Off the Beach Beaten Path in Florida

Beach Road near Pensacola, Florida
Dan Reynolds Photography/Getty Images
  • 01 of 07

    Unique Experiences Away From the Beach

    Fort Matanzas National Monument
    GorissenM/Flickr/CC 2.0

    When visiting the beaches along Florida's coastline, you are never far from an adventure. Jump in the car, or rent a bike or moped and explore these great diversions and discover a Florida you never knew existed.

    Follow us from Northeast Florida on Amelia Island and continue down the Atlantic Coast southward toward the Florida Keys and northward along the Gulf Coast until we complete our journey in Northwest Florida's Pensacola.

  • 02 of 07

    Northeast Florida

    St. Augustine Lighthouse
    Doug Kerr/Flickr/CC 2.0

    In the northeast region of Florida, small towns are the norm and large cities the exception. Tucked off seaside roads and backcountry rural routes are the special hidden places that add to the unique appeal of Florida’s First Coast.

    For a scenic drive along the Northeast Florida coast, follow the historic Buccaneer Trail on its 52-mile trek past some of the area’s most renowned historical and natural sites, such as  Little Talbot Island State Park and the ​Kingsley Plantation.

    Along the picturesque route, from Fernandina Beach to Mayport to Ponte Vedra Beach, lie quaint oceanfront towns known collectively as "The Beaches." Ships of all sorts still set sail from the historic fishing village of Mayport, strategically situated where the St. Johns River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can hop aboard the St. Johns River Ferry in Mayport Village for a scenic trip to Fort George Island in Georgia. Additionally, the nearby Mayport Naval Station offers visitors a tour of destroyers and frigates.

    Further South, Jacksonville Beach always attracts plenty of beachcombers, but history buffs will find the town is worth a visit as well. The Pablo Historical Park explores the role of the Florida East Coast Railway in developing the area and offers guided tours of historic buildings.

    In Ponte Vedra Beach is the prestigious home of the PGA Tour headquarters where active vacationers can enjoy world-famous fairways and championship tennis courts. And, about 25 miles south, visit the  World Golf Hall of Fame where the game is uniquely chronicled and legendary players are honored.

    The Buccaneer Trail ends in St. Augustine, where 300-year-old stone forts and opulent turn-of-the-century hotels provide visitors with plenty to explore even before they reach the beach.

    Your adventure isn't over just yet. Across the historic Bridge of Lions from St. Augustine lie the beaches of Anastasia Island, where sabal palms and sea oats grow wild on 15-foot-high dunes. On the way to the surf, take a slight sidestep to the distinctive candy-striped St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. Purported to be the site of Florida’s first lighthouse, the view from the top is worth the climb.

  • 03 of 07

    East Central Florida

    interactive display at the Kennedy Space Center
    Jon Hicks/Getty Images

    Although speeding race cars and soaring space shuttles take the spotlight among Central Florida's East Coast attractions, travelers will be pleasantly surprised to find a wealth of historical gems quietly awaiting discovery, just slightly off the beaten path.

    Not far from the roar of race car engines, Daytona Beach's downtown historic district features a variety of museums, churches, galleries and other cultural finds, nestled along the banks of the scenic Halifax River.

    Housed in an old bank building on Beach Street, the Halifax Historical Museum features Indian and Spanish artifacts found on nearby plantations, memorabilia from the early days of beach automobile racing and newspapers dating back to 1883.

    A sweet treat when visiting Daytona always includes a stop at Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory, which offers free, guided tours into the history and how-to of chocolate making. Free candy samples make this stop even more delicious, as do other nearby Florida sweet treat stops, including Hyppo's and Zeno's Boardwalk Sweet Shop.

    Several miles away, travelers will find the white-framed, two-story house of Mary McLeod Bethune on the campus of historic Bethune-Cookman College. At the site, visitors can learn about the renowned civil rights leader and her famous college through photographs and artifacts. Nearby, on the campus of Daytona State College, visit the Southeast Museum of Photography, featuring historical and contemporary photographer exhibits.

    Once the winter home of John D. Rockefeller, the Casements is now the city of Ormond Beach's cultural center. Visitors will enjoy art exhibits, the Hungarian Historic Room, a Boy Scout exhibit and the historic Rockefeller period room.

    At Lighthouse Point Park, visitors can stroll along a boardwalk stretching across a working jetty, or picnic under a waterfront pavilion with beautiful views of the ocean, river, and lighthouse. Nearby, the 100-year-old Ponce Inlet Lighthouse offers a panoramic view of the surrounding Atlantic coast.

    Within minutes of world-famous beaches, West Volusia County offers old-fashioned towns and oak-lined avenues, making it seem a world away from Daytona's hustle and bustle. Tucked along DeLand's shady streets, visitors will find more than 300 architectural gems, including Stetson University, Florida's oldest private university. On self-guided tours of the area, be sure to stop at beautiful DeLand Hall and the President's Home on the university's campus, as well as the Henry A. DeLand House, Gillespie Museum of Minerals, and the DeLand Museum of Art located nearby. The historic downtown district offers an abundance of antique shops, art galleries and eccentric bistros.

    Central East Florida visitors will also find pleasant historic districts in the midst of the Space Coast's high-technology, space-age attractions. Originally settled in the 1860s, Historic Cocoa Village features a quaint collection of 50 shops and eateries along oak-shaded brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets. Numerous historical structures have been restored and are in use once again, including the Village Playhouse, a former vaudeville theater now used for community productions, and the Porcher House, the home of wealthy citrus grove owners, now open for public tours. Leisurely walking tours of the village are offered at Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science.

  • 04 of 07

    Southeast Florida

    Butterfly World, Coconut Creek, Florida
    Judy Gallagher/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Florida’s Gold Coast features numerous small towns and communities offering a variety of extraordinary pursuits to passers-by.

    Unique sporting events await visitors to Palm Beach County. Join in a game of croquet, but be forewarned — locals take this game very seriously. Of the 250 clubs around the country, 16 are located in Palm Beach County. Spend a Sunday watching a polo match at one of several area polo grounds. Called "the sport of kings," royalty and celebrities alike flock to the matches played from December through April.

    In Coconut Creek, families will encounter Butterfly World, one of the most unusual zoos in the world. Wonder through aviaries where thousands of brilliantly colored butterflies fly freely, explore a tropical rainforest and hanging garden and marvel at the hummingbird exhibit. Visitors can also learn the secrets of "butterfly gardening" — attracting certain species with specific plants and flowers.

    Venturing away from the popular beaches and downtown areas of Greater Fort Lauderdale, visitors will find several unique towns set firmly in local traditions.

    Just west of Fort Lauderdale, travelers can stop in the "western" town of Davie, where every structure must be built to a western theme and even the McDonald's has hitching posts and a "ride-thru" for resident cowboys on horseback.

    The 5,000-seat Davie Rodeo Arena sports local cowboy nearly every month, complete with steer-wrestling, calf-roping, and bull-riding. Davie is also the place to come for horseback riding, with miles of trails for exploring and stables with both English- and Western-style riding.

    Shoppers who venture off the beaten path are rewarded by the discovery of Antique Row in Dania, just south of the airport. Treasures of yesterday can be found in a one-block area featuring more than 150 shops.

    In the western reaches of Broward County, Seminole Indian traditions are alive and well and being preserved at several distinctive parks. At Sawgrass Recreation Park, in the Everglades, visitors can witness daily life in an 18th-century Indian village and taste authentic Indian dishes at the park's cafe. Off Alligator Alley, 23 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, Billie Swamp Safari offers a host of adventures, including an eco-tour by swamp buggy, folklore storytelling around the campfire, and an overnight stay in a thatched Chickee Hut.

    Run by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the park also features guided hiking tours, reptile and alligator exhibits and sunset canoe rides. And at the Seminole Indian Bingo and Casino in Hollywood, visitors can win up to $200,000 in high-stakes bingo games, or try their luck at poker games and video pull-tab machines.

    The cultural diversity that defines Miami today opens the door to a world of new experiences for visitors. Slightly off Miami’s main thoroughfares, travelers will find distinct ethnic enclaves that are worth a visit. South of downtown Miami, Little Havana is the hub of the Greater Miami’s vibrant Cuban community. Here, the chimneys and porch piers of single-family bungalows are made of native coral limestone, and the Cuban restaurants serve mouth-watering picadillo (Spanish hash) and arroz con pollo (chicken with rice).

    To the north, visitors can sample Little Haiti’s singular island heritage at the Caribbean Marketplace, an award-winning, brilliantly colored building inspired by the Iron Marketplace of Port-au-Prince. Some two dozen shops offer Caribbean arts and crafts, African-inspired clothing and exotic ice creams and juices.

    Since its beginnings, Miami has been strongly influenced by its Jewish community. Today, the city is home to one of the world’s largest Holocaust survivor populations. Visitors can remember the victims of Nazi concentration camps at the inspiring Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach.

    Another site with deep historical roots is the Miccosukee Indian Village. Thirty miles west of Miami, the bustle of the city yields to a simpler way of life. Here in the Everglades, native Miccosukee Indians sustain their heritage and educate visitors by making and selling crafts, relating folklore tales, wrestling alligators and conducting airboat tours of the delicate Everglades ecosystem.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Southwest Florida

    Sanibel Island Light
    Milkmantep/Flickr/CC 2.0

    The southwest coast of Florida features one eccentric beach enclave after another. Roaming through the region's coastal villages and small barrier islands, wayside wanderers will find pirate hideouts, unusual pioneer settlements, and famous winter retreats.

    Many of the area's most unique, off-the-beaten-path locales are best reached by boat and best navigated on foot or by bicycle.

    Tucked amid the Ten Thousand Islands strung along the southernmost reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, visitors will find Florida's Paradise Coast that includes the stylish coastal Naples and upscale Marco Island. Although today a popular beach vacation destination, the island still retains remnants from its days as a turn-of-the-century Indian trading post. A dozen key historic markers across the island chart Marco Island history.

    The island competes with Sanibel Island to its north for bragging rights on the best shelling, but there is little competition when it comes to paddling... the waterways around the ten thousand islands is second to none.

    In Fort Myers, visitors biking or driving down McGregor Boulevard will soon discover how the town came to be known as the "City of Palms." Originally a cattle trail, the scenic boulevard is now lined by nearly 1,800 royal palms, some planted by the city's famed winter resident Thomas Edison.

    Edison's mark can be seen elsewhere in the picturesque city. Beyond his famed winter estate, travelers can explore the Edison Park subdivision and find the Thomas Edison Congregational Church as well as an assortment of Mediterranean Revival, Neoclassical and Greek Revival homes dating back to the turn of the century.

    Sparkling off the Lee County coast, Sanibel and Captiva Islands are among the most well-known islands in the region, popular for their excellent shelling and captivating beaches. But visitors will also find picturesque paths and historical gems tucked along Sanibel's main thoroughfare — Periwinkle Way. On this lush island, where all the buildings must be lower than the tallest palm, the sites are best seen by cycling along Periwinkle Way's canopy of whispering pines and expansive banyans.

    Visit the Sanibel Historical Village and Museum, which showcases the island's history with special touches such as a pioneer-vintage island residence and 1920s-versions of a general store, post office, and tea room. Or stop by the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum for a dazzling display of shells that wash up on the island.

    At the east end of Periwinkle Way, travelers can get an up-close look at one of the region's most photographed landmarks, the Sanibel Lighthouse, which dates back to 1884 when the entire island was a wildlife refuge. It's two adjacent stilt houses are typical of Florida architecture at the turn of the century.

  • 06 of 07

    West Central Florida

    The atrium on the third floor (main gallery level) of the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
    Dan Lundberg/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Tucked off quiet Gulf beaches and dotting the region's coastline, visitors will find a host of unique diversions along the roads less traveled. Historic villages, ethnic enclaves, and gilded architecture can be explored at a leisurely pace.

    The delightful island village of Venice offers beaches that are rarely crowded and avenues graced by Northern Italian architecture and fine shopping centers. In North Port, visitors can take a rejuvenating dip in one of nature’s original health spas, Warm Mineral Springs. Relax in 87-degree, mineralized water that soothes aches and pains right away.

    Wandering up Sarasota County's shimmering Gulf Coast, travelers will find fragrant gardens and numerous small towns offering quiet and refreshing points of interest. Overlooking Sarasota Bay, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens fills nine tranquil acres with more than 20,000 colorful plants in 20 distinct garden areas. Renowned for its rainforest canopy research, the garden also features 6,000 orchids, a banyan grove, bamboo pavilion and butterfly garden. Nearby, Sarasota Jungle Gardens showcases lush tropical vegetation and exotic waterfowl as well as a petting zoo and shell museum.

    Let's not forget Sarasota's Ringling Museums where you can run away to the circus for a day and surround yourself with the famous Ringling circus memorabilia and priceless art from the family's collection.

    Traveling north across the Sunshine Skyway that spans Tampa Bay, Pinellas County's particular blend of culture and history is also wonderfully preserved in several vibrant communities awaiting discovery. Strolling through Tarpon Springs, vacationers get the impression they are visiting a seaside Mediterranean village. Here, the aroma of freshly baked Greek pastries and festive melodies fill the air, while fisherman and shopkeepers exchange greetings in Greek. This special flavor is an outgrowth of one of Florida’s most fascinating, one-of-a-kind industries — sponge diving. Considered "America's Sponge Capital" at the turn of the century, Tarpon Springs has retained the colorful traditions and atmosphere introduced by Greek sponge divers over a hundred years ago.

    In Dunedin, passers-by can peruse the town’s Scottish heritage at the Dunedin Historical Museum, housed in the original Orange Belt Railroad station. Or take walking tours of the picturesque downtown area, featuring quirky antique shops and cafes in a village-like atmosphere. Step into turn-of-the-century Pinellas County at the Heritage Village in Largo. The 22-acre village features a fascinating collection of restored homes and buildings that depict the county’s pioneer lifestyle. Spinning, weaving and other exhibitions are held regularly and add to the authentic atmosphere.

    St. Petersburg's trolley service provides travelers with easy access to a variety of downtown cultural treasures. Stops along the route include the world-famous Salvador Dali Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of works by the Spanish surrealist; the Florida International Museum, the state's premier museum for blockbuster exhibitions such as the "Treasures of the Czars" and "Titanic: The Exhibition;" and Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a waterfront Mediterranean villa and noted for its collection of French Impressionist paintings.

    Since relocating from nearby Madeira Beach, the Florida Holocaust Museum featuring a concentration camp boxcar from Treblinka, Poland, has been added to the trolley's route. And near downtown St. Petersburg, one of Florida's original roadside attractions still thrives. Sunken Gardens features an exotic collection of more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers as well as a walk-through aviary, wax museum of biblical characters and gator wrestling shows.

    Across the bay and rising above the Hillsborough River, the six silver onion-shaped minarets atop the former Tampa Bay Hotel are the first clue that travelers are approaching a hallmark of the city’s gilded age. The former hotel, with its distinctive Moorish architecture, still stands but now operates as the University of Tampa, with one wing — the Henry B. Plant Museum — furnished as it was in the late 1800s. Visitors can wander through opulent rooms, such as the restored parlor suite, domed dining room, and a magnificent solarium. The museum also showcases Victorian art, furniture, and fashions.

    For another fine example of ornamented architecture, tour the Tampa Theatre, a restored 1926 movie palace, built to resemble a Moorish courtyard, complete with colonnades, balconies and Greek and Roman sculpture replicas. Visitors-in-the-know will want to take advantage of free guided tours offered on a monthly basis. On the tours, visitors can explore the theater from balcony to backstage, see a special film screening of "American Movie Palaces" and hear a mini-concert on the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. In addition, open house tours are held periodically on selected Wednesdays and Saturdays.

    Interesting museums nearby include the Tampa Museum of Art, specializing in classical antiquities and showcasing Florida’s acclaimed and emerging artists; the Tampa Bay History Center, featuring exhibits on the area’s historical and multicultural influences; and, the  Glazer Children's Museum.

    Driving along the fresh-smelling back roads of Florida’s Nature Coast counties — Pasco and Hernando  — travelers will be enchanted by glimpses of small-town America.

    For more than 50 years, the beautiful mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs have captivated crowds with their legendary performances in the world's only underwater spring theater.

    Located in Hernando County, the park also features a wilderness river cruise, exotic bird show, and petting zoo. Next door, Buccaneer Bay Waterpark offers cool refreshment as the state's only natural spring-fed family waterpark. Road-weary travelers can plummet down giant slides into the spring's cool waters or relax on a lazy river ride.

  • 07 of 07

    Northwest Florida

    Town of Apalachicola Florida
    Amanderson2/Flicker/CC 2.0

    While sugar-white beaches and emerald-green waters are the main attraction for many visitors to Northwest Florida, unique historical and architectural treasures for those who seek something different.

    With no major highways and not a single stoplight in the entire county, Franklin County might easily be missed on a trip through the Florida Panhandle. But summertime travelers have at least one very cool reason to visit -- air conditioning was invented here! Nearly 150 years ago, a young physician named John Gorrie developed an ice machine to help cool down patients suffering from yellow fever. This revolutionary achievement helped transform Florida from a sparsely populated wilderness to the tourist mecca it is today. Travelers can stop by the John Gorrie State Museum in ​Apalachicola and pay their respects to the man who made cool Florida living possible. A replica of his ice-making machine is on display.

    Apalachicola's working waterfront charm and historically significant structures provide a rare glimpse into Florida's past. On a scenic walking tour of more than 200 historic sites, visitors will pass stately Greek Revival homes dating from the 1830s, cotton warehouses that once housed the city's prosperous cotton export, and the unusual sponge exchange, where the thriving sponge industry was once headquartered.

    Today visitors flock to Apalachicola for the annual Florida Seafood Festival held each November.

    Travel a bit west along the coast and come to the nouveau-Victorian town of Seaside where visitors will find Mediterranean-style outdoor markets selling everything from fresh fruit to contemporary art.

    Then further westward to Panama City. Although its 27 miles of beaches and entertainment venues can keep any visitor busy, it's worth a trip off the main drag to explore the unusual Museum of Man in the Sea. Here, visitors will be dazzled by the 500-year-old treasures recovered from sunken ships off area beaches.

    While sugar-white beaches and emerald-green waters are the main attraction for many visitors, the Pensacola area is home to hundreds of unique architectural treasures for those who seek something different. Veer off the beach roads onto Pensacola Scenic Bluffs Highway and head for the city's three picturesque historic districts to discover a fascinating collection of restored homes, shops, restaurants, and museums. The city's old jailhouse is among the converted structures now housing eclectic museums of art and history.