Florida is blessed with more than 1300 miles of beautiful coastline and a party vibe that pervades everywhere from the Panhandle to South Beach and the Florida Keys. But for travelers who want to dive deeper into the Sunshine State, all manner of surprising adventures and wildlife encounters await.
Obviously, there’s a time and place for big-hitter attractions such as Walt Disney World, the Kennedy Space Center and Miami, but for many visitors, the best of Florida is away from these touristy hubs, at backwater beaches and the waterways inside Everglades National Park.
Here are the best things to do on your trip to Florida.
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1. Kayak through the Everglades’ Ten Thousand Islands
The vast, impenetrable wilderness at the tip of southern Florida is one of the most incredible wild spaces left in the US. Most visitors who day trip into Everglades National Park barely even scratch the surface of all there is to see.
Learn more by heading out on an overnight kayaking trip through Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where you can camp on deserted islands with passing alligators, manatees and dolphins as your only neighbors. Shurr Adventures offers private sunrise, sunset and full-day kayaking tours through the islands if you’re not quite ready for the full overnight desert island experience.
2. Revel in Miami’s art deco glory
Florida was the epicenter for an incredible explosion of architecture in the 1930s and 1940s, filling the Miami waterfront with the world’s greatest collection of art deco buildings. Today, the Art Deco Historic District is a living artwork, a glorious sprawl of curved balconies, tropical motifs, geometric forms and pastel colors. Between 11th and 14th streets, you find more than 800 deco buildings, housing everything from hotels and cafes to auto repair shops.
Planning Tip: The best photo opportunities are during the early morning light when there aren’t as many crowds.
3. Get your thrills at Florida’s theme parks
It’s about the most touristy thing you can do in Florida, and the crowds can rival a Cecil B DeMille cast-of-thousands movie, but if you like amusement parks, the thrill-spilling parks dotted around Orlando are rightly recognized as some of the best in the world. Topping the billing is Walt Disney World, with its add-on Epcot Center and Star Wars-focused Hollywood Studios, but there is further fun to be had at Universal Orlando Resort and a string of other theme parks in the Florida Panhandle.
Planning Tip: To avoid spending most of your visit in line, arrive early, come out of season if you can, and look for line-jumping passes.
Learn about space travel at the Kennedy Space Center © Robert Hoetink / Shutterstock
4. Watch a rocket launch at Kennedy Space Center
You can take a trip to the frontiers of space travel during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, launch base for dozens of Apollo, Skylab and shuttle space missions, and more recently, the civilian and commercial missions of SpaceX. During a tour of the sprawling site, you can drop by such mechanical wonders as a Saturn V launch vehicle, the space shuttle Atlantis and the science-fiction-made-fact crawler-transporter that delivers rockets to the launch pad.
For a truly otherworldly experience, time your visit to Florida’s Space Coast with a live rocket launch – see the website for upcoming launch dates. Watching a rocket punch out of Earth’s atmosphere is something you’ll be able to dine out on for decades.
Planning Tip: You can see daytime launches from Cocoa Beach, or take in a night launch even closer to the action in Titusville.
5. Freshen up in Florida’s natural springs
Swimming at Florida’s beaches in summer can feel like dipping into a bathtub, so we recommend taking a trip to one of the state’s many inland freshwater springs, where the waters hover at a consistently refreshing temperature year-round (usually around 70°F). The best springs for snorkeling and swimming are located in north central Florida; seek out Rainbow Springs State Park near Ocala and Ginnie Springs near Gainesville, which is also a popular scuba diving spot.
For tubing, don’t miss the 6-mile-long Ichetucknee River at Ichetucknee Springs State Park near Fort White, a favorite spot to rent an inner tube for a lazy float on waters so clear you can spot every fish passing below you.
Local Tip: There’s no need to fear alligators here – they tend to avoid water this cold.
Scuba divers can get close to goliath grouper on a dive from Jupiter © WaterHouse Marine Images / Shutterstock
6. Scuba dive with giant grouper near Jupiter
Most scuba divers and snorkelers head to the Florida Keys, but one of the greatest diving adventures you can have in Florida happens just off the state’s east coast. Between late July and early October, huge goliath grouper – some as big as golf carts – gather on the wrecks and reefs off Jupiter Inlet to spawn.
The spectacle is nothing short of incredible. Divers can get within arm’s reach of these 400-pound fish, but get too close and the goliath might use its swim bladder to emit an underwater “bark” that feels more like a mini sonic boom. Scuba Works and other dive shops in Palm Beach County run regular trips to dive with goliath grouper during the spawning season.
7. Paddle in bioluminescent waters along the Space Coast
The islands of the Caribbean steal the spotlight when it comes to bioluminescent waters, but you can also take a glowing after-dark kayak adventure in Indian River Lagoon, just east of Orlando along the Space Coast. Take to the waters with Titusville’s A Day Away Kayak Tours from June through early October for the best chance at paddling through a blanket of bioluminescence. It’s incredible to watch mullet and other fish streak like comets through the inky waters, lighting up Tinkerbell trails in their wakes. You can even splurge on a clear kayak for an under-you view, too.
8. See marine life with easy-access snorkeling at Phil Foster Park
A small beach under a busy bridge over the Intracoastal River in Palm Beach County might seem like an odd place to strap on your snorkel or scuba gear, but the underwater snorkeling trail at Phil Foster Park (known to locals as Blue Heron Bridge) is a fascinating place to see such curious marine creatures as seahorses, frog fish and stargazer fish in waters that turn crystal clear for a brief window of time around the changing tide. Most of the marine life here lives in just 6 to 10ft of water, but you’ll spot more critters if you go with a guide from Pura Vida Divers, who also rent out gear.
Dry Tortugas National Park is water, sandbars and small islands © Chris LaBasco / Shutterstock
9. Take a seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park
Only accessible by seaplane or via a boat ride from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most inaccessible and unique outposts in the national park system. The 100-sq-mile national park is almost entirely water, but it also encompasses seven small islands, including the grassy sandbar crowned by Fort Jefferson, the largest surviving 19th-century fort in the US. If you come to Dry Tortugas just for the day, spend a few hours strolling the fort – rangers guide tours along its moat – and cool off with a snorkeling session in the surrounding turquoise waters.
Planning Tip: Want to stay longer? Garden Key, the island that includes Fort Jefferson, has several primitive camping sites that offer spectacular stargazing thanks to the almost total absence of light pollution. Remember there are no services either, so you’ll need to bring all your own supplies, including a tent, food and water.
10. Search for Spanish loot along the Treasure Coast
During a hurricane in July 1715, a Spanish treasure fleet in transit from Havana to Spain met an unfortunate demise along Florida’s east coast, offshore from Vero Beach. Today, modern treasure hunters stalk the coastline looking for the spilled loot that’s been washing ashore along Florida’s Treasure Coast ever since. Most of the treasure – coins, jewelry and more – has been found after storms, which churn up the sandbars offshore. If there’s bad weather during your Florida visit, count yourself lucky.
Planning Tip: To take a shot at striking it rich by nabbing some of that lost booty, rent a metal detector from Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum in Sebastian and head down to the sand on Vero Beach to start sweeping for gold. The high tide line is a good place to begin your search. As long as your find was on the beach and not in the sand dunes or state park areas, it’s yours to keep.
Crystal River is the only place where you can legally snorkel with manatees © Colors and shapes of underwater world / Getty Images
11. Meet manatees at Crystal River
A federally protected species, manatees are arguably Florida’s most beloved mammal, and there’s only one place in the whole country where you can legally enter the water to snorkel alongside these gentle giants. Every winter, when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean get too cold, manatees make their way to Florida’s warmer inland springs, gathering, often by the hundreds, at Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Operators like Bird’s Underwater Dive Center run guided boat trips that let you enter the chilly waters with the manatees. If you don’t mind paddling, you can also reach the area independently by kayak.
Planning Tip: Give manatees plenty of space, stay quiet, and don’t touch or chase these gentle creatures. However, if manatees approach you for a nuzzle, that’s entirely acceptable according to the law.
12. Spot eagles and ospreys at one of the world’s few coastal dune lakes
The area around South Walton on the Florida Panhandle is one of the few places in the world (along with Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand) where you can find coastal dune lakes. These unusual features form when the wind creates depressions in the sand that fill with brackish pools of water, and they support a huge range of biodiversity, from bald eagles and osprey to American coots and other waterfowl species.
It’s not every day you’ll see a dune-fringed lake backing onto the beach with ospreys circling overhead, and that’s what makes these placid, grass-edged lakes so special. One of the largest coastal dune lakes in the area is Western Lake at Grayton Beach State Park; rent a kayak from the on-site ranger station to paddle around its serene 100-acre expanse.