So, the Sunshine state has summoned you with its swaying coco palms, balmy wetlands and ritzy city life. A trip to Florida (and its 1,350 miles of glorious shoreline) is all that and more – visitors willing to hop into a car and hit the road for some exploring will uncover an intriguing history and diverse pockets of art and culture to boot. Here are five amazing trips to help you see it all on this famously magical peninsula.
(Fort Lauderdale, Miami and the Everglades in 10 days)
For sun-kissed decadence with a splash of Latin flavor, journey toward Florida’s southeastern tip (don’t forget to pack your sea legs). Begin with a couple of days of cruising the canals in Fort Lauderdale (‘the Venice of America’), where you can gawk at fancy yachts and waterfront mansions that define the area. Wander past the shops on Las Olas and get brunch at Boatyard, a fabulously revamped restaurant on the water.
When you feel the call of high culture, jet for Miami and stroll amongst the graffiti-covered Wynwood Walls and the pastel art deco buildings in Miami Beach. Check into classic hotels or fresh new digs (the city is brimming with both) before venturing out for craft cocktails with the in-crowd at The Broken Shaker. After hours, you can let loose to underground electronic beats at Story on Collins Ave – if you don’t mind spending $20 a drink.
After three solid Miami days, shed the pretension with a trip to the Everglades, where you can whiz through the mangrove swamp in an airboat, encountering toothy alligators and roseate spoonbills.
(Naples, Sanibel Island, Fort Myers Beach, Siesta Key, Sarasota and St. Petersburg in 2 weeks)
Florida’s Gulf Coast is considerably sleepier than its Atlantic counterpart – which is exactly why travelers looking to just relax prefer it. Even the surf here is calmer. One of the best ways to spend the day in the tranquil seaside town of Naples is to plant an umbrella in the bone-white sand, read a book, and watch the sun creep toward the horizon. The menu here includes strolling through parks, romantic dinners and an excellent night’s sleep at high-end hotels like Tuscan-style treasure Escalante.
After a couple of days in Naples, drive north to the more modest and quirkier Sanibel Island, where you can spend the day gathering shells and riding a bicycle through a breathtaking nature reserve, identifying seabirds. Neighboring Fort Myers Beach can liven things up a bit with its celebratory vibe and raucous live music scene in its Town Square downtown hub.
Next up: Siesta Key, an eight-mile sugar-sand marvel where families descend for watersports and sea turtle sightings. This is one of several barrier islands just a short bus ride from Sarasota, which is also worth a visit. Highlights at this elegant little city include the Ringling Museum Complex (the winter estate of circus tycoon John Ringling) and new Ringling’s Center for Asian Art.
End the jaunt in St. Petersburg, the sophisticated waterfront city with myriad offerings, including the newly overhauled foodie mecca Locale, bike-themed artisanal brewery Cycle Brewing, and the inimitable Salvador Dalí Museum.
(Tallahassee, Apalachicola National Forest, Apalachicola, Grayton Beach, Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pensacola in 1 week)
They say that in Florida that “the south is in the north and the north is in the south.” Translation: Palm Beach might host seasonal flocks of New Yorkers, but if you’re cruising through the Panhandle, y’all might as well be in Macon, Georgia (if only Macon had white-sand beaches and incredible seafood).
Touch down in hilly Tallahassee, and get a bird’s-eye view of the city from 22nd-floor observation deck at the state capitol building. Wander through the galleries and shops at Railroad Square art park then retreat to Brass Tap for guava craft beer and corn hole – the classic intro to Florida State University life.
From there, head through the towering longleaf pines of Apalachicola National Forest, which offer ample occasions for outdoor adventure. Soon the trees will clear and you’ll arrive in the Panhandle’s most captivating hamlet - Apalachicola, which boasts downhome hospitality, dreamy historic district and mouthwatering oysters. Order a dozen of them “Southern Fella” style, with breadcrumbs, collard greens, and bacon at Up the Creek Raw Bar, grab afternoon beers at Owl Café & Tap Room and saunter down Water Street admiring the bay and its bobbing fishing boats.
From here, bypass the crowded and kitschy Panama City and instead hit Grayton Beach, an idyllic town and eponymous state park featuring one of the most striking stretches of beach in the US. Down the road, the Gulf Islands National Seashore offers 150 quiet miles of crystal-sand beach and nature trails that have mostly recovered from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Finish up in Pensacola, a lively yet unassuming city with rich history and ties to the armed forces. More than 150 military aircrafts are on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, and the Blue Angels practice daredevil stunts over Pensacola between March and November.
Key West quest
(Key Largo, Islamorada, Bahia Honda, Big Pine Key, Key West and the Dry Tortugas in 1 week)
Ahhh, the Keys. With ubiquitous rum cocktails, turquoise waters and a carousing spirit, this beloved island chain feels less like the US and more like a sovereign Caribbean nation. Fly into Miami, rent a car, and make your first stop at Robert is Here, an enormous farm, smoothie joint and market where you can stock up on road treats. Continue south to Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a snorkeling paradise, before checking into Jules Undersea Lodge, the only underwater hotel in the country.
Next, you’ll encounter Islamorada, a boozing and boating paradise with a newly thriving local art scene and some delicious seafood. On the way south to Key West, pause for a picnic lunch (or even camp out for a night) at Bahia Honda, the most scenic beach Keys. Here you can snorkel and admire Henry Flagler’s historic railroad bridge. A short drive south, Big Pine Key is home to the tiny and elusive key deer, known for being adorable and swimming between islands. Hike around and see if you can spot one before grabbing a libation at the locals dive No Name Pub.
Upon arrival in Key West, the islands’ cultural hub, be dazzled by the flourishing trees and charming wood-frame buildings. Take at least two days to explore the historic homes and bars by bike (make sure there’s a cup holder) and take a leisurely brunch with the roosters at Blue Heaven. The truly gung-ho can book ferry passage all the way out to the Dry Tortugas, seven remote islands known for birding, snorkeling and an enchanting 19th century fort.
(Orlando, Kissimmee, Tampa, Weeki Wachee Springs, Crystal River, St Augustine, Canaveral National Seashore in 2 weeks)
In Florida, Disney is a given. But a full-blown family trip to this state can encompass so much more - history, swimming, space tourism and more. Orlando is the obvious anchor for a family adventure, but save a few bucks staying in Kissimmee, Orlando’s neighboring bedroom community. From here you can make day trips to all the requisite thrills: at Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort. Arrive early to be in the front of line for popular attractions like Universal’s the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ and the brand new ‘Skull Island: Reign of Kong’.
For some lesser-known outdoorsy fun, ride the new zip-line over a pit of hungry alligators at Gatorland, or saddle up for a trail ride and a lesson on Florida cowboy culture at area ranches. Meanwhile, since you've likely rented a car to get around, don't be afraid to look a bit further afield - you’re just an hour's drive from the NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This space age icon is a must-visit for any budding young astronaut. Drive a bit more and you'll find yourself among the forts and galleons of St Augustine, America’s oldest city.
Once you've gotten your fill of Orlando and all things to the east, head west to Tampa, where the diverse options include a $15 million expansion of the Florida Aquarium will soon include The Splash Pad, a rainforest-themed kid zone. Classic theme park Busch Gardens continues to please with classic coasters and new designs, like 2016’s Cobra’s Curse spin coaster.
Finally, for something a bit more charmingly ‘Old Florida’, head north to Weeki Wachee Springs, a ‘city of mermaids’ where a kitschy underwater theater puts on performances of “The Little Mermaid” three times a day.