solitude and wealth of sandbars to snorkel through. It’s also full of trails (both sandy and watery) that can be explored via bike or kayak to maneuver through the native mangroves.   

Pass-A-Grille

When I was growing up, St. Pete was primarily just for visiting grandparents, the occasional visit to the Salvador Dali museum, or a staycation at the Don CeSar Hotel. The metropolis has undoubtedly since had a renaissance of sorts; it's now often thought of as the “Brooklyn” of Tampa due to its swarms of millennials flocking there for galleries, craft breweries, and hip restaurants. But one thing that has never changed, and in my opinion is the crème de la crème of Pinellas County, is Pass-A-Grille: a picturesque one-block-wide beach town full of sun, surf, and an umbrella drinks. Pass-A-Grille evokes the same “end of the world” feeling as Montauk, with sand dunes, beach grass, and an actual ending point where you can watch the boats cruise in and out and view the entire stretch of St. Pete Beach if you look the other way. No matter which direction, I guarantee your selfie light will be fantastic. 
MORE: The best beaches in the Tampa Bay area

Apalachicola

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.

Siesta Key 

Don’t let the MTV reality show scare you away. From its cozy quarters (opt for one of the beachside rentals!) to watersports, the tranquil island of Siesta Key is a truly stunning 8-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 to a wealthy mogul’s over-privileged teenagers' misadventures. The main draw is the main drag of Siesta Key Village, which pretty much takes you back to the '50s with its lineup of homemade ice cream parlors (I’m partial to Big Olaf) and pint-size seafood eateries where the selections of oysters, stone crab, and fish are so fresh they tend to sell out, since they only sell what’s caught that day. The Siesta Key Oyster Bar will likely have a wait, but trust me when I say to post up and wait it out. Just a quick bus ride from Sarasota, this elegant barrier island is also home the Ringling Museum Complex (the winter estate of circus tycoon John Ringling) and new Ringling’s Center for Asian Art.

Everglades National Park

Homestead
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 ride to discover the elusive and native wildlife that makes up these muddy waters.

Three Sisters Springs

Florida has so many gorgeous natural springs, it’s honestly hard to choose which ones are the must-stops. Tubing down Rainbow River is a close second, but Three Sister Springs takes the top slot due to the fact you get to swim among manatees. Yep, this place sits on Crystal River, which is known for attracting the dopey-faced sea cows that are impossible not to swoon over. With its turquoise waters, canopy trees, and secret coves, it’s also one of the most magnificent sights in the state. Definitely make the trip in the cooler months when the manatees are most prevalent, and grab a kayak or paddleboard (you can also opt for a tour boat) to explore the labyrinth of crystal clear waters. This is quite possibly the most manatees you will ever see congregate in one area. And odds are these guys will come right up to whatever vessel you’re on -- does it get more Florida than that?

Key West

Key West is just a flat-out must, a destination that’s so good that if left off any best-of Florida list, you should just stop reading. It’s not just because there’s nowhere in Florida like it: There’s nowhere on the planet like it. The last Key in the chain of islands, it’s the edgiest and most intriguing of them all. Aside from being a fiercely romantic tropical oasis where the smell moonflowers fill the night skies, the former home to Ernest Hemingway is 7-square-miles of plain old quirk. On an average day in the laid-back, debaucherous Key, you will encounter Caribbean villas, art galleries, street performers in Mallory Square, breathtaking sunsets, and perhaps even S&M fetish parades (Fantasy Fest, if you ever get the chance, is pretty incredible). Oh, and obviously the best Key lime pie you’ve ever had at Blue Heaven. The fact is, Key West keeps it weird in the most alluring, enchanting, and ,above all, authentic way possible. And for that, among about a million other reasons, it should never be left off any Sunshine State stopover. 
MORE: The 20 best things to do in Key West

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Liz Newman is a contributor for Thrillist.
Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.
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