Florida’s top 10 holiday regions for different types of travellers
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People from around the globe are drawn to the Sunshine State and its weather — which is beautiful pretty much year-round. If you’ve never visited this part of the country, you might not know just how big — and diverse — the state is. Indeed, Florida has many faces. Its zeitgeist spans the glitzy nightlife of Miami, seashell-strewn beaches along the Gulf Coast, Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth and the legacy of Spanish conquistadors in the north, the Panhandle’s historic fishing towns, the theme park capital of the world that is Central Florida and so much more.
To help you pick the right region of Florida for your next trip, read on for TPG’s guide to what makes each part of Florida special.
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Hurricanes — in concert with the pounding waves of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean — have literally shaped Florida over the millennia, forming a peninsula that juts out at the southeast corner of the nation. The state largely consists of coastal regions, plus the central part of the state and a thin strip of land that looks like a “panhandle” to the northwest.
The Intracoastal, an inland navigable waterway, stretches along Florida’s coasts and consists of canals, rivers, inlets, bays and sounds. Many of the state’s most beautiful nature reserves are along the Intracoastal Waterway.
We’ll talk about the regions that have the most to offer tourists — whether you’re visiting for a few days, a week or you plan to become a “snowbird” and make Florida your home during the winter months.
The Atlantic Coast
There are marked differences between the beaches, cities and towns along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. There is even more nuance when you visit the coastal Panhandle region. When it comes to Florida, not all beach getaways are created equal and varying destinations along the coasts have different personalities suited to different types of travellers. Let’s begin with the regions along the Atlantic Coast.
First Coast — Northeast
How to get there: Fly to Jacksonville International Airport (JAX).
Major destinations: Amelia Island, St. Augustine, Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach, Mayport and Ponte Vedra
Trace the coast from the Georgia-Florida border south to the southern edge of St. Johns County and you’ve found the region known as “The First Coast”. As you may imagine, it was the first part of Florida settled by Europeans and it’s the first coastal region visitors experience when driving from parts north.
There is quite a bit of pre-Colonial history here. It’s commonly accepted that Ponce de León explored the region in 1513 and there’s an homage to his “Fountain of Youth,” which he claims to have discovered, at St. Augustine. In 1564, the French established Fort Caroline in modern-day Jacksonville and St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited European settlement was initiated by the Spanish in 1565. And that’s just recent history. The Timucua Native American tribe lived on this land long before that — a Timucuan site dating back to 1100 A.D. has been excavated near St. Augustine.
What to see: Plenty of people from Georgia, as well as Florida’s Panhandle and points south, drive to the First Coast to enjoy its beaches, state parks and historical sites.
Start your exploration on Amelia Island, a barrier island whose residents have lived under eight flags since its settlement: France (1562–1564), Spain (1565–1763 and 1783–1821), Britain (1763–1783), Patriots Flag (U.S. President James Madison and Georgia Governor George Mathews ousted the Spanish in 1812), Green Cross Flag (Scottish musketeers in the pursuit of capturing all of Florida, 1817), Mexican Revolutionary Flag (1817), National Flag of the Confederacy (1861–1862) and the United States (1862–present).
Check out the historic downtown that emanates from Centre Street, where you’ll find mom-and-pop restaurants, antique shops and boutiques. Anyone with a sweet tooth needs to check out Nana Teresa’s Bake Shop on North 3rd Street and Fantastic Fudge (that also sells ice cream) that’s right on Centre Street and the corner of 3rd. Then explore the island’s 13 miles of beaches, including Main Beach with several covered pavilions and a playground or Peters Point Beachfront Park where you can swim, hunt for shark teeth or go fishing.
On the northern end of the island, take time to discover the 1,100-acre Fort Clinch State Park, with its 19th-century fort, beach, maritime hammock and marsh. Or, head to the southern tip of the isle for Amelia Island State Park, where you can ride horses, hop on a bike to explore the paved Timucuan Trail, bird-watch, fish, rent a kayak and sunbathe on a beautiful undeveloped beach.
St. Augustine is the other major First Coast tourist destination. People visit for the Spanish colonial architecture of the downtown district; the 17th-century Castillo de San Macros, the Spanish fort which is near the supposed location of Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth; and wildlife refuges like Anastasia State Park.
Who will love the First Coast? Northern Florida is the hidden bargain of the Sunshine State with plenty of affordable beach cottages and family-friendly inns plus a few resorts like The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, and the Casa Monica Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection in St. Augustine. Families, retirees and honeymooners content with a nature-focused getaway are drawn to the First Coast. You won’t find buzzing nightlife here. For that, look to Miami, Orlando and Tampa.
Space Coast — Central East
How to get there: Fly to Orlando International Airport (MCO) or Sanford International Airport (SFB), rent a car and drive east to the coast.
Major destinations: Titusville, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Vero Beach and Cape Canaveral
If you grew up watching “I Dream of Jeannie” on TV, you’re probably already familiar with Cocoa Beach where the genie and her astronaut-master lived. If you’re too young to remember that, you may instead know the Space Coast as home to Kennedy Space Center. But there is so much more to see, including 72 miles of coastline and one of the healthiest sea turtle and manatee habitats in the entire state. And, it’s the jumping-off point for plenty of cruises that normally depart from Port Canaveral. (Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order that has temporarily halted embarkation from ports like Canaveral through at least July 2020.)
What to see: Kennedy Space Center is a must-visit destination, even if you aren’t a space nut. It’s very well done with an informative bus tour of the complex; a “rocket garden” with rockets from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the opportunity to meet real astronauts; Space Shuttle Atlantis and other interactive exhibits plus a shuttle launch experience, and a few other “rides”.
If you have your eye more on land and sea than space, check out Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near the space centre and downtown Titusville. Its more than 140,000 acres of swamps, hardwood hammocks and marshes are home to 1,500 species of animals and plants. Even if you’re not able to explore on foot, take in the seven-mile-long Black Point Wildlife Drive via car. There is an accessible manatee observation deck along the way. You can also hike and fish here or bird-watch year-round, though November through April are the best months to see waterfowl, heron, egrets and roseate spoonbills.
Another special place is Canaveral National Seashore with the longest stretch of undeveloped beach on Florida’s East Coast. The 24 miles of sand include Apollo in the north (great for families with its gentle surf), Klondike Beach at the midpoint (nature lovers gravitate there) and Playalinda in the south, which is known to surfers but there’s also a section where some visitors sunbathe nude (near Lot 13). On Mosquito Lagoon, you can embark on a canoe trip through the mangroves. Keep your eyes on the water and you may see graceful West Indian manatees, river otters or bottlenose dolphins.
Finally, check out Cocoa Beach — one of the most popular beaches in the area where you can surf, parasail and rent a Jet Ski. Or, head to the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier where you can fish, listen to live music, grab a bite to eat and soak up the beach-town atmosphere.
Who will love the Space Coast? The Space Coast is a destination unto itself, but plenty of families visit before or after a trip to Orlando’s theme parks in Central Florida. You won’t find any mega-resorts here but you can book lovely cottages and condos near the beaches. There are RV campgrounds and vacation rentals, as well as budget to mid-level hotels. Some of the higher-level hotels in the area are from Radisson and Hilton. The focus of a holiday here is nature, space exploration or a prelude to a cruise.
Treasure Coast — Southeast
How to get there: Fly to the Treasure Coast International Airport (FPR) in Fort Pierce, St. Lucie County, or Vero Beach Regional Airport (VRB). If you don’t mind driving a short distance from the airport, you can also fly to Orlando Melbourne International Airport (MLB) or Palm Beach International Airport (PBI).
Major destinations: Jensen Beach, Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie, Vero Beach
Three hundred years ago, a dozen Spanish ships carrying millions of dollars of gold coins shipwrecked off this part of Florida’s coast. The yore of those ships may be forgotten but the three counties comprising the Treasure Coast — Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin — are now known for their beautiful beaches, wildlife and laidback atmospheres.
What to see: Start with a snorkel or dive excursion to see the shallow-water shipwreck, SS Breconshire. This schooner-rigged steamer sailed from England in 1894 and wrecked off Vero Beach. You can’t make out the outline of the ship these days but its boilers, beams and engine parts are home to all manner of sea creatures, including moray eels, blue-head wrasse, nurse sharks and hawksbill turtles.
From there, pick any of the Vero Beach parks to spend some time on the sand and in the water. Wabasso Beach Park is a good swimming beach while lifeguarded Golden Sands Beach Park has tons of amenities from changing facilities, showers and restrooms to a picnic area with grills. It’s a good place for snorkelling and diving. The eight-acre Jaycee Park has a playground, expansive picnic area, boardwalk and restaurant. Finally, Humiston Beach Park spans four acres in the heart of Vero Beach’s shopping district.
Surfers will tell you that Sebastian Inlet State Park is the best place to hang-10 on the Treasure Coast. But, there’s so much more to enjoy. Fish from one of the jetties, rent a kayak to explore Indian River Lagoon or walk deserted beaches in search of turtle nests. If you want to know more about the Spanish “treasure fleet” of 1715, head to the McLarty Treasure Museum for more context. Meanwhile, the Sebastian Fishing Museum explains the history of the industry in this region.
Who will love the Treasure Coast? Holidaygoers, including locals from Central Florida and beyond, enjoy visits to the Treasure Coast for cost-effective beach holidays and a chance to commune with nature at a variety of state parks and wildlife refuges.
The Gold Coast — Southeast
Major destinations: West Palm Beach, Miami, Fort Lauderdale
This is the part of Florida that has it all — incredible restaurants, sizzling nightlife, a vibrant art scene, luxury shopping, miles and miles of gold-sand beaches, wildlife reserves and more. And, there are incredible hotels throughout the region, such as the Miami Beach Edition, W Miami and The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.
Related: The best times to visit Miami
What to see: You could spend a month exploring the Gold Coast and only see a fraction of its beaches. Hit lifeguarded Jupiter Beach Park in the north Gold Coast for its sand volleyball courts, picnic areas and fishing spots. Farther south, pick a hotel on Clematis Street for easy access to West Palm Beach. In Fort Lauderdale, the Riverwalk along the New River is an entertainment complex where you’ll find shops and galleries plus the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Florida Grand Opera, Fort Lauderdale History Center and NSU Art Museum.
In Miami, check out the Art Deco Historic District. See and be seen on South Beach and Ocean Drive and, if time allows, visit the mansion-turned-Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. Farther south you’ll find Everglades National Park, an International Biosphere Reserve.
Who will love the Gold Coast? Easily accessible via nonstop flights from cities across the U.S., a trip to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale or Miami won’t be cheap but it will provide a bevvy of options so you can enjoy the beach and Florida’s sunshine while also sampling the finer things like authentic Cuban cuisine and annual festivals like Art Basel. Both Miami and Fort Lauderdale are also homeports for a variety of cruise lines like Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International.
The Florida Keys — Southeast
How to get there: Fly to Key West International Airport (EYW), or fly to Miami or Fort Lauderdale and then rent a car and drive.
Major destinations: Key Largo, Tavernier, Plantation Key, Islamorada, Lower Matecumbe Key, Layton, Duck Key, Vaca Key, Marathon, Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf Key, Key West, Dry Tortugas
If you’re looking for a Caribbean-esque destination, look to the Florida Keys. As the southernmost spot in the U.S., the Florida Keys’ subtropical climate makes this coral cay archipelago an incredible year-round destination.
What to see: The Keys don’t have the best beaches in Florida but they are renowned for excellent diving spots, including the underwater John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Opened in 1963 in Key Largo, it’s the country’s first underwater state park and you should visit — even if you don’t dive. If you’ve seen photos of the underwater Christ of the Abyss Statue, you’ve seen this state park. You can rent a kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard to explore its mangrove swamps and seagrass beds. You can discover the coral reefs by diving or snorkelling or via glass-bottom boat tour. The park also has Cannon Beach with a shipwreck right offshore, spots for fishing, picnic areas and campgrounds.
At Key West, visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum that pays homage to the author and former resident of the island. The property is also home to a family of famous six-toed felines.
Finally, even though it’s known as one of the more inaccessible parks, visitors to the Keys must trek to Dry Tortugas National Park. The park is 70 miles west of Key West, and you can take a boat or seaplane and stay for the day or overnight at a campsite. The snorkelling at its coral reefs is superb and you can also explore the 19th-century brick fort, which is now Fort Jefferson National Monument.
Who will love the Florida Keys? While some parts of Florida are pretty conservative, Key West, the Florida Keys and South Florida are all known to welcome all kinds of people. The Keys are especially LGBTQ-friendly and have a very independent vibe so anyone who enjoys meeting free spirits — those who can weather hurricanes with the bat of an eye — will enjoy it here. There’s a party atmosphere in Key West, but some of the outer islands are better suited to family holidays. Divers love visiting, as do anglers in search of game fish.
How to get there: Fly to Orlando International Airport (MCO) or Sanford International Airport (SFB).
Major destinations: Orlando, Kissimmee, Winter Park
Nearly every first visit to Florida includes a stop in Orlando for Central Florida’s theme parks, including Walt Disney World, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Legoland and SeaWorld. Affordable nonstop flights from dozens of U.S. gateways make this a no-brainer, and with plenty of hotels catering to a range of budgets, you can put together a holiday that’s perfect for your family.
What to see: Central Florida’s reputation precedes it, so we won’t go into great detail here about all there is to see and do. But, we will direct you to guides that offer in-depth travel-planning advice for Walt Disney World, including its new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land and Disney’s Hollywood Studios plus Universal, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Legoland.
Who will love Central Florida? Families that want an easy ready-made holiday to family-friendly destinations, thrill-seekers heading to the theme parks and couples looking to enjoy world-class resorts with golf courses, waterparks, spas and fine dining.
Not as well-known as some parts of Florida, the Panhandle in the northwest part of the state has a number of excellent holiday spots despite its relatively small footprint — just 200 miles long and varying between 50 and 100 miles wide. The states of Alabama and Georgia border the Panhandle; the body of water to its south is the Gulf of Mexico.
The Emerald Coast — Northwest
How to get there: Fly to Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) or to these two airports, which are about an hour away: Northwest Florida International Airport (ECP) and Pensacola International Airport (PNS).
Major destinations: Pensacola, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City, Perdido Key, Apalachicola
The Emerald Coast is a special part of Florida — an undiscovered gem to many people. It got its name from the beautiful deep green colour of the Gulf of Mexico that laps the 100 miles of white crystal-quartz sand coastline.
What to see: The beaches across the Panhandle share the same beautiful sugar-soft sand so whether you visit Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island, Panama City’s St. Andrews State Park or Navarre Beach, you’ll enjoy swimmable beaches — many with excellent spots for snorkelling, paddleboarding and kayaking.
Fishing is another popular pastime along the Panhandle. Destin is a good home base for this and you can fish from a jetty, troll via boat or go farther out for deep-sea fishing.
For families, check out the Big Kahuna’s waterpark in Destin. In Fort Walton Beach, don’t miss the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, Emerald Coast Science Center or Indian Temple Mound Museum.
Who will love the Emerald Coast? Popular with Floridians as well as Alabama and Georgia residents, the Emerald Coast offers incredible beach holidays at an affordable price. You won’t find a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton here but there are plenty of beautiful beachside hotels and cottages as well as condo and home rentals.
The Gulf Coast
There is something spectacular about Florida’s Gulf Coast. You find mile-after-mile of pristine white-sand beaches strewn with shells. Sunsets are incredible and locals and visitors alike keep an eye out at sunset for the elusive “green flash” that can sometimes be seen right as the sun’s orange glow disappears beyond the horizon. The 20 barrier islands along the coast offer incredible accommodation options from accessible beach cottages to condos and home rentals. Many popular resorts also make this coast their home.
The Suncoast — Central West
How to get there: Fly to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ). If you don’t mind a bit of drive, you can also fly to St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport (PIE) or Tampa International Airport (TPA).
Major destinations: St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater
The Suncoast, sometimes called the Pirate Coast, is a fantastic holiday destination since it strikes a balance between the city attractions at St. Petersburg and Tampa with hidden waterways, beautiful beaches and plenty of activities on the water, like boating and fishing.
What to see: Clearwater Beach is especially popular with families that can also spend time at Pier 60 with its playgrounds, concessions and access to fishing spots. If you’d prefer a more laid-back beach day, try the largely undeveloped Caladesi Island State Park. People head there for swimming and snorkelling, shelling and picnicking, fishing or diving. You must arrive by private boat or take a ferry. If camping is in the cards, the 1,136-acre Fort De Soto Park is a good bet with its five connected islands, fishing pier and paved nature path.
For some culture, head to Tarpon Springs fishing village with its Greek heritage. On the National Register of Historic Places, check out St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral — a replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople. Spend time in Tampa’s Ybor City for a taste of Cuban culture or enjoy a day of art exploration at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.
Who will love the Suncoast? Families, couples and solo travellers alike can find a lot to love about the Suncoast. There are a variety of accommodations from full-service resorts with knock-out pool complexes to condos, beach cottages and home rentals. It’s easy to fly into one of the nearby airports and there are plenty of family-friendly restaurants as well as gourmet options.
The Cultural Coast — Southwest
How to get there: Fly to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ), St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport (PIE) or Tampa International Airport (TPA).
Major destinations: Sarasota, Port Charlotte
Artists, musicians and authors have made the Cultural Coast their home for decades. It’s an amazing swath of the state that offers the natural beauty of the Gulf Coast paired with the best the city of Sarasota has to offer. You can find gourmet restaurants here or a hidden fishing spot. You can attend the opera or sit on a deserted beach watching shorebirds frolic in the surf.
What to see: The Ringling Estate can’t be missed. It’s amazing to see what this famous circus family was really like at home. Start with The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Cà d’Zan 56-room waterfront mansion, the beautiful rose garden overlooking Sarasota Bay and the 18th-century Asolo Theater that was originally built in Italy, dismantled and brought to Sarasota in the 1950s.
In a renovated 1926 theatre, the Sarasota Opera stages full operas annually each fall and winter. Or, enjoy a concert put on by the 100-member Sarasota Orchestra.
To balance your cultural exploration, be sure to enjoy unspoiled nature at Anna Maria Island, Siesta Key or Lido Key.
Who will love the Cultural Coast? Retirees and those interested in history and the arts gravitate to the Cultural Coast where there are plenty of museums to explore and cultural shows to attend.
Lee Island Coast — Southwest
How to get there: Fly to Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW).
Major destinations: Sanibel, Captiva, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Naples, Marco Island
One of the most beloved regions in Florida, Lee Island Coast is home to numerous barrier islands that offer incredible shelling and sunset views of the Gulf of Mexico. This is the epicentre of outdoor activities, from hiking and biking to sunbathing and kayaking to wildlife viewing. Yet, there are also world-class restaurants here to while away an evening.
What to see: For a step back in time, book a stay on Sanibel Island, near Fort Myers, where nature rules. There are no high-rise hotels or condos here, no chain restaurants and very little commercialism. What you will find are some of the most amazing shelling beaches plus the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge where you can enjoy a nature drive or walk along a boardwalk to see alligators, birds, river otters and more.
In Fort Myers, a tour of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates is worth a day trip. You can take a self-guided tour of the estates along the Caloosahatchee River and see one of the world’s largest banyan trees, spanning an acre of the property.
If you’re looking to be pampered, book one of the beachfront hotels, like The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, farther south, or head on to Marco Island to enjoy fishing excursions and dolphin-watching cruises.
Who will love the Lee Island Coast? This is the place for romantics and families looking for a slower-paced holiday than you’ll find in Miami or Central Florida. People make an art of watching the sun set each evening, bringing their beach chairs to the beach and cheering when the final sliver of orange/yellow snuffs itself out into the dusk. Shelling is also a competitive sport here, where you can find specimens like the junonia, murex, conch, whelk, olive and cone. Accommodations are a bit pricier along this part of the coast but are worth it.
Featured image by Palo Damonte/Getty Images
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