10 Secret Florida Destinations Where Tourists Can’t Find You
Sunny Florida's most popular destinations, like Orlando and Key West, are mobbed by tourists most months of the year. Instead, escape to one of Florida's hidden gems that some state residents don't even know exist.
Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Photo By: Save the Manatee Club
Photo By: Pedro Castellano
Photo By: Omni Hotels & Resorts
Photo By: Visit Florida
Photo By: Visit Surfside
Photo By: Miles Saunders / CCVCB
Photo By: Stacey Sather / FloridasHistoricCoast.com
Photo By: Visit South Walton
Photo By: Martin County Office of Tourism & Marketing
Three hours south of Tampa is a captivating (pun intended) 10-square-mile area of Florida that's better known for shelling and colorful sunsets than throngs of tourists snapping selfies. Miles of pristine soft-sand beaches on Captiva Island make it a cinch to relax and gather seashells under swaying palm trees. Instead of crowded beaches and long theme park lines, visitors are treated to unspoiled natural beauty, due largely to a purposeful lack of development. Enrich your inner conchologist at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, then settle in at the South Seas Island Resort, a luxe resort with an Old Florida vibe.
While all the tourists are buzzing about at Magic Kingdom and Universal's Islands of Adventure, enjoy your own slice of heaven just 35 miles north of Orlando. In historic DeLand, stately Stetson Mansion beckons. As Florida's first luxury estate, this 10,000-square-foot manor home is a stunner. Wander about the galleries at the Museum of Art-DeLand, then explore nearby Blue Spring State Park, a designated manatee refuge and home to a flourishing population of West Indian manatees. Book a stay four blocks from downtown at the DeLand Hotel, a historic 10-room boutique hotel that dates back to 1925.
Set on Florida's Gulf Coast, the quaint village of Dunedin charms sun-seekers with a breezy vibe and stroll-worthy waterfront. Just off the coast are Caladesi and Honeymoon Islands, both renowned for their natural beauty and secluded white sand beaches. Sample world-class craft beers at Florida's oldest microbrewery, Dunedin Brewery, or bike along the 42-mile Pinellas Trail. Book a stay at the 83-room Fenway Hotel, which was once home to the area's first radio station, WGHB. A rooftop bar wows with views of the St. Joseph Sound, while a vast green space invites with lawn games, like croquet.
In northeast Florida, Amelia Island is easy to reach, but hard to forget, so says the local tourism bureau. Thirteen miles of breathtaking beaches, abundant wildlife and clear blue waters make this a beloved - yet not overtouristed - destination for visitors and residents alike. Explore artifacts and uncover maritime history at the Marine Welcome Center & Shrimping Museum, then settle in for a relaxing horse-drawn carriage ride around historic Fernandina Beach. Book a stay at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, which offers golf, horseback riding, paddleboarding and rejuvenating spa services. A certified naturalist educates guests on the island's ecosystem and marine life.
Set just 85 miles south of Orlando, Sebring may be best known for the legendary Sebring International Raceway, which is widely considered the birthplace of auto racing. Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works is another unique attraction worth a visit (maybe more than once). This old-fashioned ice cream shop serves up 300+ varieties of soda, as well as handmade ice cream in flavors like Gator Tracks and Cherry Cordial. More than 100 crystal-clear lakes attract those keen to fish and boat. Meanwhile, one of Florida's oldest state parks, Highlands Hammock State Park, is home to native Florida wildlife, like alligators and black bears.
The quaint South Florida beach town of Surfside is a stone's throw from Miami's South Beach, but you wouldn't know it as you laze on the mile-long beach that runs from 88th to 96th Street. Book a stay at the 77-room Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club, a glamorous oceanfront property that once hosted such icons as Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill. Check out a free cruiser bike or splash around in one of three swimming pools. Stroll the two-block downtown, then - as a hotel guest - enjoy complimentary access to the Town of Surfside Community Center, which has outdoor tennis courts and a children's splash park.
Orlando and Miami may get the lion’s share of attention in Florida (as well as swarms of tourists), but for chill vibes, venture to Florida’s Nature Coast. Set on the shores of Central Florida’s Tsala Apopka Lake (actually, a chain of lakes), Inverness is at the half-way point on 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail. As you can imagine, it's a bicycle-friendly city with bike shops, restaurants and coffee shops clustered along the trail. Book a stay lakeside at Sunshine Lodge or Moonrise Resort, both in nearby Floral City. Home to Ferris Groves, make time for this historic farm store that's earned a reputation as "the finest name in citrus."
Just over the bridge from historic St. Augustine lies charming Vilano Beach, a seaside community considered by many to be St. Augustine's best-kept secret. Drop a line at Vilano Beach Pier or rent boats and explore pristine beaches at Anastasia State Park. Castle Otttis (yes, three "t's") beckons, possibly because it was built to resemble an Irish castle of 1,000 years ago - both inside and out - yet the stone structure has only been complete since 1991. Set up a tent at the North Beach Camp Resort to listen to the calm waves wash ashore.
Set on Florida's Panhandle, South Walton boasts eye-pleasing scenery, warm breezes and family-friendly activities, only minus the lines and tourists (hello, Panama City). Dive into South Walton’s Underwater Museum of Art to admire works of art created by innovative artists at the country's first permanent underwater sculpture garden. Rent bikes to roam breezy beachside communities. A sandcastle building lesson with Beach Sand Sculptures for coach-guided instruction on proper building sandcastle techniques. Book a stay steps from the beach at a boutique hotel like The Pearl in Rosemary Beach.
Relax as you criss-cross coastal waterways in a motorized catamaran built for two on a three-hour eco-tour with Riding the Waves on Florida's lesser-known Treasure Coast. Listen in as a certified naturalist points out dolphins, pelicans and mangroves. Stroll the lush boardwalk at Indian RiverSide Park in Jensen Beach to the end for a picnic under a thatched roof tiki hut. The kids can cool off at the park’s dancing fountains. Check in to Hutchinson Shores Resort & Spa, a luxury beachside resort with two outdoor pools, an ocean-inspired spa and a surfside cocktail bar.