Florida Vacation Destinations: 22 Sunny Gems

The sunshine state is one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. Orlando draws upwards of 75 million visitors per year, thanks to being the theme park capital of the world. That is more visitors that anywhere else on the planet. But Florida’s beautiful beach lined coast, Spanish colonial history, unique towns and diverse state parks offer a wide variety of experiences. In a time where social distancing is imperative in stopping the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, we should try and avoid crowds when possible. Here are 22 lesser known gems in the Sunshine State that are fantastic for tranquil beaches, culture, wildlife and culinary scenes void of chain restaurants. Submissions here are from many great travel writers, and also include our own tips as former Florida residents. These destinations make for great Florida vacation options!

Florida Vacation Destinations Table of Contents

Florida Keys

Central Florida

North Florida

Panhandle

Southeast Florida

Southwest Florida

Florida Keys

Islamorada

If you’re looking for a vacation destination in the Florida Keys with a laid-back feel, the lesser known Key of Islamorada, Florida is the perfect getaway. Known as a fishing town, Islamorada (Village of Islands) tends to attract those looking for a slow paced, relaxing vacation.  Theater of the Seas, a marine mammal facility, is one of the most popular Islamorada attractions. It offers shows and animal encounters, while also serving as an animal rescue and rehabilitation center.  Along those lines, you’ll find that marine life is plentiful in Islamorada, and it’s not uncommon to see manatees while walking along the canals.

beach chairs with the sea and blue sky in Islamorada, Florida

If you want beach time, the beautiful Anne’s Beach is a focal point for Islamorada visitors. While Islamorada (and much of the Keys) isn’t known for great public beaches, many Islamorada hotels and vacation home rentals offer private beach access. The Village of Islamorada also offers a variety of locally-owned shops and restaurants.  With restaurants like Lazy Dayz, Morada Bay and Lorelei’s, seafood and waterfront dining are often a focal point. 

pelicans in Islamorada, Florida

Whether you’re visiting the Florida Keys with kids, going on a romantic getaway or anything in between, Islamorada is the perfect Florida vacation destination. Its location halfway between Miami and Key West also makes it great to pair with either city for a mix of relaxation and nightlife on your Florida vacation. 

By Amanda Emmerling at Toddling Traveler.

Dry Tortugas National Park

If you’re in Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is definitely worth a day trip if you want an off-the-beaten-path adventure. It’s one of the least-visited National Parks in the entire system with only 60,000 visitors per year–that’s because getting there requires a bit of planning and effort. Most visitors take the National Park Service ferry, which leaves Key West for the three-hour trip around 8 a.m. and returns about 5 p.m. Or, you can splurge and get there by private plane or boat.

sea and fort in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

All visitors arrive at Garden Key, the largest island in the seven-island archipelago, which sits about 70 miles west in the Gulf of Mexico. Once there, you can take your time exploring the massive Fort Jefferson, which was built between 1846 and 1875 to protect the Gulf (although it was never completed & never attacked). You can also swim and snorkel in the state’s most pristine coral reef, and try to spot some of the 300 species of birds–mostly migratory–that are known to frequent the park. If you want to spend more than a day at the park, there are several camping spots available on Garden Key, but you have to make a reservation far in advance and be prepared to pack everything you need in and out.

By Brianne Miers of A Traveling Life.

Central Florida

Cocoa Beach

If you want a beach vacation to get away from the crowds of Central Florida’s better known beaches, try out a Cocoa Beach vacation. Not only are there great restaurants on the Cocoa Beach Pier and plenty of white sandy beaches, but you can also catch a launch from the Space Coast. Schedule your visit right and watch rockets launch from nearby NASA or just head over to tour the facility one day.

If you are planning to visit the main Central Florida attractions in Orlando or fly into Orlando, you are only an hour away at Cocoa Beach but with a much more relaxed and laid back vibe. Watch sunrise and spend your days relaxing on the beach, playing beach volleyball, or learning to surf where legend Kelly Slater got his start.

Sunset at the pier in Cocoa Beach, Florida

If you need to get some beach gear for your trip, the famous Ron Jon’s is located right by the beach along with the Cocoa Beach Surf Company. Enjoy dinner overlooking the beach from one of the restaurants on the Cocoa Beach Pier, and keep an eye out for dolphins and eagle rays jumping in the waves.

If you need to get away from it all but still want that fun Florida beach vacation, plan your next getaway to Cocoa Beach Florida.

By Christine Wheeler at Live.Love.Run.Travel.

Ocala

One of our favorite hidden gems in Central Florida is the city of Ocala. It’s located just over an hour northwest of Orlando. There are a lot of things to do in Ocala; way more than people think. One of the reasons we love it so much is that there is a great mix of things to do, so there’s something for everyone.

History lovers will love the museums in town, like the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology. Its exhibits cover over 13,000 years of history in the area. The Appleton Museum of Art is great too because along with art pieces they also have historic artifacts from all over the world.

Ocala, Florida park

Nature lovers will enjoy the many parks in and around town, two of the most popular being Silver Springs State Park and Ocala National Forest. These parks offer hiking and biking trails as well as kayaking and canoeing opportunities.

Foodies will also love Ocala, with its combination of Southern classics and modern dishes. Many of the popular restaurants are located around Ocala’s historic square, but plenty of others can be found all around town. A personal favorite of ours is Big Lee’s which is actually a food truck. Ocala is a wonderful destination in Florida that has something for everyone.

By Vicky Sosa of Buddy The Traveling Monkey.

Winter Park

Some of the best areas in Central Florida are just outside of Orlando. And Winter Park is one of them! It’s a gorgeous city just about thirty to forty minutes north of Orlando, depending on traffic and exactly where you are traveling between.

Winter Park is a city well known for it’s beautiful parks and pretty avenues. Rollins College, a private liberal arts college, dates back to 1885. The area is also a decades long favorite of Alex from Wanderlust Marriage.

Some great things to do in Winter Park include visiting the small serene Kraft Azalea Gardens, full of cyprus trees and Spanish moss. Or Mead Botanical Garden that has a boardwalk and butterfly garden. Both parks are free of charge and open to the public to enjoy daily.

A favorite pastime of mine is to enjoy Sunday brunch at one of the many notable restaurants on Park Avenue. It’s definitely the place to have an alfresco meal and people watch on the weekends. Afterward, it’s fun to walk on Park Avenue to shop in their cute boutiques and stores. (If you’re traveling to the city by train, this is also the street where Amtrak and SunRail trains stop. The station itself is on a beautiful 11 acre park called “Central Park” in downtown Winter Park.) Another absolute favorite thing to do in Winter Park is take a calm boat ride. It’s a fun way to view a piece of the city and get a glimpse into pretty houses along the canal. 

If you’re into art The Morse Museum of American Art is not to miss. It has one of the largest collections of Tiffany glass and jewelry in the nation. The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens is a beautiful place to visit as well. It’s where the famous Czech born sculptor retired on Lake Osceola. Two hundred of his four hundred sculptures are on the property. Both museums are $10 or less and the Polasek Museum offers guided tours several days a week.

By Mikkel Woodruff from Sometimes Home.

North Florida

Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach is a lesser-known beach near Jacksonville Florida known for its long white stretch of sand and plethora of activities. It also has a rich history and is thought to have been Native American’s first year-round settlement. 

The shallow waters and pristine beach make it a great location for sunbathing, swimming, and beach activities. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer months. 

However, for something more upbeat head to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park for some of the states best surf as well as many miles of hiking and biking trails. There is also a 60-acre lake which is popular for fishing, kayaking, and canoes. 

Another nearby park is Howell Park. Much smaller than Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, it gives off a peaceful vibe and is perfect for an afternoon picnic and a stroll on the well-groomed paths. 

Atlantic Beach, Florida palm trees

Despite its small size, Atlantic Beach still manages to showcase a number of great places to eat and drink. Atlantic Beach Brewing Company is where locals and tourists come together. 

There is a mixture of boutique places to stay and big chain hotels in Atlantic Beach but some people choose to stay in Jacksonville and head to the beach on day trips. The city is well connected by Jacksonville’s “Beach Buggy” and is located just a short 30 miles from beautiful Atlantic Beach.

Contributed by sustainable travel bloggers Oksana & Max from Drink Tea & Travel

Amelia Island

Amelia Island is a hidden gem located on the northeast of Florida. It is a barrier island to the mainland coast that includes the historic and colorful downtown district of Fernandina Beach and Amelia City, the civil war fort Clinch and lighthouse and the lovely beach scenes and slower pace of the island. You can enjoy this wonderful beach community and also have nice meals with views of the coastline, picnic on the beach or enjoy a fine dining experience in so many fantastic locations around the island. Window shopping, antique shopping, enjoying local artisans galleries or boutiques is fun or if you’re more into adventure, there’s biking, golfing, horseback riding, surfing, fishing, sailing and so many other outdoor experiences to enjoy around the island.

sunset on the beach in Amelia Island, Florida

A fun time to enjoy Amelia island is when they hold regular events to celebrate different seasons on the island including Art Walk, Eight Flags Shrimp Festival and the Amelia Island Book Festival. Or if you’re into more quiet and R&R pursuits, there’s plenty of open spaces, fantastic beaches and beautiful scenery to enjoy and get completely lost from all the crowds on the island. Amelia Island is a nice hidden gem and worth visiting Nassau county in the Northeast coastal region of Florida.

By Noel Morata of This Hawaii Life.

Cedar Key

Cedar Key is one of the most authentic and laid back Florida vacation destinations in the north of the state.  The term key is derived from the Spanish word cayo, meaning small island. Cedar Key embodies small island life with no chain hotels, restaurants or shops. All businesses are independently owned small businesses.

If you want to skip big crowds at beaches like Clearwater, South Beach and Daytona, consider staying on Cedar Key. Its white sand beaches offer a relaxing reprieve from large crowds. A perfect way to enjoy a vacation while also minimizing your risk of coronavirus during the pandemic.

Cedar Key has some of the best seafood restaurants you will find in Florida. Go for succulent grilled scallops and shrimp at Steamers Clam Bar and Grill. Tony’s Seafood restaurant is an institution for clam chowder. 1842 Daily Grind and Mercantile whips up delicious gourmet coffees and specialty breakfast items.

The Island Hotel’s history dates back to 1859 and makes for a great stay – especially for couples. Enjoy dinner and drinks at their Neptune Lounge and Bar, with live music and a friendly vibe. Behind the bar is a beautiful King Neptune painting, painted by Helen Tooker in exchange for room and board in 1948. They also serve mouth-watering Key Lime pie, as good as you’ll find in the sunshine state!

The Gulf Side Motel is another great place to stay. There are only 9 rooms, equipped with kitchenettes, so you can also prepare some meals in your room. It is near the Cedar Key Historical Museum and right across the street from the beach.

By Alex Kallimanis of Wanderlust Marriage Travel.

Crystal River

Florida really has no shortage of cute and historic coastal towns, especially when it comes to the state’s Gulf Coast.

One town that you definitely shouldn’t skip is Crystal River. You’ll find Crystal River about an hour and a half north of Tampa on Florida’s “Nature Coast.” The slightly funky, laid-back town of Crystal River makes for a great getaway, either on its own or in combination with other spots along this stretch of coastline.

The top reason many people plan a trip to Crystal River is to see (and sometimes even swim with) Florida’s native manatees. During the cooler winter months, hundreds of manatees flock to the warm-water springs in and around Crystal River, making the gentle giants extremely easy to see. The area also has several “resident” manatees, so it’s possible to see them year-round in Crystal River.

turquoise water and palm trees at Three Sisters Spring, Florida

Along with manatee spotting, there are a lot of other ways to get close to Florida nature in Crystal River. You can visit beautiful natural springs like Three Sisters Springs, paddle a kayak down the Chassahowitzka River, and get to know local fauna at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. And of course, there are some nice beaches nearby to enjoy, too, like Fort Island Gulf Beach.

Not far away from Crystal River, you can also visit places like Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to see the world-famous mermaid show, or take a boat ride at Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon.

If you’re looking for a good base for exploring Florida’s Nature Coast, Crystal River is it!

By Amanda Williams of A Dangerous Business Travel Blog.

Panhandle

Cape San Blas

Cape San Blas is the perfect hidden gem right on the gulf in the panhandle.  It’s a sleepy little peninsula across from Port St. Joe with pristine beaches, shells for days, and it’s own state park.  While they are still recovering from hurricane damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018, it is still totally worth visiting and escaping the usual Florida crowds.
beach with sunset in Cape San Blas, Florida

There aren’t any hotels on the peninsula, but there are tons of rental homes that you can find through Airbnb or Vrbo.  There are people that live there full-time though, so please be respectful of their homes and property during your stay.  The best things to do on Cape San Blas are simply relaxing, visiting the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, shelling, visit the Port St. Joe lighthouse, take a day trip to St. George Island, and do even more relaxing.  This is the perfect hidden gem beach getaway in Florida.

By Megan Johnson of Red Around the World.

Destin

If you are looking for a lovely beach getaway on the Emerald Coast of Florida, consider a vacation in Destin! Located on the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle, the beach town features lovely white sand beaches and beautiful turquoise waters.

Long days lazing on the beach or swimming in the warm gulf waters make for a relaxing vacation in Destin. But if you want a more active vacation, there are lots of things to do in Destin, from water sports and deep sea fishing to shopping and golf. If you are a foodie, you will love Destin’s plethora of waterfront restaurants. There are great seafood selections as well as other cuisines if you are not a fish lover.

sunset in Destin, Florida

Visit Henderson Beach State Park for its mile-long stunning beach and nature trail through the sand dunes. If you are traveling with kids, you’ll want to check out Big Kahuna’s Water Park, where thrilling rides abound. A sunset cruise to look for dolphins and enjoying a Destin sunset are musts. As is taking a boat out to Crab Island to hang out in the water.

Late spring and early fall are great times to visit Destin: it’s less crowded in those times and the weather is still nice. Summer is a popular time to visit, but expect crowds and high prices at accommodations.

By Dhara from It’s Not About the Miles.

South Walton Beaches

One of Florida’s best-kept secrets is the beaches of South Walton. The beach community is popular with families who travel from the neighboring states of Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. South Walton consists of many quaint coastal communities like Inlet Beach, Rosemary Beach, Seacrest, Alys Beach, WaterSound, Seagrove, Seaside and Sandestin among others.

Sometimes referred to as the Hamptons of the South, South Walton is a little more upscale, compared to nearby Panama City Beach which is another popular vacation spot. The sand here is soft and sugar-white and the sunsets are spectacular. The water is a pretty shade of emerald.

sunset on South Walton Beach, Florida

During the months of May through October, endangered sea turtles (Green Sea Turtles and Loggerheads ) build nests in that sand. During late spring and early summer, female sea turtles that were born in South Walton return to build nests.

If laying in the sun gets too boring, at St. Andrews State Park which is situated on a peninsula at the far eastern edge of Panama City Beach, you can take a boat ride to see dolphins in the wild. If you love underwater adventures, South Walton Artificial Reef is a must visit. It is made up of more than 150 artificial reef structures that lie close to shore and at easy-to-reach snorkel depths. Each of the four reef systems has been constructed to create a fun design of a marine animal native to South Walton waters.

By Priya Vin from Outside Suburbia.

St. Andrew State Park

When visiting the Sunshine State, the perfect hidden gem beach vacation can be found at St. Andrews State Park. Only 5 miles from the popular Panama City Beach, St. Andrews is ideally situated between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This state park is a must-visit if you want to get away from the crowds at other nearby Florida beach towns. It is only $8 per vehicle to enter for the day too.

St. Andrews State Park, Florida beach

St. Andrews has a little bit for everyone, whether you are interested in surfing, bicycling, relaxing on the beach, or walking some nature trails. There are also boat rentals, as well as camping options for those who would like to stay in the park. If interested in exploring even further, a shuttle ride to Shell Island is not to be missed. A small island off the southern side of the state park, Shell Island is 7 miles of untouched beach, making it a one-of-a-kind experience. From here, you can snorkel, kayak, or even sign up for dolphin tours.

sunset over St. Andrews State Park pier

If you’re looking for the perfect beach day, with some of the most picturesque ocean views, St. Andrews State Park is one of the best hidden gems in the Sunshine State.

By Jordan Cierra Bradford at The Solo Life.

Southeast Florida

Lauderdale-by-the-Sea

Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is certainly a hidden gem on the Atlantic side of the state. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is a small coastal town located just 20 minutes from metropolitan Fort Lauderdale. This small community is perfect for beachgoers looking to stay away from large crowds, the bustling city, and party scene. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea stands out with its colorful single main street with local restaurants, boutique hotels and resorts, and small business shopping. The town is home Anglin’s pier, which is perfect for fishing or walking out to enjoy the blue water and ocean breeze.
colorful beach chairs in Lauderdale by the Sea, Florida

The beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is quiet, peaceful, and full of sea turtle nests during the summer. The crystal clear water and coral reefs at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea attracts scuba divers and snorkelers. Scuba diving lessons and snorkeling tours are offered for those looking to learn and explore!

In 1900, the SS Copenhagen crashed in 25 feet of water off the shore of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Today, the underwater archeological site is accessible for divers and is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea’s relaxing oceans vibes and small-town charm are perfect for solo travelers, couples, groups of friends, and adults. During a visit to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, you’ll feel like the world has slowed down!
By Pam & Kathrine at Everywhere Forward.

West Palm Beach (Manatee Lagoon and Ocean Reef Beach Park)

A hidden gem on the east coast of Florida is a charming city with beaches, festivals and much more that is worth visiting. West Palm Beach is a 1-hour drive from Miami and can be easily added to a Miami to Key West road trip itinerary.

A must visit is Manatee Lagoon, an Eco-Discovery center to learn about Manatees while viewing them in action. There are many interactive exhibits that inform on the anatomy, sounds and other interesting facts about these herbivorous aquatic mammals. The staff at the museum is friendly and happy to educate visitors about these wonderful creatures. There are many activities and events for kids as well – check their calendar of events.

beach and partly cloudy blue sky in West Palm Beach, Florida

Head to the Observation deck outside and watch out for the Manatees in the lagoon besides the museum. You might get lucky.
Entry to the museum is free and open from Tuesday to Sunday.

After visiting the Manatee Lagoon, head to the Ocean Reef Park Beach. This beautiful beach offers fewer crowds and free parking. As the name suggests, there is a reef around this part of the ocean that is protruding from the water.  There are a lot of shells that form a shimmering blanket over the beach. Walk over the sandy beach, collect the shells or just relax. It is the perfect place to unwind yourself.

If you happen to visit West Palm Beach during December, check out the 700-ton Christmas tree made entirely from sand. This city has a variety of fairs and festivals throughout the year and will not disappoint you. It is a great Florida vacation destination.

By Neha Kulshrestha of Travel Melodies.

Southwest Florida

Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria Island is a barrier island located off the west coast of Florida around 50 miles south of Tampa. With a 7-mile stretch of white sandy beaches and calm blue waters, it’s a fabulous destination for families with small children.

The island was only accessible by boat until 1921 when the construction of the Cortez Bridge was completed. These days there are strict building regulations on the island which help to maintain a feel of Old Florida and allow for a totally laid-back holiday. It’s the kind of place to come to, kick off your shoes, feel the sand between your toes and enjoy a slow pace of life.

kid walking on the beach on Anna Maria Island, Florida

Anna Maria Island is all about beach living with two quite different sides to the island. The west coast beaches (Holmes Beach, Manatee Beach and Anna Maria Beach) are beautifully manicured while the east coast (Bayfront Park) is a little more wild and rugged. If you’re staying in one of the canal-lined houses of Bimini Bay on the east coast, you may spot the odd dolphin or manatee.

There’s a huge variety of marine and birdlife to spot either on your walks or while taking one of the many boat tours available. It’s worth noting that May to October is Loggerhead turtle nesting season and you may be able to take an early morning tour of the turtle nests if you contact Island Turtle Watch.

The northern end of the island is the quietest part of Anna Maria Island. Make sure to take a walk to the beautiful Bean Point Beach to enjoy a tranquil sunset or stop in at the Rod and Reel pier for a drink or a meal. If you’re in the mood for a donut, check out the Donut Experiment for the most delicious donuts ever.

By Jacquie Hale of Flashpacking Family.

Bonita Springs

Tucked away on Florida’s southwest coast, visitors will find a jewel aptly named Bonita Springs. The city provides miles of public beach access. It is the perfect spot to relax and unwind.

The city is well-known for the area nicknamed Bonita Beach facing the Gulf of Mexico. Frequently covered in seashells, the beach is a sheller’s dream come true. With ten beach access points along the length of Hickory Boulevard, you can’t miss an opportunity to enjoy the white sand along what are mostly private property since Bonita Springs has no hotels facing the beach.
Don’t miss a visit to Lovers Key State Park, located on one of the four barrier islands that comprise Bonita Springs. Lovers Key makes the lists of best beaches in Florida time and again. It is also a great place to explore the back bays on kayaks and canoes for nature lovers and those seeking some fun activities.
sunset and boat on the water in Bonita Springs, Florida
Looking to cool off after some time outside? Grab a cool pint at Momentum Brewery! Prefer to eat your calories in a decadent manner? Check out a long-time area favorite — eat ice cream at Royal Scoop.

Bonita Springs is one of the best places to watch the sunset in southwest Florida. With so many miles of public beaches and access points, visitors should bring a beach chair and wait for the glorious event. Those looking for a more party atmosphere should visit Bonita Beach Park or Doc’s Beach House at the southern end of Hickory Boulevard. Bonita Springs provides a relaxed, low key relaxation base for your southwest Florida adventures.

By Annick Lenoir-Peek at The Common Traveler.

Fakahatchee Strand State Park Preserve

When most people think of the swamp in Florida, they think of Everglades National Park, but there is a hidden little state park that is just as great: Fakahatchee Strand State Park Preserve. It’s not terribly well known and if you have heard of it, there’s a good chance it’s from the book The Orchid Thief.
Fakahatchee Strand, Florida - walkway leading to shed
This is a dense swampy park but has two really great hikes that are easy to do.  The first is the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk just outside of Everglades City.  The boardwalk is under two miles round-trip and you’ll have a good chance of seeing gators in the pond out front and possibly on the trail.

The other (my personal favorite) is the hike to the Fakahatchee Hilton. This is a four-mile round-trip hike along a dirt/mud road taking you back to a little swamp shack with a pond behind it full of gators. It is privately owned but they allow people to hike up here so be respectful of the area.  This is such a fun place to explore and get away from the nearby Everglades crowds.

By Megan Johnson of Red Around the World.

Honeymoon Island State Park

Located in the Tampa Bay area, 30 miles north of St Petersburg, Honeymoon Island State Park is one of the most underrated places in Florida. This beautiful state park offers stunning beaches and wonderful walks. It is perfect for people who want to discover an unspoiled version of the Floridian environment.

Honeymoon Island is easily accessible by car. As you head to Dunedin, you will find a bridge. No need to take a boat, you can go whenever you want! There is an entrance fee of $8 per vehicle but it’s well worth it. When you get there, you can head to the visitor center. They will give you plenty of advice on things to do.

St Petersburg, Florida beach

If you like walking, the Osprey walking trail is a great option. This easy 2.5 miles walk will take you through the trees, perfect to admire native wildlife in its natural environment. There are many Ospreys and American eagles.

You can then head to the beach. Honeymoon Island is full of white sandy beaches. Away from the crowds, it is the perfect place to enjoy a relaxing beach day. You will get wonderful views on the gulf, perfect to catch a glimpse of dolphins jumping!

There aren’t any bars or restaurants on the island but you will find plenty of picnic areas with barbecues. You can also enjoy your picnic on the beach! Honeymoon Island is also home to the ferry terminal that connects the mainland to Caladesi Island, another unspoiled Island in Florida.

By Pauline of Beeloved City.

Matlacha

If your vacation plans in the Sunshine State include traveling to southwest Florida, the small and colorful fishing town of Matlacha Florida near Pine Island is worth a detour.

Located between North Cape Coral and Pine Island, the tiny island of Matlacha is known for funky art galleries, salty seafood shacks and cafes, and some of the best fishing and paddling in all of Florida. The calm backwaters are perfect for kayaking the Calusa Blueway amid mangroves and inlets, and fishing for local snapper and snook.

Stop in the Leoma Lovegrove Gallery & Garden to check out her quirky artwork and whimsical garden out back. There are several impressive galleries featuring the work of local artists, and interesting shops featuring cool island-style apparel and nautical antiques. Then walk to a number of nearby cafes on the water — the Blue Dog Bar & Grill is a local favorite — where fresh seafood always tops the menu.

colorful Matlacha, Florida with palm trees

The town of Matlacha is very small with limited parking and just a 2-lane road runs in and out — but that’s exactly why you should go. Cross the Fishingest Bridge in the World and you are there. It is worth exploring more of Pine Island while you’re there for nature trails running the length of the island. Or rent a pontoon boat for the afternoon and cruise the serene natural surroundings.

Matlacha makes a great day trip from anywhere in central or south Florida. Whether you go for the day or spend the night in an island B&B or hotel with a kitchenette like Bridgewater Inn, it is one of southwest Florida’s true hidden gems.

By Lori at Travlinmad.

Punta Gorda

A favorite US Gulf Coast secret spot and Florida hidden gem is Punta Gorda. Mostly bypassed by drivers between Sarasota and Ft Myers, Punta Gorda (Spanish for “Fat Point”) occupies an enviable spot where Peace River enters Charlotte Harbor. When you zoom in an online Punta Gorda map, notice all the canals and its resemblance to a New World Venice. If you do not know anyone with a boat, enjoy a sunset cruise with King Fisher’s Fleet from Fisherman’s Village. Harborwalk is a wonderful paved path at sunset or any time. Venture west across Gasparilla Sound to witness the remarkable water colors between Placida and Boca Grande. While there, treat yourself to a unique and amazing liquid road trip adventure on a clear see-through kayak. We paddled alongside dolphins.

Boat cruising down the river with cedar trees coming out of the river

A remarkable and important portion of Punta Gorda remains pure Florida nature. Ponce de Leon Park—with a mangrove boardwalk and highly recommended non-profit Peace River Wildlife Center—connects to Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park (the third largest Florida State Park) which protects over 45,000 acres and 100 miles of shoreline. Only five miles east of Punta Gorda is the phenomenal Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area, offering 80,000 acres of nature for hikers, migratory bird fanatics, hunters, and explorers (tip: drive the unpaved roads). Another 10 miles east is Babcock Ranch Preserve; its 67,000 acres represents the largest land purchase for conservation by the state of Florida. Fortunate visitors will see a free-roaming Florida panther or Florida black bear. The Babcock Ranch Ecotour is a popular swamp buggy experience on which guests hold gators and are guided through the epic wilderness.

Three extraordinary and locally-owned Florida Gulf Coast restaurants in Punta Gorda are Peace River Seafood, Farlow’s on the Water (in nearby Englewood), and The Perfect Caper.

Plate of crabs, clams, shrimp and corn

By Charles McCool at McCool Travel.

Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the southwest coast of Florida. It is a great place to get away from the glitzy tourist draws in other parts of Florida and get back to nature. Explore Sanibel Island in One Day or stay for longer enjoying the beaches and the wildlife reserves.
Island residents and conservation groups worked together in the 1970s to curb development.  As a result, about half of the island is now set aside as nature reserves.  The largest of these is the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The visitors center is a great place for an introduction to the refuge before you explore its nature trails, boardwalks and mangroves.
wildlife reserve on Sanibel Island, Florida
Beach activities along with fishing and kayaking are very popular. Sanibel’s beaches are known as some of the best in Florida for shelling. There are bike lanes and multi-use paths all over the island.  Exploring the nature reserves by bike or even kayak is a great way to get closer to nature.

If museums are your thing, check out the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum where you’ll learn all about seashells and the creatures that create them. The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village tells you the interesting history of Sanibel Island.
By Andy at Avrex Travel.

Tarpon Springs

Located 30 miles northwest of Tampa, Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any town in the United States. Greek immigrants began developing the area in the early 1900’s, primarily from Dodecanese islands like Kalymnos. Many came for work on the sponge docks, and the area is famous for sponges today.

You’re spoiled for choice with Greek restaurants, bakeries and shopping in Tarpon Springs – which has the feel of a Greek fishing village. Traditionally, Greeks eat family style. So order a variety of dishes to share among your table. Dmitri’s on the Water serves excellent fresh seafood and Greek favorites. Try their octopus stifado (octopus cooked in tomato sauce with feta cheese). Saganaki – halloumi cheese flamed tableside, is always a huge hit.

saganaki, flaming Greek cheese

Hellas Restaurant is a longtime institution in Tarpon Springs. Visit their impressive bakery and select from a huge choice of Greek, Italian and American favorite desserts like Baklava, cheesecake, cannoli, key lime pie and lesser-known Greek desserts like Diples (fried Greek pastry with honey and nuts) and Melomakarona (honey & spice Greek cookies traditionally served around Christmas).

Just a few miles from Tarpon Springs, Sunset Beach is a wonderful place to soak up some sun and fresh seaside air. Go for an aptly named sunset – the vibrant orange, pink and red colors in the sky, set to a vista of palms trees is dramatically beautiful. If you want to picnic on the beach, swing by Fournos Bakery to get your goodies. Their spanakopita (spinach pie) rivals the best you can find, even in Greece.

Innisbrook Golf Resort in nearby Palm Harbor is an excellent choice to stay near Tarpon Springs. The resort has outdoor pools with water slides, 11 tennis courts and 4 golf courses. There is also a full-service spa with massage service and sauna, as well as a fitness facility.
Or stay in an Airbnb walking distance from historic Tarpon Springs. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, sign up here for free and receive up to $55 off your first stay!
By Alex Kallimanis here at Wanderlust Marriage Travel.

Ybor City

Hidden inside the much larger city of Tampa you’ll find the endlessly interesting historic neighborhood of Ybor City. Ybor City was founded in the late 1800s and populated by Italian, Spanish, German, Jewish, and Cuban immigrants. The diverse history of this city makes it an incredibly vibrant travel destination today.

In Ybor City you can visit historical museums and sites like the casita (small immigrant home) and the Mutual Aid Societies. You can tour the cigar factories and watch cigar rollers in action. You can hang out with the city’s rooster residents–Ybor City is home to a protected colony of wild chickens that are the direct descendants of those who lived with the city’s residents over 100 years ago.
Ybor City street art
And you can even go to Cuba. On one corner in Ybor City you’ll find José Martí Park, a 0.14-acre park that’s been designated official Cuban land.

Also, expect to eat some of the best food in Florida. Start with a delicious breakfast at La Segunda Bakery. Its been operating since 1915 and is currently the world’s largest producer of authentic Cuban bread.
And for lunch head over to Columbia, the country’s oldest and largest Spanish restaurant. Opt for the Cuban sandwich, invented here in Ybor City and representative of its diverse past. Spanish immigrants brought the ham, Cubans brought the pork, Italians brought the salami, and the German and Jewish immigrants contributed the mustard, pickles, and cheese.

Spend a day in Ybor City for one of the best (and most delicious) historical experiences in Florida.

By Ashley Smith of My Wanderlusty Life

Recap On Florida Vacation Destinations

Wonderful Florida vacation destinations with fewer crowds can be found throughout the state. Many of these beaches, state parks and towns are great for social distancing during the coronavirus crisis. If you’re traveling to Florida on a road trip along I-95 read our article on Great Road Trip Stops from Washington, DC to Florida. It’s packed with tips on great destinations from the Mid-Atlantic States to Georgia. Happy travels and stay well!

Pin with beach and palm trees for pinterestPin of Florida sunsets for pinterest

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