Florida's best beach? Why not ask us to choose a favorite child? It's impossible! Each beach has its own personality and its own wondrous qualities. But visitors have to make tough decisions. Here are Lonely Planet's favorite Florida beaches.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and opening hours may vary. Check the latest guidance before planning a trip, and always follow local health advice.
When most people think of Miami Beach, they envision South Beach (SoBe), a label that applies to both the beach itself and the neighborhood that adjoins it. The latter includes clubs, bars, restaurants and a distinctive veneer of art-deco architecture. The beach is an almost 2.5-mile sweep of golden sand, dotted with colorful deco-style lifeguard stations and countless souls uploading panorama shots to their social media platforms. The shore gets crowded in high season (December to March) and most weekends.
You can escape the masses by avoiding the densest parts of the beach (5th to 15th Sts) – heading south of 5th Street, to the area known as SoFi, is a good means of eluding the crowds. Families can convene on Lummus Park, which has restrooms, grassy areas and a playground for kiddos. Keep in mind that there's no alcohol (or pets) allowed on the sand. Parking runs anywhere from $2 an hour for public lots to $4 for on-street parking.
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Named after local environmentalist Anne Eaton, Anne's Beach in Islamorada is one of the finest seascapes in these parts. The small ribbon of sand opens onto a sky-bright stretch of tidal flats and a green tunnel of hammock and wetland. A short (quarter-mile) boardwalk leads through the mangroves with lookouts and picnic tables along the way. A shallow swimming area with very manageable waves makes it great for little ones, too. Bring Fido along, but dogs must be leashed at all times.
The tiny parking lot is often full, but there's additional parking on the bayside, a short walk south of the beach.
Naples Municipal Beach
Naples' city beach is a 10-mile-long dreamy white strand that succeeds in feeling lively but rarely overcrowded. At the end of 12th Ave S, the 1000ft pier is a symbol of civic pride, having been constructed in 1888, destroyed a few times by fire and hurricane, and reconstructed each time. Child-size life jackets are available on loan for free near the pier. Fishers can cast from the pier without a license (which is required elsewhere along the beach). Or just gawk at the pelicans and other birds looking for scraps.
Parking is spread out in small lots between 7th Ave N and 17th Ave S, each with 10 to 15 spots of mixed resident and metered parking ($1.50 per hour). You'll find restrooms and a larger parking lot at the pier.
Fort DeSoto Park
With 1136 acres of unspoiled wilderness, Fort DeSoto in St Petersburg is one of Florida’s premier beach parks. It includes 7 miles of beaches (including a dog-friendly beach), two fishing piers and an extensive nature trail hopping over five interconnected islands. Of its two swimming areas, the long, silky stretch of North Beach is the best, with grassy picnic areas, a cafe and a gift store. The cafe organizes hourly bike and kayak rentals.
East Beach, meanwhile, is smaller and coarser, and consequently less crowded. The fort after which the park is named, and which dates from the 1898 Spanish-American War, is in the southwest corner of Mullet Key, which was once inhabited by Tocobaga Native Americans.
The stretch between Apollo and Playalinda in Canaveral National Seashore is as pristine as it gets: there are no roads and Klondike Beach is accessible only on foot or by bike (if you are skilled enough to ride your bike over sand). You need to obtain a back-country permit from the entrance station before setting off, and beware that it's a 13-mile journey along a sloping beach and soft sand. But once you arrive the solitude and serenity are worth it.
St Joseph Peninsula State Park
This lovely park, a quilt of beach and pine forest, brackish bays and fuzzy salt marsh, is a fine slice of increasingly rare Gulf Coast wilderness. Visitors can wander amid sugar-sand beaches that stretch for 1800 acres along grassy, undulating dunes, edging wilderness trails. Cyclists, walkers and roller-bladers can set out on the Loggerhead Run Bike Path, named for the turtles that inhabit the island, which runs about 9 miles to Salinas Park.
The park has a small concession stand and restrooms. There's accessible beach access via a boardwalk. Unfortunately, the park was heavily impacted by Hurricane Michael in 2018, which reshaped the delicate peninsula. As of late 2020, campsites and some trails (mainly on the north side of the park) remain closed. Check the website for the latest info.
At 8 miles long, Siesta Key is the Sarasota Keys’ most popular beach hangout, with a family-friendly village and a public beach of pure quartz sand so fine it's like confectioners' sugar. The enormous parking lot (at the corner of Beach Rd and Beach Way) has an information booth dispensing info on all types of activities and water sports (parasailing, jet ski rental, kayaks, bikes and more), plus nice facilities, a snack bar and covered eating areas.
For a quieter experience, head to Turtle Beach. The sun and teal waters are the same, but it's several miles south of the action and the narrow ash-gray sand beach isn't half as fine, so few prefer it. Sea turtles nest here from May through October.
The epic sliver of sand that is Pass-a-Grille Beach is the most idyllic barrier-island beach, backed only by beach houses and a long stretch of metered public parking. Here you can watch boats coming through Pass-a-Grille Channel, hop aboard the Shell Key Shuttle to unspoiled Shell Key, and retire for food and ice cream in the laid-back village center.
Cayo Costa State Park
Beautiful Cayo Costa Island in the Southwest Gulf Coast is almost entirely a protected 2500-acre state park. While its pale, ash-colored sand may not be as fine as that of other beaches, its idyllic solitude and bathtub-warm waters are without peer. Bring snorkeling gear to help scour sandbars for shells and conchs – delightfully, many still house colorful occupants (who, by law, must be left there). Cycle dirt roads to more-distant beaches, hike interior island trails and kayak mangroves.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of America's most inaccessible national parks. Reachable only by boat or seaplane, it rewards you for your effort in getting there with amazing snorkeling amid coral reefs full of marine life. You'll also get to tour a beautifully preserved 19th-century brick fort, one of the largest such fortifications in the USA despite its location 70 miles off the coast of Key West.
On paper, the Dry Tortugas covers an extensive area – over 70 sq miles. In reality, only 1% of the park (about 143 acres) consists of dry land, so much of the park's allure lies under the water. The marine life is quite rich here, with the opportunity to see tarpon, sizable groupers and lots of colorful coral and smaller tropical fish, plus the odd sea turtle gliding through the sea.
Reservations ($190 for a day trip to the island) to board the Yankee Freedom III, which provides ferry service to the island, are booked months in advance. A trip includes a 45-minute narrated tour of the fort, free snorkeling equipment and national park entrance fees.
Haulover Beach Park
Swimsuits are optional at least part of this 40-acre South Florida beach park hidden behind vegetation from the sight of condos, highways and prying passers-by. You don't have to get into your birthday suit if you don't want to – in fact, most of the beach is clothed and there’s even a dog park. It is one of the nicer spots for sand in the area. It is located on Collins Ave about 4.5 miles north of 71st St.
Caladesi Island State Park
Directly to the south of Honeymoon, Caladesi Island State Park is accessible only by boat and is virtually as nature made it: unspoiled and pristine. Consequently, it often tops national beach polls and its 3 palm-lined miles of sugar-sand beaches should make the top of your list, too. Secluded and uncrowded it nevertheless boasts a 110-slip marina, kayak rentals, a tiny cafe, restrooms and showers.
You can kayak to Caladesi from Honeymoon or Clearwater, but it's far more relaxing to kayak the 3.5-mile mangrove trail while at Caladesi.
Bahia Honda State Park
This park, located in the Lower Keys, with its long, white-sand (and at times seaweed-strewn) beach, named Sandspur Beach by locals, is the big attraction in these parts. As Keys beaches go, this one is probably the best natural stretch of sand in the island chain.
There's also the novel experience of walking on the old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, which offers nice views of the surrounding islands. Heading out on a kayaking adventure is another great way to spend a sun-drenched afternoon.
Crandon Park Beach
Located on the 1200-acre Crandon Park, Crandon Park Beach is a glorious stretch of sand that spreads for 2 miles. Much of the park in Key Biscayne consists of a dense coastal hammock (hardwood forest) and mangrove swamps. The beach here is clean and uncluttered by tourists, faces a lovely sweep of teal goodness, and is regularly named one of the best beaches in the USA.
Distinctly separate from Pensacola itself, Pensacola Beach is a pretty stretch of powdery white sand, gentle, warm waters and a string of mellow beachfront hotels. The beach occupies nearly 8 miles of the 40-mile-long Santa Rosa barrier island, surrounded by the Santa Rosa Sound and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and south, and by the federally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore on either side. Though determined residents have protected much of the barrier island from development, several high-rise condos have created a bit of a Gulf Coast skyline.
The area is a major hub for local entertainment and special events, including Mardi Gras celebrations, a triathlon, wine tastings, a summer music series and parades.
Blue Mountain Beach
Towering a cloud-kissing (if by cloud-kissing we mean fog) 64ft-high, "Blue Mountain" is supposedly the highest point on the pancake-flat Gulf Coast. Be on the lookout for blue lupine flowers, which supposedly gave this alpine peak its name. Relax on the exquisite beach in the shadow of this mighty massif. (Note: the "mountain" does not actually provide a ton of shade.)
This article was originally published November 2020. It was updated February 2021.