Located nearly 50 miles north of Miami, Boca Raton is part of the region known as the Palm Beaches – a 47-mile stretch of the Atlantic coastline. It was designed to be one of Florida's premier resort towns in the early 20th century, when Henry Flagler's East Coast railroad opened the state to tourists. Along with the signature town hall and the tropical Mizner Park, architect Addison Mizner created the original Boca Raton Resort & Club, a Mediterranean-style pink "castle" that is still one of the city's most iconic buildings.
Hearing "20 miles of beachfront" will tempt many vacation-seekers, but the typical Daytona beachgoer usually has something else in mind. Despite recent efforts to appeal to families (Orlando, amusement park central, is just an hour away), Daytona annually attracts thousands of visitors in search of speed and spring break. And although many college kids have moved to trendier locales (Miami Beach, for one), this east Florida city still remains a frequented spot. Its reputation as the "it" party place has welcomed a different type of celebratory atmosphere — the ever-expanding NASCAR empire. Best known for the Daytona International Speedway, Daytona draws travelers who hope to see their favorite race car drivers up close.
Nicknamed the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village," Destin has grown into one of the most popular vacation spots on the Florida Panhandle. Founded in the 1850s, Destin used to be a sleepy fishing town until a bridge connected the skinny peninsula with Florida's mainland. With a baseline population of 13,000 residents (which inflates to 25,000-plus during the summer), this town retains an intimate, friendly atmosphere. Midwestern and Southern families flock to Destin's beaches each summer for the city's trademark bright white shores, made up of pure Appalachian quartz. This unique sand not only stays cool in the summer heat, but with the sunlight's reflection, it also gives the waters an emerald tint. Golfers traverse seaside bunkers, while kids splash in the water parks. More adventurous visitors snorkel and scuba dive off the coast or charter a boat to try their luck at deep sea fishing. After all, casting a line is an integral part of this peninsular paradise.
To the citizens of Fort Lauderdale, their home offers quintessential Florida – beaches, palm trees, shopping and relaxation – without the see-and-be-seen attitude of the state's other beachside cities. You can judge if they're right, but certainly expect a different atmosphere than their close rival Miami Beach. Fort Lauderdale's wide stretches of white sand surpass those of its southern neighbor and, to some, are the best shores statewide. And when you consider its fantastic scenery, great dining options and range of things to do, Fort Lauderdale is also somewhat affordable compared to similar vacation spots. The "Venice of America," nicknamed for its 165 miles of waterways and canals, is slowly but surely climbing the ranks of top beach destinations to the cheer of its residents.
Compared to its party neighbors on the eastern side of the state, this gulf-side vacation spot is quieter but no less interesting. The hustle and bustle you'll find in cities like Miami is replaced by family-friendly beaches and historic homes – like the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Both historic figures are credited with transforming Fort Myers into the lush hideaway it is today. Being one with nature is also important to the city with dozens of wildlife and nature preserves scattered throughout the area, such as Manatee Park. Since most of the coastline is preserved land, beachgoers congregate on the narrow Fort Myers Beach. Another big draw to the city: spring training. Two major league baseball teams, along with diehard baseball fans, flock to the warmer weather to get a first glimpse at the upcoming lineup. With such a diverse offering, it's easy to see why the "City of Palms" rivals its larger neighbors in southern Florida.
Known for warm beaches and eccentric residents with a live–in–the–moment philosophy, Key West offers a relaxed yet unexpected seaside adventure. Do as the residents (known as Conchs) do and see where that free spirit might take you. Perhaps you'll end up at a Duval Street bar, in a Mallory Square shop or even touring Ernest Hemingway's old home.
Take a number of diverse cultures, add a strong dose of the arts and a splash of ocean water, and you have Miami. Looking at the fantastic art museums and the blossoming gastronomical scene, you might find it hard to believe that just a century ago, this colorful Floridian city was covered in swampland. Once developers rushed into the area, one of the most popular tourist destinations and spectacular city skylines in the country was born. Today, with South Beach before you and the Everglades behind you, you can walk through the bustling streets past historical homes with Spanish words and Caribbean music floating into your ears.
Miami Beach is where a mix of cultures, residents and travelers mingle. A wide variety of people – including waifish models, amateur architecture critics, distinguished seniors and sun-seeking families – enjoy the renowned shores of "America's Riviera." North Miami Beach is where you'll find the kid-friendliest beaches and the most affordable restaurants and hotels. Less than 10 miles away are the galleries, museums and theaters of Greater Miami.
Named after the coastal Italian city, Naples, Florida, is known for its laid-back ambiance, quiet luxury and world-class golf. Though Florida's version doesn't have the history, sights or artwork of its namesake, its extravagance mimics that of European waterholes along the Mediterranean. Instead of archaeological treasures and divine Italian food, you'll find high-end restaurants and first-class hotels awaiting those who retreat from the shore. With gently lapping waves on the white-sand beaches of southern Florida's Gulf Coast, America's Napoli qualifies as one of the most relaxing and romantic beach destinations in the States. That said, party animals and young families will probably want to seek another beach because Naples doesn't have the distractions (oops, we mean attractions) they are looking for. Relaxation is the name of the game here, so leave the tots with your parents or the keg at the frat house, pick up your special someone, and venture down to Florida's city of love.
There's no other city in the United States – the world, even – that celebrates the spirit of childhood quite like Orlando, Florida. The feeling that you get when you catch the light off Epcot Center's Spaceship Earth (found in Walt Disney World Resort, of course); or from your first sip of Butterbeer in Hogsmeade (located inside Universal Orlando Resort); or when you witness the soaring heights of Shamu's aerobatics (during the "One Ocean" water show at SeaWorld Orlando) – all prove that being a kid is about your state of mind, not age. The notion that only young ones will enjoy this city's charms is just that – a notion. In reality, Orlando has a little of this and a little of that to appeal to all ages, and there's more to do here than visit theme parks. The subtropical climate is great for golfing and the downtown city landscape is too attractive not to explore.
Panama City Beach is the quintessential Florida getaway. Pearly white beaches? Check. Subtropical climate? Check. Bottlenose dolphins playing in the surf? Check. Situated in northwest Florida, about 47 miles east of Destin and around 100 miles southwest of Tallahassee, Panama City Beach is perhaps best known as a college spring break destination. But after new laws were introduced banning alcohol on the beach during the month of March, the city quickly saw a decrease in the bacchanalia – great news for families and couples in search of an affordable, warm-weather escape.
For a dose of Southern culture in a tropical paradise, look no further than Pensacola. This Gulf of Mexico spot, which sits on the Florida Panhandle, is only about 15 miles from the Alabama border – and only a three-hour drive east of New Orleans, which means the friendliness and hospitality characteristic of the Deep South are found here. But Pensacola's powdery white sands and glittering emerald waters give it an almost Caribbean feel, and we call this combo "the best of both worlds."
This secluded Fort Myers offshoot is considered even more low-key, quiet and quaint than its Gulf Coast neighbor, and that's saying a lot. Casual is the order of the day on Sanibel Island; a shabby chic vibe permeates the Periwinkle Way galleries, restaurants and shops; seashells cover every sandy and linoleum surface. In fact, the abundant seashells have become this island's (and its smaller sister, Captiva's) claim to fame. You'll find plenty of beachcombers practicing the "Sanibel stoop" — what locals call shelling — on any lengthy stretch of sand. Plan on joining them for at least one afternoon of your stay; that is, if the mood strikes you. The residents of laid-back Sanibel wouldn't have it any other way.
If you think this quaint city along Florida's west coast is like any other found in the state, think again. Featuring an impressive list of art-centric attractions and activities like The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Art Center Sarasota and various craft shows and festivals, Sarasota regularly woos enthusiasts and collectors. But art here isn't limited to traditional works like paintings and sculptures. Performing arts like ballet, opera and circus acts are also a mainstay of this waterfront city. In fact, the circus is deeply imbedded in Sarasota. John and Charles Ringling, two of the Ringling Bros. Circus' founders, moved to Sarasota shortly before it became a city in 1913. What's more, John Ringling's former home, Ca' d'Zan, now serves as one of the city's top attractions.
No matter where you go in St. Augustine, odds are you'll stand face to face with American history. Founded by the Spaniards in 1565, this city in northeastern Florida is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the U.S. Alongside narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, you'll find Romanesque Revival-style buildings, many of which were designed by railroad and oil tycoon Henry Flagler, who played a key role in developing St. Augustine and the rest of Florida's east coast. With so much history, it should come as no surprise that St. Augustine also has a penchant for the paranormal: Many of the city's top attractions, which are believed to be haunted by Spanish settlers and original inhabitants, tout nighttime ghost tours.
Holding the Guinness World Record for the most consecutive days of sunshine, St. Petersburg is appropriately nicknamed "The Sunshine City." The city provides visitors with a unique blend of traditional beach getaway and urban flavor. The white, sandy beaches offer views of spectacular sunsets and the 7 miles of waterfront parks invite travelers to enjoy a host of activities, including hiking, camping and kayaking. An ongoing creative renaissance also promises an extensive cultural experience, whether it's through the world-class Dalí Museum or the Museum of Fine Arts. And every year, more than 1,000 events are held in the city — everything from St. Anthony's Triathlon to Ribfest, a celebration of barbecued ribs and touring bands. These events are often held downtown, which is peppered with shops, restaurants and craft beer pubs that come alive once the sun sets. With all that it has to offer, the sunshine-infused city is a popular destination for visitors all ages: families will love the relaxing outdoors and teeming wildlife, and the younger set will find plenty to do downtown, including the lively nightlife.
Home to some impressive antebellum architecture, an extensive Native American mission and its own mastodon skeleton, Tallahassee thrives on history. This northwestern Florida city was named the state capital in 1824 because of its prime location between two major cities: St. Augustine and Pensacola. Nearly 200 years later, Tallahassee is still a literal and figurative go-between. Nowadays, it sits between the hip, sizzling city of Miami Beach and the conservative, old-world charm of the Deep South. The state capital is also about 98 miles northeast of Panama City, a popular spring break spot; 250 miles northwest of Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500; and 260 miles northwest of Orlando, where multiple themeparks are located. Tallahassee, therefore, is ideal for both visitors hoping to learn more about Florida history and vacationers looking to stay in a central jumping-off point while exploring popular neighboring cities.
Everyone knows that Tampa is the place for families. And for animal lovers. And for conventioneers. But possibly — even if you don't fit into any of those demographics — Tampa is for you, too? This balmy city by the bay still has plenty of charms away from the amusement park, the aquarium and the convention center (although Busch Gardens and the Florida Aquarium are not shabby ways to spend a day). There's lots of history here. For example, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stopped here on their way to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. And you'll also find a few choice museums, including the Museum of Science & Industry. And then there are the sports — this is the home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. It's the namesake city of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, and the spring training home base for several other major league teams. And when you've exhausted all that Tampa has to offer, you can drive just 25 miles south to St. Petersburg for some sophisticated dining or to Clearwater for the beach.
Home to America's rich and famous (Donald Trump, Jimmy Buffett, Howard Stern and James Patterson, to name a few) for nearly a century, West Palm Beach provides the most luxurious version of the relaxing Floridian lifestyle. Or so people think. Its actually Palm Beach – the coastal neighborhood adjacent to West Palm – that serves as the spot where these moguls and celebrities choose to build their waterfront winter homes. Its younger sister, West Palm, was originally an off-shoot. Now the latter is a vacation spot in its own right, offering travelers an array of away-from-the-shore attractions and hotel options for all budgets. You might only be able to distinguish between the two areas by crossing the Intracoastal Waterway and looking at the housing prices.
Best Places to Visit in the USA