Walt Disney was right: Florida is a place that captures the imagination. The landscape is exaggerated and invites exaggeration.

Spanish conquistadors saw manatees and imagined them mermaids. Ponce de Leon saw crystal-clear springs and imagined them fountains of youth. Developers saw swamps and sold them as paradise, but if they are, there’s plenty of the devil in them.

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In its history, Florida has inspired as much mayhem as it has fantasies of a magical kingdom where dreams really do come true. So come for the beaches and Mickey Mouse, come for the people and the Everglades, come for the nightlife and the kayaking and the manatees and the gators. But make sure to come. Here are our top 10 Florida getaways.

The monorail passes in front of Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida ©James Kirkikis/Shutterstock

1. Walt Disney World

Want to set the bar of expectations high? Call yourself "The Happiest Place on Earth." Walt Disney World does, then pulls out all the stops to deliver a place where a child is the most important character in the show. Despite all the rides, entertainment, nostalgia and frenzy that surrounds a visit here, the magic is watching a child swell with belief after they've made Goofy laugh, been curtsied to by Cinderella, guarded the galaxy with Buzz Lightyear and battled Darth Maul like a Jedi knight.

facade of the Carlyle, an art deco hotel in Miami, on a sunny day
Stroll through – or sleep in – art deco splendor in Miami © Jean-Luc Benazet / 500px

2. Miami

What was once a little citrus town is now a pan-American mosaic, the most Latin city in the world north of Mexico. A vibrant mix of Cuban, Haitian and Colombian cultures (just to name a few) splashed against a pastel backdrop of distinctive art deco architecture, the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay kissing the sands of South Beach, it’s this diversity that makes Miami more quintessentially American than the cutest Midwestern Main Street.

You might also like: Top 9 beaches in Miami

Tourists and entertainers on a dock near water
Tourists and entertainers on Mallory Square in Key West © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

3. Key West

The "Conchs" are natives of Key West, a separate island untethered from the nation, the state and even the rest of the island chain. At once a symbol of the human inclination to live life on the limit and a fragile place one hurricane away from being swallowed by the Gulf, Key West is unlike anywhere you've ever been. A bring-on-the-night crazy party atmosphere animates Mallory Sq and Duval St, part drunken cabal and part authentic tolerance for the self-expression of every impolite, nonconformist impulse known to humanity.

You might also like: The best time to go to Key West

An exhibit housing the NASA Space Shuttle
Space Shuttle Atlantis now housed at the visitor complex of Kennedy Space Center © Zhukova Valentyna / Shutterstock

4. Kennedy Space Center

Within this 140,000-acre campus, the dreams of some of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century took flight all the way to the moon and back...and then were defunded and grounded on earth. But the sense of potential that always informed Kennedy Space Center – indeed, that still pushes NASA to reach out for Mars and beyond – remains palpable in this location, one of the most visited spots in Florida. Learn about the rigors of space exploration training and, of course, try the astronaut ice cream.

woman takes photos from a blue kayak in a mangrove swamp in the Everglades © Gable Denims
Kayaking through the Everglades provides many memorable moments © Gable Denims

5. The Everglades

The Everglades are mesmerizing, a river of grass where alligators lurk in their hundreds of thousands. It's a remarkable subtropical wilderness mottled by hammocks, cypress domes and mangroves, and populated by all manner of charismatic wildlife. Enticing boardwalks and a few elevated lookouts provide a glimpse of the scale and beauty of this place. But they can only take you so far. To properly explore the Everglades, push a canoe or kayak off a muddy bank and explore the shallow waterways on the Everglades' own, unforgettable terms.

Spanish colonial revival architecture in St Augustine
St Augustine is a dose of Europe in Florida © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

6. St Augustine

Saunter along cobbled roads, linger at charming cafes, and learn about the city’s rich history at countless museums. Cap it all off with dinner at a gas lamp-lit restaurant and a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Historic District. Europe? Oh wait, we’re in Florida. Epcot? No way, this is the real deal. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, St Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the US, preserved for centuries and awaiting your discovery.

A view of the sunset on a beach at Sanibel Island
Sunset on the beach at Sanibel Island, Florida, USA ©Justin Foulkes/Lonely Planet

7. Sanibel Island

This beautiful barrier island is the perfect beach escape: scout for seashells along the porcelain sand, spot night herons, anhinga and alligators at JN "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and dine on delicious fresh seafood at one of the quaint beach-shacks. If you’re without a car, don’t worry about it – with 23 miles of dedicated paths, you can bike around the entire island.

Museum attendees descend a spiral staircase
The Salvador Dali Museum has one of the largest collection of works of Salvador Dali in the world © Nadezda Murmakova / Shutterstock

8. St Petersburg

It's all too easy to overuse the adjective "surreal" when discussing Florida. In the case of the Salvador Dalí Museum, surreal is exactly right. Dalí has no connection to Florida whatsoever; this magnificent collection of 96 oil paintings and an overwhelming slew of ephemera landed in St Petersburg almost by chance. But then, all sorts of cultural offerings are flowering across "St Pete," from fine dining and craft breweries to live music and excellent art museums – proof the Gulf Coast can be as cerebral as it is relaxing.

An aerial view of a coastal area
Aerial of Caladesi Island State Park ©Robert Bender/EyeEm/Getty Images

9. Caladesi Island State Park

Located in the Tampa Bay area, Caladesi Island State Park ranks at the top of national surveys for the best natural beaches. Reach it by canoe or take a ferry from nearby Honeymoon Island (also worth a visit). In addition to nature trails and an unspoiled, palm-lined 3-mile beach, it’s the perfect spot for a lazy day of swimming and picnicking.

You might also like: Top 16 beaches in Florida

A water ride splashes down on a sunny day
The Dudley Do-Right Ripsaw Falls ride at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park © Kamira / Shutterstock

10. Universal Orlando Resort

In a state packed with theme parks, Universal Orlando Resort is something else, and a reason on its own to visit Florida. The theming, the creativity of the rides, the adrenaline rushes, the silly fun – it’s the smart and sassy class clown to Disney’s teacher’s pet. With some clever but simple planning you can enjoy attractions like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without waiting hours to get in or for the rides.

seagrass waves on sugar-white dunes on Amelia Island © Kat Sturtecky / 500px
A visit to Amelia Island is a peaceful retreat © Kat Sturtecky / 500px

11. Amelia Island

Home to Fernandina Beach, a charming shrimping village with 50 blocks of historic buildings, delightful eateries, and unique B&Bs, Amelia Island is a moss-draped southern fantasy.  Prefer a swanky resort to the quaint B&Bs? They’ve got that too, as well as miles of shark-tooth covered shoreline and a commanding Civil War-era fort anchoring it all.

Cypress trees in a swamp
Cypress trees in Apalachicola National Forest © Natphotos / Getty Images

12. Apalachicola National Forest

The largest of Florida’s three national forests, Apalachicola occupies almost 938 sq miles of the Panhandle, from just west of Tallahassee to the Apalachicola River. Hike and bike this otherworldly forest of cypress hammocks, dunes, swamps, sinks and karst terrain.

Kayaks on a beach
Kayaks at Myakka River State Park © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

13. Sarasota

If you’ve ever wanted to run away and join the circus, Sarasota is the place to go. John Ringling (yes, of Ringling Brothers fame) made Sarasota the winter home for his circus. His legacy lives on here in the Ringling Museum Complex, which includes his former home, a fine art museum, and of course, a circus museum. The circus doesn’t stop there – the entire town is obsessed. Enroll your kids in circus classes, go to the church that the circus built, or check out one of the many shows in town.

The red bricks of an academic building
Griffin-Floyd Hall at the University of Florida © irinka-s / Getty Images

14. Gainesville

If local boy Tom Petty is the patron saint of Gainesville's rock-music scene, the University of Florida is the engine that keeps it going strong. But it's not just about the music here. Gainesville is Florida's little town that could, buzzing with intellectual energy, carefree student attitudes and a generally pleasant atmosphere in its well-groomed, shady residential neighborhoods. There are great restaurants and bars to discover in this university town, and they're not as expensive or hectic as spots you'll find elsewhere.

This article was originally published in 2010 and updated in September 2021.

This article was first published March 2018 and updated September 2021

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