When most people think of Florida, they think of sunshine, theme parks, orange juice and alligators. But this former Spanish colony, which became the 27th state to enter the Union, is much more than that.
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, it has mile upon mile of white sand beaches. This is the US state where you’ll find Miami and its immediate neighbor Miami Beach – both famous for their Art Deco architecture, Cuban culture, and beaches, of course.
More sun, sea, and sand can be had in the south, where the Florida Keys fling themselves for around 120 miles along the Florida Straits. Come here for more beaches, scuba diving, snorkeling, and the potential for one of the most picturesque road trips ever, thanks to the feat of engineering that is the Overseas Highway.
There’s also Cape Canaveral, home of NASA, but then again there’s Orlando, too – famous for its sheer amount of amusement parks, including Disney World. Here’s a look at the best places to visit in Florida:
Panama City Beach on the Florida panhandle offers 27 miles (43 km) of white sand beaches on the Emerald Coast. The beach is a popular destination for residents of the southern United States as well as tens of thousands of high school and college students on spring break.
Besides having fun in the sun in the emerald green waters, this town of just over 12,000 permanent residents offers sports fishing on the gulf, plenty of golfing, marine parks including one for alligators, amusement and water parks …in short, something for everyone in the family.
Naples may have had rustic beginnings, but today this Gulf of Mexico city is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, with houses selling for more than $40 million. As on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, development along the shoreline has been kept residential.
It got its name because the bay it’s located on was said to be prettier than the Bay of Naples in Italy. Besides its beautiful city beach, the nearby wildlife refuges make it a popular tourist destination.
These include Everglades National Park, Florida Panther National Wildlife Reserve and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary that has a 2.5-mile long boardwalk meandering through it. Naples also has vibrant arts and shopping districts.
Sanibel Island is located just off Fort Myers in the Gulf of Mexico. It is connected to the mainland by a causeway. It is known as a quiet, natural travel destination, well-suited for families.
Wildlife refuges take up more than half of this long narrow island, whose beaches are also popular as places to hunt for shells. This island of less than 7,000 permanent residents may have harbored pirates in the days of yore, if local legends are to be believed.
Aside from beachcombing and looking for wildlife, attractions include a highly-rated historical museum, a botanical garden, a lighthouse and an arts center.
No longer the Spring Break destination of popular imagination, Fort Lauderdale is today a sophisticated cultural center with an increasingly upmarket social scene. Located on the Atlantic Ocean about 23 miles (37 km) north of Miami Beach it is also known as the “Venice of America” due to its expansive canal system.
The city has an impressive tourist infrastructure with plenty of hotels, golf courses, marinas and museums. The city’s Port Everglades is one of the busiest cruise-ship ports in the world, with megaships departing daily for the Caribbean, Mexico and beyond.
The most popular section of the city beach is called “The Strip” with eating and drinking establishments that run along the land side of the beach road.
Boasting miles of white sandy beaches, Clearwater Beach is separated by the city of Clearwater by the Intracoastal Waterway. USA Today readers in 2013 named it Florida’s Best Beach Town. Besides laying in the white sand and swimming in the clear water there are also many activities offered such as fishing, sailing, kayaking, and dolphin tours. A lot of people get married on the beaches here.
A spot popular with visitors is Pier 60, a long fishing pier that hosts a playground, snack bar and day-long entertainers. At night, you can buy crafts from local artisans.
Stroll along Beach Walk where you’ll find drinking fountains and showers to wash the sand off you. If you come alive when the sun goes down, Clearwater Beach has a lively night scene.
One of the country’s best natural treasures, the Everglades feature a unique combination of ecosystems that include swamps, sub-tropical jungles, saw-grass prairies and the largest mangrove complex in the Western Hemisphere.
Located in South Florida, much of the Everglades are protected within the Everglades National Park and provide shelter to a wide variety of birds, fish, animals and reptiles, including endangered species like the West Indian manatee, the American crocodile and the Florida panther.
One of the largest national parks in the USA, the Everglades National Park features four different visitor centers that provide education about the Everglades as well as a variety of tours and outstanding experiences.
Among the most popular of these is the Shark Valley Visitor Center, which in addition to educational displays, offers tram tours with opportunities to spot wildlife such as alligators, turtles, deer and herons. Also located at Shark Valley is an observation tower that presents fantastic views.
From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, visitors can arrange boat tours to the Ten Thousand Islands, a labyrinth of mangrove islands, viewing manatees, dolphins and pelicans along the way. Also from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to explore the Everglades on self-guided tours.
The visitor centers of Ernest Coe and Flamingo also offer ranger-led tours and programs. An air boat tour is one of the most exciting ways to experience the Everglades. What’s more, numerous hiking trails, biking trails and fishing are also available within the national park.
The Tampa Bay area, on the Gulf of Mexico, includes Tampa Bay, a large natural harbor and several popular cities, including Tampa and St. Petersburg. Tampa is home to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Family-oriented activities include Busch Gardens, a theme park said to have Florida’s best roller coaster rides as well as a zoo dedicated to animals from Africa’s Serengeti Plain.
As for beachcombing, St. Pete Beach can’t be beat. It was named the best beach in the United States and fifth in the world by TripAdvisor readers in 2012 because of its white sand beaches and clear water.
Orlando is theme-park city, having more theme parks than any place else in the world. There’s Walt Disney World, Epcot Center, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Gator Park, to name a few, all of which bring 51 million visitors a year to this central Florida city of 2 million people.
This Sunbelt city doesn’t get hit by hurricanes as much as other parts of the state, which makes it a popular place to visit in Florida. One of American’s most visited cities, Orlando is also home to the University of Central Florida, which has the second largest college enrollment in the United States.
One of the most vibrant cities in the USA, Miami is best known for its Latin culture and sizzling nightlife. Located in southeastern Florida off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Miami is also a major port city managing the world’s largest number of passenger cruise ships.
Attracting tourists from all over the planet, Miami is a melting pot of ethnic cultures with a wide array of exciting attractions and activities. One of Miami’s main draws is its sunny beaches that range from family friendly to party scenes. Across the bay from Miami on a barrier island is Miami Beach, known for its Art Deco architecture and glamorous South Beach.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Miami
See also: Top Miami Attractions
The Florida Keys are a 120 mile long chain of tropical islands curving around the base of the Florida peninsula, connected to the mainland by a series of bridges. The most spectacular bridge, the Seven Mile Bridge in the Lower Keys, has been frequently used as a location for films including True Lies and Fast 2 Furious.
US Highway 1, the “Overseas Highway” runs from Key Largo, Islamadora, Marathon, Lower Keys and finally to Key West, the most distant and most famous of the Florida Keys. The waters surrounding the archipelago are protected by a marine sanctuary and contain many aquatic species and coral reef.
The islands are categorized in groups of Upper, Middle and Lower Keys. Beginning at Key Largo, the Upper Keys are where tourists will find a wider variety of accommodation, shopping, dining and nightlife. The Middle Keys and Lower Keys feature a more quiet and remote atmosphere.
Key Largo is the first Key reached on the Overseas Highway and is home to the underwater Christ of the Abyss statue, which can be observed by divers and snorkelers. Another of the larger Keys, Big Pine is where tourists can see the knee-high whitetail deer.
Islamorada Key is touted as the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World” as well as a popular diving spot. Located on Vaca Key, Marathon is popular for its tourist amenities and facilities as well as the Seven-Mile Bridge. At the southernmost point of the United States is Key West, which features the former home of author, Ernest Hemingway.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Florida Keys