Vacationers have flocked to Florida since the late 1800s, when Henry Flagler built his famous railroad down the coast. The state's status as vacation paradise was cemented when Walt Disney snapped up a sizable chunk of it in the 1960s to build his new theme park.
There's no denying Florida’s appeal. Its incessant sunshine and natural beauty make it particularly well suited for road-tripping. The narrow peninsula packs in the hedonistic pleasures, from white-sand beaches to fantasy-fueled amusement parks – with historical monuments, natural wonders and roadside attractions sprinkled liberally along the way. Here are the Sunshine State’s seven best road trips for 2023.
North Florida Backwaters & Byways
Best road trip for springs, manatees and mermaids
Start: Pensacola; End: Weeki Wachee; Distance: 510 miles
Kick-off your trip with spectacular white-sand beaches along the Gulf Coast, then meander back roads and byways to discover northern Florida's hidden treasures. Along the way, you'll find crystal-clear springs that you can enjoy from an inner tube or glass-bottomed boat, come face-to-face with a Florida manatee, and end your trip with a classic roadside attraction starring the mermaids of Weeki Wachee. Other stops to include along the way include the Spanish moss-lined Wakulla Springs and the beautiful Ichetucknee Springs.
Best road trip for tracing the Atlantic Coast
Start: Amelia Island; End: Miami Beach; Distance: 475 miles
Drive the length of Florida all the way down the coast and you'll get a sampling of all the highlights of the Sunshine State. You'll find the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States, family-friendly attractions, the Latin flavor of Miami and – oh, yeah – miles and miles of beaches right beside you, inviting you to stop as often as you want.
Start your trip on Amelia Island, a glorious barrier island with the moss-draped charm of the Deep South, and wrap in Miami Beach. Detours worth making include St Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement in the US; Canaveral National Seashore and the Space Coast, where if you time it right you can see a rocket shoot into space.
Planning tip: November through March is peak snowbird season in Florida, making driving along Highway 1 – and other major coastal routes – a bit more of a crawl.
Overseas Highway to Key West
Best road trip for island hopping
Start: John Pennekamp State Park; End: Key West; Distance: 102 miles
There's no better way – short of hopping on a plane – to enjoy such an utter feeling of escape from the mainland as driving through the Florida Keys. The motto here seems to be “do whatever the hell you want.”
Pull off the highway for biker bars, seafood grills and blissful beaches – wherever and whenever the crazy spirit of these islands moves you. Highlights on this 102-mile trek include John Pennekamp State Park, the USA’s first underwater park, the Indian & Lignumvitae Keys and the Seven Mile Bridge.
Planning tip: Embark on your Overseas Highway adventure as early in the day as possible as portions tend to be congested, particularly on weekends, after 11am.
Walt Disney World and beyond
Best road trip for the whole family
Start: Kennedy Space Center; End: Sanibel & Captiva Islands; Distance: 288 miles
This trip links up most of the Sunshine State's best family-friendly attractions, including spectacular white-sand beaches with tons of sights.
Begin at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, a major attraction based on real-world wonder. From there hop on I-4 westbound toward Central Florida and its more imaginative delights. Let your inner child loose at the Magic Kingdom, but don't stop there; you'll find plenty more to entertain you in dizzying Orlando.
Next, cross the state toward Tampa, turning south when you arrive near the coast. Be sure to check out the historic buildings and wrought-iron balconies of Ybor City and the lovely beaches in Sarasota. End in Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
The Florida Panhandle
Best road trip for a taste of Florida's western edge
Start: Perdido Key; End: Tallahassee; Distance: 254 miles
The Atlantic side of Florida – brushed with flat golden beaches – gets a lot of love. Well, the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf Coast is equally as beaming with beach bliss and southern charm. Start your eastward journey near the Alabama border in Perdido Key, a barrier island with turquoise waters and expansive wetlands.
Eastward, make sure to hop on Scenic Highway 30A in South Walton County. Stops include Rosemary Beach with La Crema Tapas & Chocolate, with a chocolate-doused bacon offering to whet the appetite; the Alys Beach Nature Trail with elevated boardwalks for navigating its 20-acre coastal forest; and Seaside which is dotted with pastel houses with picket fences. Fun fact: Seaside is where The Truman Show was filmed. End your trip with a visit to Tallahassee, the capital of Florida, and home to the Florida Museum of History.
Best road trip for seeing wildlife
Start: Southeastern Everglades; End: Everglades City; Distance: 170 miles
The enticing Everglades are what make South Florida truly unique. This ecological wonderland is the USA's largest subtropical wilderness, flush with endangered and rare species, including its star attraction, the alligator (and lots of them).
It's not just a wetland, swamp, prairie or grassland – it's all of the above, twisted into a series of soft horizons, long vistas and sunsets that stretch across your entire field of vision. Pitstops include kayaking in Flamingo, tram tours in Shark Valley and searching for Bigfoot in Ochopee.
Detour: Work in a bonus national park by visiting Biscayne National Park, a boater's paradise 20 minutes east of the town of Homestead.
Best road trip for exploring the central heart of Florida
Start: Jacksonville; End: Ocala; Distance: 112 miles
With nearly one million residents, Jacksonville is Florida's largest city (nearly double the population of Miami). After gawking at giraffes at Jacksonville Zoological Gardens and touring the seaside, historic Kingsley Plantation, head southwest to Gainesville, the home of the University of Florida. Very much loaded with students when school is in session, the town is also home to the Florida Museum of Natural History and the nearby stunningly blue Ginnie Springs.
Cap off your trek with a stop in Ocala, with outdoor adventures aplenty including the woodsy, lake-loaded Ocala National Forest and, for gear heads, the Don Garlist Museum of Drag Racing, which houses nearly 100 race-tested vehicles.
Planning tip: Florida's springs are significantly colder than its oceans. So, consider packing or renting a wetsuit particularly during visits in the winter months.