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Sure, we all know Florida’s a popular tourist destination. In fact, it’s the second most traveled-to-state in the United States. It is the Sunshine State, after all, and there’s plenty of that to go around! Not to mention great theme parks, beautiful beaches with picturesque palm trees, and bustling party cities.
But, what if I told you there’s so much more to Florida than that? Having lived here my whole life, I want to tell you about some truly unique things you can find here. I want to share some secret spots that only we locals know about. Today, we’ll go over some of the best-hidden gems in Florida and how you can make the most of your next vacation here!
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Dry Tortugas National Park
Sure, maybe you’re not quite willing to part with that Key West vacation yet. It’s a great destination. But, we feel like it can get too rowdy and touristy in places, especially on Duval Street. If you want a break from the bustle to enjoy some beautiful scenery and amazing sea life, a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is worth it.
The easiest way to get there from Key West is by planning a day trip aboard the Yankee Freedom, a high-speed catamaran that carries 175 passengers to Dry Tortugas. The ship leaves at approximately 8 a.m. and arrives at Fort Jefferson at 10:30 a.m. Once there, you are given complimentary snorkeling equipment and can participate in a full tour of Fort Jefferson.
It’s so peaceful out there! The shallow waters of Dry Tortugas beach are perfect for snorkeling. The crystal clear water makes it easy to admire the beautiful coral reefs and tropical fish. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a sea turtle or two! After all, “tortuga” is Spanish for “turtle.”
In between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale on Florida’s east coast, you’ll find Boca Raton. It might not be as popular as the other two cities, but that’s one of the reasons we love it!
Of course, Boca Raton has plenty of coastline and warm, sunny beaches to enjoy. South Beach Park is a great one to check out. We also recommend Sugar Sand Park. There are plenty of fun activities for kids here, including a full-on carousel, a waterpark, and a hands-on learning museum.
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Don’t worry, there are plenty of adult things to do around here, too. Mizner Park is a great place to walk around to check out stores, boutiques, and restaurants. If you’re retail itch still isn’t cured, stop by the Town Center at Boca Raton for even more shopping and dining options. The Boca Raton Museum of Art is also found in Mizner Park.
You can still make the 30-minute trip to West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale if you want. We think that once you set foot in Boca Raton, you’ll just end up staying!
Santa Rosa Beach
Along the Florida panhandle, Northwest Florida is nicknamed the “Emerald Coast” for its natural beauty, and the best place to see it is Santa Rosa Beach. We’re talking white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, and miles of it.
Like nearby Destin and Miramar Beach, Santa Rosa Beach sits in between both the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay. That means even more coastline for you to enjoy! The easiest beach access can be found at Dune Allen Beach or Ed Walline Regional Beach.
Right around Ed Walline Regional Beach is Gulf Place, a bustling downtown district in south Santa Rosa Beach. Whether you want to eat, shop, or play, you can do it all here! We highly recommend The Perfect Pig for some truly next-level homestyle cooking.
Bok Tower Gardens
Florida has much more than just sunny beaches. One of the most unique places here is Bok Tower Gardens. You simply won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It’s a great place for nature lovers to relax and enjoy native Florida plants and birds.
Located in central Florida just east of the city of Lakeland, Bok Tower Gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the significance of its founder, Edward W. Bok, who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and philanthropist. The site for the gardens is Iron Mountain, one of the highest points on the Florida Peninsula.
Take your time while you’re here. Enjoy one of the daily concerts from the Singing Tower, take a tour of El Retiro (a Mediterranean-style 1930s mansion), enjoy one of the many nature trails, and feed the Tower Koi fish. When our family is seeking some unplugged time, Bok Tower Gardens is our perfect place for it.
Want to plan a family vacation to Florida, but want something a little different? Discover these hidden Florida gems with your kids!
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Here’s another unique experience that you can only find in Florida. It’s a bit far-removed from the bigger cities, but it’s worth the road trip. Plus, where else can you see real, live mermaids? We’re talking about Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in central Florida. Central Florida is home to some of the best adventures in Florida!
The beauty of this place truly has to be seen in person to be believed. The bluest and clearest water you will ever see in your life. A 538-acre park with swimming, kayaking, canoeing, and more. There’s even a full-on waterpark with slides and flumes. It’s the only waterpark in Florida that’s fed by natural spring water!
And about those mermaids: Weeki Wachee is world-famous for their performance of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in a submerged auditorium. Guests of all ages will delight in seeing mermaids swim and perform in the beautiful waters.
The Florida Keys is so much more than just Key West. The Florida Keys is actually an entire archipelago or group of islands, and Key West is the southernmost Florida Key. The northernmost Florida Key is Key Largo, and it’s a worthy vacation spot all on its own.
Only about an hour’s drive south of Miami, there’s plenty of fun, sand, and activities for everyone. One of the best things to do is check out John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Covering approximately 70 nautical miles, you can go snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. If you’re looking for a more leisurely way to see the aquatic life, take a glass-bottom boat tour!
In Key Largo, you can go parasailing, jet skiing, or just relax on the beach. Since tourism is still a big deal around here, there’s no shortage of places to eat. One of our favorites is the Lazy Lobster. You can’t go wrong with the fresh conch here!
Crystal River, located on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, is the Manatee Capital of the World. One of the best things about Florida are these beloved sea cows. The first time my daughter saw a manatee, she said it looked like a fat mermaid! The warm water refuge is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with manatees in their own environment.
Enjoy cycling? The Withlacoochee State Trail offers 46 miles of top-rated cycling corridors. You can also check out one of the World Wildlife Foundation’s “Ten Coolest Places You’ve Never Been in North America” at the Withlacoochee State Park. The park has plenty of cool amenities, such as RV camping, ATV and dirtbike trails, horseback riding, and seasonal hunting grounds.
And for a nice place to relax and enjoy a tasty adult beverage, make sure you stop by Copp Winery & Brewery. Since 2006, the locals rave about its cozy atmosphere, great selection of wines, and plenty of food pairings. If you’re in the mood for something a little more homestyle, then definitely grab a bite at Vintage on 5th.
Staying along the Gulf of Mexico, if you’re looking for the best of South Florida, Cayo Costa is where it’s at. An isolated island off the west coast, the only way to get there is by boat or ferry. Once there, you get to enjoy miles and miles of pristine beaches that feel untouched.
Cayo Costa is the perfect place to forget all your troubles. Make sure you bring your own food and drinks because there’s nothing but sand, surf, and sun out there. And bring plenty of sunscreen! Take a dip in the water, and you might be lucky enough to see some dolphins.
The best way to enjoy Cayo Costa is by staying at nearby Cape Coral or Pine Island. Tarpon Lodge or Beachhouse Lodge are great options on north Pine Island. If you’re looking to stay in Cape Coral, we cannot recommend the Westin Cape Coral Resort enough. It’s right on the water, offers tons of amenities, and has water taxis to get you to Cayo Costa.
Kennedy Space Center
Maybe this one’s not so much “hidden” as “overlooked” for other nearby tourist destinations, like Disney World. We simply cannot get enough of Kennedy Space Center. My daughter just adores this place. Every time we go, I’m in awe of everything there is to see and do there. I love the Apollo Treasures Gallery, which includes a spacesuit covered in actual moon dust! If you’ve ever had even the slightest interest in space or space travel, Kennedy Space Center is an absolute must-do.
The best way to take it all in is by first taking the Kennedy Space Center bus tour. Busses depart every 15 to 20 minutes and take guests to the Saturn V Rocket viewing center. Once there, you get to be up close and personal with the real rocket that took astronauts to the moon! There are other exhibits in this building, as well, celebrating the early days of the Space Race. After your thrilling day at the Space Center, you can enjoy some of the best Cocoa beach restaurants nearby!
After you’ve finished the Saturn V Rocket, take the bus back to the main visitor’s complex to see the rest that Kennedy Space Center has to offer. Don’t miss the Space Shuttle exhibit, the permanent home of the Atlantis space shuttle. Be inspired by the future of space travel at NASA Now & Next. Take a guided tour through the Rocket Garden. There is no shortage of amazing things to see at Kennedy Space Center!
Another one of Florida’s more popular destinations, but still relatively hidden, is St. Augustine. This north Florida coastal town is the perfect place to experience old Florida. There are plenty of historic buildings, national landmarks, and haunted places to check out.
That’s right, I said “haunted.” If you’ve got the fortitude, St. Augustine has tons of places to experience the supernatural, including guided ghost tours. One of the most popular haunted spots is the St. Johns County Jail. For the truly brave, try doing some ghost hunting of your own with the Old Jail After Dark Tour!
Don’t worry, there are plenty of non-spooky things to do in St. Augustine, too. Take a sip of local spirits (hahaha) at the St. Augustine Distillery. See all of the historic sights on the Old Town Trolley Tour. Explore the oldest fort in the United States: Castillo de San Marcos. Or just take a walk down St. George Street for eateries, shopping, and exploration.
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