By Skye Sherman
January 20, 2020
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Year-round sunshine, one thousand miles of beaches, and almost as many palm trees as people: what’s not to love? Florida is where the world goes on vacation.

While the state eats, sleeps, and breathes tourism, deciding exactly where to visit in Florida can prove to be the hardest part. Any kind of traveler can enjoy a trip to Florida because the state has it all: theme parks for the family, nature adventures for the outdoorsy, historical significance for the curious, and tons of activities for thrill-seekers.

To the question of the best places to visit in Florida, there’s really no wrong answer, but as a fourth-generation Floridian — yes, we exist! — here’s my take.

The Palm Beaches

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Think of the Palm Beaches as a fast pass to the best of Florida. An umbrella term for the cities of Palm Beach County, the Palm Beaches includes spots like West Palm Beach, Palm Beach, Wellington, Delray Beach, Jupiter, and Boca Raton.

The sheer diversity of activities available in the Palm Beaches is the region’s strength. You can shop, surf, scuba dive, brunch with your pup, watch an international polo match, relax on 47 miles of shoreline, meet rehabilitating sea turtles, take a quick two-night cruise to the Bahamas for $150 or less, enjoy a Broadway musical at the Kravis Center, and catch a foul ball at a spring training baseball game. Out west, you can book airboat tours of the Everglades or get up close and personal with rhinos, giraffes, and zebras at Lion Country Safari, a drive-through cageless zoo spread over 600 acres.

If you’re after a ritzy resort stay, Palm Beach and Boca Raton have you covered. Nothing beats The Breakers in terms of luxe — you’ll be treated like royalty — but The Colony Hotel and Eau Palm Beach are harbingers of a modern era in Palm Beach.

Across the bridge, West Palm Beach has a big-city feel without the big-city headaches of traffic and congestion. Take the free trolley between Clematis Street, Rosemary Square, and the waterfront, or head out to Grandview Public Market and Elizabeth Ave Station in the up-and-coming Warehouse District, where hipsters and cool kids gather to dine and shop.

Hilton West Palm Beach is the top hotel in West Palm Beach and houses Galley, a restaurant with tableside cocktails, fresh seafood, and gourmet pizzas fired to order, but two newcomers set to debut this year — The Ben West Palm, Autograph Collection and Canopy by Hilton West Palm Beach Downtown — will provide even more options.

St. Augustine

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As the oldest city in America, St. Augustine has had a lot of time to get it right. Settlers arrived in the mid-1500s and some still-standing spots, like the Fountain of Youth and Castillo de San Marcos, date back almost that far. It’s a walkable town, imbued with intrigue; whispers of the past swirl through every cobblestoned alley.

In St. Augustine, learning about the area’s history (preferably via ghost tour once darkness envelops the city) is a given. But there’s also newer arrivals built to please the modern explorer, such as Ice Plant for cocktails and the Alligator Farm for a perfectly Floridian animal encounter. Visit during St. Augustine’s annual Nights of Lights around Christmastime to see the city sparkle in the glow of 3 million lights.

For the perfect marriage of history and a cozy breed of luxury, book a stay at the adults-only Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens, where you can tour the grounds with the property historian and gather for expertly crafted cocktails at The Well Bar. For a taste of old-world elegance, St. Francis Inn — built in 1791 — is a bed and breakfast that perfectly captures the spirit of the city and all there is to love about homey accommodations. It’s located right on St. George Street, St. Augustine’s main drag.

Once you’ve walked up an appetite, head to dinner at Michael’s Tasting Room, The Floridian, or O.C. White’s, a historic restaurant in the heart of the action. Or, for something a bit more casual, stop into A1A Ale Works for perhaps the best root beer of your life, served alongside a killer view of the Bridge of Lions.

The Florida Keys

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Stretching 113 miles, from Key Largo all the way to the southernmost point of the continental United States in funky Key West, the Florida Keys is a veritable paradise; pick any key along the way and you’re guaranteed a tropical getaway with no need for a passport. Fill your itinerary with activities like boating, diving, fishing, snorkeling coral reefs, hand-feeding 10-foot tarpon at Robbie’s, and generally enjoying one of the best destinations in the world for the let-your-hair-down brand of vacationing.

In recent months, Key Largo celebrated the debut of adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, the first all-inclusive in the Keys. Playa Largo is another recent addition and the perfect choice for families or anyone who loves an action-packed trip; there’s pools, water sports like sailing, parasailing, and kayaking, and even a hammock garden for reading.

For the best seafood (and key lime pie) in the Keys, book a table at Fish House, a family-owned and -operated Key Largo institution that is set apart by the fact that they’re one of the only restaurants sourcing exclusively from local fishermen, so your fish is as fresh as it gets.

Orlando and central Florida

Orlando is the destination of choice for many people planning a vacation to Florida, and for good reason: there’s Walt Disney World and Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Animal Kingdom, Discovery Cove, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Gatorland, and more. While those spots will always be popular among visitors and locals alike, there’s more to the central Florida region.

For example, head due east from Orlando and you’ll dead-end at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where you can explore a complex dedicated to all things space travel, and even watch rocket launches. To the north, quieter Winter Park is considered the Palm Beach of central Florida; there, you can enjoy lakeside sunsets and stroll under canopies of old oak trees. Eat breakfast at Briarpatch and dinner at Hillstone Restaurant.

There’s also plenty of ways to get outdoorsy and adventurous in Florida once you’ve escaped the tourist traps of Orlando. Some distance from the Orlando area, but still in central Florida, you’ve got the Blue Grotto, a 100-foot clearwater cavern that’s popular with divers, and also Rainbow Springs State Park, where you can lazily float down Rainbow River in an inner tube.

Crystal River

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Slower-paced, lesser-known Crystal River is a sleepy and tucked-away town on Florida’s west coast. Crystal River offers little by way of culinary scene or nightlife, but it’s home to the best of Florida’s striking natural beauty, especially for those who love being on the water.

A clear kayak tour with Get Up And Go Kayaking is the perfect way to explore the enchanting springs of Crystal River, and wintertime visitors have a good chance of paddling alongside any of the hundreds of manatees who migrate into the springs each year. As you tour Hunter Springs, Jurassic Springs, and Three Sisters Spring, you may also spot dolphins, turtles, birds, and other wildlife. Nearby Plantation on Crystal River offers simple, no-frill waterfront accommodations spread across 232 acres on Kings Bay.

For an even more delightfully “Florida” vacation activity, head to one of the legendary live mermaid shows at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, about an hour’s drive south of Crystal River (yes, mermaid-ing is a real job).

Miami and Fort Lauderdale

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When it comes to the best places to visit in Florida, no place packs a sizzle quite like Miami. It’s a global city with everything you could hope for in terms of great eats, nice hotels, and fun places to party. In the uber-Instagrammable Art Deco District in South Beach, you’ll find bubbling creativity and the sort of old-meets-new style that keeps Miami on the map, and in nearby Wynwood Walls, there’s street art and sky-high murals galore.

If you’re planning a trip, August is by far the best month to visit Miami, as long as you’re into indulgent five-star experiences. It’s the month where the perfect trifecta of city-wide deals converge: Miami Spa Months, Miami Spice (Miami’s restaurant months), and Miami Hotel Months. The promotions give visitors a chance to stay at places like Mandarin Oriental, Miami on Brickell Key, book ultra-luxe spa treatments, and dine at the city’s best restaurants for a fraction of the usual price.

A bit further north of Miami, bustling Fort Lauderdale is another seaside metropolis where you can spend action-packed days and nights. Work your way down the Ale Trail for craft brews and bites, or board the Water Taxi for a rivery take on navigating the city — it’s like a trolley system on water, fitting for what some call the “Venice of America” due to Fort Lauderdale’s plentiful waterways. Hop off the Water Taxi at Las Olas Boulevard for the city’s best shopping and dining.

Best of all, the new and modern Brightline — now Virgin Trains USA — connects Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in an hour or less. Soon, passengers will even be able to travel to Orlando on the train.

Tampa Bay area: Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater

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Tampa and its surrounding neighborhoods make up a tri-city haven on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Ride roller coasters at Busch Gardens, or head over to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for an encounter with the slippery stars of the Dolphin Tale movies.

Clearwater Beach is a laid-back beach town that consistently ranks among the best beaches in Florida, if not the world. Visit during the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival to see monstrous sand carvings at the kind of beachfront art festival experience only Florida can provide, and stay at Opal Sands — it’s a half-mile beach walk from the festival, and every one of its 230 guestrooms is waterfront. Together with St. Petersburg, the area is also an under-the-radar art and culture mecca of sorts: there are 100 murals and 31 museums, including the visually stunning Dalí Museum.

The Panhandle

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The Panhandle of Florida consists of Pensacola, Panama City Beach, Destin, and Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. A popular spring break spot, the Panhandle was hard-hit by Hurricane Michael in October 2018, but the area has made good progress in terms of recovery. Since the Panhandle relies heavily on tourism, the best way the average traveler can help is by, well, traveling there.

The Panhandle’s calm Gulf waters and white-sand beaches are a major draw, but beach day alternatives abound: visitors can hike, bike, or canoe St. Andrews State Park or start happy hour early at Panama City Beach institutions like delightfully over-the-top Pineapple Willy’s (don’t leave without ordering a po’ boy to go with your frozen drink). In Destin, Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park will keep the whole family busy.

Amelia Island

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Quiet little Amelia Island is popular with visitors who can appreciate a charming seaside destination with no crowds in sight. Plus, with rolling dunes and marshes instead of just flat sandy beaches, the geography of the area packs added interest. There’s beaches a’plenty, of course, but nature lovers will also want to check out Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and Fort Clinch State Park, home to the 19th-century Fort Clinch plus nature trails, camping grounds, and wildlife.

Another Amelia Island attraction is the oldest lighthouse in Florida, proudly standing 67 feet tall. Charming beachfront lodges and inns line Amelia Island, so visitors have their pick of endearing lodging. Head to historic downtown Fernandina Beach on the island to shop or chow down at the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival, an annual tradition dedicated to a shared love of shrimp.