The 12 Best Places to Visit in Florida, According to a Lifelong Resident

The Sunshine State has it all, but these are Florida's best vacation destinations, according to a fourth-generation resident.

Year-round sunshine, 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 be the hardest part. Any kind of traveler can enjoy a trip to Florida because the state has it all: theme parks for families, outdoor adventures for nature lovers, and historical significance for the curious.

As for the question of the best places to visit in Florida, there's really no wrong answer, but as a fourth-generation Floridian, here's my take.

The Palm Beaches

Palm Beach, Florida, USA at Worth Ave.
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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 region 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 its strength. You can shop, surf, scuba dive, enjoy 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, see 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 cageless, drive-thru 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 — you'll be treated like royalty — but The Colony Hotel, Eau Palm Beach, and The Boca Raton are harbingers of a modern era in Palm Beach.

Across the bridge, West Palm Beach has a big-city feel without the headaches of traffic and congestion. Take the free trolley between Clematis Street, The Square, and the waterfront, or head out to Grandview Public Market in the up-and-coming Warehouse District.

Hilton West Palm Beach houses Galley, a restaurant with tasty cocktails, fresh seafood, and gourmet pizzas, and The Ben West Palm and Canopy by Hilton West Palm Beach Downtown both have rooftops with stellar views.

St. Augustine

Best Places to Visit in Florida
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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 cobblestone alley.

In St. Augustine, learning about the area's history (preferably via ghost tour once darkness envelops the city) is a given. But there are also newer arrivals built to please the modern explorer, like Ice Plant for cocktails and the Alligator Farm for a perfectly Floridian animal encounter. Visit during St. Augustine's annual Nights of Lights event around Christmas to see the city sparkle in the glow of three 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 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 beautiful view of the Bridge of Lions.

Florida Keys

Best Places to Visit in Florida
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Stretching 113 miles from Key Largo 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, 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.

Key Largo boasts the adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, the first all-inclusive in the Keys, while Playa Largo is a solid choice for families or anyone who loves an action-packed trip; there are 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 The Fish House, a family-owned Key Largo institution that's 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

Swans on Lake Eola in Orlando

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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, 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 this Florida region.

For example, head due east from Orlando and you'll land 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 are 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

Best Places to Visit in Florida
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Slower-paced, lesser-known Crystal River is a sleepy, tucked-away destination on Florida's western coast. Crystal River has little by way of culinary and nightlife offerings, but it's home to the most striking natural beauty of Florida, 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 Springs, 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.

Miami and Fort Lauderdale

Aerial view of Haulover beach in Miami

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When it comes to the best places to visit in Florida, no destination packs a sizzle quite like Miami. It's a global city with everything you could hope for in terms of great eats, hotels, and party venues. 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 at 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. During this month, the perfect trifecta of citywide deals converge: Miami Spa Months, Miami Spice Restaurant Months, and Miami Hotel Months. The promotions give visitors a chance to stay at places like Mandarin Oriental, Miami, 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 different perspective on 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 connects Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in an hour or less.

Tampa Bay Area (Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater)

Best Places to Visit in Florida
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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 town that consistently ranks among the best beaches in Florida. Visit during the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival to see monstrous sand carvings at the kind of beachfront art event only Florida can host. Stay at Opal Sands — it's a half-mile beach walk from the festival, and each one of its 230 guest rooms is waterfront. Together with St. Petersburg, the area is also an under-the-radar art and culture mecca of sorts, with murals and museums such as the visually stunning Dalí museum.


Best Places to Visit in Florida
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The Florida Panhandle consists of Pensacola, Panama City Beach, Destin, and Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. A popular spring break spot, the Panhandle relies heavily on tourism.

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 in St. Andrews State Park or start happy hour early at Panama City Beach institutions like the delightfully over-the-top Pineapple Willy's (don't leave without ordering a po' boy with your frozen drink). In Destin, Big Kahuna's Water & Adventure Park will keep the whole family busy.

Amelia Island

Best Places to Visit in Florida
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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 are beaches, 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 accommodations. 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.

Cedar Key

Evening sky with moonrise over Dock Street in Cedar Key, Florida
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A rural little island city with pastel homes, Cedar Key is a charmer. Visitors can expect secluded beaches and botanical gardens to wander, plus nearby natural springs to swim and paddle around in. Cedar Key is a simple spot, so it flies under the Florida tourism radar, but it's a nice place for anyone seeking a vacation that's a bit quieter than the state's more happening hot spots.

Some fun activities in and around Cedar Key include a day trip to nearby Manatee Springs State Park for an up-close animal encounter, especially during the cooler months, or biking, kayaking, and hiking. There's also Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, Cedar Key Museum State Park, and the Cedar Key Historical Society & Museum if you want to learn more about the area. End your relaxing days with a sunset at Cedar Key Airport Beach.


Naples, Florida, USA town skyline on the water at dawn.
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Naples is another gem on Florida's western coast — the area is called the Paradise Coast for a reason. Romantic and ritzy, Naples is known for beautiful white-sand beaches, sprawling golf courses, high-end restaurants, and upscale shopping — a "sister city" of sorts to Palm Beach, located directly across the state on Florida's eastern coast.

If retail therapy is on the agenda (and it should be in Naples), head to Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South to put a dent in your credit limit. Or, if natural attractions are more your speed, head to the Naples Botanical Garden, Clam Pass Park, or the Naples Zoo. Art lovers will also find a lot to enjoy at Artis — Naples, a multidisciplinary organization home to The Baker Museum and the Naples Philharmonic, or any of the impressive art galleries dotting the city.

Everglades National Park

Florida wetland, Airboat ride at Everglades National Park in USA
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A national park trip may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Florida, but the state is ripe with one-of-a-kind spots (expect alligators and palm trees instead of bison and geysers) and Everglades National Park is its crown jewel.

Encompassing 1.5 million acres of preserved wetlands on the southern tip of the Floridian peninsula, the Everglades is actually a slow-moving "river of grass," comprising unique habitats such as coastal mangroves, sawgrass marshes, pine flatwoods, and more. It's a wildlife lover's paradise, teeming with alligators, snakes, fish, more than 360 species of birds, and even endangered animals like the Florida panther, American crocodile, and West Indian manatee.

For those eager to explore, there are trails and guided tours available; the main entrances are at Shark Valley, Florida City near Homestead, and Everglades City on the Gulf Coast. Visit during the park's dry season (November to April) for lower temperatures, more active wildlife, and fewer mosquitoes.

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