Many things can be said about the Sunshine State, but there’s no denying its pull as a year-round destination for a weekend getaway or, if you can swing it, something longer. There’s more than 1,300 miles of glorious coastline to explore, from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys (all of it fully back open to beachgoers), not to mention your choice of big cities or casual beach towns for a base. Favorable weather, affordability, and appeal as a multi-generational vacation spot are just a few of the factors that make the state so attractive to visit as the country (and world) emerges from a long season’s slumber. If you’re stumped on where to start, we’ve got you covered on the best weekend getaways to take across Florida.
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The Palm Beaches
What’s great about the Palm Beaches is that you can make your stay here as fancy or footloose as you like. Will you bed down at one of the grand oceanfront dames, like The Breakers Palm Beach, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, or the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, and spend your time sunning or at the spa? Or base across Lake Worth in downtown West Palm Beach instead at The Ben, a boutique hotel within walking distance to Las Olas Avenue’s shops and restaurants (use the complimentary house bikes to pedal across the bridge to hot Palm Beach restaurants like Henry’s Palm Beach). Maybe a ship container Airbnb along the river in Jupiter at Headwaters Eco Retreat is more your style these days?
For some of Florida’s best snorkeling, hit the Underwater Snorkeling Trail at Phil Foster Park, where you might spot oddities like octopuses, frog fish, and even eagle rays in the shallow waters near the Blue Heron Bridge in the Intracoastal Waterway.
With an ongoing schedule of rocket launches, thanks to the commercial space industry here, Florida’s Space Coast—just east of Orlando on the Atlantic coast—is booming. For an authentic beach vacation close to nature where the focus is on the sun, surf, and sand, Cocoa Beach delivers with its pretty beaches and easy access to nature. There’s not much in the way of luxury resort life here, but the newly reopened and refurbished Beachside Hotel & Suites has a fun 1960s vibe and is a block from the sand. Make time for the short drive north to Titusville, where you can head out after sunset on bioluminescent paddling tours into the Indian River Lagoon with A Day Away Kayak Tours. The visitor center at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge remains closes due to the pandemic, but if it opens for summer, check to see if they’ve started back up with the nightly ranger-led sea turtle walks for a chance to spy nesting sea turtles laying their eggs on nearby Canaveral National Seashore. And be sure to check the rocket launch schedule, too, for the show in the sky.
Orlando’s theme parks, all of which are fully back open but may limit capacity at some attractions during peak times, are just one reason to plan a trip to the city. What many travelers don’t realize is that Orlando has far more to offer than park-hopping. Explore the pretty bricked streets of the Winter Park neighborhood (which feels, dare we say, almost European?), near downtown, from a home base at the boutique and art-centric Alfond Inn to see a side of their city that Orlandoans treasure. In downtown Orlando, the newly opened (Jan. 2021) AC Hotel Orlando Downtown is within walking distance of the city’s centerpiece green lung, Lake Eola Park, that’s the site of a weekly Sunday farmers market, complete with a lively beer garden under a canopy of live oak trees.
St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach
Two wings of the same bird, St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach, just west of downtown Tampa, deliver some of Florida’s most enviable white sand beaches, each with a distinct beach town ambience. Edgier St. Petersburg is known for its vast collection of street murals scattered throughout downtown, the Dalí Museum (where the Van Gogh Alive exhibit has been extended into June 2021), and grand hotels like the cotton candy-hued Don CeSar (on the beach), or The Vinoy. The 2020 opening of the stunningly modern and intuitive St. Pete Pier—with its bikeable perimeter, rooftop tiki bar, beach on the bayfront, playground, and art installations—was the biggest news on the gulf coast last year. Clearwater Beach skews extra family friendly, with sands that are particularly powdery, nightly sunset celebrations at Pier 60, and stylish beach resorts fronting the Gulf of Mexico that include the Sandpearl Resort, Opal Sands Resort, and the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach.
There’s more than spring break mayhem to this Panhandle city, home to an Oyster Trail with a dozen restaurants proffering the fruits of the local Gulf) and a burgeoning Mural Trail, too. Less than a five-hour drive from cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Jacksonville, Panama City, with its historic downtown and the nearby sugar sand beaches at Panama City Beach, might surprise you. Right downtown, the History Class Brewing Company is a brand new gastropub that nods to the city’s history with old time artifacts in its design, and mango and guava infused wheat beer on tap. Don’t miss a visit to nearby Historic St. Andrews, ten minutes away, a funky fishing village with streets lined with oyster shells, a few decent waterfront restaurants for a seafood meal, and pretty Oaks by the Bay Park, with its highly Instagrammable four-headed palm tree.
Jacksonville Beaches and St. Augustine
The first major beach resort area you hit heading south along Interstate-95 into Florida, the Jacksonville Beaches comprise a string of several laid-back communities. Atlantic Beach—home to the oceanfront One Ocean resort and miles of dunes backed with stately oceanfront homes—and the friendly little surf community of Neptune Beach are our favorites for their untrampeled-by-the-masses appeal. If you’re here on the third Thursday of the month, the monthly Art Walk in Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach is a perfect outdoor outing before grabbing dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, like Hawkers, where the menu south Asian street food conjures Bangkok and Mumbai. It’s an easy 33-mile road trip south for the day to visit St. Augustine, which claims to be the oldest city in the U.S. and is home to historic sites and preserved buildings, such as the 17th century Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (check the website for closures), a Spanish fortress with a commanding waterfront location. If you’re a surfer, catch some waves at Vilano Beach before sunset cocktails just back from the breakers at The Reef.
Fort Myers & Sanibel
About two hours south of Tampa along the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Myers and nearby Sanibel are known for great shell collecting on white sand beaches so pristine you may blink to be sure they’re real. Wildlife preserves and state parks abound along this part of Florida’s gulf coast, and the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a favorite with birders and for its Wildlife Drive, which you can tackle in a car, on foot, or by bike (just don’t forget the sunscreen). Bed down on neighboring Captiva Island in one of the pastel-hued homes or historic seaside cottages at Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa and spend your days paddleboarding or biking more than 25 miles of trails around the islands. Or stay on a 330-acre nature preserve at South Seas Island Resort, also on Captiva Island, where hotel rooms, tennis villas, and entire beach homes are among the many options for staying the night. Downtown Fort Myers is a delight to explore, with its pleasant, pedestrian friendly River District snaking along the Caloosahatchee River. Right on the river, the newly opened (Sept. 2020) Luminary Hotel & Co. set a new standard in the city for a waterfront stay. Nearby, inside the old city pier building, Oxbow Bar & Grill is latest hot spot for slurping oysters with river views.
Naples and Marco Island
Continuing south from Fort Myers, the areas of Naples and nearby Marco Island make up Florida’s Paradise Coast, which has a tropical feel thanks to the mangroves (and mangoes, when in season, from late May to October) everywhere. You’re also close to one of the most renowned wilderness area in the U.S., Everglades National Park. The Gulf Coast Visitors Center entrance is in Everglades City—an easy road trip of less than an hour southeast of Naples—where you can head out on pontoon boat cruises into the Ten Thousand Islands then feast on stone crab claws for lunch at the dockside Camellia Street Grill as air boats and fishing boats cruise past. For a beautiful beach stay that will facilitate all those nature outings and plenty of strolls past the outdoor cafes along Naples’ Fifth Avenue, make your base LaPlaya Beach Resort or Edgewater Beach Hotel in Naples. Just south, on Marco Island, the JW Marriott Marco Island known for its great rum bar on the beach and adults-only wing, Paradise by Sirene, with Balinese-inspired rooms.
Less than two hours south of Orlando, Vero Beach is the point along Florida’s Atlantic Coast where things start to take a turn to the sub-tropical, South Florida vibe—you’ll notice it in the emerald tangles of palms and sea grapes, and the sapphire hues of the water lapping the coast. Lanai suites at the Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa—a boutique oceanfront spot that’s just a quick stroll to all the shops and cafes of downtown—make for a comfortable and convenient stay. Make time to check out nearby Sebastian Inlet, popular with surfers and anglers, and plan to kayak into the Indian River Lagoon with a rental from the Environmental Learning Center, where you’ll also find boardwalks and marine life exhibits to explore. For something fun with kids in tow (or if you’re feeling lucky), rent a metal detector from the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum and try your hand at treasure hunting at Wabasso Beach—after all, this is the Treasure Coast, and people still regularly find loot (coins, jewelry and the like) from the 1715 fleet of Spanish treasure ships that wrecked in a hurricane just offshore.
Hutchinson Island, Fort Pierce ,and Jensen Beach
Often overlooked by people beelining it between Vero Beach and Fort Lauderdale on Florida’s East Coast, Fort Pierce and Hutchinson Island just, in St. Lucie and Martin counties, are the spots to channel a slice of forgotten Florida on miles of uncrowded beaches (you can even go horseback riding on the sand here). Base beachfront at Hutchinson Shores Resort & Spa in Jensen Beach where you can get around easily by bike to explore. The Florida Oceanographic Costal Center, on Hutchinson Island, fronts the Instracoastal Waterway and rehabilitates sea turtles, rays and nurse sharks, which swim in pretty lagoons fed by Indian River. Fort Pierce has a cute downtown area anchored by Sailfish Brewing Company and is the place to head out on a charter fishing trip into the Gulf Stream to troll for mahi.
Beaches of South Walton
For the kind of water you thought only lived on screen savers and sand so fine you’ll want to pop it into an hourglass, the beaches of South Walton in Florida’s Panhandle rise to the top. Vacation rentals where you can sip your morning coffee as dolphins pass by just offshore are plenty in spots like Rosemary Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach, and Seaside. In Sandestin, Hotel Effie, with its swanky rooftop pool and lounge, opened in Feb. 2021. And iconic gulf coast properties like the Water Color Inn, fronting the Gulf of Mexico, put you right along Scenic 30A, where you can drive with coastal views, stop to paddle in freshwater dune lakes or make a stop for suds tasting at the Grayton Brew Company. Ecotourism opportunities get you out enjoying Florida’s nature at every turn along this stretch of coastline, whether by ebike along the sandy backroads or from the seat of a kayak, exploring Northwest Florida’s best watery trails.
Anna Maria Island
Often overlooked by visitors drawn to the big name beaches of St. Pete and Clearwater, this largely residential island just south on the gulf coast, less than an hour from Sarasota, is a slice of old Florida many don’t realize exists. Anna Maria Island is a great place to score a vacation rental on a canal or fronting the Gulf of Mexico. (Pineapplefish has the prettiest of the bunch), or you can stay in nearby Holmes Beach at the Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club, with slips for travelers with boats in tow. Anna Maria Island has no chain stores and golf carts are the preferred mode of transport. You can pedal everywhere, too, with a Surrey (or regular) bike rental from Beach Bums.
Sarasota and Longboat Key
To mix an artsy town with some of Florida’s most gorgeous gulf beaches, spend your vacation exploring downtown Sarasota and the neighboring beaches of Longboat Key, less than 90 minutes south of Tampa. Make a gulf front room at Zota Beach Resort or a beachfront condo with several bedrooms just back from the dunes at Sand Cay Beach Resort your base on this sublime stretch of coastline. When you need a break from the sand and sun, cross the bridge to downtown Sarasota, home to the magnificent Ringling Museum of Art, named for the circus baron and housing an incredible collection of European Old Masters paintings within bayfront grounds landscaped with tropical flowers and trees. For contemporary art, the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College , inside the town’s gothic style former high school, is worth a visit. And when it’s time for slurping more oysters with river views, Philippi Creek Oyster Bar is just a short drive south.
Miami is booming with vacationers who wouldn’t have Florida any other way—that is, with its warm-as-the-Caribbean waters and intoxicating multicultural vibe. Restaurants along Ocean Drive have expanded their outdoor seating capacity for al fresco dining but Carbone—Italian-American cuisine on Collins Avenue—is the most coveted new opening at the beach. Downtown, put newish spots (late 2020) like izakaya-style Buya Wynwood, with its spellbinding sake selection and umami-rich small plates, on your hit list for eating as well as the Michelin starred Korean restaurant, Cote, which opened in Miami’s Design District in early 2021 (the first outpost outside New York City). The oceanfront Kimpton Surfcomber in South Beach’s Art Deco District is newly emerged from renovations inspired by South of France-style romance. And for a South Beach stay a bit out of the fray, we love Palihouse Miami Beach, in the Faena District, unless you’re staying oceanfront right nearby, of course, at Faena itself, which is admittedly hard to beat.
Not to be lumped in with Miami Beach, just south, pedestrian-friendly Surfside sprawls across a short half-square mile and beckons with a tangible family-friendly appeal. The Four Season Hotel at the Surf Club is beloved by families thanks to its complimentary kids club (when does that ever happen in the U.S.? Answer: not often). And Surfside’s compact downtown district, along Harding Avenue, just a few blocks from the beach, brims with boutiques and restaurants (beeline it for the crunchy spicy tuna latkes at Josh’s Deli). From May to November—during walks along the beach in the mornings, in particular—keep your eyes open for sea turtle hatchlings making a break for the ocean.
The Florida Keys and Key West might be the weekend getaway in Florida that connects you with what a true vacation in this state is all about. Made mostly of coral, the islands that make up the Keys aren’t known for their beaches at all, although there are a few of those (the stretch at Bahia Honda State Park, good for snorkeling right from the beach in grassy flats just offshore, is one of the finest). Your best bet for watery fun in the Florida Keys, however, is to get out onto—and, preferably, into—the turquoise waters via boat trips, snorkeling excursions, or on a kayak or stand up paddle board. You’ll want to be back on land in time for the ritual of sunset spectating, of course, to toast with something tropical and frosty. Key West has the bulk of the resorts and hotels, as well as endless restaurants and bars to explore. But low-key, world class resorts abound throughout the Keys, and include two noteworthy adults-only havens: the newly refurbished Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, on its own private island, and Bungalows Key Largo. To feel like you’re in Santorini, with white washed buildings and water views at every turn, Isla Bella Beach Resort on Marathon is nothing short of transporting.
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